The Way Bodies Move: On the Action Cinema of John Hyams
By Jonah JengMarch 24, 2023
More a brawl than a straightforward murder, this altercation appears within the same long take as before, which extends, unbroken, from buildup to throwdown. The earlier moments of the continuous shot force the viewer to feel anticipation in stressful real time. Here, the shot’s persistence (an impression sustained despite the clear presence of masked cuts) underlines the weight and reality of the stunt work, a sense of physicality enhanced by a handheld camera that careens with the combatants as if it were itself a participant in the fray. The victim-on-killer fight scene is a hallmark of the slasher genre—see: the trope of the final girl—but finality elsewhere is first principles for director John Hyams. Slasher violence typically involves finishers—the sight of blade puncturing flesh, the victim’s death a foregone conclusion—but for Hyams, the fight itself is central. Over the last quarter century, he has helmed some of the most compelling works of contemporary action cinema that combine pulverizing set pieces with thematic, sometimes metatextual elements foregrounding the idea of the body in motion. In Sick, the protracted and bruising nature of the fight strains playfully against slasher-movie expectations, in a way that underscores Hyams’s calling card as an action auteur.
Given his pedigree, this preoccupation with the concept and corporeality of action makes sense: he is the son of director Peter Hyams, a purveyor of sturdy genre fare who, in his prime, was no stranger to propulsive action scenes. The latter’s films, which include Busting (1974), Capricorn One (1978), The Star Chamber (1983), and Sudden Death (1995), are distinguished by their bracing foot chases and various moments in which the camera is strapped to the fronts of cars, resulting in blistering riffs on fin-de-siècle phantom-ride films. But the child has become his own action maestro, exceeding his father’s shadow. After training in sculpture and painting at Syracuse University, the younger Hyams made his film debut with One Dog Day (1997) at the Taos Talking Picture Festival.
A quirky mosaic of New York–set stories shot on black-and-white 16mm, One Dog Day features lively characters, voluble dialogue, and aggressive, one-hot-summer’s-day energy that recall the likes of John Cassavetes and Spike Lee. But it also has a distinctive violent streak. The movie’s very first line involves a character wondering what it would feel like to kill someone; from there, fingers are shot off, a mob interrogation is filmed from the perspective of the victim, and a kinetic pursuit is captured via a racing, low-to-the-ground camera reminiscent of the senior Hyams’s action style.
Violence matters in John Hyams’s work, as does the matter of violence—the viscosity of spilled blood, the way shotgun blasts leave crater-like wounds, the diaphragm-crushing sight of a body falling through a table. In this, Hyams shares much with his colleagues in contemporary direct-to-video (DTV) action such as Isaac Florentine, Jesse V. Johnson, and James Nunn. Although DTV is a less useful descriptor than it once was, given that even big-budget productions today often premiere “day-and-date” (and sometimes exclusively on streaming), “DTV action” implicitly refers to those more cheaply made, relatively low-tech actioners that hark back to the 1980s and ’90s heyday of practical effects and stars who performed their own stunts.
Hailed by fans as antidotes to the CGI-heavy blandness of much mainstream action cinema, DTV actioners have gained even greater cultural traction in the wake of the “vulgar auteurism” movement, the reappraisal of “disreputable” genre filmmakers like Tony Scott, Michael Bay, and Paul W. S. Anderson by cinephiles, taking off in the early 2010s. Hyams was a key force in the movement’s momentum: one of vulgar auteurism’s high-water marks was the release of his Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012), which received a limited theatrical run and coverage in “prestige” publications like The New Yorker and The New York Times. In the words of film critic Scout Tafoya, Day of Reckoning—which combines body-decimating combat with stylistic and narrative echoes of films like Apocalypse Now (1979), Videodrome (1983), Lost Highway (1997), and Enter the Void (2009)—“made DTV cool.” After that point, the floodgates of broader DTV action appreciation were opened in earnest.
Hyams’s centrality to DTV action’s expanding cultural cachet makes sense. His work is striking, simultaneously exemplifying his cohort’s appeal—lucid, committed stunt work and fight choreography—and distinguishing itself in its formal control and thematic richness. A riff on the Yojimbo/A Fistful of Dollars formula, Dragon Eyes (2012), in which a lone rogue (Cung Le) strategically meddles in the affairs of rival gangs, doubles as a hallucinatory mood piece, abounding with disorienting superimpositions, languorous fade transitions, and slow motion that infuses various moments with a molasses-like consistency.
In Alone (2020), a cat-and-mouse game between a widow named Jessica (Jules Willcox) and a serial killer (Marc Menchaca) is fleshed out via a robust, expressive visual style. In one scene, the camera zooms in with excruciating slowness toward her in-plain-sight hiding place while her kidnapper dines a few feet away. Earlier in the film, subtle focus-shifts to minor background details suggest that her senses are heightened and roving even when she is talking on the phone, evoking the constant vigilance women must have when traveling by themselves. The film is divided into sections, demarcated by title cards naming different features of the setting and landscape: “the road,” “the river,” “the rain,” “the night,” “the clearing.” On one level evoking the exacting pragmatism of Jessica’s plight to survive, the title cards and their corresponding spaces also allegorize grief as a mythic journey that moves from “road” to “night” to “clearing”—a clearing that, significantly, comprises a section of the forest that has been razed. To heal is no escape to an idyllic pasture but, rather, necessitates a return to the site of devastation. It is only here where Jessica can stage her last stand, in multiple senses.
As Alone especially shows, Hyams’s films are not action movies that happen to have some interesting ideas, but films in which the ideas emerge through the action; the spectacle of exerting bodies is both the vehicle and the subject of the films’ conceptual explorations. This aspect is on full display in Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009) and Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. Retconning the three sequels released in the 1990s, Hyams’s films pick up from the original, Roland Emmerich’s Universal Soldier (1992), a stylistic holdover from the 1980s featuring muscular martial-artist stars, one-liners, and the goofy premise of two felled soldiers resuming their deathmatch after being resurrected as cyborg “Universal Soldiers” (or “UniSols”). On paper, the return of these characters 17 years later in Regeneration—sandwiched between other legacy sequels like Live Free or Die Hard (2007) and ensemble throwbacks like The Expendables (2010)—reads like a marketing gimmick, an attempt to relive the golden age of Reaganite macho bombast, nostalgia by which studios can reliably line their pockets. The generic subtitle of “Regeneration” reinforces this impression, all but coding the film as another bargain-bin knockoff, shamelessly milking an old formula for every ounce of profit it can provide.
What Hyams gives us, however, is something powerfully unexpected. The film becomes a metatextual meditation on what happens when the process of “regeneration”—bringing back the same action body, again and again, to be exploited by different organizations to different ends—encounters the fading physique of the aging action star. Time-creased faces and halting gaits have replaced the Olympian spryness and chiseled builds of the 1992 movie. When we first see Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme), the original film’s protagonist, his expression is tired, his shoulders are hunched, and he needs to brace himself with one arm before bending down to feed his dog. When this visibly frail body is launched back into action in the film’s climax, it is thrilling but also horrific. Pumped full of performance-enhancing drugs, Luc spasms in his chair, going “rigid” in a perverse parody of the hardbody aesthetic that has historically been part of Van Damme’s star appeal. Evoked is not just the action hero but the literary monster: Frankenstein’s creation atop the operating table, convulsing as it is artificially reanimated.
Regeneration’s focus on bodies straining against their limits was anticipated by Hyams’s The Smashing Machine: The Life and Times of Extreme Fighter Mark Kerr (2002), a documentary on the titular MMA fighter and his battle against both in-ring opponents and drug addiction. Joining visceral fight footage with intimate interviews detailing how Mark’s participation in the brutal sport emerged from his need for a paycheck and led to his dependency on painkillers, the film illuminates the intersection between life under capitalism, the creation of violent spectacle, and the body in extremis. (The theme of destructively pushing the physical body also surfaces in 2006’s Rank, Hyams’s follow-up documentary on bull riding.)
As much a spiritual successor to The Smashing Machine as it is an installment in a franchise, Regeneration completely reimagines the premise of the original Universal Soldier, nowhere more so than in the hauntingly anticlimactic rematch between Luc and his former nemesis Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren). Luc, rendered stone-faced by the ergogenic serums coursing through his veins, shows no sign of recognizing his rival, while Andrew, revived since his death in the first film, suffers from a dissociative memory in which he is perpetually on the verge of recollection. “Something so familiar,” Andrew monologues to an unresponsive Luc. “We’ve been over this all before.” These lines wryly invoke the expectation of a Van Damme/Lundgren rematch, but the fighters have been stripped of agency and memory. Rather than presenting two individuals with a shared history choosing to resettle old grudges, the scene removes such emotional and psychological motivation. What remains is the spectacle of bodies punishingly going through the motions—Luc fighting only because he was conditioned to do so, and Andrew, his nascent sentience conflicting with his ingrained programming, manifesting a tragic dissonance in which flickers of remembrance are denied the opportunity to materialize by his and Luc’s hardwiring for combat.
All this is not to say that Van Damme’s and Lundgren’s actual experiences were this involuntary and grueling, but that, even in the absence of external coercion, larger ideologies are incorporated into the body through habit and conditioning, leading to individuals perpetuating these ideologies within themselves. (For instance, a past-his-prime action star might continue to put his body through the wringer because he has internalized certain conceptions of what, for someone in his position, constitutes success.) The film’s troubling climax evokes this idea, depicting a litany of violence in which the UniSols follow their programming to its destructive conclusion, fighting amongst themselves long after their “human” handlers have either exited the scene or been killed.
What makes this finale even more unsettling is that it generates excitement. It invites the viewer to experience a tension between a disconcerting narrative context—exploited bodies compelled by their conditioning to fight—and the primal thrill of the film’s pounding, back-breaking action. The disquieting ambivalence of the viewer’s physical response is even more forcefully implicated in Day of Reckoning, which opens with an extended point-of-view shot that prompts viewers to project themselves into the physical body of protagonist John (Scott Adkins) as he witnesses the murder of his wife and daughter. It is this traumatic moment that catalyzes John’s quest for vengeance; in a powerful scene transition, the film cuts from the sight and sound of the gunshot that kills his daughter to John spewing spittle from a hospital bed, crystallizing the cause and effect of the instigating brutality and his subsequent, viscerally motivated actions. In choosing to depict the killing from the first-person perspective, Hyams suggests that the viewer is like John, similarly susceptible to being viscerally propelled into action by experiencing trauma.
Day of Reckoning builds on this opening by organizing both its narrative and style around the idea of hypnotic suggestibility, the body’s capacity to be swayed. Luc, now leading a separatist group of newly sentient UniSols, is apparently capable of beaming himself into people’s thoughts, subjecting them to a kind of mind control. The film’s droning ambient score and passages of dreamlike drift often have a stuporific effect, encouraging viewers to lose themselves within a paranoid world of porous boundaries and malleable identities. Narrative and stylistic hypnosis converge in a moment when a government-deployed UniSol (Andrei Arlovski, returning from Regeneration) has his mind “freed” by Andrew, now a commander in Luc’s rebel army. Injected with an unknown, likely psychedelic substance, the UniSol falls into a trance. Taking his perspective, the camera captures Andrew’s neon-bathed face, in close-up, fading from view when the image starts strobing intensely. At one point, the image clears up enough for us to see that Andrew has been replaced by Luc, who addresses his newest disciple.
This flight of stroboscopic abstraction palpably dissolves the boundary between body and image. Minimizing representational content, the image offers little to look “at,” prioritizing pure, rhythmic form that seems to jolt the viewer’s body directly, recalibrating it, transforming it. This notion of direct, bodily modulation is thematized in the mesmeric effect the experience has on the UniSol, here functioning as the viewer’s diegetic stand-in who ends up being persuaded to join Luc’s cause. Metonymic of the film’s larger thematic and aesthetic project, this moment—which, significantly, takes place in a brothel, where bodies mesh and mingle—is an orgy of free-flowing influence that leaves no body (the viewer’s included) untouched.
Eventually, it is revealed that John himself had been influenced: the memory of his family’s murder is fake, implanted by the government to drive him to assassinate a political enemy. Having been aligned so tightly with John’s perspective throughout the film, first through the opening point-of-view shot, and then through closely following his path of discovery, the viewer is implicated by this revelation as well. It is the visceral force and seeming emotional “truth” of John’s anguish that has been weaponized for political and ideological ends (concocted for those ends to begin with), and the film suggests the viewer’s vulnerability to being similarly manipulated.
And yet, this realization does not stop the violence from being thrilling. In the film’s blood-drenched finale, John, despite knowing that his memories are fabricated, cannot shake their potency, which sends him into a violent frenzy. Filled with stylized but heavy fight choreography courtesy of stunt coordinator Larnell Stovall, the scene manifests a tension between moves that look “cool” and a narrative and emotional context that, like Regeneration’s finale, rings purposely hollow, lacking the sense of moral justification that typically attends action-film climaxes. John has been programmed to seek revenge, even when there is no vengeance to seek, and he, and we, know that. The allure of violence is innate and deep-seated, for the character and the viewer, persisting even despite the knowledge that it is “wrong.”
Day of Reckoning finds key forebears in the work of Gaspar Noé, especially the aurally droning, visually strobing Irréversible (2002) and the first-person point-of-view film Enter the Void, in terms of both style and theme. These films share a common interest in exploring how bodies are titillated and compelled despite themselves—an amoral play of sensation and desire in which the viewer also participates. “Le corps parle” (“The body talks”), says a character from Irréversible, in response to her ex’s fumbling attempts to rationalize sex. Day of Reckoning lets the body “talk” in a similar fashion, thematizing the way the realm of the visceral expresses itself in its compulsions and convulsions. The line can apply more directly to action cinema: the body moves, though it is often unclear who is doing the moving. Distilled to its status as substance and sensation, the body becomes pure physical stuff in Hyams’s Universal Soldier films, in thrall to internal and external influences that sideline traditional conceptions of individual agency.
This investment in the preconceptual, premoral primacy of the body’s matter and movements is most fully explored in Black Summer (2019–21), the zombie-themed Netflix series that Hyams co-created with Karl Schaefer. A spinoff of Z-Nation (2014–18), for which Hyams directed various episodes, Black Summer pushes Hyams’s affinity for long takes to an extreme, deploying minutes-long tracking shots that follow different groups of characters as they fight for survival during a zombie apocalypse. As these lengthy shots persist, the physical act of filming becomes foregrounded, along with a sense of the weight and substance of those bodies and spaces being filmed.
Suspending broader questions like the “why” and “how” of the zombie plague, Black Summer emphasizes the brute matter of bodies, the effortful, moment-to-moment traversal of physical space that the long take’s confined perspective brings out. Through tracking each band of character so closely, the show also causes them to feel intensely isolated from each other, each restricted to their immediate physical surroundings. In lieu of synoptic vantage points that might have invited attempts to rationalize or systematize the characters’ relationships with each other, Black Summer’s long takes underscore the stark, here-and-now materiality of bodies in motion. In a sense, the show formally turns the “human” characters themselves into zombies: bodies that are purely somatic, defined more by their corporeal movements than by some “higher” goal or purpose.
Like Black Summer, Hyams’s latest film confines its narrative in a way that accentuates the physicality and trajectory of bodies. Sick, set almost entirely in and around a lake house and featuring a small main cast, takes place during the COVID-19 pandemic, using the imperative of social distancing as pretext for minimalism. In stripping the slasher genre to its barest essentials—victims, killer, house—the film emphasizes the ways that these different elements come into play in relation to each other, like pieces on a game board. Rather than adopting a gamemaster’s sense of clinical remove, however, Hyams pitches us right into the thick of the action, which includes another kinetic fight between victim and killer featuring handheld tracking shots, multiple falls from high places, and lots of running.
Action scholar Lisa Purse notes that the action genre hinges on a play between “forces” and “counter-forces.” Hyams’s action cinema is both a distillation and elaboration of this premise. In the crushing power of their set pieces, his works exemplify the genre’s physicalized appeal, but, in the way the action is formally and narratively contextualized, they also prompt reflection on how bodies—the viewer’s included—move and are moved.
“You feel so intensely,” says a character to John in Day of Reckoning. Hyams reminds us that we do too.
Jonah Jeng is a PhD candidate in the film and media studies program at the University of Pittsburgh. His research concerns cinema’s capacity to mediate digital and ecological realities, and his film criticism focuses largely on action cinema, as seen especially in a column on action scenes he started at MUBI Notebook.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Adam Fleming Petty reviews Ander Monson’s memoir-in-criticism, “Predator.”...
Inspired by the release of “Top Gun: Maverick,” Andrew Key defines Tom Cruise’s late style as one of absent fathers, shocking stunts, and aesthetic voids....
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.