‘Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning’ Review
Look, let's not pretend this movie is something it's not. But for what it is -- the sixth film in the 'Universal Soldier' franchise (but only the third in current continuity) -- it's pretty damn good; muscular, atmospheric and surprisingly scary. With 'Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning' and the previous installment, 'Regeneration,' nascent action auteur John Hyams has resuscitated a long-dead franchise and restored it to its former glory, an appropriate fate for a series about soldiers killed in action and then brought back to life as super-powered warriors.
The series' original stars, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, are still around, but they're now relegated to small but juicy supporting roles. Scott Adkins -- the current patron saint of intricately choreographed direct-to-video action films like 'Undisputed III: Redemption' and 'Ninja' -- takes center stage as John, who, in the film's opening sequence, wakes to find his young daughter complaining of monsters in their house. In a nail-bitingly suspenseful sequence shot entirely from Adkins' point-of-view, John sleepily explores his dimly lit house, looking for whatever spooked his kid. He finds a trio of black-clad thugs, led by former Universal Soldier Luc Deveraux (Van Damme), who beats him senseless (all still in POV) and then murders his family. Nine months later, John awakens in a hospital with a monster thirst for revenge where most of his memories used to be.
Though the 'Universal Soldier' series has always been predicated on big action sequences, 'Day of Reckoning' is more like a horror-tinged private eye movie with a dollop of fight scenes. Hyams doubles down on the 'Frankenstein'-style elements of the franchise's core mythos, and turns its new hero into a confused monster lashing out at the people who've created him. Following the clues left from his previous life, and with the assistance of a helpful FBI agent, he picks up Deveraux's trail -- which, as if the 'Apocalypse Now' echoes weren't strong enough, eventually lead him to a boat trip upriver to find the man himself.
Most of the action is all backloaded to the final act, and the film, written by Hyams, Doug Magnuson and Jon Greenhalgh, slow-burns a wee bit too slowly through a swamp of government conspiracy that ultimately doesn't amount to much (or, for that matter, make a ton of sense). Thankfully, when the martial arts sequences arrive, they hit fast and furious. There's a superb brawl in a sporting goods store, where baseball bats are brandished like samurai swords, and an absolutely superlative sequence where Adkins rages with balletic precision through Deveraux's compound, laying waste to his private army with fisticuffs and gunplay, all captured in a series of precisely staged long takes.
That scene can hold its own against the action in any major Hollywood movie this year, but Hyams also knows how to tell a story with his camera when dudes aren't kicking each other in the groin. There's a great car chase. There are all sorts of disquieting shots of Adkins staring at his reflection, as if he doesn't recognize the man he sees looking back at him. He makes brilliant use of Jean-Claude Van Damme's dead-eyed stare and cold, hard face. And all those point-of-view shots help place us inside the subjective mindset of a very damaged individual.
This isn't the classiest material in the world, and it wasn't made with the biggest of budgets or the most accommodating of schedules. Still, if Hyams and Adkins can pull this off, imagine what they could do with more time and money. These guys should be making an 'Iron Fist' movie for Marvel. Having brought one series back to life, they deserve a chance to start something from scratch.
'Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning' had an initial release in May 2012.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’