The original Universal Soldier stands as a solid entry of early-90’s action cinema with Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren as Vietnam vets brought back from the dead to serve as resurrected super-soldiers. There’s nothing particularly noteworthy about it aside from the fact that it helped launch the careers of Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, the purveyors of blockbuster schlock like Independence Day and 2012. Universal Soldier spawned two forgettable DTV sequels that most people don’t even know exist. Van Damme wasn’t in either of them, but chose to reprise his role of Luc Deveraux for Universal Soldier: The Return, a movie so terrible that it killed the franchise for nearly a decade until the arrival of John Hyams, the son of Peter Hyams, director of Van Damme’s Sudden Death and Timecop.
Just like the characters, the series was brought back to life with Universal Soldier: Regeneration, a standard low-budget affair that saw the return of Dolph Lundgren, despite being ground to pulp in a wood chipper. None of what came before could prepare anyone forUniversal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. Hyams does away with conventions and boils the concept down to its horrific roots that of a government willing to resurrect dead soldiers and send them back into battle. Those expecting another cheaply made B-movie set in an abandoned warehouse because that’s all the producers could afford will be greatly surprised. Day of Reckoning is a feverish horror show of an action movie if it were directed by David Lynch.
The protagonist, John (Scott Adkins), awakens in the middle of the night to his daughter’s complaints of monsters in the house. He realizes too late there are three intruders in his kitchen. They mercilessly beat him with a crowbar before executing his wife and daughter. The ringleader unmasks to reveal Luc Deveraux, the hero of the first Universal Soldier. Deveraux has become the leader of a rebellion movement of fellow UniSols seeking to strike back against the government that created them. John’s search for retribution takes him down a dark path as the truth of revealed about himself and the murder of his family.
Hyams has cited auteurs like David Cronenberg, Gaspar Noé, and Michael Haneke as heavy influences in the production of Day of Reckoning. Those influences are apparent from the very beginning with a prologue that has the uneasy feel of Haneke’s Funny Games with the first person perspective of Noé’s Enter the Void. Another technique from the Noé playbook is a frequent shuttering effect meant to simulate a character’s disorientation and blur the lines between reality and fantasy. Hyams also flagrantly borrows from Apocalypse Now with Van Damme cast as a modern day Colonel Kurtz and Dolph Lundgren as his Dennis Hopper. The third act sees John literally going up the river to confront Deveraux. Some fans may be disappointed to learn that Van Damme and Lundgren only have minor supporting roles, despite their prominent positions in promotional material. They don’t even share a single scene together.
While Lundgren’s Andrew Scott was well established as being mentally unbalanced, the question remains how the once heroic Deveraux grew equally mad. The film offers no clear cut answers, but posits several interesting possibilities. In the 80’s, Alan Moore revolutionized the comic book industry with his bleak deconstruction of the superhero mythos. He shattered the simplistic Silver Age tales of British superhero Marvelman by revealing they were false memories of a virtual world, part of an elaborate and cruel experiment to create superhumans. The idea that previous installments may be implanted memories crafted by someone fed a strict diet of formulaic action flicks is deliciously twisted. The layers are peeled back to reveal a fatalistic reality where death gives no respite to eternal warriors locked in never-ending combat.
Don’t mistake the filmmakers’ arthouse aspirations as intent to create a bloodless drama. Day of Reckoning has no shame in trotting out thoroughly brutal and exploitative violence. The movie received a very limited theatrical run where it was slapped with an ‘R’ rating. The Unrated version available on DVD, Blu-ray, and Netflix certainly would have received an NC-17. The prologue is utterly unflinching as is a sequence taking place in a neon-lit brothel where a naked hooker takes a shotgun blast in the back. That’s right after a UniSol has a prostitute casually hammer a nail into his hand. Adkins brawls with former UFC champ Andrei Arlovski inside a sporting goods store using baseball bats and barbell plates. The insane climax was filmed handheld in the style of one continuous shot with a few obvious editing cheats. John cuts a swath of destruction until he and his white wifebeater becomes caked in blood and viscera.
Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning isn’t altogether successful due to wooden dialogue and some slow sections. However, it should be commended for wanting to be more than another hackneyed, low-budget shoot ’em up.