A disclaimer to start: I chose not to revisit any of the “Universal Soldier” films before watching “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning,” which is my first since watching the original one on cable in the mid 1990s. It’s been a long, strange journey for the franchise, which posits “Reckoning” as the fourth official film despite the fact that six exist, and though I assume since the triumverate of director John Hyams and stars Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme previously collaborated on the last installment, “Universal Soldier: Regeneration,” there is some continuity, it appears the series has been better served by also disregarding much of what has come before.
For that reason, it is perhaps a perfect entry point for the casual viewer that “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning” begins with franchise newbie Scott Adkins’ John recovering from a nine-month coma in “Reckoning”’s opening moments, prone to a blinding twinge of white light that reflects his fragmented perception (and makes the film inappropriate for epileptics). What is clear is that Van Damme’s previously valiant Luc Deveraux has gone bad, murdering John’s wife and daughter mercilessly right in front of him. In fact, Deveraux and former foe Andrew Scott (Lundgren) have become leaders in a weirdo world where they have gone underground with the goal of breaking through to the surface and yet it’s the humans who reside above ground but might as well be under it, living in fear of being tormented by their roboticized UniSol counterparts or worse, discovering they’re one of them.
While filmmakers have exploited such post-apocalyptic premises for low-budget endeavors for ages, Hyams has turned just about every possible weakness of the action franchise that’s come from the depths of direct-to-video and back again to its advantage. With limited resources, John travels across a sparsely populated suburbia that only adds to the dread that he’s virtually alone in his fight for vengeance, with the minimal use of the two headliners Lundgren and Van Damme as his targets making their few scenes in the film all the more memorable. (The wear and tear of time that have depleted the two of their credibility as heroic leads have given them considerable gravitas as villains.) Also memorable is the seeming lack of oversight that has made “Day of Reckoning” far more subversive in its violence and attitude towards sex than a film intended for a mainstream multiplex, resulting in a surreal experience that parallels John’s search for answers about his past.
Although there wind up being far more questions than answers – after all, “Universal Soldier 5” can’t be too far off – Hyams builds great tension in getting there with patience being particularly rewarded by some virtuoso action sequences, including an epic fight with baseball bats that could be mentioned in the same breath as the Roddy Piper-Keith David throwdown in “They Live.” Given Adkins’ prodigious abilities as a martial artist, already deployed in such films as “The Expendables 2,” it would be enough to simply film him without interruption to induce the requisite thrills. However, Hyams does considerably better by his star, teaming with cinematographer Yaron Levy to pull off action sequences that embrace the techniques of first-person shooter games without denying the scenes of a certain personality. For a film that by all indications should feel as if it came off a conveyer belt, “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning” may struggle with its origins as much as its characters, but ultimately transcends them to become something revelatory for its entire genre.
“Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning” opens in Los Angeles at the Chinese 6, New York at the Village East Cinemas and Austin at the Alamo Slaughter Lane on November 30th. A full list of theaters and dates are here. It is also available on video on demand.