If any director deserves props for resurrecting a dead franchise, it’s John Hyams for his recent work on the Universal Soldier series. The original is an interesting road movie/action flick from Roland Emmerich before he went all explosion crazy, but it all went straight downhill after that. The next two sequels are tv-movies without Van Damme, and 1999 saw his truly awful return to his character of Luc Deveraux in the equally awful Universal Soldier: The Return. Thank God for Hyams, though, because he saved the day and created a fantastic character arc for Van Damme to explore through (so far) two exceptional action movies.
To briefly mention Hyams’ directorial debut in the franchise, Universal Soldier: Regeneration came out in 2009, and it kicks all kinds of ass. It ignores everything other than the original movie and starts out with Deveraux in rehabilitation from being in the UniSol program for the past couple of decades. Unfortunately, right when it seems like he might have some kind of breakthrough and become a normal person again, he’s brought back online to kill some rogue super soldiers with nuclear weapons. It might sound generic by my description, but it’s anything but. The story is very minimalist, which, in Hyams’ hands, works extremely well. I actually feel for Deveraux, because he’s been used his entire life as a weapon, and when there’s finally some light at the end of the tunnel, he’s sucked right back into the shit.
I bring up so much plot from Regeneration, because Day of Reckoning is a direct sequel. A number of years have passed between movies, and Van Damme is no longer working for the government. In fact, he’s gone rogue himself, and he’s in the middle of recruiting an army of super soldiers to take down the government for all the years of abuse they’ve handed down to Deveraux and soldiers like him. They’re an extremist group, for sure, but I can’t help but have a small bit of sympathy for how Deveraux ended up the way he did. It ain’t easy being a genetically-enhanced super soldier with the strength of ten men but the will of less than one.
Deveraux isn’t the focus of Day of Reckoning, though. Scott Adkins plays John, another man central to the Universal Soldier program. The movie opens with a dreamy sequence where John gets up in the middle of the night to check the house for monsters. He has a wife and daughter, and his kid wakes him up complaining about scary things in the house. He obliges, but when he gets to the kitchen, he’s beaten to shit by masked men. They then gather his family, and Van Damme reveals himself as the main asshole who, one-by-one, executes John’s family. Thus starts the motivation for John to figure out who killed his family (big mistake) and why. If that sounds cliche, it is. But Hyams knows this, and it’s not really what’s going on. If you know anything about the series, you can probably guess at least what it has to do with.
The first 20 minutes or so of the movie is dream-like, with bizarre colors, angles, and a first-person view that’s some of the best I’ve seen. It feels odd, but that’s for a reason. I won’t go into the reason, but it plays into what John thinks his life is about and what he discovers later on. Regardless, the first act is a total trip.
Before I talk about Adkins or Van Damme, I have to talk about Dolph. He’s only in 3 scenes in the entire movie, but he totally makes the most of each one. If you’ve seen Regeneration, you know you’re in for some kick ass fights, and Dolph doesn’t disappoint. Not to rag on The Expendables 2 any more than I already have (haha, just kidding, I’ll rag on it as much as I please.), but this is the kind of shit I expected from that monstrosity. Here, even though you know Dolph is going to lose in the end, he’s almost bigger than life until he inevitably gets the bullet and knife through the head.
Van Damme has even less screen time than Dolph, but he does some awesome work. I already talked about the arc his character has gone through, so when he shows up in Day of Reckoning, he’s too far gone to be reasoned with. In fact, no one even makes the attempt. It’s a fight to the death, and it’s one fucking bloody affair. Machetes get stuck in arms but nobody cares, that kind of thing. If you want my guess, I’d say that Deveraux welcomed the fight. It’s a win-win for him; if he wins, he continues his crazy plans. If he loses, the endless cycle of mind-fuckery and bloodshed is over.
Last, but not least, is Scott Adkins. I’ll admit right away that I haven’t seen any of his action movies (besides that crapfest Expendables 2!), but I’m impressed beyond belief with him in this one. He doesn’t turn into the super soldier we all know he is until quite a ways into the movie, but once he does, holy shit.
He even gets a hole drilled into his head, but that only makes him angry. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry.
His actual acting isn’t bad, either. He’s not given a lot of room to breathe, and I think his performance is subdued and believable. I doubt it, but I can only hope his other movies are similar in at least this one aspect.
If you’re a fan of hardcore action movies that don’t treat you like a moron, this is simply a must-watch. I shit you not. The story isn’t spoon-fed to you, and I still have lingering questions about some of the stuff that took place. It’s a less-is-more approach in terms of direct storytelling, and it succeeds in making me want to watch it multiple times to get all the details. Because of this and Regeneration, I seriously wouldn’t mind seeing 2 or 3 more entries as long as they’re met with the same care and attention to the details that matter in these kinds of movies. It’s not worth a rental; it’s worth a purchase. I promise you won’t be disappointed.