Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is a different film to what most people will be anticipating. It may feature franchise mainstays Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, but it's a unique beast altogether, defying expectations to take the Universal Soldier series in unexpected directions. It's completely removed from the tone and intent of 1992's original Universal Soldier, replacing light-hearted summertime escapism with Heart of Darkness-style madness carrying a sinister tone. Isn't it astonishing that, after two TV movies and a terrible theatrical sequel in the 90s, the once tattered Universal Soldier franchise has now been resurrected with panache?
During a home invasion, family man John (Scott Adkins) is brutally beaten and forced to watch his wife and daughter being executed at the hands of rogue Uni-Sol Luc Deveraux (Van Damme). Awaking from a coma nine months down the track with limited memory, John sets out to put his life back together and perhaps track down and kill Luc. Teaming with a sympathetic stripper (Mariah Bonner) who knew him before the attack, John begins working through the clues as he's constantly pursued by hostiles, eventually stumbling upon a dark revelation that changes everything.
Something a lot larger is at play at the centre of Day of Reckoning, but it takes more than an hour for the big picture to start coming into focus. If you stick with it for long enough, the story is ingenious. Critics have trashed prior Universal Soldier movies for their formulaic construction, but such complaints are not quite relevant for Day of Reckoning, as it seems that the team of writers (Doug Magnuson, Jon Greenhalgh, Moshe Diamant and director John Hyams) actually paid attention to developing an intricate plot. What can be criticised, though, is the long-winded, badly paced build-up, and the fact that the movie keeps us in the dark for too long. The movie runs too long at 115 minutes, and is destined to lose people who don't have the patience to stick around to find out what's really going on.
Day of Reckoning sees Hyams returning to the director's chair after helming 2009's unexpectedly good Universal Soldier: Regeneration. While the previous film was a gritty actioner concerned with large-scale action, Reckoning is a sinister thriller with nightmarish visions and clones. Hyams and his crew never let the small budget show through, lensing the pic in pristine 3-D and convincingly executing numerous impressive action sequences. Most laudable are the fights which close the picture spotlighting an unhinged John going on a rampage. Rather than relying on quick-cutting, Hyams captures the sublime fight choreography with steady wide angles, and there are a handful of gorgeous extended tracking shots. Of particular note is the POV shot at the film's beginning, letting us see everything from John's perspective as he is brutally beaten before he sees his wife and daughter being shot. Despite being a strange fit for 3-D, the extra-dimensional effects are well executed here, as to be expected from a feature shot natively in the format. There's a nice sense of depth here and the immediacy is heightened in several scenes. It's not essential to view the picture with another dimension, but the experience is magnificent.
Sensitive viewers should tread lightly, as Day of Reckoning is an astonishingly violent feature. The frequent fisticuffs bring about extremely bloody consequences, and limbs are both hacked off and blown apart. It would seem that Hyams and his team pursued an old-fashioned approach, relying on gory make-up and squibs rather than digital bloodshed. And for good measure, the film serves up some nudity in its first thirty minutes. Believe me, this is an extremely graphic, vicious and at times sadistic flick which earns its R rating with aplomb. Hyams' only misfire from a technical perspective is the use of strobe lighting, which is irritating and may be harmful to those prone to epilepsy.
Although Van Damme and Lundgren show up on the cover, Day of Reckoning makes limited use of the two muscular behemoths. The pair only pop in for a few scenes, getting glorified cameos rather than central roles, and never facing off against one another. It's a mighty shame that their screen-time is so limited, especially since the performers are terrific: Lundgren hams it up beautifully, while Van Damme goes the Colonel Kurtz route, delivering his most nuanced performance in years. The protagonist here is rising star Scott Adkins, showing again why he's such an underrated performer. Adkins is a charismatic presence with genuine acting chops, but he can also kick ass with the best of them.
Action movie enthusiasts will find Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning to be an utter godsend. It stands alongside The Raid as one of 2012's finest action movies; it's gloriously violent and often exciting, a competent showcase of the martial arts skills of its main stars. It's a different kind of Universal Soldier picture, and it's admirable that the filmmakers had the balls to try something out of the box.