Movie Review – Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, 2012.

Directed by John Hyams.
Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, Scott Adkins, Kristopher Van Varenberg, James Rawlings, Mariah Bonner and Sigal Diamant.

SYNOPSIS:

Waking from a coma as a result of a vicious home invasion that took the lives of his wife and daughter, a man sets out to track down those responsible and in doing so, he discovers the truth behind his own identity.

Often by the time a franchise hits the fourth film, despite the success it took to get to that point, things begin getting tiresome.When the previous movie, Universal Soldier: Regeneration was announced a few years back it seemed a strange move. There was no real demand for it, no real effective follow on story to continue after the dreadful Universal Soldier: The Return, and it seemed little more than a cheap attempt at cashing in on the DVD marketing power of Van Damme and Lundgren. However, Regeneration was a surprisingly well made action flick that owed nods to Blade Runner and Children of Men. Despite a lack of a clear protagonist and thin plot, it delivered some brilliant action sequences that belied it’s small budget and bettered many of what the multiplexes were offering up that year. The success, with a small theatrical run in the states, but mostly through DVD income, meant a fourth film was on the cards.

Returning to direct is John Hyams. His vision for Regeneration and surprisingly assured hand (given it was his feature film debut) were the main reasons it proved a success. Mystery has shrouded the production of Day of Reckoning throughout, with little being given away as to its plot. The film opens with a nightmarish first person sequence as John (Scott Adkins) is woken by his daughter who hears “monsters” in the house. He goes to check it out expecting nothing but walks in on a group of masked men. Savagely beaten he is forced to watch as his family are killed and the man responsible is unmasked and revealed: Luc Devereaux. Right from the offing Hyams grips the audience and throws in the curveball (which will doubtless rile some franchise fans) of placing former good guy Luc firmly in the role of chief villain. John wakes from his coma 9 months later with no memory aside from the death of his family and some brief flashes of their time together. From then on he sets about trying to find Devereaux and take his revenge, discovering more about Luc, and himself than he bargained for.

Playing out like a melding of Lynch, Cronenberg, Kubrick, Noe, Verhoeven and more, Day of Reckoning is a film so intense and dark of tone that, as a Unisol movie, it really shouldn’t work. Hyams though keeps such a tight grip of proceedings, with a good script and engrossing direction, that he never lets the ball drop. As far as this year has gone in cinema, it’s actually one of the ballsiest movies out there. The original film was very much in the 80s action vein with lots of cheese, a threadbare plot (borrowing heavily from RoboCop and The Terminator) and big set pieces. I love the film for it’s simplicity and how effectively Van Damme and Lundgren were used. Great fun with tongue firmly in cheek. If Regeneration was a step away from that tone, Reckoning is a giant leap. Hyams lets his camera take in the grimy, noirly lit surroundings with slow movements and deliberately engrossing shots akin to the hallway shots in The Shining. We learn along with John and each new surrounding feels creepy, adding to the overall nightmarish tone of the film. It’s a film too with plenty to engage the audiences and a lot of nice touches in an intricate plot that will require and warrant, repeat viewings. Hyams never delves too much into the science of the Unisols either, opting sensibly to avoid looking to deeply into what would get picked apart for it’s lack of logic. A brilliantly Carpenter-esque score also adds to the atmosphere.

Importantly, Hyams doesn’t forget the action, which is the key component of this franchise. The action is indeed very impressive. The fight scenes are brutal and like the rest of the film, there’s no pulling of punches at all. Scott Adkins proves once more what a physical beast he is and an on screen fighter who is immensely watchable. He has a couple of fantastic showdowns with former UFC fighter Andrei Arlovski (the villain of the previous film, returning as another Unisol here). There’s a standout car chase too, which again is a Universal Soldier trademark now. The finale though in which Adkins single-handedly takes out an army base of Unisols, as well as facing off with Lundgren and Van Damme is a fantastic sequence.

The cast impresses with plenty of characters who could easily have stepped out of a David Lynch film. As leading man, Scott Adkins is given a role that really tests him and gives him the chance to reach within himself perhaps for the first time. He’s always had a good presence as a villain or henchman but until now, wasn’t able to push himself in a leading role. Hyams, Doug Magnuson and Jon Greenalgh’s script allows that and Adkins proves up to the task. This film will hopefully be the springboard for him to push himself up into bigger roles in bigger movies. It’s a shot he deserves. Some will bemoan limited screentime for the two star names, Lundgren and Van Damme. Van Damme is goulish and effectively creepy as a Colonel Kurtz equivilant in the Universal Soldier world. Luc’s arc from the first film, through Regeneration, takes a dark turn into this movie, but a turn that seems valid. He’s not a villain in the true sense, but like the replicants in Blade Runner, a result of man’s folly with trying to play god. He’s more tragic than villainous. If Van Damme is Colonel Kurtz then Lundgren is taking on Dennis Hoppers role from Apocalypse Now. Sgt Scott is as unhinged as ever, but someone who seems to have found his place as a second in command. The inspirational mouthpiece that Luc has chosen to use. As per normal, Lundgren slips into the role very well and walks away with his scenes.

In a year that has delivered some fantastic and full on R rated action movies, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning stands high amongst the likes of The Raid and Dredd. The big box office action movies have been a little overblown and disappointing in truth, but there’s been some fantastically delivered lower budget films that have really kicked ass.

Be sure to read our interview with director John Hyams here.

Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★

Tom Jolliffe

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