In 2009, director John Hyams (son of veteran genre filmmaker Peter Hyams) grabbed the attention of action fans with his Universal Soldier: Regeneration, a surprisingly taut addition to a series that many assumed had run its course. But for all its kinetic fight sequences—and its surprisingly realistic approach to the concept of government-constructed super-soldiers kicking each other’s cyborg asses—Regeneration didn’t venture far beyond the conventions of two-fisted science fiction. That’s not the case with Hyams’ Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning. Working from his own script (co-written with Doug Magnuson and Jon Greenhalgh), Hyams goes the art route, making a highly subjective, often aggressively abrasive inquiry into the nature of identity in a world where cloning exists. “Conventional” doesn’t describe Day Of Reckoning.
Scott Adkins stars as an everyman who has his life turned upside-down when his family is attacked by a squad of UniSols, led by someone who at least looks like Jean-Claude Van Damme, the hero of the earlier Universal Soldier films. As Adkins investigates, he discovers that Van Damme is building his own army of UniSols, using a former adversary (played by Dolph Lundgren) as his recruiter. When the government sends its creations to retrieve a rogue, Lundgren fights them, and if they survive, Lundgren frees them from the control of their handlers and brings them into Van Damme’s messianic fold. While Adkins gets closer to the truth about Van Damme and about why Adkins’ family was targeted, he finds himself pursued by a relentless, bulky assassin played by Andrei Arlovski.
Plot description alone doesn’t do justice to what Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning is. From the opening scene—a truly nightmarish first-person depiction of Adkins watching his wife and daughter getting murdered—Hyams looks to disorient and unnerve the audience, treating sci-fi action the way some of the edgier European directors treat horror movies. He uses strobing effects and buckets of blood, as he emphasizes the brutality of super-powered machine-men pounding away at each other. But Hyams also throws in several long, fluid tracking shots that look like something out of a Stanley Kubrick film; he uses high angles that could’ve been inspired by Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma; and he takes the viewer inside Adkins’ head, where the hero is haunted by his last memories of his girls. There’s very little dialogue in this movie; it’s been replaced by dreamlike action sequences, hazy images of gore-matted skin, and quick flashes of atrocity.
Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning functions as a mystery, with third-act twists that deal directly with the theme of what really animates a person. The push for deeper meaning, while admirable, doesn’t land in as profound a place as Hyams intended, because in the end this is still just a story about trained bruisers hurting each other, not some deep character study. But if that sense of ambition is what gave Hyams the chutzpah to disassemble the Universal Soldier mythology into violent abstraction, then it was worth it. Day Of Reckoning features plenty of crowd-pleasing fight scenes, including a doozy in a neon-lit brothel, a ferocious baseball-bat battle in a sporting-goods store, and balletic back-to-back standoffs between Adkins and Lundgren and Adkins and Van Damme. None of these feel stock, because Hyams is trying his damndest to give a familiar action-movie premise an unconventional look and feel. And while Hyams hasn’t made a masterpiece here, he’s gotten closer to one than any Universal Soldier movie ever has.
Key features: A behind-the-scenes video diary nearly as long as the movie, plus a sometimes-awkward commentary track with the articulate Hyams and the not-all-that-interested-in-art Lundgren.