Did anyone remember to tell John Hyams that he was making a Universal Soldier movie? Because I get the impression that he doesn’t give a crap about that. Roland Emmerich’s original sci-fi action flick about black ops zombies beating the crap out of each other was a neat little b-movie, slightly better than the average Jean-Claude Van Damme or Dolph Lundgren fare, and gave those two action titans – or at least demigods – an excuse to wail on each other for half the movie, long before The Expendables made gimmick casting a big thing. Most importantly, it was a lot of fun. In contrast, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is an impossibly dark installment of the franchise, and while I give Hyams points for going in strange new directions, I can’t claim that I actually enjoyed myself most of the time.
The film opens with one of the darkest sequences in recent memory, a first-person perspective Steadicam shot of Scott Adkins watching his entire family massacred in front of him by… Jean-Claude Van Damme? What? That is a hell of a thing. Adkins awakens in a hospital with short-term memory loss and begins to piece together the truth behind the murders and his mysterious connection to the “Universal Soldier” program. Naturally, a stripper gets involved. Because highfalutin dramatic concepts or no, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is still one of “those” movies.
As Adkins goes about his investigation, the film cuts back and forth between a newly awakened UniSol sleeper agent (Andrei Arlovski), who tracks his target to a bordello. Because, again, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is still one of those movies. He kills the patron, the clientele and even the innocent prostitutes – some of whom seemed rather nice – until he finally locates Dolph Lundgren, who by my account has already died twice in this franchise, including one time where he got thrown in a wood chipper (that was kinda neat). Lundgren takes the upper hand in the knockdown brawl, but instead of killing his opponent, Lundgren opts to deprogram him in a sequence with more epilepsy-inducing strobe lights than a forbidden “Pokemon” episode.
Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning has some plot twists that, I have to admit, I never saw coming. Partly because they’re ridiculous, and partly because John Hyams has more ambition than a Universal Soldier director probably needs. But he is, at least, taking the franchise in new directions that actually befit just how dark a concept this is and, in all fairness, pretty much always has been. There’s an anarchic spirit to the film’s climax in particular, when everything is revealed and the true villainy, or possibly heroism, of Jean-Claude Van Damme is dealt with via multitudinous kicks to the face. Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, for lack of a better expression, “goes there.” But like the flight plan of a hijacked plane, it’s not necessarily my destination of choice.
I admired the hardcore grunginess of Hyams’ previous installment of the franchise, Universal Soldier: Regeneration, but that film wisely wrapped its darker elements around a conventionally satisfying terrorist plot that grounded the thematic extremism. Day of Reckoning takes more narrative risks by introducing a larger mystery, but that mystery is clunky, padded to the gills and never quite resolves itself satisfactorily. The whole film feels like they put a promising first draft into production without filing the coarser edges off the storyline, and while you can’t write it off as more of the boring old same, it’s also hard to appreciate these new ideas when they’re presented with so little panache. John Hyams was given a simple job and he made it unnecessarily complicated, like a topiary artist who uses with ten foot-long shears to challenge himself. I’m not saying he didn’t get the job done, but I reckon that there were more effective and elegant ways to do it.
Read CraveOnline's original review of Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning