You have to give director John Hyams credit for not just giving audiences the same old thing with Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. Those expecting a fun and action-packed thrill ride are going to be in for a major shock as this entry in the long-running franchise functions more as a horror movie than anything else. But despite the fact that the filmmakers are taking this series in a different direction, it doesn’t change the fact that the film is slow and dull in several spots, so much so that in the end, it doesn’t work as a whole.
Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren return as our favorite Universal Soldiers: Luc Deveraux and Andrew Scott, and they have since formed the Unisol Church of Eventualism, which has them taking in wayward soldiers like themselves whom the government has been secretly operating as remote-controlled sleeper agents. Their goal is to liberate their fellow soldiers from the implanted memories and lies that the government has inserted into them so that they can start a new world order.
But while Van Damme and Lundgren get top billing in Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, their appearances here are essentially cameos. The real star of this sequel is Scott Adkins who plays John, a man who as the movie opens is savagely attacked by home invaders who end up murdering his wife and child. One of those invaders reveals himself to be Deveraux who, following the events of Universal Soldier: Regeneration, is not quite what he used to be. After awakening from a coma and undergoing a tough physical recovery, John goes on a mission to find Deveraux and exact revenge on him for what he has done to his family.
From there, the movie turns into a Jason Bourne-like story as John comes to make horrifying discoveries about himself and realizes that his life is not all that it’s cracked up to be. John also finds a female companion in Sarah (Mariah Bonner), who seems to know more about him than even he does, and he gets viciously attacked by Magnus (Andrei “The Pit Bull” Arlovski), a man who really has it in for him. The film’s last half is clearly inspired by Apocalypse Now as eventually, John descends into hell to discover who he really is.
Adkins previously appeared in The Expendables 2, which came out earlier this year, and he certainly has the moves to pull off the role as he goes about kicking ass. As an actor he’s not bad, but he spends too much time trying to emote and be all serious, so much so that you wish that the script gave him a little more to do. Still, his role serves as a good jumping off point for him for future projects and from here, he has nowhere to go but up.
For those curious about the action in Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, it does have some really well done scenes which almost make it worth watching. Hyams, along with fight choreographer Larnell Stovall and cinematographer Yaron Levy stage some fights that seem especially brilliant when you take into account that this film only had a shooting schedule of 30 days. This especially goes for Adkins’ last few fights, one of which is shot in a sustained take that lasts a couple of minutes.
Another highlight of the film is, as expected, Dolph Lundgren, who gives the movie those moments of humor that it needs to rise out of the story’s overwhelming bleakness. Although he’s never been a great actor, Lundgren is always fun to watch and you come out of this film wishing he was in it a whole lot more. He’s clearly having a blast here as Scott works on bringing all his fellow Universal Soldiers back together for some ass-kicking and understanding.
As for Van Damme, he’s interesting to watch here as his character goes in a different direction this time out. His stoic seriousness serves him well as Deveraux goes into Colonel Kurtz mode by the movie’s end. This is no longer the good guy character we remember him to be in the previous installments, and Van Damme looks to be relishing the opportunity to not be doing a role that he could just sleepwalk through.
Watching Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, it is clear that Hyams and company put a lot of thought into the story and tried to make it more than just ‘another Universal Soldier film’. With franchises like these, filmmakers become obligated to shake things up as the films can become easily weighed down by formula. Hyams understands this, but the movie is waylaid by a number of slow sequences that render portions of the film dull and boring. Ultimately, the film comes off feeling like the Alien 3 of the Universal Soldier franchise, as it becomes, at times, far too nihilistic to be enjoyed.
Still, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is worth a watch for those die-hard fans of the series. There’s some decent entertainment here and a number of the fight sequences are very good. If you can get past those frustrating slow spots, then this sequel just might be worth your time.