I walked into the new latest installment of the Universal Soldier franchise a complete noob to the series. Early 90's direct-to-video action films aren't my forte, but the positive buzz the latest entry has generated left me curious as to what Dolph Lundgren and Jean Claude Van Damme have been up to.
The film kicks off with a brutal home invasion sequence where John (Scott Adkins) is overwhelmed my masked assailants, beaten with a crow bar then forced to watch his wife and daughter executed. Waking up in a hospital bed moths later, he no memories aside from that night. As he seeks to avenge his family and regain his life the story unfolds in bits and pieces. It turns out his family's murder is Luc Deveroux (Jean Claude Van Damme) and ex-special ops soldier that leads a renegade team of soldiers along with Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren). The plot, such as it is, unravels a few strands at a time and weaves mind-control, cloning and shadowy government conspiracies into the mix. It turns out that Deveroux is “waking up” similar soldiers for reasons that are never made too clear. Assisted by his stripper sidekick Fantasia (because, of course there's a stripper sidekick in this story), John spin kicks his way through the mystery until his inevitable confrontation with Lundgren and Van Damme.
The story doesn't make a whole lot of sense, and longtime fans of the franchise (I'm going to assume they are out there) may be disappointed to discover that the two marquee names are reduced to supporting roles. Still, Day of Reckoning takes a ballsy approach to plotting an action movie by mixing in influences from a wide array of genres while delivering spectacular fight sequences. It's not a particularly well put-together film, but it's a blast to watch.
Director John Hyms doesn't settle for an action film where bones break and bullets tear through flesh. Day of Reckoning cranks up the violence to an absurd, cartoonish level that hasn't been seen since 2008's Punisher: War Zone. Doors aren't made for opening; they exist to toss your opponent through. Shotgun blasts don't just kill; they hurl their targets backwards through the air like the victim was getting yanked by a hook in an old vaudeville act. Bones don't just break; they get bent at unnatural angles that suggest the human body is capable of contorting into positions that a Stretch Armstrong doll would find uncomfortable to execute. One does not just wast their hands in the blood of their enemies; they get elbow deep in crimson red while getting bits of gristle and brain matter trapped under their fingernails.While budget limitations keep Day of Reckoning from being a start to finish donnybrook, Hyms manages to fit in at least four top notch action sequences, including an assault on a brothel, a high speed car chase followed by a brutal one on one confrontation and a gonzo third act that moves at breakneck speed.
Day of Reckoning unfolds like a David Lynch film if he walked out of Kickboxer, chugged a handful of peyote and decided he wanted to make an action film his next project. When the film slows down it trades exposition scenes for bizarre, nightmarish sequences that draw heavy inspiration from Twin Peaks' Black Lodge. Freakish ancillary characters, including a warehouse boss that looks like he has a baked potato for a face flit in and out of the picture. When Van Damme or Lundgren's characters appear before John or other “freed” soldiers Hyms employs a disorienting strobe effect that grows more uncomfortable the longer it lasts.
Day of Reckoning borrows from a number of other sources aside from horror. Sure, the attempts often feel shoe horned in, or are pulled off in clumsy fashion, but points are earned for trying. I never thought I'd see the day where major themes from Eternal Sunshine For The Spotted Mind are borrowed in a film where one man tosses a forty five pound barbel weight like it was a frisbee and his opponents sternum. In the third act Hyms goes into full on Apocalypse Now worship mode, culminating with The Muscles From Brussels sporting a shaved head, face paint and a spare tire around the midsection in full-on Kurtz mode. Eagle eyed fans will notice a Shining reference as well.
The visual style also borrows from gaming, especially at the outset. The home invasion sequence is short from the first person perspective of Adkins' character and moves at half speed at points. It's as if Adkins is trying to run under water. It feels like something straight out of the first Bioshock game, and it was interesting to see it used here.
Make no mistake, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is a bad movie. Yet despite its myriad of shortcomings it's entertaining as hell. It also gets points for ambition. Sometimes you need a movie that lets you turn your brain off and soak in the awesomeness of watching a man grind his enemies bones into a fine paste. This film delivers on that expectation in spades.