For a movie that arguably was originally intended to go direct to video, ‘Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning’ is weird. I mean, really weird. At times, the arty touches added by co-writer/director John Hyams suggest a strong future ahead for the filmmaker, but too often the feel like unnecessary excess on a movie that barely deserves it. This latest installment in a franchise I honestly was shocked still was putting out flicks is possibly their best one to date, but that’s certainly damning with faint praise. Hyams has an eye for violence and his homages to classic films, notably ‘Apocalypse Now’ add some variety to the proceedings, but it’s hard to argue that this is an especially “good” movie. Star Scott Adkins has a future as an action hero, but he’s hardly an Oscar winner. Of course, most of the “fun” here, if you can call it that, is had by return appearances to the franchise by Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, but they add surprisingly little. Compared to the silly enjoyment of ‘The Expendables 2′ (which also featured those two former stars), this falls real flat due to its incredibly nihilistic nature, but when held up against what I was expecting going in, it’s decent enough for a less than picky action fan. I’m hardly recommending it, but it definitely could have been worse.
I believe the proper qualification for this installment in the franchise (supposedly the final one) is that it’s a reboot/sequel hybrid, but logic isn’t the first thing on this film’s mind. We start off by being introduced to new protagonist John (Adkins), a retired soldier who awakes one night to find intruders in his home. His wife and young daughter are brutally murdered by the ringleader, who it turns out is Luc Deveraux (Van Damme). Deveraux puts John into a coma, but after about 9 months he’s on his feet and looking to take revenge, complete with bizarre visions of his enemy in his head. It turns out they’re both part of the government program the franchise is built around, one that turns men into nearly perfect super-soldiers. As John tries to figure out what’s going on and to take his vengeance, we basically find him on a crash course to Deveraux and his franchise partner Andrew Scott (Lundgren). Obviously this is all B grade plot points at best, the Hyams consistently adds very odd art-film touches to the events, which at times either elevates the flick or makes it just feel like a total mess. Sometimes, it winds up just being both.
It’s hard to pretend that the acting here is any good, but at least the cast knows what kind of a movie that they’re in and the turn in fitting performances for the material. John Adkins looks the part of an action hero, but too often he’s kind of just a blank slate. I’m game to see Adkins work in a more high profile project, but it’s clear that he’s limited as an actor. I don’t think anyone expects greatness out of the likes of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, but they chew the scenery just the way you’d like. I wish Van Damme especially got a little more to do here, but when it comes to kicking ass, they both give Adkins as good as they get. No one else in the cast is really worth mentioning, but the notable supporting players include Andrei Arlovski, Rus Blackwell, Mariah Bonner, Sigal Diamant, and Kristopher Van Varenberg. Adkins may very become a star one day, but this won’t exactly be the one to push him over the top.
Director John Hyams (yes, the son of Peter) obviously had more on his mind than a cut rate action film, and after one previous ‘Universal Soldier’ sequel under his belt, he was given the latitude to essentially make his version of ‘Apcolypse Now’, complete with Jean-Claude Van Damme standing in for Marlon Brando (now there’s a sentence I never expected to type in my life). There are points where his point of view and slow motion shots add a little variety to the brutality, but as often as they work, they merely just call attention to themselves. Hyams deserves credit for trying to be different though, as well as not shying away from some very graphic violence, especially in an admittedly rousing couple of sequences during the third act. The script that he co-wrote with Jon Greenhalgh and Doug Magnuson (based on a story he conceived with Moshe Diamant) isn’t very strong, but it’s par for the course of a sequel like this. It’s just an ill fit for the type of direction Hyams is contributing. I also wish he had a better handle on pacing, as this film is nearly 2 hours long and 100% feels it. I definitely would like to see him get a chance on a bigger budget project, but maybe just as a director and not as a writer too.
All in all, you could probably do worse with your action sequels than ‘Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning’, but that doesn’t make it a movie worth recommending. I give credit to filmmaker John Hyams for going all out and giving us something different, but I wish the quality of the project was a little better. Perhaps on DVD or television in the near future this could be a fun thing to watch on the couch, but in cinemas I just expect a little bit more. Give it a shot if it sounds appealing to you, but be warned about its shortcomings…
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Tags: Dolph Lundgren, franchise, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Peter Hyams, Scott Adkins, sequel, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning