You know, the first Universal Soldier isn’t a half bad flick. Essentially, it’s a cat-and-mouse chase between Dolph Lundgren and Jean Claude Van Damme (both at the top of their games) and features some pretty dark backstory to the Dolph Lundgren character. It’s popcorn entertainment, but it always had a dark undercurrent to it, in my opinion. I never saw the two direct to video sequels that didn’t feature the original cast, (Brothers in Arms and Unfinished Business), but I’d imagine they’re as awful as you’d expect from direct to video sequels based on a movie that wasn’t particularly stellar to begin with. Of course, I can’t imagine they’d be any worse that Universal Soldier: The Return, which FELT like a direct to video movie, featured Van Damme and swapped out Lundgren for Goldberg (yes, the wrestler) and threw in a soundtrack featuring metal tracks, since that was all the rage around that time.
Then something happened. Jon Hyams, son of Peter Hyams (director of End of Days, Timecop, The Relic, and more) directed a direct to DVD sequel, Regeneration. Featuring Van Damme and Lundgren back against each other, Regeneration took the series much darker. Though people feel it’s a direct sequel to the original, really, there’s no reference to any of the previous films. Storywise, there’s not much to grasp other than that Lundgren and a group of UniSols have taken over a facility, and Van Damme is sent in to kick some ass. What the film lacks in story, though, it makes up for in unique direction. Hyams showed some great skill in Regeneration, producing some fantastic set pieces, and some of the best hand-to-hand combat that American cinema has seen in years. Not only that, the series seemed to decide it would embrace its violence – not only are the battle brutal, they are BLOODY.
So with him returning to the director’s chair with the newest release Day of Reckoning (available now on Blu-Ray and DVD), would lightning strike twice?
Day of Reckoning goes even darker than Regeneration. Van Damme, who spoke almost none in Regeneration, and was haunted by his past, is in Day of Reckoning for less than 20 minutes of screen time (which says something for a film that’s 113 minutes long). Lundgren is featured even less (but speaks more). The two actors show up, essentially, to just be the antagonists of the film, and there is nothing left of the fun that director Roland Emmerich brought to the original. Gone are cheesy 90’s one-liners, instead we get epileptic seizure-inducing flashbacks and a bunch of new lead Scott Adkins standing around unsure of what to do. I could literally think of 20 minutes that could easily be excised from the first half hour of the film. The film is overly long, and overly serious. It’s actually a bit of an effort to make it through.
Scott Adkins plays John, who’s family is murdered by Luc Devereaux (Van Damme) and he’s put in a coma. He awakes with almost no memory of anything but the murder, and sets about on revenge, hunted along the way by UniSol Magnus (Andrei Arlovski). Devereaux has taken over a church of sorts of ex-UniSols, liberating them from the government control (why they’re still a bunch of assholes is never really explained).
While Devereaux was shown to be in a bad place at the end of Regeneration, he’s all sorta fucked up in Day of Reckoning, and really…there’s not enough justification from my point of view. The film revels in its darkness, and suffers for it. Whereas Regeneration was enjoyable enough thanks to its shorter running time, Day of Reckoning spends much of its time navel gazing, and the brutal fights are few and far between.
Now don’t get me wrong, the action is still well done. Limbs get broken and cut off, heads knocked off, and everyone pretty much dies as violently as possible. Every fight has at least one “holy shit” moment. But everything in between them is a bit of a bear to get through.
In feel, and this may be an odd comparison, I’d compare the film to Martyrs, the 2008 French film (review here). It doesn’t involve the same violence towards women, but it does involve a generous amount of excessive violence in a dead serious setting with zero levity. No characters are likable, and everyone feels dirty. There are no heroes in Day of Reckoning, something that the original feature had no problem with. While I appreciate Hyams brining a different sensibility to the franchise, the film simultaneously relies too much on previous knowledge of the series (the UniSols are never explained, and only referenced once by name), while at the same time completely disregarding the investment fans may have made of the series.
As a result, it’s hard to recommend. Perhaps just check out the last half hour for some kick ass fight scenes. For die hard fans only – and does such a thing really exist for Universal Soldier?
5/10, if you’re looking for a number score.