The Universal Soldier franchise has been around since 1992, and Jean-Claude Van Damme has been a part of every installment that actually mattered to the ongoing storyline. Well, ongoing storyline may be pushing it, as there are only minor connections between the films that are spread sporadically over the course of two decades; in fact, when it all comes down to it, the only real connections is Van Damme himself.
Universal Soldier told the story of Luc Deveraux, a soldier killed in Vietnam who was reanimated through a government project that made him a super soldier. They did the same thing to his superior officer, Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren), and they were both supposed to be a part of a program where the soldiers would obey any and all commands of the military and government. Deveraux’s mind rejected these orders, as his human memories fought back, which led him to be viewed as a traitor, and Scott and others were sent to destroy him. Yada, yada, yada, Deveraux overcomes the odds, and we get the awesome finishing line, “Time to discharge, Sarge.”
20 years later, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning has been released, and while the series has pretty much become a straight to video action franchise, it’s quality has remained fairly high, especially in terms of the fight and action sequence choreography. In terms of storytelling, the one thing that Day of Reckoning gets right is that is seems like the series may actually have a bit more direction going into the future.
While Universal Soldier: The Return (1999) and Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009) both starred Van Damme, and continued the disconnected story of Luc Deveraux, neither really took the ball and ran with it in terms of ending on a high note. Regeneration came close as far as leaving it open for a direct sequel, but it never came to be and that’s probably a good thing.
Day of Reckoning sees Van Damme take more of a minor role, with Scott Adkins taking center stage. Adkins plays John, a man whose family is murdered at the start of the film by a group of masked men. The one who pulls the trigger, killing his wife and daughter is revealed to be none other than Luc Deveraux, who beat John unconscious after he witnesses the tragic act.
Nine months later, John awakens from his coma inside a hospital, with memories of his family haunting him, and the face of Deveraux taunting his every thought. He wants revenge, and a government agent by the name of Gorman (Rus Blackwell) knows it. He shows John a picture of Deveraux and asks if that’s the man who killed his family, and when John says yes, Gorman tells him to leave it to them, because if John goes looking for Deveraux, he can be sure that Deveraux will find him first.
While John tries to go back home and recover, the memories are too much for him to handle, and as clues start to pile up as far as where Deveraux may be, and what his connection to everything is exactly, it becomes too much and John can no longer sit around waiting for something to happen. He goes looking for answers, and if Deveraux finds him first, well that’s just a bonus in his eyes.
Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning has a much different vibe to it than the other films in the franchise, and that’s exactly what director John Hyams (who co-wrote the screenplay with Doug Magnuson, and Jon Greenhalgh) was going for. The opening scene is all done through a camera angle that is shot from John’s point of view. We are seeing everything through his eyes, and it’s pretty well done overall.
After his family is killed, the film slows down for quite a while. There’s a mystery vibe to everything, as John tries to figure out what exactly happened and why he was targeted. It picks up again midway through, and it kicks into a fairly high gear from that point on; however, fans of the series looking for non-stop action should be warned that there’s a good chunk of the film you may find quite slow in its pacing simply because that’s not what they were going for this time out.
This is definitely a more character driven piece in terms of seeing things from John’s perspective, and basically being in his head throughout most of the film. Hyams does a good job of putting the viewer in John’s position, and we can see the struggles he’s having while trying to sort through all these emotions and thoughts he’s having.
There are some solid plot points that I won’t touch upon, as that’d take away from some of the fun that the story builds upon; however, I will say that it all works quite well. It’s not a perfectly paced story, and there are definitely certain times where it feels like things are dragging a bit, but overall it’s got more to bite onto than your usual Universal Soldier flick, and that pays off overall.
With Adkins taking center stage and really running strong with the ball he’s handed (he’s got some amazing fight scenes in the second and third act) Van Damme plays more of a supporting role this time out – even though he’s front and center on the cover of the case. This isn’t surprising, as he’s whom fans of the series want to see, as Luc Deveraux is the main universal soldier, and he’s the guy that’s been around since the beginning.
But in this supporting role I feel comes a passing of the torch, much like Christopher Lambert did in Highlander: Endgame when it came time to pass over the reigns to Adrian Paul. Van Damme can still move incredibly well for a man of his age, and he’s still got a lot left in him, but it’s smart of him to help push Adkins to the center stage in this series, as it helps the series moving forward as a whole.
Lundgren also returns in a supporting role, and it’s fun to see the whole gang back in a film that actually looks to serve some sort of ongoing purpose for the series instead of just a random installment with an excuse to bring back Deveraux and Scott one more time, for the last time, until the next time; which was pretty much the ongoing feeling of what the series has been doing until this point.
I do have to throw out this warning: if you are prone to seizures then do not watch this film. That may sound odd, but there are multiple times in this film where John is seeing things, and in order to have these images appear before him, audiences are treated to a severe strobe light effect, which lasts for quite a while. This bothered even me at times, so it should definitely be taken into account for those who could have something triggered because of it, as they are quite lengthy when they happen.
As I briefly mentioned above, the action sequences are incredibly well done for the most part, and there’s a chase scene that takes place midway through that’s incredibly realistic. There aren’t many quick cuts, and it doesn’t feel overly cinematic, which is a good thing. The way it’s shot, and the way it comes off looks as though it’s something we could see happen right out in front of our own homes. It’s extremely grounded in reality, and really well shot overall.
The fights are also well choreographed, with some incredible intensity flowing within them. The fight scenes are also incredibly brutal, as is most of the action. Apparently the Canadian release (the one I’m reviewing) is an uncut version that has an extra minute (a runtime of 114 minutes instead of 113), which is where all the extra gore and blood is found. So if you want the full, unedited cut, be sure to look for the longer runtime, which is actually quite a brutal minute.
Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is a step in the right direction for the franchise. Hyams took a risk in attempting to add more depth to what’s been known for two decades as a simple run-and-gun franchise, and in the end he does succeed. The addition of mystery, horror and suspense may throw off some longtime fans, and the slower pacing of the second act (which likely could’ve been tightened up a bit more to keep things moving fluently) will irk some; however, it’s something new, and for the first time it looks like the Universal Soldier series has learned its lesson and is thinking ahead in terms of continuity for future installments.
The video and audio for the film both come out quite strong. The video transfer looks crisp, with deep blacks, strong shadows and nice clean looks to the outdoor scenes – both day and night. The audio mix is incredibly well done, with the fight scenes coming to life with wonderful sound mixes, and the soundtrack helping keep things flowing when necessary.
When deciding on whether or not you want the Unrated version, know that the version released in the US – while censored – does have more special features. There’s a director’s commentary, as well as a “Making of…” feature that’s roughly 80 minutes long. While it would have been nice to have had those on this version as well, that wasn’t the case, and instead we’re just given the extra, brutally violent minute. It all depends on what appeals to you.
Interviews with the Director and Actors – The only special feature found on this release is a handful of quick interviews done during filming, where Hyams, Van Damme, Lundgren and Adkins all talk about the film briefly.
Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning should be the first in a fresh line of sequels to this well-known franchise. It definitely strayed from the usual in terms of what fans may have come to expect, but overall it delivers a fun – albeit sometimes slow – adventure that should help take this franchise into the future.
Foresight Unlimited Presents Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. Directed by: John Hyams. Written by: John Hyams, Doug Magnuson and Jon Greenhalgh. Starring: Scott Adkins, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, Mariah Bonner, Rus Blackwell. Running time: 90 minutes. Rating: 14A. Released: December 21, 2012. Available at Amazon.com.