Fantastic Fest ’12: Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning – Review


Long-running series reinvented as action-enhanced noir

“Continuity is for nerds!” So sayath Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, the latest in a series now in its sixth film (despite Day of Reckoning being referred to as Universal Soldier 4 in some circles, there are indeed two made-for-TV sequels that are currently in the process of being willed from existence). The Universal Soldier franchise is like a lizard, shedding its skin with every new film and, in the process, completely reinventing itself. In 2010, John Hyams took control of the series of made it a gritty, down-and-dirty action film completely stripped of the winking mugging or ‘90s action cheesefest the previous films had made defining characteristics. Essentially “Nolan”-fying the series, Hyams had done the impossible – he had made the Universal Soldier series relevant again.

In Day of Reckoning, though, Hyams shakes things up again and turns the action series on its head – creating a noir-inspired mystery with a light sprinklings of action. The result is on occasion very satisfying but – more often than not – will leave audiences feeling a tad let down.

In Day of Reckoning, Scott Adkins stars as John, a man who wakes from a coma with only a smattering of memories. The most pressing of these memories involves a home invasion that left his wife and daughter murdered with the only clue being the face of the man responsible – that of Luc Deveraux, the hero of the previous Universal Soldier films played by Jean-Claude Van Damme. Using this memory as a springboard, John begins a search for Deveraux, one that will quickly reveal that not every memory he has floating around in his head is true and that sometimes the truth can be a hell whole of a lot more depressing than the lies he’s been fed.

Adkins, a rising stuntman/actor who has made a name for himself in a series of brutal straight-to-DVD low-budget action films, takes over the Universal Soldier franchise from Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, the series’ previous stars. The two appear in Day of Reckoning for what essentially amounts to extended cameos. As Marlowe with a killer right hook and the ability to decapitate a man with an aluminum baseball bat, Adkins is a stunning action star but a lacking leading man. At this point in his career, the actor simply lacks the innate charisma of Lundgren and Van Damme, two actors who continue to own the screen whenever they appear in front of the camera. This charisma can develop over time, though, and it’s fairly certain that Adkins will develop into a real star given the right roles to work with.

During the film’s fight scenes, Adkins is a beast – performing his own stunts in the few absolute brutal brawls that are sprinkled throughout the film. When he’s left to play detective, though – searching for clues and interacting with femme fatal Mariah Bonner (complete with faux French accent), Adkins is slightly out of his element. That said, Adkins’ performance is not worse off than most of today’s action stars. What he lacks in leading man material, Adkins ably makes up for in his understanding of what makes a great fight scene. Working with Hyams and frequent fight chorography collaborator, Larnell Stovall, Adkins gives his character plenty of incredible crowd-pleasing moments – especially in his fights with Andrei Arlovski (returning to the Universal Soldier series as a new character) and Dolph Lundgren.

Lundgren and Van Damme, previous stars of the Universal Soldier franchise, appear only sporadically throughout the film but each has at least one really great fight scene so it’s not a complete loss. While the film suffers slightly from the duo’s limited participation in front of the camera, what they do offer the movie is certainly a blast. Van Damme, in particular, is allowed to go nuts. His character, since the last movie, has essentially become Col. Kurtz from Apocalypse Now – slathering on face paint and leading up an underground cult/militia.

Day of Reckoning was shot in 3D and while some of the hand-held camera shots or strobe light effects are not a particularly good fit for the format, Hyams mostly knows how to really use 3D for the film’s benefit. Both Lundgren and Van Damme have faces that were made for 3D – larger than life and full of cracks and fissures. More importantly, though, Hyams and Adkins realize that a film shot in 3D makes it harder to fake the ferocity of a fight scene and compensate – giving the film rougher, more wince-inducing brawls.

Day of Reckoning is a film that draws inspiration from plenty of films. In addition to Apocalypse Now, Blade Runner is an obvious forbearer to the film’s story. None of those films in which Hyams harvests inspiration are previous Universal Soldier films. For Day of Reckoning, Hyams has pushed the series in a new direction and the result is neat but not totally welcome. Watching Adkins solve the plot’s central mystery is a lot like watching a cut-scene from a video game – it’s fun to give the story a background and the characters some motivation but after a while it gets to the point where audiences will wish they could just hit the skip button and get to the action already. The fight scenes – including one overt video game-inspired action scene that takes strong visual cues from the world of third-person shooters – are certainly worth the wait but as a whole this new direction for the Universal Soldier series may just be a step backwards instead of the push forward fans of Regeneration had been hoping for.

Director: John Hyams
Notable Cast: Scott Adkins, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, Kristopher Van Verenberg and Andrei Arlovski
Writers: John Hyams, Doug Magnuson and Jon Greenlagh

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