Ever since filmmakers started trying to sequalize Roland Emmerich’s 90’s original, the Universal Soldier franchise has been rejecting follow up after follow up like a body rejecting a transplanted organ. However, after casting aside a pair of grotty, TV movies as if they never existed and choosing to similarly ignore a cartoonish, more official sequel that saw a returning Jean Claude Van Damme trade wisecracks with a near-indestructible Bill Goldberg.
However, in 2009, director John Hyams made Universal Soldier: Regeneration, a much darker and grittier continuation than we had ever seen before that was far better than it had any right to be. Not only did it bring back JCVD as a rehabilitated Luc Devereux, we also got Dolph Lundgren back too as a cloned Andrew Scott and the revived tone, not to mention some nicely brushing fight scenes, finally gave us a continuation that, in 2012, actually stuck as Hyams, Van Damme and Lundgren all returned for the rug pulling Day Of Reckoning, an even darker, horror tinged sequel that even throws in Scott Adkins to boot.
John is rudely awakened one night when a gang of masked assailants rearrange his face with a crowbar and violently execute his wife and child. However, before sinking into a coma for nine months, John sees that the face of his attacker is none other than Luc Devereux, the longest serving UniSol who has seemingly renounced his virtuous ways and started a growing cult of freed UniSols that hope to overthrow the governments that created them. Clued up by the FBI, John sets out on a quest to seek out Devereux and immediately opens a can of mind-warping worms that includes mind control, clones and numerous breaks from perceived reality.
Following up random leads that come from such places as a mystery phone call from someone who claims to be an old friend, a body that’s been beaten to death and – that old classic – a matchbook that leads to a caring stripper, John slowly starts to unravel a labyrinthian plot that sees him repeatedly lock horns with Magnus, a clone of a next generation UniSol that’s been turned by Devereux.
However, the deeper into the rabbit hole John goes, the more it becomes apparent that what he considers the truth is nothing more than a flimsy gossamer that’s concealing a conspiracy that strongly hints that John’s memories are as dependable as an expired prophylactic and the further he goes into this bloody odessy, the more his version of reality will be challenged.
Baseball bat fights and one on one meetings with a deranged clone of himself only strengthens John’s resolve, however and soon he finds himself entering the belly of the beast and confronting Devereux, his cloned enemy turned acolyte, Andrew Scott and a small army of Fred UniSols – but is the memory that John is fighting so hard for even real?
One thing low budget, direct to video action sequels aren’t really known for is originality and instead they usually strive to be a lame copy of a bigger budgeted original that purely exists to leech a little bit more cash out of die-hard fans. However, Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning actually dares to be a little different, lacing the usual soldier-resurrected-from-the-dead shenanigans with a far more twisted, unsettling tone that strangely invokes the dream-like, puzzle-box storytelling you’d get if David Lynch decided to give the world of low budget action movies a whack. John Hyams, having already pulled of more standard, Universal Soldier fare with Regeneration, takes all the tropes of the franchise and immediately flips things on their head with the most noticable switch being Jean Claude Van Damme’s formally heroic UniSol survivor going full Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now and spending the whole movie glaring enigmatically at people while barely uttering a word. To long time Universal Soldier aficionados (which, I’m assuming, can’t be that many), shifting the formally child-like Luc Devereux to a face-painted cult leader may seem like a leap too far into the abyss, but it’s just one of many aspects that installs this entry as by far the most interesting sequel yet.
I mentioned Colonel Kurtz and Apocalypse Now earlier and that seems to be Hyams’ touchstone moving forward as Scott Adkins’ permently perplexed John literally takes a boat trip down a river at one point to confront a bald Devereux swathed in intimidating Baron Samadi-style face paint and it’s this switch from gung-ho actioner to brutal, trippy psycho-thriller that makes Day Of Reckoning such a refreshing change of pace.
Oh, it ain’t perfect, that’s for damn sure, but I’ll take flawed innovation over bland repetition any day and while the tangled plot often raises more questions than it answers, its still an intriguing oddity. Still, while slowly unraveling the plot from the outside-in via Scott Adkins’ vengence fueled hero is a smart move when you need to keep the budget down and your biggest star has entered his fifties, there’s still a far more intriguing tale to be told concerning how Devereux and Scott managed to build their burly cult to begin with.
Elsewhere, installing Scott Adkins as a new main character is something of a masterstroke thanks to his unparalleled asskicking capabilities and his underrated leading man status, but the problem is that compared to his world class athletic ability, Van Damme and Lundgren look like they’re moving in slow motion while their younger adversary zips about the place like the Flash.
One the other hand, Adkins gives a solid performance as his character wades ever deeper into Total Recall territory and the fight scenes he has with a returning Andrei “The Pitbull” Arlovski are convincingly punishing as they batter each other with axes, bats and even weights throughout their couple of vicious bouts that adds further cruelty to the stark and cold tone.
Unfortunately, this is where the Universal Soldiers retired with no real news of any form of continuation and while this isn’t exactly a huge loss, I would have been greatly interested to see where things would have gone if Hyams could of rounded things out with a trilogy and continued John’s story as he continues in Devereux’s footsteps against a clone-happy branch of the government.
Is it stone cold action classic? No, but much like its predecessor, it’s far more innovative, brave and interesting that you’d expect from something that’s essentially Universal Soldier 6.
Definitely worth a Luc…