Director: John Hyams | 109 minutes | action, science fiction, thriller | Actors: Scott Adkins, Dolph Lundgren, Andrei Arlovski, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Mariah Bonner, Tony Jarreau, Craig Walker, Andrew Sikking, James DuMont, David Jensen, Audrey P. Scott, Rus Blackwell, Dane Rhodes, Susan Mansur, Kristopher Rhodes Van Varenberg, Sigal Diamant, Juli Erickson, Michelle Jones, Roy Jones Jr.
You don’t expect anything out of the ordinary for a fourth direct-to-DVD ‘Universal Soldier’ film. And if such a thing could be worthwhile at all, it would be purely as a mindless, guilty pleasure activity to enjoy. Artistic touches and a philosophical storyline is the last thing on your mind. But John Hyam actually manages to produce a grim, contemplative, and even surrealistic ‘Universal Soldier’ with the second ‘Universal Soldier’ sequel – after ‘Universal Soldier: Regeneration’. But the real fans need not fear: ‘Day of Reckoning’ has become anything but a bloodless affair. On the contrary: this is absolutely not a film for the faint of heart and there are more than enough blows and bones cracked.
Hyams seems to use various sources of inspiration. The opening sequence, where the viewer gets the point of view of main character John (Scott Adkins) when he has to go in the kitchen for his daughter in the kitchen in the middle of the night, is very reminiscent of Gaspar due to the flickering strobe effect Noé’s ‘Enter the Void’. Just like a scene where the camera hovers over different rooms in a whorehouse and – from above – shows all the sinful acts that take place there. The menacing, recurring buzzing sound (like a nagging headache) on the soundtrack seems to be copied again from Noé’s ‘Irréversible’; or ‘The Terminator’, a film (series) that can also be recognized in one specific, unstoppable Universal Soldier, which keeps chasing our hero.
Some other films that draw ideas from are ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘Apcalypse Now’. For example – as in ‘Blade Runner’ – it is not always clear who exactly is an (artificial) Universal Soldier and you cannot always rely on events in someone’s life actually taking place. In addition, Jean-Claude van Damme plays the same kind of dubious leader figure in ‘Day of Reckoning’ as Marlon Brando in ‘Apocalypse Now’ and, just like in that film, he is the final destination of a journey through a dark world (inwardly and outwardly). Van Damme’s appearance is also clearly modeled on that of Marlon Brando’s colonel Kurtz.
Speaking of Van Damme. He and Dolph Lundgren hold their own amazingly well here. It is interesting how older actors sometimes suddenly, along with their wrinkles, get a new dignity or acting layer. As if, marked by life, they can better shape certain characters. In any case, their performances – and especially the presence of Van Damme – do not disappoint, not in terms of acting and certainly not on a physical level. These fighters of yesteryear still turn out to be not expendable.
Incidentally, this does not detract from the impressive physical condition and performance of protagonist Scott Adkins, who may not be a gifted actor but conveys exactly what is needed here: a sense of confusion, a determination to find the killer of his family, and, ultimately, , a spectacular and explosive primal force that appears to be hidden within him. Like Jason Bourne in ‘The Bourne Identity’, John here is someone who starts off as a blank slate and slowly but surely learns more about himself, and it is a journey the viewer is willing to follow with him. It helps with this that he has a strong emotional, dramatic motivation – to find the ruthless killer of his wife and child – and this provides the necessary involvement in the story. It’s also nice that during his journey he is partly assisted by a female character, who reveals something interesting from his past and provides some (potential) romance within this testosterone-laden story. And that the actress in question – Mariah Bonner – is an attractive appearance is of course a bonus.
‘Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning’ is fairly straightforward and does not dig as deep as the sometimes surreal, dreamy scenes would suggest, but it is a film that continues to fascinate and remains suspenseful under the skin. There is always threat in the air, and the various figures of speech and structures – including video game elements such as first-person camera angles and various “boss fights” at the end of the film – keep the whole thing interesting. Sometimes Hyams goes a little too far with his epilepsy-inducing strobe effects, but usually his artful additions provide an intriguing extra impulse to this film series and turn ‘Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning’ into something quite unique: a bloody and surreal kick-ass. arthouse film.