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Depending on whether you count direct-to-video releases, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is either the fourth or sixth film in the low-rent, Panda Express–level Universal Soldier franchise, the descendant of a rip off of The Terminator. But less money equals less studio oversight, and the directors of low-budget sequels to 20-year-old action films sometimes have a little more latitude to explore their ambitions, presuming they harbor some. Director John Hyams, who also co-wrote the screenplay, does. After having crafted some top-of-the-line man-to-man combat in the direct-to-video Universal Soldier: Regeneration, he now is plainly going for something big by basing the story loosely around the plot armature of Apocalypse Now, which means that his film is two degrees of abstraction away from Heart of Darkness, a book from high school. Which basically makes it a book!
As a pull quote from some hack Publishers Weekly review might say, “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is unputdownable!” If by “unputdownable,” you mean “unshakably grim,” like waking up with a sore throat on a cold, rainy morning and knowing that you have eight hours of work ahead of you. The tone shift from the first film’s “mandroid-commando battle bots” to Hyams’s “bleak reminder of man’s brain-splattering mortality” is a gear-grinding transition, as if Abel Ferrara made a Die Hard sequel in which John McClane does a few bumps of cocaine, murders a prostitute, and then pistol whips a nun.
Kickboxing champion Scott Adkins plays John, a man whose family is murdered by a squad of assassins led by Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme), the original Universal Soldier, his head shaved cue ball in order to illustrate the clearest possible lineage from Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. This prologue is shot in first person with disconcerting fades and blackouts and is ultimately upsetting if children are things that you like.
After hospitalization, John experiences flashbacks and hallucinations of Deveraux, on whom he intends to exact revenge. But, in accordance with the high school literature toward which the film aspires, “the best laid schemes o’ mice and men/Gang aft agley/An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain.” And sure enough, John’s plan immediately goes “agley.” Deveraux has become the head of a cultish militia of unisols, locating and activating sleeper-agent murderers created by the government and doing lots of splattery killing.
Deveraux’s onstage hype man is Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren), who wears a beret and gives a lot of Hitler-like speeches. His presence here defies one hell of a death scene in Hyams’s previous film, a scene that is accessible on YouTube via the keywords “Universal Soldier Regeneration awesome,” but that kind of thing happens in movies with clones in them.
The melee fight scenes are seemingly conjured into this dark, poo-encrusted world from some other, happier film containing sunshine and magic, in which muscley men grapple and put one another’s heads through walls. Against the prevailing cheerlessness, these intensively choreographed fights, many shot in audacious, roving single takes, are like glimpses into a dream world. Someday, Lenny, we’ll have our own sporting-goods store. And in that store, men will have wondrously insane bat fights. But until then, we have to do some kind of weird penance for all the fun parts via constant flashbacks reminding us that in this sad world of trouble and sorrow, black-clad commandos could easily break into your home and shoot your seven-year-old daughter in the head.
So you should treasure these precious, precious pile drivers and jackknife-power-bomb finishing moves while you have them, because sooner or later, the film will take you into dark, filthy men’s rooms, plywood-walled bordellos, redneck strip clubs, and gore-barnacled murder scenes. Deveraux’s insidious plan or whatever definitely does not involve occupying scenic arboretums or idyllic mountain lakes, but what the cinematography lacks in pastoral beauty is compensated by all of the suicidally gloomy and claustrophobic interior locations. The unexpectedly wacky hot-air-balloon chase comes as a welcome reprieve. Just kidding about that, but on the lighter side, there is a scene in a nasty, dirt-walled operating room in which a doctor puts a Dremel router through Adkins’s skull. So that’s cheerful.
Wet, explosive head shots are a recurring theme, a literary technique whereby an actor is squibbed with a bag full of strawberry jam, positioned in front of something like a wall, an Econoline van, a prostitute, or any other backdrop substrate that shows gory stains well and then shot at point-blank range, often by a character who looks like Bluto from Popeye. After the seventh or eighth iteration of the splattered-head leitmotif, it starts to seem like a completely natural way to end a scene—it brings a note of unmistakable finality and closure to an exchange of either dialogue or spin kicks. Blam! So it goes. (That’s a reference from literature.)
There’s a big Philip K. Dick mind-fuck thing happening regarding implanted memories and character identities, which is a lot easier to unwind than the confusing tangle of allegiances and enmities, characters suddenly attacking other characters for unobvious reasons, possibly because they are so freaking depressed by their cheerless surroundings. On these plot twists, we shall draw a veil of discretion, lest surprise be spoil’d by expositional surplusage. That sounds literary, right?