The first “Universal Soldier,” a tacky studio star vehicle that introduced us to director Roland Emmerich, debuted to the public as a Clinton-era signifier. It featured two resurrected soldiers eternally at war, products of a system that would allow them to kill and kill again over the years, brought back to be the new world‘s attack dog heroes. An ending to that film assured us that these war-like tendencies could be either deprogrammed or eliminated entirely as one heroic fighter (Luc Deveraux, as played by Jean-Claude Van Damme) learned to love, and one villainous antagonist (Andrew Scott, as played by Dolph Lundgren) learned to accept dismemberment. Context was the key, context which was essentially eliminated in two dirt-cheap cable sequels and a quickie theatrical follow-up, but not direct-to-DVD installment, “Universal Soldier: Regeneration.”
That film’s director, John (son of Peter) Hyams, was the first in this series to properly understand the potential depth of what was once an innocent B-grade kick-and-shoot franchise. His 'Regeneration' doubles down on the Bush-era “Bourne Identity” paranoia, recreating a world where the previous sequels may or may not have happened, re-introducing Deveraux and Scott as endlessly revived killers. Their distant past as Vietnam veterans no longer addressed, these are just the military’s latest models, headed in distinctly different directions. One seeks to find a way to function in every day life, ignoring that his default setting is death. The other, fascinated by the schism between his flesh and synthetic identity, yearns to destroy, seeing his enemies as that lump of coal that can somehow be changed into the diamond that is a truth, any truth, as to what he is and how he’s been transformed by generations of death.
Leave it to Hyams to take another, even more drastic right turn. 'Regeneration' was chilly and intense, grounding the “Universal Soldier” premise in a present that still feels the reverberations of the desolation of the past (the one time the “abandoned factory” setting of most direct-to-DVD actioners made sense). “Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning” is another matter entirely, beginning through the eyes of a new character, John (Scott Adkins). As this everyman wakes in the middle of the night, we see through his perspective a nighttime siege by masked men. They savagely beat John and force him (and us) to watch the murder of his wife and child. The leader of the group is a hero we once knew. Shorn of hair, the wrinkles and creases notably deeper, the reveal works on two levels. This madman is movie superhero Luc Deveraux. It’s movie superhero Jean-Claude Van Damme.
John awakens out of a coma and lumbers to an empty home, with authorities quizzing him as to what he might know about Deveraux. Classified as an AWOL soldier now amassing a secret army, he now haunts John’s memories with a staggered frequency. 'Day Of Reckoning' is two films, one based around John’s search for the reason for his family’s execution, and the other revealing this secret army, at least one branch of which is headed by former enemy Andrew Scott. There are UniSols programmed by the military through just one simple phone call, and there are soldiers deprogrammed with the injection of an unexplained toxin that frees them from this command, allowing them the agency to seek retaliation under the fiery speeches of Scott and the brooding resolve of Deveraux. If you scoff at such genre elements as brain-liberating injections and super soldier mind-control, you’re probably of the mind that thinks Fritz Lang shouldn’t have bothered with all that sci-fi stuff and just remade “Scarlet Street” a few dozen times. Pipe down, adults are speaking.
It seems very clear early on exactly how these storylines will emerge, but Hyams spends the film’s runtime fracturing the storytelling to an extreme extent. John’s nightmares are indistinguishable from hallucinations, peppered with strobe light intensity that fractures the vision for the audience (accompanied by a booming, oppressive score). By simple aesthetics, he turns this picture into a horror film, throwing off your own cognitive dissonance so that by the time the action movie narrative resets itself (in a show-stopping sports store brawl), you’re still not entirely comfortable. Adkins, who has a sexy physicality when poised for combat but has otherwise flat-faced features that suggest a certain blankness (the goatee did him wonders in “The Expendables 2”) is an ideal match for the role of a man unaware he’s hiding secrets from himself.
Hyams art-film intentions create a hybrid picture where often the violence is titillating, until it’s not. A dingy flophouse finds UniSols achieving pleasure by taking nails to the hand, a prostitute’s hammer earning her wages, but that sequence mixes martial arts grandstanding with sickening execution-style murder, weaving them together effortlessly to reveal an autocritical perception of the violence we’re seeing. These are soldiers -- would mutilation be more acceptable for them than murder? Would murdering each other, trained for violence, be more comforting than the deaths of innocents? Given the nature of such mutilation, is there truth to the idea that the brief adrenaline rush of being targeted for death is even more pleasurable than the naked women in their beds?
Once the decision is actively made to literally head up the river in pursuit of Deveraux, 'Day Of Reckoning' does a stutter-step into the realm of horror (or at least “The horror… the horror…”) before landing at the fisticuffs ensuring that Van Damme and Lundgren are properly showcased. Lundgren remains an improbable physical specimen even at an accelerated age, and his murderous glee is suitably off-putting, his zealotry to the cause more of a case of craving bloodlust than deigning for any sort of “justice.” And Van Damme, still in solid shape, nonetheless has the saddest eyes of any latter day action veteran. Once he touches down, ready to brawl, it’s almost as if his face announces his defeat beforehand. The brain is dead, the body won’t stop kicking, but the flesh is softer.
'Day Of Reckoning' uses its elliptical storytelling to cast doubt on our handle on our allegiances. Deveraux very well may not be the villain he seems in the first scene (never mind the previous three films in the series carrying his name and face), and John’s fate is wrapped in enigma, particularly when we see his body act as a blunt instrument of battery. That mercurial understanding extends to the shadowy government in the film’s rear-view -- the soldier has evolved beyond their military origins. Maybe devolved. The certainty of this is obscured by the violence of bodies in motion, death through chaos, creating a context in which the action is thrilling beyond belief, not only because the peerless skills of those involved, but of the weight and consequences of said fisticuffs. It may very well be the best action movie of the year. [A-]