The Universal Soldier series started in 1992 and has since then spawned two sequels and two spin-off TV movies, and now we have a third sequel and the sixth Universal Soldier movie overall, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning.
Why even bother reviewing this movie, one might ask. It’s obviously crap, right? Well surprise, surprise. Not only is the new Universal Soldier not crap, it’s actually a good movie. Sort of.
But how can this be?
It seems like the franchise was actually given to a good director with a certain artistic vision who was given free reign with the movie (Who would care anyway? If there’s guns and explosions and Van Damme and Lundgren, actions fans will see it anyway), a certain John Hyams (son of Peter Hyams, director of Capricorn One, 2010 and Timecop). Somehow he seems to have “hijacked” the Universal Soldier series to make a brooding art-house movie of sorts, with echoes of Gaspar Noé and David Lynch, out of a Universal Soldier sequel. Sort of.
Hyams wastes no time and starts off immediately with a really weird and fascinating opening scene that’s reminiscent of Nöe’s Enter the Void in which the viewer is delved in to the heroes’ POV (Scott Adkins) where he’s stumbles upon mercenaries, led by Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) who kill his wife and child. And it just gets crazier.
Having not seen the other sequels this one was a bit confusing plot-wise for this reviewer. Van Damme was the hero in the first films and Dolph Lundgren was a bad guy, though not the main bad guy. But now they seem to be working together, and both are “bad”. Also, Lundgren died in the first film. It seems like what we have here are… new versions of them who have both turned bad (and weird). But it doesn’t really matter. The plot is not the main issue here.
The script is really standard stuff for the most part, and in the hands of an average director a this film could easily have been dull and lame. But Hyams makes a good example how you can turn something that’s probably quite boring on paper into something fascinating on the screen. For instance, the way he films some of the more ordinary dialogue scenes, with off-kilter angles and, probably most importantly, unconventional use of sound and music, is really interesting. Sometimes it’s the sheer lack of sound that gives the scenes an eerie vibe but sometimes it’s also the strangely ambient music. Hyams builds up a really strange atmosphere which helps you get into the mindset of a man who might not be what he thinks he is. Emphasis is put on the sheer disorientation of the scenario, of a supposed human who finds out he’s really some sort of robot and whose life is not what is seems to be.
But Hyams also realises that good action is what you’d most like out of a Universal Soldier movie and this movie has some very cool action scenes, that even besides the strangely “avant-garde” style just work in a classical way. They move fluidly, are clearly shot and simply fun to watch. Especially impressive is a one-take ass-kicking scene where Adkins kicks some serious butt on a group of baddies, while going through a tunnel.
Basically, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is a pretty standard action flick that’s turned into a fascinating movie thanks to director John Hyams’ wonderfully weird style and great command of the medium. Someone needs to give this guy a decent script and some good actors and then he’s sure to make something really special (it would be awesome to see him make a Mission: Impossible sequel or a superhero movie).
Final verdict: Probably the best movie that could have been made out of this material and proof that you can make a good movie out of any idea, no matter how bad it is, if you do it the right way. Director John Hyams makes it work with his bizarre style and great command of the medium.