I was waiting for Day of Reckoning to screw the pooch. After all, the flick was directed by John Hyams, and his previous work on Universal Soldier: Regeneration and Dragon Eyes, capable as it may be, is still far from perfect. I waited for the movie to linger too long on an unimportant scene, or feature terrible overacting, or use excessive color grading to pull me out of the experience.
But such a beleaguered moment never came, and once the movie ended I realized it may be one of the best I’ve seen in a while.
The Universal Soldier franchise is very loose canonically. The only enduring thing from one movie to the next is the concept of scientifically developed super soldiers, or Unisols, and the presence of Jean Claude Van Damme and (usually) Dolph Lundgren. There’s no working continuity to speak of. Even the last two films, both directed by John Hyams and made eighteen years after the original, don’t mesh together at all. Don’t expect them to.
If you can look past all the cinematic baggage and your own expectations, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is a deliciously atmospheric, violent, and nihilistic piece of filmmaking. It’s equal shades action and horror, positing a straightforward premise in which John (played by Scott Adkins) seeks out a wanted fugitive in Jean Claude Van Damme for the death of his family.
The plot advances naturally from there into what some have deemed “confusing,” which baffles me quite frankly. Perhaps if you spend the entire movie wondering how it fits into the previous installments (a futile effort) or your attention wanders in some other critical way, you may find this movie hard to follow or terribly written. But keep your eyes and ears open, let yourself be absorbed in the ambient synths of the movie’s soundtrack, allow the blood squibs and effective thwacks of fight choreography to wash over you, and pay attention. You’ll probably not be disappointed.
I will admit this film doesn’t fit easily into the freewheeling direct-to-DVD science fiction action movie genre, because the action that occurs on screen and the scientific account of what’s going on are only two thirds of the equation. The final third, the existential dilemma that Scott Adkins’ character has to deal with, adds a layer of thoughtfulness and gives the movie’s finale a visceral, absurdist punch.
By now, arguably in the twilight of his career, Jean Claude Van Damme has revealed his underrated abilities as an actor in too many movies to mention, so I won’t be cliche and dwell on that here. I’ll just say both he and Dolph Lundgren perform their roles admirably, reveling in their curious allegiance to the Universal Soldier property, one of the greatest and most overlooked action star team-ups.
In light of all the good in this movie it seems perfect that it’s coming out in limited theaters, but not before a pre-theatrical VOD run, which is how I saw it. Perhaps Day of Reckoning is doomed to defy expectation and be misunderstood for its quirks, but don’t let that take away from the truth of what a gem it is.
My home screening of Day of Reckoning did suffer in one area, which was my own fault for not doing my homework. By renting it from Amazon I missed out on the opportunity to watch the HD version. The movie is shot and lit competently, but by watching it in standard definition I lost a lot of detail in the darker, murky moments. I would have installed iTunes to rent it in HD had I known better.
A full list of rental options are listed on Magnolia Pictures’ website. It might be worth waiting next month for the theatrical premier, especially if you’re the sort that cares about 3D movies, though you may find yourself surrounded by an audience hot off Expendables 2 and with no accurate idea what to expect here, or even more unfortunate, fans of Universal Soldier: Regeneration expecting the story to continue.