‘Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning’ Fights For A Place In The Franchise

By  · Published on December 1st, 2012

Editor’s note: This review originally ran as part of our Fantastic Fest 2012 coverage, and since Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning in now playing in limited release, we reckon it’s a good time to repost it.

As if slipping into a nine-year coma isn’t bad enough, John’s extended nap was preceded by the murders of his wife and daughter. He does not have the best of luck. As he begins to regain his memory, after waking from the coma he was beaten into at the end of a crowbar, John begins to hunt for his wife’s killer. All the while, mercenaries of highly advanced skills begin to stalk him, and the mysteries of his own past come spin-kicking to the surface. Spoiler: Universal Soldiers are involved.

When John Hyams brought Universal Soldier: Regeneration to Fantastic Fest in 2009, expectations were hovering somewhere around the stickiest parts of the theater floor. That is no reflection upon Hyams, it’s just that the series, unlike the characters that populated the first film, seemed far too dead to revive. But what we got was an adrenaline shot to the heart of the franchise that reunited its legendary leads and gave us a reason to be fans again. Now, with the re-return of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, and burgeoning action hero Scott Adkins (Undisputed III, The Expendables 2) added into the mix, anticipation was decidedly higher for the next chapter. And perhaps that’s where the issue lie.

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is an entirely different type of UniSol movie, for better or worse. It’s a slower, more personal character story that in fact takes an opposite track from most. It’s difficult to know how to veil this in enough vagueness to prevent spoilers so perhaps this next section should be avoided. Basically, instead of the Pinocchio complex of the new UniSol learning to be a real person, he has no awareness that he is anything but human. It’s an interesting direction for the series, and one that benefits from Scott Adkins’ balance of martial and theatrical arts, but it will most likely befuddle if not frustrate fans of the franchise.

That’s not to say there are no familiar tropes at play, they are indeed brutally apparent. The film is dotted with fight sequences of frank, yet awesome savagery. Dolph Lundgren actually looks to be in far better fighting condition here than he did in either Expendables film and the shootout that sets up his first row is sinfully entertaining. Adkins’ battle with recent franchise acquisition Andrei “The Pitbull” Arlovski may unseat the sporting goods store rampage throne currently held by Genghis Khan in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. That’s saying nothing of the climatic bouts between Adkins and the two pillars of the series. The Adkins/Lundgren fight taken on its own could have gained the film admittance to this festival. Sweet baby Drago, it’s intense.

The problem here is that the scope of Day of Reckoning, a title which ironically insinuates grandiose finality, is constricted to the point of detriment. Where Regeneration never felt hampered by its low budget, Day of Reckoning desperately needed to sink a few more dollars into production design and stunt work. Is it fair to judge a movie by the money it doesn’t have? No. However, the budgets for this film and the previous entry were quite similar, and the problem seems to be one of distribution. Honestly, it’s most likely that so much money was sunk into the entirely unnecessary 3D gimmick, into the expensive cameras and cumbersome rigs, that little was left for anything else. This garish, extra-dimensional centerpiece purchased, the rest of the film then appears to have been built around it. The script for the film seems woefully aware of this; the slightness of the plot a seeming attempt to make the crucial scenes fit into the affordable backyards and model homes that comprise 98% of Day of Reckoning’s locations. The most elaborate set is what looks to be a dentist’s office in a fallout shelter. This may also explain how they were apparently only able to afford a few days of JCVD and Lundgren’s time; their characters, who should be center stage, little more than bookends.

John Hyams was still able to create something from virtually nothing, and that is to be commended. Day of Reckoning has moments of skillful and crowd-pleasing action, and the idea of the UniSol’s breaking the bonds of their programming and forming a vengeful brotherhood is an interesting concept. The problems with Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning only highlight the potential of this franchise under Hyams. If given the right tools, and not tempted by gimmicky visual schemes that ultimately limit his vision, there is more than a fleeting possibility that he will continue the series in superb fashion.

The Upside: Great fight scenes and Adkins makes a more than suitable new addition to the franchise.

The Downside: A limited production gives the film an avoidable cheap look and woefully hampers the story construction.

On the Side: The use of 3D in this film meant that many of the actors and stunt performers actually had to get closer to actually punching and kicking one another.

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.