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Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING (2012)

Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Scott Adkins, Dolph Lundgren, Andrei Arlovski, Mariah Bonner

Written By: John Hyams (also story), Doug Magnuson, Jon Greenhalgh, Moshe Diamant (story)

Directed By: John Hyams

The Short Version

John Hyams takes on the classic characters yet again… and he gets even darker with them.

Think less “action sci fi” than “action horror;” this is creepy and brutal.

Continuity between films is something that happens to other franchises.

Scott Adkins shows why his big name costars like him so much.

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is not what you’re expecting.  It’s damn good, and damn dark.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

SHREDDED GOUDA.

Nothing’s making it through this flick intact!


Pairs Well With...

BOURBON.

Straight from the bottle, for the bite.

“From this moment on, you’re no longer a slave to the government.”


The original Universal Soldier stands as a genre classic, delivering the action goods with a bit of science fiction flair and lots of snappy one liners.

In 2009, John Hyams reinvented the world of Universal Solider by way of the gritty, modern, and much heavier Universal Soldier: Regeneration.

In 2012, he reinvented it yet again in the form of the movie at hand: Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning.  Dark, brutal, humorless, and creepily surreal, this movie stands as a hard reboot despite carrying over the lead cast of the previous film (only the most abstract case can be made to call this a sequel to that movie, and it has no continuity at all with the original, making the production title of UniSol 4 seem rather inappropriate).  Indeed, the changes are so stark that a strong case can be made to alter the genre designation here from “action sci fi” to “action horror,” for if nothing else, this flick is incredibly horrific.

Well made, to be damn sure, but horrific.

How so?

The opening scene sets up the nastiness.  Our protagonist, John (Scott Adkins, The Expendables 2) is roused out of bed by his young daughter’s assertions that there are monsters in the house.  (You already know, don’t you?)  The audience watches through his eyes as he does the “good father” thing and checks out the house… only to find that there are indeed monsters in the kitchen, if mean dudes in balaclavas count as such.  He is then savagely beaten with a crowbar, and the audience continues to look through his eyes as his wife and daughter are brought in before him and executed in quick but graphic fashion.

Normally, I hate this trope.  The only reason families ever exist in these films is To Be Threatened or To Be Killed, and it gets old and cheap really fast… but not here.  It still makes me angry, but in this case, that anger – experienced from the point of view of the character around whom the film is centered – serves a true purpose that is in fact vital to the overall success of the story at hand.  A manipulative device, to be sure, but not a cheap trick, for without the intensity established in the first five minutes of the movie, the effective power of Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning would be severely diminished, and the character’s motivations easily written off.  Indeed, even though the violence only gets more brutal from there, nothing ever tops the truly disturbing horror of the opening scene, and that is why it works.  If anything trumped it in terms of visceral emotional impact, everything would fall apart.  But now, for any viewer paying honest attention, that type of failure just can’t happen.

Instead, the audience goes on the same ride as the protagonist does, with the same amnesia, and the same sense of discovery as the puzzle pieces start to come together in both predictable and unexpected ways.  (Even if there was continuity with what came before – which again, there isn’t – one could come into this film cold and do just fine learning at the hero’s pace.)  It’s a ride with a framework that will eventually seem familiar to anyone who’s seen Apocalypse Now, both in terms of the general plotline (the journey up the river to terminate the soldier who’s gone rogue) and the sheer surrealism of it all.  (The horror.  The horror.)  Therein lies the next key to the story’s success: after already being taken into the soul of the protagonist by sharing his brutal driving experience and then into his mind by knowing exactly as much – and as little – as he does, the audience gets even further drawn into our hero’s world by experiencing the same warped reality that any sane person can’t help but question the veracity of, complete with occasional skull-piercing strobe effects and definite hallucinations (with heavy religious overtones).

And so, in the event of “achieving total audience identification with a decidedly non-Everyman character through psychological manipulation and directorial technique,” John Hyams wins the Gold Medal.  Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is, without question, a craftsman’s masterstroke.

It is not something that will make you as a viewer feel good when it’s all over.  It’s creepy and disturbing and even a bit violating… exactly as the best psychological horror flicks often treat their audiences.  I wasn’t kidding about the genre switch, folks.  Here’s Johnny; know what I’m saying?

Speaking of axes, there’s all of that violence to consider.

From a technical perspective, the violence is everything an action fan could ask for from this kind of flick.  Scott Adkins is a credible fighter, use of doubles is well-hidden kept to an absolute minimum (Dolph Lundgren and Andrei Arlovski don’t use fight doubles at all), and the action choreography in Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is top notch.  Adkins’ duel with Dolph Lundgren (Showdown in Little Tokyo) is the hands-down highlight of the movie, though his ultimate machete-trading matchup with Jean-Claude Van Damme (Death Warrant) is nothing to sneeze at, either.  (You won’t believe that they had to tone that one down because Adkins was injured; it’s still pretty intense.)  Prior to those fights, Adkins goes toe to chopped-off toe with MMA man Andrei “the Pitbull” Arlovski (and His Incredible Soviet Throwback Beard!), who is absolutely relentless every time he shows up to do some damage (that’s a real axe for some of those swings), upping the ante for each go-round in spectacular fashion.  Prefer car chases?  How about a car fight?  That’s how Hyams and company refer to the centerpiece auto duel of this flick, and the moniker fits.  No one’s out to outrun anyone; they’re using their vehicles as weapons, period.  Great, intense stuff.

And all the while, the brutality his notes that are much less show than blow.  Rooms are destroyed in realistic fashion whenever they host combat.  Blood flies everywhere, not comically, but with disturbing realism.  This is not the “fun” action of a standard brawler; this is something else, and it’s impossible to turn away when it’s happening.

This doesn’t mean that it never gets nuts, mind you.  Arlovski goes on a shooting rampage through the world’s weirdest S&M brothel for superhuman clients (hooker nailing her client’s hand to a table, anyone?), but it’s so utterly surreal that only the densest attitude can take it for comedy.  Indeed, unless one counts a quick dialogue callback by Dolph Lundgren to the original film, there isn’t a single joke cracked throughout the entire movie, which is another thing that sets Universal Solider: Day of Reckoning apart from the rest of its action brethren.  This flick is deadly, horrifically serious, and it means it.

Given that understanding and assigning it the “horror” label this is its due, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is an outstandingly well made movie that delivers on every promise and then some.  Well acted, well directed, and well fought, this is one film that beats all expectations, and that is worth seeing… though it will probably be a while before I decide to watch it again, because it really is more creepy than fun.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, November, 2013


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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