Of all the many movies that “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning” evoked, I found that 2009’s “Terminator: Salvation” was an oddly equivalent point of comparison. Like that film, this is the fourth* entry in its franchise -- one led by a twenty-year-old knock-off of “The Terminator” and “Robocop” -- and a chapter for which fans didn’t necessarily seem to be clamoring. (I’m still trying to wrap my head around the idea of “Universal Soldier” die-hards.)
There’s the limited involvement of the series’ original stars; technically, Ahnuld didn’t physically contribute to “T:S” for his likeness, so points to Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren for at least showing up. There’s a shared dilemma between each film’s protagonist that I will refrain from spelling out. Lastly, there’s the matter of directorial intent. I maintain that, whatever “Salvation’s” problems were, McG’s approach was least among them. His efforts to replicate the long takes that defined the thrilling “Children of Men” suggested a clear-headed attempt to circumvent the franchise’s PG-13 rating and make a pre-ordained movie somewhat exciting.
“US: Day of Reckoning” may not be clear-headed for most of its running time as a proudly R-rated genre mash-up with an odd psychological bent, but its fights and chases do make it clear that this was not indifferently assembled for anyone that might make up its audience. Director John Hyams (who helmed 2009’s “US: Regeneration”) is the son of Peter (“Timecop,” “The Relic”), which shows in a B-movie that’s often bloody, sometimes bizarre, but rarely boring.
The film opens more like a home invasion thriller than anything -- complete with a strangely showy point-of-view shot -- as we witness the assault of mild-mannered John (Scott Adkins, looking like a buff Jim Caviezel) and brutal murder of his family. Nine months later, he awakes from a coma and sets out to find answers, haunted by the faces of his loved ones and of their killer, Luc Deveraux (Van Damme), and compelled to uncover an underground resistance of enhanced, brainwashed government assassins led by Andrew Scott (Lundgren).
The early going can be slow as Hyams makes a prolonged effort to reinforce John’s sense of loss, working in some garish dead-kid imagery, while other characters find themselves reprogrammed in some irritatingly strobe-heavy scenes (epileptic action fans, you’ve been warned). The plot feels like a post-“Bourne” retread, between our amnesiac-yet-skilled hero and trained killers hiding in plain sight to take him out, and the tone swerves brazenly between sci-fi, horror, action and noir.
However, Hyams doles out the chases and combat scenes at a steady clip, and shooting for 3-D (regardless of the film’s 2-D release) has lent his direction a certain degree of discipline, the action beats almost always as remarkable for their lucidity as the fights are for their choreography. Adkins’ physical capabilities are in turn served well, with a slyly assembled “continuous” shot practically standing alone as a testament to his chops as well as Hyams’ own. For all we know, work like this is what got him on board “The Expendables 2” to work with Van Damme and Lundgren once more.
As for the stuff in between, well, it’s often just strange enough to make the wheel-spinning bearable. (Don’t even ask me what’s going on with Deveraux’ baffling make-up in the big showdown.) One doesn’t exactly expect callbacks to “Blade Runner” and “Apocalypse Now” in their “Universal Soldier” sequel, but then again, when the characters refuse to die in a suitably stubborn franchise, the fact that any of this still packs a punch feels like something of a feat.
*This is technically the sixth film to boast a “Universal Soldier” title, but only the fourth one to fall under canon? Yes, apparently, there’s official canon for the “Universal Soldier” series.
“Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning” is currently available On Demand and will open in select cities starting November 30th.