Director: John Hyams
Writer: John Hyams, Doug Magnuson, Jon Greenlagh
Producer: Moshe Diamant, Craig Baumgarten
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Scott Adkins, Dolph Lundgren, Kristopher Van Varenberg, Andrei Arlovski, Roy Jones, Jr.
Running Time: 114 min.
Free will is overrated. Just ask the Universal Soldiers – they’re a group of reanimated corpses brainwashed into becoming government killers. After being released from their programming by revolutionary leader Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme), these muscle-bound warriors can finally act of their own violation. But all they seem to do with their newfound freedom is drink, sleep around, and get into fights. They’re soldiers without a cause; guns in need of a hand to aim them.
They inhabit a world that seems to resemble ours…but something feels off. It’s not long into “Day of Reckoning,” the latest entry in the “Universal Soldier” series, that we realize co-writer/director John Hyams has crafted a dystopic tale – all the more disturbing because it’s set, not in our distant future, but in the now.
While most fans were expecting “Days” to pick up where the previous film, “Regeneration,” left off, this new entry in the series is more self-contained. The story very much belongs to John, a new character portrayed by Scott Adkins, who has some serious questions about his identity and the fate of his loved ones. For the first hour of the movie the audience feels as lost as Adkins does. Director John Hyams mentioned watching “Angel Heart” and “Jacob’s Ladder” while writing the script and there’s a similarity in the way Adkins goes from a place of ignorance to knowledge – a knowledge he may come to regret.
Both of those influences are horror movies, which is indicative of “Day of Reckoning’s” tone. Director Hyams shares some similarities with his contemporary Nicolas Winding Refn (“Drive“) in that both men know how to deliver visually seductive genre movies that blindside the viewer with their sobering portrayal of violence. Early in “Reckoning” when Andrei Arlovski’s brainwashed killer stalks the corridors of a sleazy sex shop with shotgun in hand, mowing down civilians, it’s clear we’re not in popcorn movie territory. In Hyams’ films, violence carries consequences.
Not all of Hyams’ stylistic risks necessarily pay off. “Reckoning” is an altogether more ambitious film than its predecessor and a much messier one as a result. In particular, the numerous sequences shot from first-person POV fall flat and the Gasper Noe-style strobe lights may make viewers avert their eyes from the screen. Granted, both of these techniques likely work better in theaters and in 3D, which is how the movie was meant to be seen.
It’s a credit to action choreographer Larnell Stovall that even though most of “Reckoning” was filmed in the spring of 2011, the fight scenes are nearly as vicious and impressive as anything in this year’s genre breakout “The Raid.” The clash between Adkins and Arlovski that takes place in a sporting goods store about halfway through the film is arguably the best fight scene of Adkins’ career – which is saying something for an actor who has already built a resume of jaw-dropping bouts in movies like “Undisputed III.” Later on, Hyams replicates the one-take action sequence from the end of “Regeneration” as Adkins traverses the Universal Soldier compound, dispatching one foe after another with some impressive full-body takedowns.
Although “Day of Reckoning” bears the Universal Soldier logo, we’re about as far away from the summer blockbuster sheen of Roland Emmerich’s 1992 original as we could possibly get. Similar to the way that “Regeneration” brought a real-world, war-movie aesthetic to the series, “Day of Reckoning” ignores the expectations of its brand entirely by telling a murky tale of stolen memories and cloned killers. Fans of the original looking for escapist entertainment may be disappointed that neither Jean-Claude Van Damme or Dolph Lundgren play a big role here. On the upside it’s a gorgeously-lit film, with apartment corridors straight out of “The Shining”; and there’s a car chase that would make William Friedkin proud.
Director John Hyams isn’t content to merely serve up your typical action movie dreck. He’s made it his mission to challenge audiences and their expectations of what a film like “Universal Soldier” can do. As such, the violence here isn’t presented as ‘entertainment’ and it might take more than one viewing of “Day” to truly appreciate it – as well as piece together the plot. This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to cinema buffs who have been following John Hyams’ career: the director has spent the past few years quietly expanding the limits of the action genre. “Day of Reckoning” represents his boldest statement yet.
HKFanatic’s Rating: 8/10