It’s funny what films manage to prolong their longevity into franchisehood. 1992’s Universal Soldier was a fairly mediocre but pretty popular sci-fi action flick that was best known for pitting Jean Claude Van Damme against Dolph Lundgren, both in the primes of their careers. (It was also the English language debut of Roland “Master of Disaster” Emmerich). Almost a decade later it spawned a truly terrible sequel, 1999’s Universal Soldier: The Return, which pretty much ended Van Damme’s theatrical career, and then a forgettable direct to video third entry. Now we have a fourth (!) entry, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, which takes the series in some bizarre and interesting new directions.
Credit cowriter and director John Hyams for trying to do something different with this new Soldier: he didn’t make an action film. At times, Reckoning veers towards wanting to be a horror film, sometimes a thriller, but whether or not it was due to having a small budget or the advanced age of his stars, Hyams benches Van Damme and Lundgren to nearly extended cameo status, instead focusing on Brit newcomer Scott Adkins and only doling out the action movie goods in small, judicious doses.
That’s either a brave or foolhardy move for a movie like this, and, unfortunately, Hyams often falls on the wrong side of that divide. By not delivering the bombast familiar to fans of the series (and by the usual standards of its stars), that leaves the movie’s success to hinge on a story that turns of to be simultaneously anemic and convoluted, and a lead performance that redefines uncharismatic. Adkins looks a bit like Ben Affleck and gives a perf that one would have associated with Affleck… in his Daredevil days. The newbie action star certainly cuts a mean figure, but here, he simply lumbers through inane dialogue with a fixed glower on his face, overshadowed in his brief scenes opposite the vets.
Still this oddball new.model of Soldier isn’t a complete waste either. It’s an unabashedly pulpy bit of nonsense that revels in its hard R rating with plenty of gore-soaked violence and full frontal nudity (from both sexes) and Hyams has loads of fun differentiating this franchise entry – there’s a nifty extended POV opening, several hallucinatory moments, and a climax that has Van Damme going all Captain Kurtz in the jungle. The story is a confusing mix of government conspiracies, clones and other such silliness, and god help anyone who tries to make sense of what’s going. To fully enjoy Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, one has to wade through some pretty bad acting, cheesy dialogue, goofy CGI, corny 3D (yea this is in he third dimension) and a completely haphazard script. It’s just weird enough, just off enough to make for a perfectly stupid timekiller.