Universal Solider is arguably one of the last great films of the action hero era and surely one of Van Damme’s finest. The film was so successful that it spawned a number of confusing sequels, some which seemed to have little to do with prior entries, some which retconed other events, and which were all without exception drastically inferior to the original. You can imagine that when I took a gamble on this, I was hoping for (at best) some Van Damme on Lundgren action, with a few funny one-liners and nice kills. What I got was something I didn’t expect at all, and something much better than I could have ever hoped for.
Day Of Reckoning is a nightmare. I mean that positively. It is a horror movie with some genuinely shocking violence and powerful martial arts based action. The film veers into some surreal, dream spaces where the viewer isn’t sure what is real and what isn’t. Van Damme and Lundgren do appear, but are not the focus. Instead, star Scott Adkins and director John Hyams conspire to take the story in a completely different and new direction – removing much of the charm of the original, and instead crafting a snaking revenge movie where the seemingly tenuous links to the series mythology only become more clear and insidious towards the end.
Scott Adkins wakes from a coma to discover his family has been massacred. He has lost his memory, but with help from the FBI identifies the killer as none other than Luc Deveraux (Van Damme). So far so normal, aside from the twist of JCVD being a killer. It should be noted that the flashback scene of the family being killed is brutal and unforgiving. While Adkins searches for Van Damme, we see another series favourite Andrei Arlovski living a normal life but being suddenly ‘activated’ and going on a murderous rampage. It turns out that (most of) the people he kills are Universal Soldiers, and that Lundgren and Van Damme have been trying to free agents from the control chip or something by which the government has been controlling them with. They are recruiting and forming a separatist army to destroy the program once and for all. Then things get complicated with clones…..
There’s a hell of a lot going on here and it is never easily explained. Rather than finding all this confusing, I think the often dream-like or nightmarish nature of the movie (deliberately or otherwise) covers the flaws in this type of storytelling. We know it is still convoluted, but we are placed essentially in the character of Adkins – he doesn’t know what has happened, and only has the memory of his family being murdered to spur him on. As viewers it is that image which also keeps us watching – to get to the bottom of the mystery. Adkins does well in the role and while he isn’t the most expressive actor, he lets the more physical side speak for itself. And so we get some outstanding and vicious fight scenes – imagine a martial arts version of Saw and you’ll get the idea. The blood and guts flow freely, but it isn’t in a cartoon Kill Bill style or slowed down and stylized like 300. It feels real, even though the combatants are super strong and super fast, the punches, kicks, and everything else connect with a raw force – I was left gaping after a couple of these and wondering why other movies don’t follow suit.
It isn’t only the fights which are horrific. This is at it’s heart trying to be a horror movie, with Hyams at the very least emulating a Lynchian atmosphere. If you are aware of the series, then you will be aware of the loose political roots – dead soldiers are resurrected, have their memories removed, and are forced to do the Government’s bidding like robots. While the questions about patriotism and control over individualism have been clear throughout, there is a much more personal and angry vein of accusation here. We learn that the older model of soldier performed better when they believed they were fighting for their country, but that the newer models truly exceed when they think it is their family who is in danger. Warriors simply don’t respond to patriotism anymore, and the only way for a government to teach it’s soldiers to kill is to give them a more personal, devastating fear – it’s basically boiled down to kill the enemy or you family will die or even one step further – the enemy has already killed your family, so go do what needs to be done. Echos in current world politics are all too clear.
Day Of Reckoning is not for the faint-hearted. The violence is extreme, and I’m saying that as a seasoned gore hound. I loved it, but I’m aware that others with a low tolerance will be put off quickly. Gone are the japes of the original, and the half-assed crap of the sequels. This is a horrific movie which just happens to exist in the Universal Soldier universe, and it’s one of the most impressive action movies I’ve seen in recent years. Hell, it’s one of the most impressive horror movies I’ve seen in recent years. Let us know in the comments what you thought of the movie and how you rate it alongside others in the series!