John’s family is murdered before his eyes in their home. He is injured, and after his recovery is told that the murderers are part of a terrorist group led by Luc Deveraux, a Universal Soldier. He sets out to find Deveraux and avenge his family. During his search, he is plagued by strange visions. He is also haunted by some very physical threats, as members of Deveraux’s group are trying to prevent him from reaching his goal. Soon everything he believed to be true about himself is questioned, and his existence turns into a nightmare.
The Universal Soldier franchise was never a really popular one. After Roland Emmerich’s first and reasonably successful entry, the series descended into the nether realms of B-movies with a boring DTV sequel and two even more boring TV adaptations. Instead of following the common route of producing ever cheaper and dumber sequels, John Hyams reanimated the series with Universal Soldier: Regeneration. His first take on the Universal Soldier universe that was a dark and atmospheric contribution to the canon, and a very solid piece of action entertainment. He returned to the helm as director and writer for the tentatively final part of the series. Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is a very different beast from its predecessor, and on the whole is a very unique affair, apart from its generic title.
Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren are part of the cast again, this time in supporting roles. They’re joined by Belo-Russian behemoth Andrei Arlovski who already appeared in the previous installment of the franchise. Arguably none of them are particularly good actors, but they are convincing in their roles due to their undisputed physical talents. Scott Adkins, who has an equally impressive physical presence, but somewhat more acting talent, joins the cast as lead actor.
From the beginning it is made clear to us that this will be no fun and harmless roller-coaster ride like the first Universal Soldier. The movie starts with an extreme tragedy, and is a thoroughly nihilistic affair. A gloomy and uncanny atmosphere lurks over the whole story, as John’s search takes him through bleak rural and marsh landscapes. He encounters only negative and desperate characters that have lost hope for a better life. The most tragic characters in the movie are the Universal Soldiers themselves. They lead an angry and meaningless existence since their programming has been taken away from them, and apathetically spend their days in a subterranean bunker stacked with weapons. Even though there are not many exchanges in the movie about the existential pain of these creatures, there is a lingering philosophical undertone in many parts of the movie.
The plot starts out fairly convoluted, and reference to the Universal Soldier universe is made only sparsely in the first half or so of the movie. Even though the resolution is slightly on the conventional side, John Hyams continuously creates a feeling of confusion for the viewer, as the borders between reality and imagination often seem to blur, and nightmarish visions are seemingly manifested in reality. Due to these aspects, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning shares some traits with the dark, dream-like works of David Lynch such as Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet.
On the other hand, the movie is an extremely intense action movie, and John Hyams’ talent to stage impressive fight scenes should have easily propelled him into the major league of action movie directors. The fights are choreographed fantastically, but are some of the most brutal you will ever see in an action movie. The combination of an eerie atmosphere and extreme combat sequences makes Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning feel more like a horror movie than anything else occasionally, and I can imagine that this aspect made it somewhat difficult to find an audience for it. Action movies buffs may be repelled by the weirdness of the plot, whereas people that find the elaborate presentation appealing may be shocked by the eruptions of extreme violence.
With Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, John Hyams created a truly original masterpiece that crosses the boundaries between genres, and is so intense and dark that it is occasionally too painful to keep your eyes on the screen.