Director John Hyams brings surprising depth and style to Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, which could easily have been the last-ditch effort from a tired action series.
Consider for a moment the poster for the fourth official installment in the Universal Soldier series, out in select theaters today. There's series mainstay Jean-Claude Van Damme, the barest of smirks crossing an air-brushed version of his increasingly weathered visage. Amused? Devious? Mischievous? It's unclear. Behind him is recurring series villain Dolph Lundgren, bearing that trademark menacing Lundgren stare that says, as it has since 1985, "I must break you." But the shrouded afterthought with his back turned to us down there in the lower left-hand corner? That's rising martial arts cinema phenom Scott Adkins—who also happens to be the actual star of Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning.
This poster does exactly what one would expect of the marketing for a latter installment in an aging action franchise, where the stars that once were front and center are retreating to supporting roles. After all, as fit as Van Damme and Lundgren still are, complicated and acrobatic fight choreography—especially when done properly, without forgiving closeups and quick cuts—tends to be a young man's (or woman's) game. So even if his appearances in the film are relatively minor, even if he's decades past his time on the A-list, Van Damme, as series hero Luc Deveraux, is still a bigger marquee draw than Adkins, so he gets top billing. But while that poster paints a picture of a predictable and tired last cash grab for a series now two decades old, Day of Reckoning is somehow not just the best film in the series (one might argue that's not a particularly high bar), but a damn fine piece of action filmmaking by any measure.
This isn't supposed to happen. Sequels in franchises like this are supposed to offer sharply diminishing returns; for the first decade of its existence, the Universal Soldier releases supported that theory. The original film, which introduced the concept of a government science project to reanimate recently killed soldiers into incredibly strong, fast-healing, superhuman walking corpses ("UniSols") offered little to begin with. It might have been an afterthought in Van Damme's filmography if not for the fact that it wound up being the first high-profile project for future spectacle-filmmaking juggernaut Roland Emmerich.
Then in 1998, two made-for-cable sequels turned up in the straight-to-video dustbin with none of the original cast attached, (they did feature Gary Busey and Burt Reynolds while their careers were floundering). In 1999, Van Damme returned for the first official sequel, and as mediocre as the original film might be and as terrible as the unofficial ones were, Universal Soldier: The Return still managed reach shocking depths of awfulness.
But then something interesting happened to the series: director John Hyams. Hyams, the son of journeyman director and cinematographer Peter Hyams, had done some television, a few short films, and a couple of documentaries on rough-and-tumble sports like bull-riding and mixed martial arts when he revived the series with 2009's Universal Soldier: Regeneration. Hyams, with the help of his dad's services as director of photography, created a grim and gritty piece of European-set, low-budget, shaky-cam action, with a strong emphasis on combat and car chases. He brought Lundgren's character of Andrew Scott, absent from the series since being killed in the original, back to the fold, and kept Van Damme in his pocket for the film's finale, allowing the star to play the hero while still only taking on a supporting role. The redemption of the series had begun.
Hyams's experience with MMA is perhaps his greatest asset. He smartly cast Belarusian MMA star Andrei Arlovsky into the role of the film's primary antagonist, a next-generation universal soldier (or "NGU") employed by a group of terrorists who have kidnapped the children of the Ukranian prime minister and are threatening to detonate the remains of the Chernobyl reactor. Arlovsky's NGU is their trump card, able to stop any attacking force attempting to rescue the kids or defuse the reactor, eventually requiring Van Damme to be "reactivated" as a UniSol to take out the NGU as well as the newly cloned Andrew Scott. The basic framework was generic '80s action-movie silliness, but Hyams knew what strengths he had available to him in Arlovsky, Van Damme, and Lundgren, and concentrated on creating thrilling action set-pieces to carry the film.
Which brings us to the weird, wild world of Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. For the latest installment, Hyams and co-writers Doug Magnuson and Jon Greenhalgh latch onto a fact that has oddly gone unaddressed in the series thus far: these are movies about what are, essentially, zombies. So while Reckoning doesn't go in for any zombie movie tropes, it is at its core as much a psychological horror film as it is action.
That's apparent from the very first frames, which are told strictly via a sustained point-of-view shot meant to be from the eyes of John (Adkins), who is woken by his young daughter, asking if she can join him and mommy in bed because there are monsters in the house. He goes monster hunting on her behalf only to find a team of masked soldiers in his kitchen, there to slaughter his family in front of him and beat him to within an inch of his life. They're led by Deveraux, who removes his mask to reveal dead eyes and an expressionless face as he shoots woman and daughter in the head, the scene made all the more terrifying by that unbroken POV shot.
What follows is a nightmare of Lynchian proportions, as John awakes from a coma with no memory of his past apart from his intense love for his wife and child, and a crystal clear memory of Deveraux savagely murdering them in their kitchen. Hyams sends John down a rabbit hole of confused identity, as he is led to places where people recognize (and fear) him for no reason he can remember. He's constantly plagued by massive headaches and strobe-lit visions of the eerily blank stare of Deveraux, who we come to find has gone underground to lead a separatist group of ever-more-powerful universal soldiers (now able to be cloned easily and to regenerate lost limbs), potentially with the eventual goal of world domination.
That cover story, in usual action movie fashion, is a little unwieldy and even more implausible, but Reckoning exists in such an unreal dream state that it hardly makes a difference. Hyams suggests that the biggest hurdle to respectability for cheesy '80s action is the insistence on trying to maintain the illusion of a recognizable real world; in dispensing with that for this grim, pre-apocalyptic hellscape, the questionable logic of the plot suddenly seems completely acceptable.
Additionally, Hyams is now even more assured in his action sequences, allowing the hand-to-hand combat to take place in wide shots of very few takes. A showdown between Adkins and the returning Arlovsky in a sporting-goods store rivals some of the most jaw-dropping scenes in this year's best piece of pure action filmmaking, The Raid: Redemption, and John's climactic rampage through Deveraux's underground installation is shot to mimic a single take, with the few cuts cleverly obscured.
It's the sort of work that should have Hollywood producers lining up to hand Hyams bagfuls of cash to create a new action franchise from scratch. But given what he's able to accomplish on a small budget with mostly practical effects, perhaps he should stick with what he's doing. Either way, he seems primed for career longevity on par with any re-animated supersoldier.