The 'Universal Soldier' Paradox: When a Bad Franchise Produces a Great Film

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.

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Magnet / Magnolia

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.

Day of Reckoning is somehow not just the best film in the series, 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.

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Ian Buckwalter is a freelance film writer based in Washington, D.C. He contributes regularly to NPR, Washingtonian, and DCist.

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