When it comes to the fourth instalment of a largely straight to DVD franchise starring Jean Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, you can usually be sure of a few things. The formula won’t be changed much, there will be the pre-requisite amount of violence and grunting and both of them will just show up rather than give a performance. What you wouldn’t expect from the fourth in such a series, is for them to rip up the rulebook completely and create a noir-ish, trippy riff on Apocalypse Now that manages to be one of the best action films for a while but that’s what they did.
After the better than expected Universal Soldier: Regeneration, Day of Reckoning picks up sometime afterwards with resurrected Vietnam soldier Luc Deveraux (Van Damme) having clearly gone nuts from what he went through and indulging in a little murder and home invasion against John (Scott Adkins). This sequence is shot in a stunning POV sequence from John’s perspective and results in the death of his family and John being put into a coma. Some months later John awakens in hospital alone and bereaved to discover the government are very keen to get their hands on Deveraux who has gone rogue and is building an army of brainwashed meat heads using the government’s super soldier technology. John gets out of hospital and goes back to his life, but as he re-builds he starts to realise that his life that was destroyed wasn’t what he thought it was and that he is actually just a pawn in a larger scheme. Deveraux’s troops as well as government sanctioned crazies are all on John’s trail and he will have to go up river to Deveraux’s base in order to discover the truth.
Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning doesn’t look like any straight to DVD action film I have ever seen. Director John Hyams (son of journeyman director Peter) manages to somehow get approval to do pretty much whatever he wants here and what he wants to do is tell a story and let it unfold at a pace not familiar to anyone who frequents the bottom shelf at Blockbuster. Whilst it’s never boring, a mad plumber with an axe or a gunman in a brothel is always just minutes away, Day of Reckoning does unfold at a more considered rate which allows Scott Adkins to actually act and give a great performance instead of just kicking arse. Adkins is pretty much unknown still and perhaps best known for being Ryan Reynolds’ fight double as well as appearing in The Expendables 2. Here he proves he has serious brooding acting chops to match his physical presence playing a man who is deeply confused and perhaps insane and hopefully this will lead to bigger and better things.
Hyams together with his DP Yaron Levy craft a film that looks far better than it has any right to. The opening POV sequence through to the trippy strobe brainwashing scenes really create a sense of unease as if you are not sure of anything you are watching. When it comes time for a brilliant action scene the two of them really come into their own. There is no shakycam here, every action sequence is carefully crafted, framed and they make sure you are aware of everything that’s going on. A car chase is brilliantly done as is what looks like a single take of about ten minutes towards the end as Adkins shoots, rips and kicks his way through tunnels underground. The fight sequences are brutal with most beginning with someone being thrown through something or losing some fingers and much of the surrounding set being destroyed in the process. When two combatants start duelling with baseball bats or throwing dumbbells at each other, because of all the care that has gone into the story unfolding and the way it’s been set out, the effect is exhilaration where in lesser hands it would have been laughter.
The eventual conclusion to this film is satisfying and lives up to the rest of the film and doesn’t end as most of these things do. If there is one complaint about the film it’s the inclusion of Dolph Lundgren. The big swede does give a performance where he is having tons of fun as one of Deveraux’s more disturbed acolytes, inexplicably wearing a red beret in one scene which seems to nod to Apocalypse Now again, but it feels like he is only included because he was in two of the three previous films. Van Damme is also not in it as much as the billing would suggest, this is further evidence he has gotten better as he has got older though. As the Colonel Kurtz of the film, Van Damme only has to mumble and look sad which he manages to pull off with aplomb.
Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning is a film so unexpected and so well made that I would urge you to seek it out for a good Saturday night’s entertainment. John Hyams is a name to watch, just imagine what he could do with the Terminator franchise!