In 2009, when no one was looking, John Hyams up and revived Universal Soldier. Then a withered property marked largely by direct-to-video spin-offs of Roland Emmerich’s original film, with Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren as KIA Vietnam War squad leaders brought back from the dead, brainwashed, and enrolled in a top-secret super-soldier program, Hyams jacked things up considerably. Where Emmerich’s film (and its abysmal 1999 sequel) was marked by its sweep and scale, Hyams’s Universal Soldier: Regeneration was a brooding, adrenaline-injected chamber piece. He shunned the widescreen vistas of the original film for tight-framed dioramas chocked with bone-cracking close-quarters combat. It was, and remains, a remarkable piece of contemporary action cinema, all the pummeled flesh and cartoony kinetic violence of the cinema of Zack Snyder without the meathead misogyny. (For one thing, Hyams all but stripped Regeneration of female roles, ducking any representational quagmires.)
Like a stiff Schwarzeneggerian conqueror making good on an “I’ll be back,” Hyams returns to one-up the franchise again. With Day of Reckoning, the spawn of Sudden Death and Timecop helmer Peter Hyams amps up the moodiness and previously welcome auteur-ish flourishes of Regeneration. He deserves a degree of acknowledgment for providing answers to questions nobody really asked: What happens to Van Damme at the end of the last one? Can Universal Soldiers dream? What would it looks like if Zack Snyder made a David Lynch movie? But Hyams’s hifalutin reinvigoration of the series finds Universal Soldier suffering from a different, decidedly anti-Emmerichian, brand of bloat. Simply, Day of Reckoning is too “deep,” with Hyams’s sundry aesthetic superfluities and thematic aspirations ponderously bogging down his substantial talents as an action filmmaker.
From its halfway-virtuoso opening scene, in which Hyams shoots a home invasion from the suffocating POV of his sleepy superhero protagonist, John (Scott Adkins), complete with shuttering blink effects pinched from Gaspar Noé‘s Enter the Void, Day of Reckoning wears its ambitions on its sleeve. Hyams’s instinct to even bother making another Universal Soldier sequel is at least curious, and touches like this—and the ambient sound design, and the aggressively epileptic sequences of Van Damme appearing on screen, patrolling liminal boundaries between nightmares and waking life like Robert Blake in Lost Highway—make Day of Reckoning weirdly compelling in a “What the fuck am I watching?” kind of way.
This initial shock of the weird is rewarded by Hyams’s real talent for staging his stifling action sequences, most of which crunch with brawny hyperrealism that elevated Regeneration. A showdown between the amnesiac Adkins and another souped-up “UniSol” (Andrei Arlovski) in a sporting-goods store, a shoot up in a strobe-lit brothel teeming with macho masochists, and the twinned boss battles between Adkins and Lundgren, then Adkins and Van Damme, are among the best action sequences committed to screen this year, even in spite of the stubborn speed-ramping. So what does plot matter, right? At the end of the day, despite the flashy upholstery, it’s still a Universal Soldier movie.
The problem emerges in Hyams’s apparent insistence that these things somehow do matter, and that Day of Reckoning is somehow something other than “just” an action movie. (Certainly its loftiness demarcates it from this year’s other, ultimately more enjoyable film to team up Adkins, Van Damme and Lundgren: The Expendables 2.) But instead of making an actioner that is excitingly elusive, Hyams uses subtlety and opacity, like the worst of art-house films, merely to obscure plot and character, dispersing them into a hazy ether of uncompromisingly low-key lightning. The film seems needlessly muddy in its deceptively familiar, recognizably Dickian, story of a highly trained warrior whose killer instinct is “awakened” by a personal trauma (shades, too, of Unknown and The Bourne Identity), and whose memories are frequently undermined by intervening forces (here the Lundgren/Van Damme faction of liberated super soldiers on one side and a meddling government spook on the other). The sum of Hyams anxiously auteur-ed embellishments offer little beyond their veneer of other-ness. Like a subtitled actioner smuggled out of some foreign port, Day of Reckoning‘s aura of quality works to falsely distinguish it from the generic herd.
Still, that Hyams manages to overestimate the abilities of a Universal Soldier sequel proves undeniably appealing. And combined with the light Oedipal psychodrama boiling underneath (it seems to howl, “This is how you make an unremarkable Van Damme movie, Dad!”), the film begs to be overrated. As much as the inflated, overeager quality of the film needles, it’s hard not to wonder where Hyams will take Universal Soldier next, or what excessively grisly deaths he has planned for Lundgren’s undying über-baddie. Like Lundgren’s hulking super-soldier, in Hyam’s capable hands the Universal Soldier series will likely be Frankensteined back together again, living to die another day.