Not to put too fine a point on it, but if more action movies were like Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, the world would probably be a better place. It would certainly be a cheaper and perhaps more exciting place: Shot on a dime, John Hyams’s film, which may at first seem like a glorified VOD entry in a forgotten franchise starring has-been action stars, is an admirably tense sci-fi/horror adventure that somehow turns its considerable limitations into virtues.
The film opens with a lengthy point-of-view shot, as a man named John (Scott Adkins) tries to reassure his young daughter one night that there aren’t monsters in their house. Of course, it turns out there are indeed monsters, and they’re all hiding out in the kitchen, silent and decked out in black hoods. Led by Luc Devereaux (Jean-Claude Van Damme), they subdue John and murder his wife and child before his (and our) very eyes. At one point, Van Damme, head shaved and looking surprisingly like Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now, quietly stares into the camera for an extended moment — as if daring us to watch, or maybe even hypnotizing us. It’s horrific, but there’s also something off about it — not the least of which is the fact that Devereaux was actually the good guy in the previous Universal Soldier films.
Anyway, quite aside from making us briefly wonder if we’ve accidentally strayed into a Michael Haneke film, that opening scene is also stroke of conceptual genius: It prepares us for a movie in which pretty much anything can happen. And that turns out to be exactly the right frame of mind in which to watch Day of Reckoning. Set in a sparsely populated world, the entire thing has a mesmeric, unreal quality, where things can turn on a dime, and often do. Spurred on by some government types, John goes on a Heart of Darkness–like hunt for Devereaux, who is leading a Messianic resistance made up of indestructible former government-programmed super-soldiers. That description doesn’t quite do justice to it, though: In various scenes, characters turn into Devereaux, almost as if he’s graduated from unstoppable super-soldier to effervescent, Lynchian spirit of evil or something.
Our hero John, in the meantime, finds the right people with an uncanny dream logic: At one point, he befriends a stripper (Mariah Bonner) who appears to know him, but it’s hard to tell if John remembers her, or is just pretending to remember her. Meanwhile, another guy called the Plumber, or Magnus (Andrei Arlovski, the bad guy from the last Universal Soldier film and looking this time around like Jack O’Halloran’s Non from Superman II) goes around beating and killing people left and right. He also seems to have a notable ability to run into John. When he does, bone-crunching, limb-splitting chaos inevitably follows, as the two actors throw each other into and out of walls and doors and God knows what else, the cheap sets collapsing impressively around them.
To be fair, on page this thing must have seemed like a catastrophe: Plot points go unexplained, and characters often go unidentified. And Dolph Lundgren, the other half of the diminished starpower that fuels this franchise (you may recall that 1992’s original Universal Soldier was billed as one of those “Van Damme … Lundgren … together at last” kind of things, back when that meant something), shows up repeatedly to preach some weird gospel of super-soldier salvation. But Day of Reckoning is so controlled that it all feels of a piece. The acting may be robotic, but how else would government-programmed experimental super-soldiers act? The stiffness also serves to highlight the awkward tension between all the characters: Hyams creates and maintains a sense of dread throughout, where nobody seems to trust anybody and where any calm moment can suddenly disintegrate into mind-warping violence.
A word about the director: John Hyams also directed the previous, similarly impressive entry in the Universal Soldier franchise, 2009’s Regeneration, and he’s the son of Peter Hyams, who helmed one of the best Van Damme films (Sudden Death) and one of the worst (Timecop). He’s learned his lessons well, it seems. He shoots the fight scenes with beautiful fluidity, demonstrating a genuine eye and an attention to spatial logic that’s all but disappeared from action moviemaking. That’s probably in part because the cast is populated with former MMA fighters and other professional beatdown artists, so there’s less of a need to cut to stunt doubles and inserts and expensive computer trickery: When John and Magnus face off in a sporting goods store, and the free weights and baseball bats go flying, those are the real guys fighting, and damned if Hyams isn’t going to make sure we know. Part of me wants this director to graduate to bigger budgets and more consequential fare, but another part of me just wants him to make these awesome Universal Soldier flicks till the end of time.