85 minutes into Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, Dr. Su (David Jensen) asks John (Scott Adkins), who he is operating on, “Would you like to be free from pain?” If only he were talking to the audience.
The Universal Soldier series might have one of the most confusing chronologies out of any film series (and I’m including Highlander and Halloween). Technically this is the sixth Universal Soldier film after the 1992 original (which starred Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren), two Showtime TV spinoff movies (which didn’t feature either of them), the 1999 sequel Universal Soldier: The Return (which only starred Van Damme), and the 2009 film Universal Solider: Regeneration that reunited Van Damme and Lundgren and ignored all previous films except for the original. Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is intended to be a follow-up to Regeneration, which I assume would make it the third film in that segment, but it’s being promoted as Universal Soldier IV. I give up.
The main problem is if you expect the film to follow the continuity of the previous film you’ll be pretty disappointed. First of all, Lundgren’s character, Andrew Scott, is alive and well with no explanation and is now in league with his rival, Van Damme’s Luc Deveraux, and together they are the villains of this movie. Why Deveraux is now a villain leading an army of universal soldiers is never explained. It doesn’t help that even if you’ve never seen any of the films this movie makes no effort to explain the backstory of what a universal soldier is, what sort of powers they possess, or much detail about who the heck Scott and Deveraux are (in fact, I don’t believe Scott is even named). Despite that the two action heroes get top billing, they have less than 25 minutes of combined screentime (10 of which are the climatic final battle) and never appear onscreen together. I wouldn’t be surprised if they shot their scenes on entirely different continents.
So in previous films, universal soldiers were reanimated veterans outfitted with high tech equipment and some kind of super-strength (but NOT the ability to fully regenerate, which means the fact that Scott is still alive should have an explanation). Anyway, this film opens with a harrowing scene in which Deveraux murders John’s wife and daughter right in front of him and beats him into a coma. When he awakes nine months later he finds that he is involved in some sort of conspiracy, because he can’t figure out what’s going on around him and a universal soldier named Miles (MMA fighter Andrei Arlovski, who I think is playing the same character he was in the previous film even though he didn’t make it out of that one alive) keeps showing up to try to kill him. Miles is part of some kind of universal soldiers separatist movement, who are plotting a “day of reckoning” against the government because… well, I’m really not sure, but Deveraux and Scott are the leaders.
I wouldn’t normally fault the series for taking a new direction unattached to the previous film if the filmmakers attempted to establish a backstory for this film on its own, but there is barely a story here. But director/co-writer John Hyams also directed Universal Solider: Regeneration, so one would think he would make an attempt to connect the stories. Instead, Van Damme is playing the evil mastermind role he played in The Expendables 2, except he is bald. There’s definitely some kind of Apocalypse Now/Heart of Darkness vibe here too, with the bald military cult leader Van Damme in the Kurtz role. In fact, it seems like Hyams was more interested in making a sci-fi martial arts version of Apocalypse Now than making a Universal Soldier movie.
There are exactly three action sequences which, at the very least, make this film marginally better than another dumb action movie I once reviewed, Tactical Force. There is an awesome fight scene between John and Miles in a sporting goods store which turns every piece of sports equipment into a weapon, and, of course, the climatic battles between John and Scott and John and Deveraux. But there are so many annoying things in this movie that ruin it. The soundtrack is annoying, mostly consisting of alarms, clicks, and buzzes that repeat over and over again until your eardrums are pleading for mercy. There’s also a really irritating strobe effect that happens whenever a soldier gets stabbed with a needle (which I think is supposed to make them mind controlled, but it doesn’t seem to take on John). The nonsensical story and the bad acting are also unintentionally hysterical, and the fact that Van Damme and Lundgren seem to be in a totally different movie than Adkins and Arlovski for much of the runtime is unforgivable.
Which brings me to my final point — at 114 minutes, this is the longest Universal Soldier movie, and there’s no reason for this movie to be that long. There are overlong transition sequences that could easily be trimmed, and I find it hard to believe that a director like Hyams (who also co-edited) thought that this film needed to be that long, especially since it fails at providing satisfactory explanations for what the heck is going on. As a result, you certainly feel every one of those 114 minutes!
Rating: Despite cool fight scenes, this is one of the worst action movies I’ve ever seen (2/10).