A laboured, dim, boring affair that has somehow racked up accolades (even drawing staggering comparisons to David Lynch films and Apocalypse Now), Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is a mind-altering nightmare filled with muttering dialogue, video game camerawork and cardboard characters. Directed by John Hyams, the fourth theatrical release in the Universal Soldier canon (yeah, they call it that) takes a wobbly avant-garde approach to the proceedings.
Somewhere in Day of Reckoning is a film about the reliability of memory, especially when under the influence of copious strobe lighting and dizzying POV camerawork. Hyams and cinematographer Yaron Levy try everything in their power to provide an art house view of action movie tropes and, while this does deserve points for effort, the end result is more akin to Max Payne cutscenes than anything cinematic.
The picture opens with a haunting but long-drawn-out sequence involving John (Scott Adkins) at home watching his family get murdered. He is put in a coma by the home invaders responsible and comes to a few months later, vowing revenge. It turns out that Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) may be responsible – at least that’s what John’s memory says.
John is haunted by his recollections of the event and claims to not be able to remember anything before it, but things start falling into place as the film goes on. He starts to figure out more about who he is and, while facing off with supersoldiers like Magnus (Andrei Arlovski), pieces together reality as best he can. This being an art house/low budget actioner, a French girl (Mariah Bonner) is required accompaniment.
The avant-garde is a fickle beast. When done properly, it can be an effective tool for communicating some rather tenuous points. When done improperly, it’s masturbation. In Hyams’ case, the use of experimental techniques has a dizzying and irritating effect. Witness the unpleasant strobe lighting or the confounding POV fuzziness that drags certain scenes on and on. “Snyder slo-mo” is used in ample doses, especially during the unreal “single-take” sequence.
Of course, a film like Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning isn’t meant to be thought about too much. The main thrust is found in the action sequences, in consuming the fact that Van Damme is still a dependable figure and Dolph Lundgren has things together. On that score, Adkins also proves his worth and has the physicality to pull off some cool things.
When our protagonist faces off against Van Damme, who’s wearing inexplicable make-up, the fight shapes up as THE big moment. Unfortunately, Hyams peppers it with so many cheap camera tricks that the purity of two beefeaters clawing each other apart is ruined. Add the squalid mood and obscenely long tracking shots and the indolent psychology is force-fed on the viewer like yogurt long past its expiry date.
Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning takes itself so seriously that it almost pushes to the realm of parody. From the pseudo-existentialist constructs to flavourless talking points, the attempts at drawing a basic “you killed my family” revenge tale into something profounder struggle like Adkins when he’s acting. While there is certainly something to be said about killing and supersoldiers with perverted allegiances, Hyams’ film doesn’t get the job done at all.