PLOT: A man wakes from a coma years after a vicious home invasion took the lives of his wife and daughter. Now he must track down the militant responsible while uncovering the shocking truth behind his own identity.
REVIEW: Anyone expecting the hammy, over-the-top fun of the first UNIVERSAL SOLDIER (and its initial sequel) will certainly be taken aback by UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING, which often bears closer resemblance to a gritty horror-thriller than a sci-fi action flick. Nasty, frequently strange and played completely straight, the John Hyams directed pic will be all but off-putting to all who aren't fans of intense violence and bodily harm. As far as that goes, DAY OF RECKONING is about as successful as can be.
US:DOR makes its brutal mindset known right off the bat with a sharply disturbing opening sequence that takes place from the POV of John (Scott Adkins), who wakes one night to find his home invaded by masked thugs seeming intent on punishing the helpless man and his family. Their mercilessness is established when the invaders, led by Luc Devereaux (a rather monstrous Jean-Claude Van Damme, revisiting his character from the prior films) kill John's wife and daughter and pummels John into unconsciousness, effectively putting him into a coma.
Upon awakening from the coma, John is confronted by an Agent Gorman (Rus Blackwell), who provides John with some tantalizing information regarding Devereaux, which of course sends the man on a hunt for revenge against the genetically engineered super soldier. The government fears Devereaux and his right-hand man, Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren), for they are amassing an army of fellow "UniSols", taking them out of the government's control and assembling them into a brain-washed platoon of conscienceless killers. Along the way, with the help of a stripper with a heart of gold who seems to know more about him than he knows about himself, John hurtles forward on a mission of vengeance, smashing aside anyone who gets in his path.
Plotwise, US:DOR is nothing particularly special; standard revenge melodrama with the appropriate action set-pieces and "shocking" revelations sprinkled throughout. Hyams and his co-writers borrow liberally from BLADE RUNNER, TOTAL RECALL and, believe it or not, APOCALYPSE NOW, to craft the screenplay that is mostly dependent on unsurprising twists and bone-crunching fisticuffs to get from point A to point B.
However, it's Hyams' surreal, aggressive filming of these events that gives US:DOA a potent dose of adrenaline. The fight scenes are shot not as overblown bouts of mindless mayhem, but as savage, damaging encounters, filled with so much blood and gore that it's clear the production's Red Food Coloring budget was substantial. (Yes, it indeed looks like most of the red stuff is courtesy of squibs, not a computer, which is really refreshing.) The director isn't looking to make a by-the-numbers sequel, he's got a vision, and bathes his movie in atmospheric dread so that every sequence feels like it wants to inflict pain on the audience. There's a severely grimy mass-killing/fight scene in a brothel that will absolutely send all but the most committed genre fans for the exit, and the very fact that the film is referencing APOCALYPSE NOW at the end - right down to Jean-Claude as a painted up Col. Kurtz stand-in - definitely earns it points for thinking outside the box a little.
Though it does live in the darkest corner of the action genre, it should still be noted that there are a couple of effective battles that bring the goods: a chase on a highway - going the wrong way, Friedkin style! - is very well done, while Adkins' final confrontation with Van Damme and his crew is extremely satisfying to behold, with Hyams staging Adkins' decent into their underground lair in a series of long, impressive takes. He borrows liberally from Zack Snyder a few times too often (the whole slow-mo/speed-up/slow-mo thing is overdone to death), but the director proves he's capable of crafting some wild, pulverizing combat. There's a machete fight, too, and no one can deny a machete fight...
DAY OF RECKONING features another lean, effective performance from Scott Adkins, who continues to work at becoming our next serious action star. Adkins may not be an acting behemoth, but he's not a slouch either (check out EL GRINGO to see a lighter side); John goes through some heavy pain and suffering throughout his adventure (if it can be called that), and Adkins is definitely up to the task of conveying the character's escalating anguish.
It should also be said that Van Damme and Lundgren, while relegated to supporting roles, give convincingly ominous and unsettling performances; Van Damme in particular says a lot without saying much at all, his warped face providing a peculiarly unnerving sight in a few key spots. Lundgren is allowed to overact vividly during his handful of appearances, injecting a bit of crazed humor into what is otherwise a dour and laugh-free movie. Also thrown into the mix is a hulking beast of a dude named Andrei Arlovski who is evidently a famous MMA fighter; here he doesn't have to sport much in the way of acting skill, but he's persuasive in the sense that he believably looks like he could bash your brains in with his bare hands. (Arlovski is also in this movie's predecessor, UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: REGENERATION.)
And if it wasn't clear already, DAY OF RECKONING likes to bash brains quite a bit.