It’s been an uphill battle for Universal Soldier to get a proper franchise off the ground ever since the original garnered much success in 1992. The star, and reason why my heart still beats, Jean-Claude Van Damme, did not return for the two followed sequels, which were made for TV. (It’s important you know Gary Busey and Burt Reynolds took his place, respectively.) Nine years later, JCVD returned to the franchise for Universal Soldier: The Return, in hopes of rebooting the franchise. It failed at the box office and all hope was lost in humanity (to the 16-year-old me, at least).
Van Damme didn’t have a lot of luck after the late nineties – his films faced the kiss of death and all went straight-to-DVD. In 2008, he made a triumphant return as himself in an unapologetic and sweet self-mockery of his career movie called JCVD (he was robbed of an Oscar nomination. ROBBED.). Ten years had passed since we last saw him in a Universal Soldier movie, and since Van Damme was back on everyone’s radar, he gave the series another shot with Universal Soldier: Regeneration. Dolph Lundgren even returned to fill the fanboy excitement. This film did not have the impact everyone hoped. There was a warm fire to it, however, and Van Damme re-teamed with Regeneration’s director John Hyams to make a fourth installment called Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. This ambitious film takes the franchise in a whole new direction, trading out boring redundant fight scenes with fresh, stylized violence, and roundhouse kicks to fanboy glory. Day of Reckoning is the Universal Soldier follow up we’ve been anxiously waiting for since the release of the original.
In Day of Reckoning, JCVD is back and so is Lundgren (Andrew Scott just. Won’t. Stay. Dead.). Andrei “Pitbull” Arlovski returns to wreak havoc as well. Reckoning is being referred to as a quasi-sequel to Regeneration, and that’s because in the latter, we learn that instead of reanimating dead soldiers, the government has just been cloning the original Universal Soldiers; Andrew Scott (Lundgren) happened to be one of them.
In Reckoning, a new, equally psychotic Scott returns (another clone, if I’ve lost you), and has finally joined forces with his nemesis, Luc Deveraux (JCVD). Here’s why: Deveraux has gone mad and is now an evil son-of-a-bitch hell bent on taking over the government, one soldier at a time, dead or alive. He covers his bald head in warpaint and uses a serum to brainwash meathead soldiers to join his side. The lion-hearted Deveraux we once knew is now forever gone. When Psycho’s Anthony Perkins once famously said in 1960, “We all go a little mad, sometimes,” he was obviously talking about Luc Deveraux. But, I guess if you trick yourself into believing this one’s a clone, it softens the blow.
This go-around, our focus isn’t on Deveraux or Scott, but on fresh blood John, played by Scott Adkins (Undisputed III, The Expendables 2). In the first scene of the film, John’s wife and daughter are brutally murdered right before his very eyes. The man responsible is Deveraux himself. After a nine month nap that’s clinically called a coma, John awakens and sets out to find out why this happened to him – he can only remember so much. Throughout his journey of I-need-some-goddamn-answers, he is plagued by memories of his deceased family and the man responsible for their deaths.
The excitement of this film boils down to Hyams. He tossed out all of the bullshit he used in his first attempt at a Universal Soldier film and made an incredible, intense cyberpunk action film that would make Nicolas Winding Refn crack a smile. Hyams traded in boring fast cuts and close-up kicks and punches for carefully stylized violence. He’s come a long way since Regeneration.
It was also a smart move to give Adkins the lead role. He’s credible enough to lead a film and his fans would agree he should be a bigger movie star than he currently is. It’s a shame, but Scott has learned to really bring out the punches in every film he’s in. His fighting in Reckoning is a slow burn and we don’t get to see much of it until almost the very end. This is actually a brilliant (and courageous) move from Hyams. It gives Adkins room to actually act (which he is exceptional at, by the way) and when it comes time for him to do what he does best (beat the s**t out of people and look awesome while doing it), he does not disappoint. This is a treat for fans both new and old.
Even though we don’t get much of Van Damme or Lundgren, that’s OK, because Hyams has fearlessly taken the franchise in a whole new direction and pulls it off admirably. This could very well be the start of a fresh new and much deserved successful franchise for Universal Soldier.