Thursday, December 06, 2012

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning


The dead of night interruption that begins UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING is a familiar one in homes with young children.  John (Scott Adkins) is awakened by his daughter, who claims there are monsters in their house.  The dutiful father gets out of bed and goes room by room to assure her that everything is fine.  The difference in this situation is that there really are predators lurking in the dark.  A trio of black-clad bad guys clobber John and then execute his wife and child in front of him.

Nine months later John awakens from a coma.  His memory is shaky, but when an FBI agent (Rus Blackwell) shows him a photo of Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme), John recognizes him as the man who murdered his family.  Deveraux was one of the first government-created super soldiers.  Now he leads the UniSol underground against their makers.  Among his troops is Dolph Lundgren reprising his UniSol character in what amounts to something between a cameo and a supporting role in screen time.
Upon his release from the hospital John begins his quest for vengeance with the assistance of a stripper (Mariah Bonner) who suggests he had a different life than the one he recalls.  Standing in the way is Magnus (Andrei Arlovski), a sleeper super soldier who Deveraux turns and sends after John.
After Roland Emmerich’s UNIVERSAL SOLDIER debuted in 1992, the series puttered along with a couple TV movies and a 1999 theatrical sequel until John Hyams revived it in 2009 with REGENERATION, an entry that went direct-to-video in the United States. For the fourth installment DAY OF RECKONING director and co-writer Hyams treats ‘90s brain-dead action like art cinema.  

It’s a far cry from what Van Damme and Lundgren were doing twenty years ago, but in the end this film comes off like a band that claims all of the “right” influences in interviews but can’t synthesize good taste into work of merit.  The first-person point of view opening scene, complete with a blinking eyes effect, recalls Gaspar NoĆ©’s ENTER THE VOID.  The surreal tone of David Lynch’s films heavily informs UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING’s unreal and rudderless feeling.  The body horror in David Cronenberg’s oeuvre and APOCALYPSE NOW’s journey ending with confronting a charismatic leader are also quoted.     

With its muddled story, familiarity with the ongoing UNIVERSAL SOLDIER series doesn’t appear to matter.  If only there weren’t so much of that ponderous, slow-moving plot leading up to and between the fight scenes.  A car chase that spills into hand-to-hand combat in a sporting goods store and two climactic boss battles give the primal satisfaction that action movies can deliver.  Hyams’ action chops and some neat flourishes, like the strobe effect and noise that accompany the summoning of Deveraux in visions, demonstrate his potential to invigorate the genre if he find or develop source material that isn’t such a slog.

Grade: D+

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