First things first: 'Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning' is a substantially bizarre film that, for anyone who is a fan of the franchise, or has only seen the original film, will stand out for being a considerable departure from the other entries in the series. That being said, director John Hyams and flip-kicking martial arts maestro Scott Adkins have delivered an intriguingly brutal, viscerally exciting film that managed to turn an otherwise worn-out franchise into something that's strange, but fresh.
To be fair, Hyams really got the ball rolling with his previous effort, 'Universal Soldier: Regeneration' – which brought original players Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren back into the fold as Luc Deveraux and Andrew Scott, respectively. And they're back here, too, only in 'Day of Reckoning,' the pair serve the story in small, but important roles that, for Van Damme, anyway, is something of a departure for his character. The two serve as a bridge, or the connective tissue in what is clearly intended to be a new direction for these films, should more eventually get made (and if future installments manage to be this bizarre and oddly engrossing, then that might not be such a bad thing).
This time around, instead of focusing on reanimated soldiers doing the bidding of the government program that brought them back to life, the focus is shifted to the unique perspective of a man known simply as John (Adkins), who, in a vicious opening sequence, is severely beaten and then forced to watch as his family is murdered in front of him by none other than Luc Deveraux. In an interesting choice that echoes throughout the rest of the film, Hyams chooses to play the entire sequence (and it's a lengthy one) through the first-person perspective of John – effectively putting the audience in the role of the film's main character.
Hyams manages to roll with the tone of that first sequence throughout the rest of the film, delivering scene after scene wherein the audience is only allowed to know as much as John – which, admittedly, isn't much. From there on out, 'Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning' plays less like its larger-than-life action movie counterparts, and more like a neo-noir thriller with a slight horror bent and some visions of Kubrick and Coppola dancing in its head. The strobe effect used early on is enough to convince most viewers not experiencing a Pokémon-level convulsion that this isn't your typical entry into the series, and Hyams magnifies that uncomforting sensation by focusing his camera, in extra long takes, on the cold, unfeeling face of Van Damme – which is then augmented again during one moment when John gazes into his own reflection, only to see an impassive Deveraux staring back.
As his investigation into the man who killed his family progresses, John begins to look less like the victim, and more like an unhinged, Frankenstein-esque creation that slowly becomes hell bent on destroying the people responsible for his very existence. Along the way, John receives assistance from an amenable stripper and an overly concerned FBI agent, until, in a scene smacking of 'Apocalypse Now,' leads him up a river to confront his adversary.
Aside from a few brief tussles in a brothel and a strip club bathroom (yeah, it's that kind of movie), the larger set pieces are reserved for later in the film, which actually works to ramp up the tension of John's revelation, and makes his epic tussle with the tacit Andrei Arlovski, in a sporting goods store, all the more exciting. Hyams displays a deft hand at creating everything from car chases to lengthy fight sequences, and with Adkins' impressive athleticism at his disposal, the director gets a lot of bang for his buck. The film's showstopper, however, features Adkins laying waste to Deveraux's army in an underground bunker, which, with its extra-long, slo-mo takes and meticulous choreography could be the kind of demo reel that gets both of these men more attention from some of Hollywood's action-hungry producers.
As fun as some of the outlandish elements and stylistic choices are, in addition to the impressive action scenes, the film still struggles at times to find a balance between the overly elaborate narrative and the sheer brutality and violence that is frequently on display. Early on, viewers are stuck as the film takes too much time to unravel an ultimately nonsensical plot that unfortunately revolves once more around a convoluted government conspiracy. (How many times a year must movies use this tired device as the foundation for their storyline?) In the end, though (and, as is so often the case), the unnecessary complexity of the situation gives way to a conclusion that's deliberately ambiguous, but feels more like the story simply petered out.
But credit where credit is due: What 'Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning' lacks in sophistication, it more than makes up for in style – which, considering Hyams reportedly had less than $12 million dollars and around 40 days to put the movie in the can, suggests he knows how to make every day and every dollar count. Moreover, by showing a willingness to play with the 'Universal Soldier' mythology a little bit, Hyams has managed to breathe new life into an otherwise forgotten franchise.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning' comes as a single 50GB Blu-ray disc in the standard keep case. Released by Sony the disc comes with a double-sided sleeve, featuring artwork and images on the inside and outside of the case. The disc will auto play several skippable previews prior to the top menu, which allows easy navigation to either the movie, set up or special features.
Shot on RED, 'Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning' comes with a very clean and detailed 1080p AVC-encoded image that is clearly shot on a budget, and clearly comes across as digital, but is otherwise a good example of what can be done with a skilled cinematographer on hand.
A great deal of fine detail is present in nearly every shot, whether it is in low light or the shining light of day. Skin tones all look natural; textures are readily present on everything from Scott Adkins' stubbled face to the blood-soaked T-shirt he wears in the films' final action sequence. Moreover, the depth of the image looks great, giving a real sense of liveliness to the picture – especially in the POV scenes – that puts the image well above action films of a similar nature, or budget.
Although there is quite a bit of detail present in the image and the colors all look vivid and bright, there are occasions where the cinematography may have been just a bit too rushed, or the budget just not quite where it needed to be to get the best possible outcome from the RED camera. As with the film's storyline, the image vacillates between looking polished and professional or somewhat amateurish, which, depending on the scene in question, can make the digital image look very filmic, but it can also make it look like it had been shot on something not quite as sophisticated as what was used (though, again, this likely has more to do with the film's budget and schedule than anything else).
Still, there's a lot of good detail present in low light and the shadow delineation here is superb. Despite the incredibly morbid and dark storyline, there is a surprisingly extensive color palette on display that really plays well on large screens and helps to temper some of the more violent aspects of the film.
All in all, this disc offers an excellent picture that presents the best of what a film shot on digital can look like. Although it's clear the film's shooting schedule and budget hit a ceiling, the picture still looks as bright and as detailed as possible.
With its DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, 'Universal Solider: Day of Reckoning' will certainly please the ears of action movie fans. All of the dialogue is easily heard, even with Adkins' tendency to speak in a low growl, rather than his full voice. Curiously, although it was filmed in Louisiana, the film boasts a multitude of accents ranging from Adkins' English tone to Van Damme's familiar inflection – all of which the mix manages to reproduce without the slightest hint of distortion or muddling.
But, really, this is an action movie, and what counts most is the way it represents itself when punches are being thrown, kicks are spinning into heads and cars are crashing into one another on the freeway. With its robust mix, the DTS-HD manages to make it sound like the film is much bigger than it actually is. Everything from fists landing to gunshots to the aforementioned twisted metal of cars being flipped resonates with a distinct signature that echoes across all channels with equal aplomb.
For the most part, dialogue is driven through the center channel, but there are occasions where it pops up in the rear channels or when directionality and imaging requires actors' voices to emanate from the front channel speakers. Mostly, though, the fronts are used to push the surging sound effects from the fights and other actions scenes, and the mix handles this quite competently, adding in appropriate levels of LFE when necessary. Crowded bars register with the appropriate din of drunken folks in search of a good time or a violent throw down, while Lundgren's over-the-top speech to his machine-like followers effectively echoes off the walls of his underground bunker.
This is a very good mix that works hard to provide action fans the kind of immersive sound experience they are looking for.
Making of Featurette
'Universal Solider: Day of Reckoning' benefits greatly from it's exuberance and desire to please hardcore action fans. For the most part, those who enjoy well-choreographed and well-shot fisticuffs and other chaotic bits of highly-stylized violence will certainly get a kick out of the latest in a long line of 'Universal Soldier' movies. Being so far outside the normal realm of what is expected from these films, 'Day of Reckoning' could be seen as something of a bit of fresh air to what has become a stagnant series of sequels and spin-offs to a film that probably didn't warrant such a continuation in the first place. The highlight here, though, is Adkins, who manages to pull off the tough guy routine with a style all his own. (After seeing him in this and 'The Expendables 2' last year, it's hard to imagine Adkins not becoming a bigger action star in the near future.) With a very clean, detailed picture and superb sound, this film might not be one you'll readily admit to having enjoyed, but it's definitely worth a look.