John Hyams’s last two films—Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009) and Dragon Eyes (2012)—were distinguished by their keen sense of action-setpiece construction and their potent use of motion and space. Regeneration, the weightier and more accomplished of the two, even achieved a sort of tragic grandeur; its images of empty-eyed soldiers fighting ceaselessly in irradiated urban ruins play like action-movie poetry.
Hyams’ new film, however, is an ambitious radical departure—a ballsy, heady genre mutant that confirms that Hyams is something more than just a smart and talented action traditionalist. Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning—slippery, chilly, queasy—grafts an art-horror movie on to the rootstock of a violent action flick. It bears only a passing resemblance to Regeneration, and has even less in common with the original Universal Soldier (1992); in fact, the two films it brings to mind are Lost Highway and Videodrome.
Held together by an atmosphere of sustained dread, Day of Reckoning is a sort of existential detective story about a tough-looking softie (Scott Adkins) who awakens from a coma and sets off to find the man who murdered his family, Luc Devereaux (Jean-Claude Van Damme). Remembering little of his past aside from the murders, he is forced to rely on intuition and the advice of strangers who claim to know him—and who give conflicting descriptions of both his pre-coma life and his current activities.
This investigation narrative is periodically disrupted by a parallel story, in which Andrew Scott (a creepily upbeat Dolph Lundgren) assembles an army / cult of horny immortal soldiers who receive instructions from Devereaux through trance-like visions. Marked by brutal, consequence-free violence and oblique sermons (“We live among them like ghosts,” goes one evocatively enigmatic speech), these sequences are nearly as disorienting and oneiric as the Black Lodge scenes from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me; they suggest a sort of vague, dreamy evil bubbling beneath the surface of the world. What makes these scenes even more disorienting—at least to anyone familiar with the Universal Soldier series—is that Scott has already been killed off twice (in the original and in Regeneration), and that Devereaux—here a mysterious, Mabuse-esque antagonist—has previously served as the series’ hero. One of Regeneration’s leads, former MMA fighter Andrei Arlovski, also plays a major role in this film—albeit this time, he seems to be portraying a totally different character.
These narrative/ pop-cultural mindfucks, however, don’t mean that Hyams is letting his formidable action-movie chops go to waste. Like Hyams’ previous features—and great action filmmaking in general—Day of Reckoning has style that is founded on an appreciation for its performers’ bodies and abilities. Choreographed by Larnell Stovall—best known for his work on Isaac Florentine’s Undisputed III: Redemption, which also starred Adkins—the movie’s fight scenes eschew big, flashy wire-assisted stunts in favor of athleticism and endurance, and are edited in a way that emphasizes spatial relationships and cause-and-effect (e.g. how a throw leads to a punch which leads to a dodge, etc.) instead of artificially hyping up the action. The big set-piece—a fight between Adkins and Arlovski in a sporting goods store, which finds the two combatants using baseball bats, bowling balls, coolers, and weights as improvised weapons—is a small masterwork of back-to-basics action choreography
It’s also—like all of the movie’s action scenes—absolutely brutal. In terms of violence, Day of Reckoning crosses the line from blood-splatters-and-bone-cracks gore into outright body horror; Adkins might the first action hero to get his fingers chopped off with an axe during a fight scene—a Psycho-style violation of the unspoken genre rule that action heroes can never endure an injury that a bandage or a sling couldn’t fix (as if to make the Psycho connection even more tangible, this rule violation occurs in a motel bathroom half an hour into the film). Suggestively, Adkins’ injuries—which include some power-drill-assisted forced brain surgery—are tied to a Cronenbergian cycle of rebirth; he awakens in a space that looks more like a modern birthing room than a coma ward, is told that he’s been comatose “for the past nine months,” sets out to murder Devereaux (who serves as a sort of absent father figure to his minions), and spends a good chunk of the film’s climax’s covered in blood, descending down an increasingly womb-like series of underground corridors.
It's in these corridors that Day of Reckoning's two narrative threads finally connect. But though this bloody conclusion answers many of the key questions about Devereaux and about Adkins’ character, none of these answers dispel the film’s well-developed sense of mystery. For all of its cultivated unease—the Enter the Void-style first person sequences, the rumbling soundtrack, the strobe effects, the numerous instances of a Steadicam following Adkins as he rounds a corner (a technique consistently associated with two genres: action and horror)—Day of Reckoning's most unsettling moment comes at the end, after all secrets are revealed, in a fairly conventional-looking scene set in a sunny bit of woodland.
Like Dragon Eyes, Day of Reckoning was shot around Baton Rouge. Here, the Louisiana wilderness—American cinema's go-to fantastic-just-outside-the-bounds-of-modernity—serves as a source of vague anxiety; it's an untamed, uncertain world. Adkins' investigation takes him from Southern suburbia to its seedy underbelly before compelling him to "travel upriver" (an unsubtle nod to Apocalypse Now) to find Devereaux. In finding Devereaux, he loses his sense of himself. The closure Day of Reckoning offers Adkins' character—an ending which implies that reality can only be mastered through denial—is as bleak and challenging a worldview as you'll find in a contemporary American film.