FANTASTIC FEST: Silly, Serious Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning At Least Makes A Star Out Of Scott Adkins
The new Universal Soldier picture, the latest in the series about genetically-modified supermen raging against their government creators, is a curious exercise in cognitive dissonance; here you have an action flick high on gory, bone-crunching slicing and dicing and kicking and punching — everything star and Ben Affleck doppelganger Scott Adkins (Undisputed II and III) can possibly do to evoke oohs and aahs in 3-D in the serious-faced, beefy fashion of his '80s and '90s predecessors — and yet director John Hyams didn't sound completely delusional this week at Fantastic Fest when he said his UniSol fourquel was influenced by David Cronenberg, Michael Haneke, and (yes, I see it, kinda!) even art house provocateur Gaspar Noe.
Stylistically these references are obvious, even if they add little to the overarching point of Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning 3D. Hyams opens with a neat, tricksy sequence that sets up the plot (and makes the best use of 3-D) through the first-person POV of family man John (Adkins); forced to watch as masked intruders murder his wife and child, we see through John's eyes as he's beaten to near-death, the only lasting clue left in his brain being the stone-faced mug of Jean-Claude Van Damme (reprising his role as veteran UniSol Luc Deveraux).
When John comes to in a hospital recovery bed with nothing but the lingering memory of that night, he sets out to put the missing puzzle pieces together, which leads him to a strip club and a dancer (Mariah Bonner) who seems to know him. Meanwhile, an agent nicknamed The Plumber (Belarusian MMA fighter Andrei Arlovsky) is activated to wipe out his own kind but is re-educated by a swaggering, confident ex-UniSol (Dolph Lundren) bent on spreading the gospel of his boss — Van Damme as cult figure, not a crazy stretch — who seeks to build an army of disgruntled Unisols into raging against The Man.
Few elements of the Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning script make much sense (John's line of vengeance-logic; The Plumber's proclivity for wearing his plumber uniform everywhere he goes), and the film meanders through some interminably long, wannabe noir-ish plot stretches to set up reasons for its stars to brawl and, y'know, grow back severed body parts. But Hyams satisfies where it matters — in his slashing, limb-severing, body-pounding action, and the physically impressive Adkins, a stunt performer turned leading man. Saddled with the tough job of playing a vacant-eyed man-machine with no memories and a vague sense of self, Adkins at least comes alive when he's in his element. (A seemingly seamless single-shot sequence — beautifully and brutally choreographed, though stitched together via subtle CG movie magic — is one for the highlight reel.)
Notably, Adkins, Van Damme, and Lundgren turn in far more compelling work than they did in their last film together, Expendables 2, though maybe that's not saying much. Van Damme, gloriously off-kilter in that picture, is a study of coiled restraint in Oreo cookie Apocalypse Now face paint; Lundgren might be at his career best - again, perhaps not saying much. In the least, and most significantly, Day of Reckoning should propel British martial artist/stunt veteran Adkins out of the niche genre world — action cinema's Adkins diet?
Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning hits VOD October 25, followed by a theatrical run November 30.