Depending on how you count, Day of Reckoning is either the fourth or the sixth entry in the Universal Soldier franchise. How far we’ve come… and by that, I mean not far at all. The original film (directed by a young Roland Emmerich) hit in the middle of star Jean-Claude Van Damme’s heyday, marking one of the better entries in his admittedly less-than-stellar run and providing a nice post-Rocky bounce for costar Dolph Lundgren. Both men appear here, though they’re really just glorified cameos and they each have the good sense to look ashamed of themselves. The rest of the time, it’s left to Z-grade martial arts star Scott Adkins to carry the day, a task he botches as badly as the rest of the film.
Movies like this actively make me angry, in part because they’re so angry and hateful themselves. They wallow in bitterness and sadism, unwilling to show us action as much as punish all of humanity for sins real and imagined. Not a single line of dialogue here expresses anything but contempt, while the fistfights and throwdowns revel in empty meaningless pain. It’s hard to get into the spirit of things when we’re assaulted with shrieking strippers or strobe-light flashbacks of Adkins’ wife and daughter getting shot in the head. I’d say this film hates women, but that’s too limiting. It hates everyone , from its own cast and crew right down to those of us stupid enough to actually pay money for it.
The murder of his family – a lazy motivator even back in the Death Wish days – sends Adkins’ hero David off in search of the man responsible. Luc Deveraux (Van Damme) started out as a hero back in ’92, but has apparently gone over to the dark side. The killings are part of some half-baked plan to get David to remember his past as a Unisol, those unstoppable killing machines who keep this franchise going (as well as supplying steady employment for former MMA fighters).
The whys and wherefores don’t matter once you get into the grisly meat of this, which consists of aimless brutality piled eagerly in a heap. Deveraux’s apparent status as a villain is designed to generate some shocks, but director John Hyams doesn’t have the first idea where to go with it beyond dressing Van Damme up in Marlon Brando’s old Apocalypse Now get-up. Otherwise, the film is far too busy careening his hero from one dingy set to the next, throwing an array of faceless goons at him and finding new hackneyed ways to inflict bodily harm. That may be the purpose of the exercise in movies like this, but Day of Reckoning is so stone-faced in its delivery that it squashes any sense of fun or enjoyment.
What’s left is an endless cycle of extended middle fingers to anything resembling valid human emotions. It exists to let ugly characters say ugly things and then kill each other in the most gratuitous manner possible. David is joined by the expected hooker with a heart of gold (Mariah Bonner), keeping the virgin-whore dichotomy intact and ensuring that her horrified screams keep digging into our psyches like a blunt knife. At times, you can sense a few flutters of life, particularly with the interesting fight choreography that could have done well with a better script. But Hyams’ faux artistry smashes even that modest pleasure beneath endless tracking shots and a brazen nihilism that sucks the joy out of everything it touches. Humor is nonexistent (though Lundgren, at least, seems to understand it’s all a joke) and the film’s bleak tone rapidly becomes the only weapon in its toolbelt.
I suppose there are still die-hard Universal Soldier fans out there who understand where all this is coming from, or why Hyams insists on treating this drek with the reverence of Talmudic scrolls. Does he honestly believe that this is “more” than a simple sequel? Is he engaging in some kind of Nietzschien dynamic with the cold forces of the universe? You find yourself considering such absurd questions as the film drags on and on, trying desperately to divert your attention from the diarrhetic afterbirth on the screen.
The worst part is, this may not be the end. Unisols don’t die after all, and as long as people keep paying to see them, they will lurch onward into direct-to-video infinity. I can’t believe I’m actually pinning for the cheerful ineptitude of Emmerich, but here we are. Day of Reckoning sinks lower than our worst nightmares could imagine, lacking even the rudimentary self-awareness to understand what a joke it is. Even there it cheats us; no one could laugh at such unpleasant material. We’re left to ponder how something this wretched could ever land in front of us… and whether our eyeballs will ever feel clean again.