John awakens from a coma to discover his wife and daughter were slaughtered in a brutal home invasion. Haunted by images of the attack, he vows to kill the man responsible: Luc Deveraux. While John tries to piece his reality back together, things get more complicated when he is pursued by a relentless UniSol named Magnus. Meanwhile, Deveraux and surviving UniSol Andrew Scott are preparing to battle anarchy and build a new order ruled by Unisols without government oversight. They are weeding out the weak and constantly testing their strongest warriors in brutal, life-and-death combat. Luc has emerged operating the Unisol Church of Eventualism, taking in wayward Unisols whom the government has been secretly operating as remote-controlled sleeper agents. His mission is to liberate these Unisols from the implanted memories and the lies the government has inserted in them. As John gets closer to Deveraux and the rogue army of genetically enhanced warriors, he discovers more about himself and begins to call into question everything he believed to be true.
A fifth entry in the decreasingly interesting UNIVERSAL SOLDIER, this brings back Messrs’ Van Damme and Lundgren (who look more than a little in need of a bit of regeneration themselves) for another bout of mayhem. Aimed squarely at the UFC crowd, this latest sequel wisely shunts the ageing stars off into the background and hands the violence duties over to Brit martial artist Scott Adkins and Belarusian monster Andrei Arlovski. Adkins plays John, a sullen young man who wakes up one night to find three masked men in his kitchen. After brutally beating him the men execute his wife and young daughter in front of him; the killer then pulls off his balaclava to reveal he is none other than Luc Devereaux (Van Damme), previously the nominal ‘hero’ of this franchise. Recovering in hospital some nine months later, John is visited by an FBI agent who explains who Devereaux is – a genetically engineered Universal Soldier who has gone rogue and, along his erstwhile arch-enemy and fellow UniSol Andrew Scott (Lundgren), is setting about gathering other rogue UniSols and turning them against their former masters. Understandably enough, John vows revenge.
Meanwhile, government sleeper agent Magnus (Arlovski) is awakened from his dormant state and tasked with terminating Scott, whom he has tracked to a brothel. It goes some way to illustrate the kid of film this is that Magnus doesn’t just infiltrate the brothel and execute Scott; no, he sets about slaughtering every living thing in the building, including the little old lady idly playing patience at the desk in the lobby. For keen students of gender politics, I’m probably not going to surprise you by saying that this brothel sequence also indicates a rather antediluvian attitude towards women in the sense that the female characters in this movie are almost without exception victims or hookers, and often both. However, I doubt if anyone comes to the UNIVERSAL SOLDIER franchise expecting great sensitivity so that observation can probably be overlooked.
When Magnus finds Scott we get the first of the films many set-piece fight sequences, all of which are done with bone-snapping efficiency by director John Hyams (son of veteran director of glossy genre movies Peter Hyams), helming his second entry in the series. It has to be said that whatever this movie might lack in brains it more than makes up for in technical skill. It is very crisply shot in widescreen and consequently looks great. The production design too has clearly had plenty of thought put into it – John’s climactic battle with Devereaux, with Van Damme in bizarre black and white make up, is particularly striking. The effects team must have worked overtime setting up the film’s many bloody sequences but their work is a credit to them.
Credit is also due to Hyams and his co-writers for attempting to broaden out the scope of the series. Okay, it’s still basically an ultraviolent revenge fantasy for adolescents but at least there are nods to BLADE RUNNER and TOTAL RECALL in the UniSols mind-bending implanted memories and more than a few references to APOCALYPSE NOW, especially towards the end as John closes in on Devereaux’s lair. It remains to be seen whether Hyams or anyone else gets the opportunity to develop these ideas in further sequels. Van Damme and Lundgren are barely in this movie and it’s difficult to see them returning for more; at the same time, it’s equally difficult to see another sequel being greenlighted without them.
This kind of movie isn’t to my taste: almost two hours in a world where virtually every instance of human interaction results in bloodshed is very dispiriting to watch. But I’ll grudgingly admit that it has been put together with skill and more than a little thought.
Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012)