COMPULSIVE FRANCHISE DISORDER — “Universal Soldier (1992-2012)”

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I’ve been a fan of martial arts flicks ever since I was little, which I attribute to my Father, who’s a karate teacher partial to the cinematic exploits of hand-to-hand combat. My friends and I would watch samurai flicks, kung fu films, Jackie Chan movies, Steven Seagal’s vanity projects, Chuck Norris’s attempts at acting and it was all awesome. But even though I certainly watched the works of Jean-Claude Van Damme, I was always hesitant to call myself a fan. This isn’t to say that I wasn’t… I viewed and enjoyed nearly everything he put out, but Van Damme was always a little… gay… for us kids, who probably didn’t even know what “gay” actually meant at the time. We’d giggle like little schoolgirls when he’d wear pink spandex and would grow… uncomfortable… when the camera seemed to favor his own naked physique over his female co-stars — okay, are we sure that we weren’t the gay ones all along? But in short, my friends and I preferred Steven Seagal at the time, as his output was simply more in line with our edgy, broody, sensibilities — and boobs too… the female ones, not the ones Seagal himself would eventually develop. Another reason I’d roll my eyes at Van Damme’s antics is that I was entrenched with the martial arts community enough to know that he was a joke amongst the experts, as his fight scenes were more like gymnastics than “real” martial arts.

We were all really f@cking stupid.

Van Damme’s movies were always a lot more hardcore than Seagal’s. They embraced their “R ratings” and showcased more violent fight scenes, yet somehow images of heads being impaled by katanas were supplanted with…. *sigh*…. images of Van Damme wearing pink spandex — I swear, I’m not gay! Even the idea that Van Damme was a “fake” martial artist is laughable because he’s one of the few action stars with an actual fight record, competing in tournaments and winning most of his matches. Yet even back then, even those of us who scoffed the loudest at the “muscles from Brussels”, thought “Universal Soldier” was the coolest movie ever. The shoot-outs, the explosions, the quotable lines, the karate kicks and the necklaces of ears were all designed to be incredibly bad-ass, so even while the critics were thumbing up their noses at this low brow drivel, we were all like: “Good night, assholes!” and watched it again. So it’s strange to find out that “Universal Soldier” was actually an underperformer at the box office upon release, drawing about half of the numbers that most of Van Damme’s flicks were doing at this time. This wasn’t a start of a decline either, as Van Damme’s subsequent flicks would continue to gross a lot of money… at least for awhile… with his biggest hit (“Timecop“) looming on the horizon. So why was this the exception? Why did this become Van Damme’s fallback franchise after his star power had dwindled? We shall discuss this and more throughout “Universal Soldier” review series.

UNIVERSAL SOLDIER (1992)

(Directed by Roland Emmerich)

(Written by Richard Rothstein, Christopher Leitch and Dean Devlin)

(Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren and Ally Walker)

Universal Soldier” grossed $36,000,000 dollars on a $23,000,000 budget, which isn’t necessarily a financial loss, but when it’s sandwiched between “Double Impact” (grossed $80,000,000) and “Nowhere to Run” (grossed $64,000,000), it starts to resemble a box office bomb. So why was this? The reviews might’ve been negative, but the only time JCVD’s fanbase would ever care about what a critic thought was when they’d accidentally endorse one of his films with a line like: “superfluous nudity and inhuman amounts of comically exaggerated violence“. Sold! “Universal Soldier” didn’t get any worse notices than the rest, so the reviews couldn’t have had an impact on its box office intake. The rating was a reliable hard “R”, just like the others and Van Damme wasn’t succumbing to any misguided attempts at softening his image, making a social statement, straying from the action genre or anything else that could potentially alienate his target audience… Or did he?

Detective MartialHorror has solved the case! Maybe…

Nobody watched Jean-Claude Van Damme for his acting; people watch him for his charisma and charm. But here he spends the majority of his screen-time at his most stoic, although his charm does slowly resurface as the narrative unfolds. I actually think his performance in “Universal Soldier” is very underappreciated, as he conveys a lot with minimal dialogue and his comedic timing was golden. But his target audience paid to hear him spout cheesy one-liners, flash his winning smile, impress us with his limberness and show off his physique — all of which are downplayed here, because they would’ve derailed the story. A large part of his demographic were women and while he shows a lot of skin, it’s under a somewhat unsexy context, so I don’t know if this would’ve appealed to them. “Universal Soldier” is deceptively funny and there is one awesomely cheesy fight scene in a diner, but I’d also argue it was one of the bleaker Van Damme flicks (at least during the 1990’s). I’m sure that was off-putting to some. I want to emphasize that these are not criticisms, but they’re possibly why audiences weren’t as interested during its theatrical run. What’s funny is that these costly divergences from the formula are also probably why “Universal” had the most enduring legacy of Van Damme’s films. I’ve seen them all, yet even though I can remember scenes in detail, I can’t always place them with the title. “Hard Target” or “Maximum Risk“? “Death Warrant” or “Nowhere to Run“? “Double Team” or “Double Impact“? Even “Bloodsport” and “Kickboxer” are sometimes hard to tell apart… and that’s not even bringing up “The Quest“, which is pretty much just “Bloodsport” and “Kickboxer” repackaged. Yet “Universal Soldier” stands out amongst the rest. It’s ‘the one’ that people seem to remember, even moreso than Van Damme’s biggest starring vehicle — “Time Cop” (grossed $101,000,000). I believe that’s at least part of why it’s gotten the most sequels starring Van Damme himself.

As for reviewing its content, “Universal Soldier” was a solid product (for its time and genre), showcasing some really good stunt work that you just don’t see anymore these days, practical effects that you don’t see anymore these days, raw violence that would be sanitized these days. The shootouts are grisly and intense, with the final fight being very satisfying. The choreography is good, but the drama surrounding it is even better. Dolph Lundgren (Andrew Scott) makes an excellent foil for Van Damme (Luc Deveraux). His crazed rants about the war were somehow both hilarious and terrifying, as you never knew if he was going to brutally murder someone mid sentence. I also want to praise Ally Walker (Veronica), who could’ve easily just been a standard love interest, but gets to showcase a lot of charisma herself and her chemistry with Van Damme made their interactions just as fun as all the spectacle. “Universal Soldier” is a lean actioner, mostly devoid of substance and the critics aren’t wrong when they accuse it of ripping off the likes of “Terminator“, but… who cares? It has a necklace made out of human ears, dammit!

Rating: 7.5/10 ★★★★★★★½☆☆ 

 

UNIVERSAL SOLDIER II: BROTHERS IN ARMS (1998)

UNIVERSAL SOLDIER III: UNFINISHED BUSINESS (1998)

(Directed by Jeff Woolnough)

(Written by Peter M. Lenkov)

(Starring Matt Battaglia, Chandra West, Burt Reynolds and Gary Busey)

Universal Soldier II: Brothers in Arms (1998)” and “Universal Soldier III: Unfinished Business (1998)” were made-for-television productions, apparently designed to launch a TV series that never happened, possibly because Jean-Claude Van Damme chose to develop “Universal Soldier: The Return“… or possibly because no one wanted to watch a TV show based on these shitty television sequels. Even though I kept up with franchise over the years, I only watched the canonical entries starring Van Damme. I do remember when these movies found their way onto the ‘New Releases’ shelf at my local Hollywood video though, but once I realized there were no muscles from Brussels, I probably went on to watch the shitty sequel that actually had muscles from Brussels… but that is for another review… “Universal Soldier II” actually made me feel a little nostalgic, because even though this was my first time seeing it, I remember going through a lot of made-for-TV films during the late 1990’s. I had completely forgotten that these kinds of films often shared similar tones and aesthetics, so sometimes “Universal Soldier II” made me feel like a young teenager… perched too close to the television, late at night… volume low as not to attract the attention of my parents… I would say “good times”, but then I would actually think about the crap I watched back then and suddenly, “Universal Soldier II” was less nostalgic and more traumatic. This movie is not just bad, but it’s the kind of bad that makes reviewing difficult, as there is very little else to say other than that it is indeed… a bad movie…

The story continues to adventures of Luc Deveraux (Matt Battaglia), the surviving Universal Soldier and his reporter girlfriend, Veronica (Chandra West), as they’re pursued by nefarious Government agents. I was taken aback that they utilized the same characters, as it seems like they could’ve easily developed a new story surrounding new unisols, but at least they didn’t go the “Kickboxer” route and kill off the original heroes. Nevertheless, it’s jarring seeing footage from the original film be recreated with this new cast. It only draws attention to how inferior this follow-up is. The acting is atrocious by the majority of the cast, with Matt Battaglia standing out as a poor replacement for JCVD. He has a good physique, but his performance is so wooden that it might as well be parody. The movie throws out Luc’s original development, so he’s regressed into a human robot, who doesn’t even know what a kiss is. Chandra West is decent though. The cast is usually very broad, yelling their lines, mugging for the camera and striking weird poses, but I never thought I’d live to see the day where Gary f@cking Busy turns in the most restrained performance. I’m actually kind of disappointed by how good his acting is, as I think “crazy” Gary Busy would’ve been much more entertaining here. The dialogue is bad, often trying to be “funny” and it’s so embarrassing that it almost goes full circle and becomes hilarious. The ending attempts a big tear jerker and it succeeds… albeit only in being hilarious… The fight scenes are slow and plodding, probably because they’re all in slow motion. The editor attempts a few stylish flourishes to make up for the lack of production values, but they’re more distracting than exciting. But I will say this — the filmmakers are trying their hardest and the cast looks like they’re enjoying themselves. I would sometimes even laugh at a bad joke, simply because of their commitment to it. Yet the music is horrendous, even by this films standards. Every track grated my ears and seemed woefully out of place. I often suspected that the blaring soundtrack was designed to distract us from the padding, but it fails at that too! Some scenes are obviously just stalling for time and the narrative runs out of steam long before the finale even starts, although said finale is so bonkers and stupid that I still giggled a little. “Universal Soldier II: Brothers in Arms” sucks, but I probably would’ve watched it as a kid if it came on during one of my nightly television rituals… and my parents would’ve been none of the wiser…

Rating: 3.5/10 ★★★½☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

Universal Soldier III: Unfinished Business (1998)” is… bad… but only in every way that “Universal Soldier II: Brothers in Arms” was bad, which was admittedly bad in every way. I wish I had something funny or insightful to say about it, but you can pretty much transplant all of my review of its predecessor into my review of this one, except replace the surprisingly subdued Gary Busy with an unsurprisingly embarrassed Burt Reynolds as the main villain. But the bad acting and dialogue? The cheap production values and bland action scenes? The lame humor and and comical attempts at drama? Don’t worry, they all reprise their roles to varying levels. The story is somehow worse though, as the first act is dedicated to this bizarre “Die Hard” rip-off tangent that has nothing to do with the rest of the plot. The villains have their own storyline, which often doesn’t have a lot to do with the protagonists’ plight. The villains do dumb things, the heroes say dumb things… The low point is arguably when Veronica (Chandra West) exposits that Luc (Matt Battaglia) has the mind of the child, even though she’s practically sleeping with him! The story does occasionally stumble upon something mildly interesting, such as our heroes reprogramming Unisols into helping them, but it feels accidental… as if they were just trying to stretch out the running-time and some of the filler simply ended up being more compelling than the actual content. But like I said before, this level of quality was standard for made-for-TV productions and “Universal Soldier III: Unfinished Business” isn’t much worse than most. Still sucks though.

Rating: 3/10 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: THE RETURN (1999)

(Directed by Mic Rodgers)

(Written by William Malone and John Fasano)

(Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, Michael Jai White and Bill Goldberg)

Universal Soldier: The Return” was written as an “original” property, which was converted into a Universal Soldier sequel, but… why? Jean-Claude Van Damme’s career was in a downward spiral by the time he signed onto this project, so I understand why he’d do something with a higher chance of success, but “Universal Soldier” was one of his few underperformers, so why not any of his other box office hits? Why not “Timecop“, his highest grossing film at the time? I did some research, but couldn’t come up with anything that made sense. Maybe most studios and producers had already written him off as a fallen star? I suspect there was more going on behind-the-scenes, but I will remain baffled, as “Universal Soldier: The Return” is so tonally at odds with its predecessor that it would make for a more convincing “Street Fighter” sequel… or worse, it feels more like a bigger budgeted follow-up to “Universal Soldier III: Unfinished Business” than it does to “Universal Soldier” — even though it scrubbed the direct-to-TV sequels from its continuity, much like how subsequent “Universal Soldiers” would scrub this out of their continuity. I was too young to watch “Universal Soldier: The Return” in theaters, but when my Dad rented it upon its home video release, he let me in on the action. I was stoked, as I was not only a huge fan of the original, but the trailers exploited the presence of Bill Goldberg, one of the most popular professional wrestlers during that time period. I was still a mark for World Championship Wrestling back then — even though I was probably cheating on WCW with WWF by that point, so the idea of watching him tangle with Van Damme sounded awesome… and then I actually watched the movie. While I was too young to detect plot holes, shitty dialogue and crummy acting, even I remember thinking “Universal Soldier: The Return” was pretty lame. Yet I have to admit that as an adult, the lameness doesn’t bother me that much. It’s almost even charming. Almost.

Universal Soldier: The Return” is very campy, so if you were drawn to the original for its gritty content, such as Dolph Lundgren’s necklace made out of human ears, you’re probably going to be disappointed with the light hearted approach of this sequel. Luc Deveraux has become a standard JCVD hero, equipped with silly one-liners and his charming smirk, so gone is the nuance and pathos that once defined the character. But do you know what bugged me the most as a kid? I hated seeing Goldberg play the bad guy… almost as much as I hated seeing him constantly be humiliated by Van Damme, as I’m pretty sure I had yet to realize wrestling was “fake”. Now that I’m older and wiser, I actually don’t mind the shift in tone, as I can easily shrug it off as “just another JCVD movie“, which it kind of was. Us fans would eventually be rewarded with TRUE sequels, so why remain bitter towards “Universal Soldier: The Return” so many years later? I like Van Damme’s charming smirk and silly one-liners, even if they were misplaced in this case. This is actually the first time I noticed that Van Damme was getting too old to continue with his classic persona, as even though he still looked great (and still does), there are a few scenes where he reminded me of the “Dad in a midlife crises, desperately trying to be hip” archetype. This also makes “Universal Soldier: The Return” a curiosity not worth hating, as it feels like an end of an era, which it kind of was. This would be the last JCVD vehicle with lavish production values and a wide theatrical release, while Van Damme would trade his boyish charm for a world weary persona.

But make no mistake, we’re still talking about a movie that’s pretty bad. Van Damme’s performance is in line with most of his performances during this time period, so you’ll either like him or you won’t. His supporting cast usually SUCKS though. In some cases, I’d say the acting was just poor, in other cases I blame the stereotypical characterizations complete with stereotypical dialogue that even the best actors can’t do much with. I hated Erin (Heidi Schanz), Luc’s new love interest, as the filmmakers desperately attempt to recreate the spark between Van Damme’s Deveraux and Ally Walker’s Veronica, even making her another intrepid reporter. But she spends too much time being annoying and getting in the way, which the movie seems to think is charming. As much as I love Bill Goldberg (Romeo), I spent most of my viewing experience being embarrassed for him, as his attempts at humor are just awkward. Michael Jai White (SETH) tries, but he’s continuously let down by the script.

Speaking of which, the narrative exists to showcase the next action set piece, even if the plot often makes no sense for it. SETH needs Luc alive because only he has a specific code, but his soldiers keep shooting at him and he even tries to f@cking BLOW LUC UP, presumably because the filmmakers felt it would be more thrilling. There’s also this baffling sequence where SETH kidnaps Luc’s daughter Hillary (Karis Paige Bryant). He sends Romeo to abduct her, while he personally confronts Luc to threaten him… and then lets Luc go so he can go kidnap Hillary himself… even though she’d already been kidnapped by Romeo… Why doesn’t he just strong arm Luc when he had him at his mercy AND had the daughter in his clutches? I don’t know, as he goes to capture her, knowing Luc would follow… and then returns to his own base with her once Luc does show up — WAIT, DOESN’T SETH HAVE A F@CKING TIME LIMIT BEFORE HE AUTOMATICALLY SHUTS DOWN!? I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT’S GOING ON! They do all of this because the movie needs fight scenes, so there will be a prolonged sequence when Luc battles some Unisols, who now use hand-to-hand even though they were previously using guns. For what it’s worth, these set pieces aren’t terrible… They’re just not good enough to distract me from the terrible writing… They keep teasing “Van Damme Vs Goldberg”, but when it finally happens, it’s nothing special. I did enjoy the “Van Damme Vs Michael Jai White” fight though, which was a nice demonstration of both of their martial arts skills. There is some eye ball rolling fun to be had here, but that’s all you’re likely going to get out of it. Yet seemingly everyone hated “Universal Soldier: The Return”, as it flopped hard at the box office, pulling in some of Van Damme’s worst reviews yet.

It was the final nail in the coffin for JCVD’s career, as his movies were subsequently dumped straight to video… Most stars in this position seemingly lose interest in their craft, but Van Damme is one of the few who reinvented himself. He became known for taking on much darker roles, in much grittier movies, improving his acting enough to even gain some positive notices from his past critics. What his movies would lack in production value, he’d make up with an emphasis on martial arts choreography, delivering some of his best fight scenes long after his box office reign had ended. But for all of that to happen, “Universal Soldier: The Return” had to take its final form and fail miserably. I would even argue that without it, we’d never get “JCVD“, “The Shepherd“, “Assassination Games“, “Replicant” or any of the other cooler movies he would go on to make, including… well… We’re not finished with this review series yet! So maybe we owe “Universal Soldier: The Return” a debt of gratitud — nah, this shit is still lame.

Rating: 4.5/10 ★★★★½☆☆☆☆☆ 

UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: REGENERATION (2009)

(Directed by John Hyams)

(Written by Victor Ostrovsky)

(Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, Mike Pyle and Andrei Arlovski)

I remember when “Universal Soldier: Regeneration” was first announced and I was hopeful that it would be a big theatrical comeback for Van Damme, as “JCVD” had garnered a surprising amount of mainstream attention from the critics — especially the ones who had previously thumbed their noses at his works. Unfortunately, I was being naive, as the brand just wasn’t popular enough to warrant a theatrical release. I chose not to be disappointed though, as Van Damme’s career had become much more interesting on the home video market. Even though “Universal Soldier: Regeneration” clearly struggles through its budget limitations, the action scenes are both plentiful and… pretty f@cking cool. There are brutal hand-to-hand fights, boasting surprisingly advanced choreography. The gunfights rely on squibs instead of CGI and there are a lot of extras, so a lot of bodies are riddled with bullets at once. There are plenty of explosions, dangerous looking stuntwork and one thrilling car chase far beyond what we’re used to in the realm of direct-to-DVD. Speaking of which — there are some really ambitious set pieces, including one where Luc goes from room to room, exterminating his enemies in seemingly one, unedited take. It’s inventive moments like those which showcase how gifted of an action director John Hyams really is. He also knows how to stage a fight scene, using wide shots and only using edits to enhance the choreography, instead of burying it like most other filmmakers. His visual style reflects the tone — bleak and f@cking depressing. It’s amusing though how “Universal Soldier: The Return” cut out the grittiness of “Universal Soldier” in favor of the silliness, while “Universal Soldier: Regeneration” cuts out the silliness of “Universal Soldier” in favor of the grittiness. I’m not saying one tone is better than the other, but this is what Van Damme is more comfortable with these days.

Luc Deveraux is at his most tragic here, apparently having been placed back in the unisol program following the events of the first film, possibly against his will. At one point, characters compare him to a fighting dog that had been rehabilitated and is now being forced to fight once more and this is how I’d describe Van Damme’s performance. He speaks little, but his eyes are filled with trauma and he reminds me of a puppy whose been beaten far too often. Yet even though his acting is good, I have to admit that I didn’t really like the direction of the character. He no longer felt like Luc and there’s no indication that he even remembers the events of “Universal Soldier” or his prior life. Dolph Lundgren reprises his role of Andrew Scott and he steals the show again, continuing his unhinged persona and being very scary at times. Once he makes his grand return, “Universal Soldier: Regeneration” is framed like a horror movie, with nastier violence, a creepy score (reminiscent of John Carpenter’s classic works) and ominously quiet settings. Yet for all of Van Damme and Lundgren’s greatness… the movie doesn’t utilize them very well. Both characters are so detached from the storyline that I found myself wondering if the actors only signed on at the very last moment or if the budget could only afford a limited amount of days from both men. While there is a story going on, Luc is just… waiting to be a part of it… He doesn’t become actively involved in the plot until an HOUR in, with a normal soldier named Burke (Mike Pyle) doing all of the heavy lifting. Furthermore, Andrew Scott is not supposed to be the main villain and in fact, his screen-time amounts to a cameo. The Next Generation Unisol (Andrei Arlovski) is the real antagonist and is built up awesomely with a brutal fight against four Unisols. He has a lot of presence, but the NGU is more of an obstacle than a character, which becomes even more apparent when Andrew Scott returns. Yes, the NGU gets the final fight, but it’s nowhere near as elaborately staged as the “Luc Vs Scott” rematch, nor is it as dramatic. It really feels like Burke was meant to be the hero of the story and the NGU is obviously his nemesis, but then Luc and Scott barge in on their conflict, upstaging them at the expense of the story — which had been built around Burke and the NGU. This could’ve easily been solved if Scott had been the NGU and Luc be given Burke’s actions, but I’ve heard that Lundgren did sign on at the last minute, so maybe Van Damme did too. Even though I do enjoy “Universal Soldier: Regeneration“, it’s really only for the action and some of the performances, as it’s hard to get invested in the story.

Rating: 6/10 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING (2012)

(Directed by John Hyams)

(Written by Doug Magnuson, Jon Greenlagh and John Hyams)

(Starring Scott Adkins, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren)

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning” has the dubious honor of being both loved and reviled by longtime fans of the franchise, sort of like how “The Last Jedi” has been both embraced and stabbed by Star Wars fans. Regardless of the films’ actual quality, it’s easy to commend the filmmakers for taking a lot of bold risks, yet understandable to bear your fangs at them for ruining the formula in the harshest way possible. The story follows John (Scott Adkins), who wakes up one night to find a handful of mysterious intruders in his house, who slaughter his family and leave him near death, with the leader removing his mask — revealing Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme)! Once he recovers, John sets out for vengeance, trying to understand why his family had to die and why he keeps encountering Unisols. Even though we immediately suspect that there is more than what meets the eye, the fact of the matter is that Luc Deveraux… OUR Luc Deveraux… The war hero! The adorable fish out of water who just wanted to see his parents again! The goof who fought to save his brother; and to rescue his daughter… depending on the continuities! The haunted soldier forced into one last mission. OUR hero, Luc Deveraux… is now the f@cking antagonist! This is going to piss a lot of people off and they have every right to be angry, as whether the writing ends up being good or bad, I just don’t know if that’s what we f@cking want. To alienate the fanbase even further, “Day of Reckoning” slows down the pacing, forcing us to wait awhile before we’re rewarded with an action scene. I would argue that this sequel is more of a psychological thriller, or maybe even a horror, than it is an actioner. For what it’s worth, this is the same story that “Universal Soldier: Regeneration” set up, but if you thought that one was bleak, this was dark to the point of being cruel. The tone, the style and even the f@cking genre just doesn’t reflect the ‘Universal Soldier’ franchise, regardless of once again, whether it’s good or bad.

But I f@cking loved it.

Even though I’m a Van Damme fan, Scott Adkins is my favorite action star and “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning” was an excellent showcase of his skills as an actor and as a martial artist. John is forced to go through a variety of emotions and Adkins sold them all beautifully. The biggest flaw with “Day of Reckoning” is that it’s trying to build up a mystery, but the big reveal is so obvious because you know the story can only go in one direction. Yet John’s reactions to all of these revelations makes them seem more dramatic and shocking than they really are. There might only be a handful of fight scenes, but they are easily the best amongst the franchise, even though “Universal Soldier: Regeneration” set the bar pretty high. The choreography is a seamless blend of beautiful and brutal, with Adkins showing off a lot of his fancier techniques, which contrasts nicely with everyone else’s styles and the graphic violence. Even though Luc’s heel turn is a hard swallow, I thought Jean-Claude Van Damme made it work. His role has been reduced to nearly a cameo, yet every time he’s on-screen, I was kind of creeped out by his presence. Bizarrely, even though the characterization of Luc won me over, I struggled with buying Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren) as his right hand man. It just seemed out-of-character in a way that the plot could not adequately explain and it didn’t help that his preachy dialogue was pretty bad. Andrei Arlovski played the unstoppable NGU in the last film, but he plays a less impressive Unisol here, while also being much more impressive as a performer. His acting is quite good, despite being given no dialogue to work with and his fight with Adkins was the best in the movie.

John Hyams draws most of his inspiration from Stanley Kubrick, Frances Ford Coppola, John Carpenter and David Lynch… and I f@cking love him for it… His attempt at an avant-garde approach to the Universal Soldier franchise is not always successful, especially with the irresponsible use of strobe lights and hokey dialogue that tries too hard to sound existential, but his style often elevates “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning” from its predecessors and when it fails, his style at least differentiates “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning” from its predecessors. Hyams stages his movie as if it’s not an action film, but as a horror, emphasizing mood over spectacle. This isn’t to say that “Day of Reckoning” is short on action, as there is a lot of gore, stylish fight scenes and possibly the best car chase in a low budgeted movie within the last decade or two. But you’re going to have to be patient and allow yourself to be absorbed into the surreal visuals… the hypnotic and ominous score…the creepy atmosphere and suspenseful interactions… But just as you become entranced, there will be a thrilling — possibly even harrowing — action sequence that will blow your mind. Even though Hyams also directed “Regeneration“, “Day of Reckoning” is its visual antithesis — trading out the dusty, grey aesthetic and shaky camerawork for trippy colors and a steadycam. I don’t believe one style is inherently superior to another, but I think the new approach really highlighted the exceptional editing, cinematography, sound design, etc. Like I said, I can’t say Hyams’ vision always works, but I love the fact that he has a vision, which isn’t confined to the established formula of this franchise. “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning” shows an ambition lacking in most sequels; or even in most genre flicks and I think a franchise with a shaky reputation like this one can afford to experiment. I completely understand… and to an extent even agree with… all of the backlash surrounding “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning“, but I think this was the shot in the arm the franchise needed… even if it’s not one that the fanbase wanted.

Rating: 7/10 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

I feel like I’ve said everything I needed to say about the “Universal Soldier” franchise, often more than once, but this has been a very interesting marathon. This brand crashed, burned and rose from the ashes, like some sort of direct-to-DVD phoenix. Yet I’m just stunned that it exists at all, that there was enough of a demand for five sequels, when the original film was technically a failure at the box office. “Universal Soldier” was not – and still is not – heralded as some underappreciated masterpiece like “Blade Runner”, nor has it become a poster child for cult fandoms, such as “Tron”. Yet it not only pushed forward, when more successful movies of the time period were fading into obscurity, it took a lot of creative risks and became progressively more interesting, even if they had to waddle in some garbage to get there. I’d happily take another sequel if they continue with this standard of quality, but unfortunately, that seems unlikely at this point. DVD sales aren’t public record, so I don’t know if “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning” made enough money to warrant a follow-up, but it has been almost eight years without any developments. On the other hard, there have been talks of a reboot, which is normally the death of a continuity. While I’d rather a continuation of the classic story, I guess I understand why they’d want to go in that direction, as a remake or a reboot will have a better shot at a theatrical release and drawing in new audiences. I hope it’s good, but I also hope that it has something special about it, something that differentiates it from other action films. I hope it is worthy of the “Universal Soldier” moniker… even if that means it has to be cheap, hokey and dependent on an embarrassed actor during a career slump…