Following the surprise success of 2009's Universal Soldier: Regeneration, director John Hyams continues to steer the previously wavering franchise in new and invigorating directions, thanks in large part this time round to the involvement of Larnell Stovall and new leading man Scott Adkins.
Adkins, who has clawed his way into the martial arts limelight thanks to eye-catching turns in, most notably, Isaac Florentine's Undisputed sequels, plays John. Before we learn anything about the man, we see him suffer through the trauma of witnessing his wife and daughter brutally assassinated in their home, before taking a bullet to the head. The assailant? None other than a freakish-looking Luc Deveraux (Jean Claude Van Damme).
John comes to nine months later in the hospital, and while other memories are foggy, he is haunted by the murder of his family and primed for vengeance. But no sooner does he leave the facility and the prying eyes of the FBI, John learns he might not be the loyal family man he thought he was. A run-in with a stripper, Sarah (Mariah Bonner), informs him that they were lovers, he lived in an isolated woodland retreat and has one hell of a violent temper. Meanwhile, a seemingly indestructible vigilante known as Magnus The Plumber (Andrei "The Pitbull" Arlovski) storms a brothel, where he decimates a gang of violent beefcakes, who are operating under the leadership of Dolph Lundgren's ripped colossus, Andrew Scott.
Roland Emmerich's 1992 film Univeral Soldier pitted JCVD's Deveraux against Lundgren's rogue trooper Scott, both reanimated Vietnam veterans struggling to deal with a new, semi-aware existence as top-secret weapons belonging to the US Army. As troubling echoes of their previous lives begin to permeate their memories, Scott picks up his old penchant for psychopathic homicide, while Deveraux simply wants to find peace. On Hyams' watch, however, Van Damme is in full villain mode, with Lundgren serving as inspirational first officer, rallying troops of brainwashed lunkheads into simmering servitude as they secretly build an underground army.
The relatively light-hearted tone of Emmerich's original has been torn out, supplanted by a more bleak and nihilistic worldview under Hyams' control. John simply hasn't the time to reintegrate into society, before he is coming to face to face with mutilated corpses, guilt-tinged contradictions about his own identity and - after being skewered with a mysterious serum following an unprovoked bathroom attack - plagued by hallucinations of the very man he is scouring the city for.
If this all sounds strange, laboured and overly complicated, that's because it is. For the first half-hour, fans of the UniSol franchise will struggle to identify anything to associate Hyams' film with its previous instalments, save for fleeting, subliminal glimpses of Van Damme flickering at the periphery of the story. Day of Reckoning finds its feet, however, when Adkins' John inevitably crosses paths with Arlovki's rampaging plumber, and a white-knuckle car chase spills out into one of the best hand-to-hand screen fights in recent memory. Both showing signs of serum-enhanced super strength, John and Magnus destroy a sporting goods store as they attempt to do exactly that to each other.
Finally off the leash, after a whole act of solely dramatic work, Adkins tears into his opponent in a pent-up blizzard of punches, flying kicks and brutal roundhouse blows. Reteamed with Undisputed fight choreographer Larnell Stovall, Adkins ignites the screen, as both he and Arlovski pull a number of makeshift weapons - ranging from free weights to baseball bats - into the skirmish to blistering effect. The fight is the centrepiece of the film, but also the much-needed sign that dramatic obligations have been taken care of and it's now time for the action to take over. And it's a signal the entire cast and crew were clearly primed for, as the final act of Day of Reckoning is insanely good fun.
As if Hyams had not taken enough ballsy liberties with the property already, the final half-hour of the film goes headlong into - of all things - Apocalypse Now territory, with Deveraux emerging as a mysterious, almost God-like Kurtz figure, who exists right at the end of John's journey down the river to confront his very own heart of darkness. To essentially have Jean Claude Van Damme usurp Marlon Brando, complete with bald head and face paint, seems too ridiculous to conceive, let alone voluntarily employ in a Universal Soldier movie - but in this increasingly deranged universe it somehow holds together. With Adkins rampaging through Deveraux's underground bunker lair in a series of extended single-takes that feel straight out of a video game and not dissimilar to the tongue-in-cheek opening of Mabrouk El Mechri's JCVD, Deveraux's detached stillness is an effective counterpoint. One can't help but also see this finale as a symbolic handing over of the baton, from Van Damme to Adkins, that could (wisely) see the latter continuing the series in the future, while the former finally steps away.
All told, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning delivered enough thrills, bloodshed and jaw-dropping fight scenes to whip up the Fantastic Fest crowd into a blood-baying frenzy. It's not perfect by any means - half an hour in I'm sure I wasn't the only one struggling to see where the film was going - but by the end I was grinning ear to ear. Hyams' enthusiasm for expanding this universe, exploring the existential possibilities of his heroes and villains (no, really - the guy cares!) serves to underscore that good science fiction comes from great ideas, rather than huge budgets and visual spectacle. In 1992, nobody could have possibly imagined where the UniSol series would end up twenty years later. But with the enthusiastic and creatively ambitious talents of Hyams, Adkins and Stovall at the controls, this franchise is set to run and run - and right now it's anybody's guess where they might take us.