Universal Soldier

For the sixth entry in a formerly moribund direct-to-video cyborg franchise, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is a remarkably ambitious movie. Wrestling with the malleable nature of identity in between ingeniously choreographed brawls, it’s both a head trip and an adrenaline rush. For obsessive action film acolytes, this was no surprise. The previous entry in the series, Universal Soldier: Regeneration (09), is the most melancholy of MMA-fighter movies, emphasizing the genetically enhanced troops’ lack of free will, embodied by Jean-Claude Van Damme’s PTSD-addled UniSol Luc Deveraux. Despite making strides in therapy, Deveraux’s recombinated DNA don’t allow him to refuse an order to go back into action, so he trudges into battle against fellow franchise traveler Dolph Lundgren in one of the most depressingly heroic bouts in the fight film canon.

In Day of Reckoning, director John Hyams maintains the tragic theme of men divided against themselves, but completely alters the genre elements, as if tinkering with the DNA of his own private UniSol. The new film is more psychological horror than sci-fi, dispensing entirely with the film’s muddled mythology, and maintains the cloistered point-of-view of a new character, John (Scott Adkins). A victim of the Universal Soldiers, John harbors an insatiable thirst for revenge that results in haunting visions of his own shrouded past.

Universal Soldier

As Day of Reckoning begins, John is beaten into a coma while losing his family to an inexplicably horrific crime. When he returns to life, he seeks to destroy the man responsible, whom the police have identified as an AWOL Deveraux (Van Damme). Deveraux is building an underground revolutionary group of disaffected UniSols, including Lundgren and MMA fighter and Regeneration actor Andrei Arlovski. The closer John gets to Deveraux, the more he is beset by hallucinations and brutal attacks from the group. When he breaches their lair, John discovers an unsettling truth about his origins and the true fate of his family.

The movie opens with a sequence from John’s POV: lying in bed, he hears his daughter call out to him that there are monsters in the house. Hyams uses a strobe effect to mimic John’s eyelids working to pry themselves open from sleep, struggling to focus on his daughter, who is isolated in a single pool of light by the doorway. The strobing continues even as he searches the house, still seen from his POV, as if he were halfway between sleep and dream. Day of Reckoning is a film about memories flickering to life, so Hyams seems to have spent the most of his small budget on these strobe effects and dying fluorescent lights, which he places everywhere from John’s suburban home to the UniSol’s dank underground lair. Cinematographer Yaron Levy emphasizes this flickering by shooting in low light, often with only scattered pockets of steady illumination, to mimic John’s blinkered and ever-shifting sense of self.

It’s a challenging role for Adkins, the British martial-artist , as he has to remain on screen for the entirety of the movie’s 113-minute run time. He built his following through his incredible agility and mastery of multiple fighting styles from jujitsu to tae kwon do, evident in his balletically brutal performances in DTV classics Undisputed III and Ninja. In addition to his effortless athleticism, though, he is developing a stoic screen presence that also landed him a role in Kathryn Bigelow’s upcoming Zero Dark Thirty. In Day of Reckoning, Adkins is tasked with portraying a creeping existential dread, which he effectively does with wincing nausea. But it is his physical gifts that should land him Hollywood starring gigs; Day of Reckoning contains some of the most exhilarating action sequences of the year. Hyams, together with fight choreographer Larnall Stovall, builds brawls with clean lines, coherent geography, and mini-narratives of their own. When Adkins fights Arlovski in a sporting goods store, they move from chaos to order, transitioning from randomly tossing coolers into an intricate duel between an aluminum and wooden bat. The series of reversals that ensues will determine the winner with ruthless logic—aluminum crushes wood.

Universal Soldier

As the film reaches its climax, even the fight scenes become dreamlike and hallucinatory. As Adkins stalks through Deveraux’s underground labyrinth, there are a series of long-take fight scenes shot in super-slow motion, as if Adkins is moving underwater. It is a callback to a similar long take in Regeneration (on which John Hyams’s genre-adept father Peter was DP), but where that film was cold and clinical—it’s about Deveraux just doing a job—this one is languorous and strange. Slow motion at this length is no longer simply an accent used for emphasis, but a way to visualize John’s hazy mental state, still foggy and sluggish.

Van Damme is barely in the film, a mute spectral presence with a shaved head and two-toned makeup who’s an obvious Colonel Kurtz figure (complete with a river scene). But when Hyams abandons the Apocalypse Now/Heart of Darkness references and sticks to the image of Van Damme emerging from a mirror in the flickering of fluorescent lights, Day of Reckoning becomes a genuinely creepy ghost story. Hyams has created a truly unique object, a horror-action-flicker film about uniquely expressive bodies haunted by the minds and memories they are forced to house.