Behold! The new era of wrinkly old action stars rehashing previous hits for a fleeting sense of fame that left them long ago is upon us, and it keeps rearing its ugly geriatric head no matter what we do. I guess we have Sylvester Stallone to thank for that – at least his forays into well worn territory with “Rambo” and “Rocky Balboa” were halfway heartfelt. By the time he made it to “The Expendables” and its even more lackluster sequel, it seemed like he wanted to keep on going just so he could have an excuse to keep taking steroids. The same goes for Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, two craggy-faced former beefcakes who made appearances in “The Expendables” and “The Expendables 2” who barely show up in “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning,” the new incomprehensible, ultra-violent and ultra-unlikable chapter of the Universal Soldier…saga(?).
Depending on whom you ask this is either the fourth or sixth installment of Universal Soldier. You have to ask yourself why these things keep getting made; it can’t be the money can it? It’s not like these are huge money-makers like the god awful Twilight series, but maybe these serve to satiate those waiting around for the third Expendables movie or the next Michael Bay explosion-fest.
As I said, Van Damme and Lundgren show up with just enough screen time to cash their paychecks, and the rest of the time is taken up by Jason Statha…oh woops, I meant Scott Adkins who plays John, a family man whose only distinguishable character trait is taken away from him in the first scene as his wife and daughter are brutally murdered in front of him by masked men and a bald JCVD. Though the cinematography is one step above the cheap SyFy Channel movies that this one oh-so closely resembles, the whole scene is done in a sloppy muck-up of the same sort of P.O.V. shot similarly seen throughout the Gaspar Noé film “Enter The Void.” Whereas Noé’s drug-induced characters inject a euphoric sense of floating wonder in that film, here we are repeatedly walloped over the head into endless confusion. Sure it puts the audience literally in the character’s head, but having this as the first scene without much back-story takes away from any sliver of emotional impact this could have worked over on the viewer.
Speaking of back-story, there isn’t much of that at all to be found as John wakes up from a coma nine months later looking to exact revenge. Why did these jacked-up and muscle bound mad men, who are for reasons somewhat unknown amassing in an underground bunker for the willfully vague titular day of reckoning, kill his family? Who knows? The only motivation we’re given is that somehow the government is controlling their minds and they want to be free from such control. One can look at it like the audience is being taken control of and fed the nonstop action that they crave, though that level of insight gives the movie way too much credit.
Adkins is a generic enough action star that we sort of sympathize with him, but he was generic enough for me to not realize that he had a British accent until about twenty minutes in. It took so long because he barely talks, and when he does he mostly spouts off monosyllabic grunts before he pulls a trigger or breaks someone’s face. I can bet a ton of money that the direction given this guy was that it’s better to stare broodingly in one direction off screen while flexing your muscles than try to act. JCVD himself, whose character Devereaux is built up as an icon of military affected evil in a laughably obvious homage to Brando as Colonel Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now,” appears every once in awhile in hallucinations precipitated by an unsettling strobe effect (again lifted from Noé). Brando pulled his classic character off by sitting veiled in shadows while hanging threats on every word even if he was reciting poetry. While Van Damme is admittedly scary looking in the same way a homeless guy staring at you on the subway is threatening, here he stares his bloated potato head into the camera managing to be as threatening as a wax figure as he spouts off pseudo-agitprop nonsense.
There is a thrilling yet wildly implausible car chase, a sword fight with aluminum baseball bats, and a scene in the underground bunker strung together with masked cuts meant to look like one long shot that somewhat makes up for the sloppiness of the rest of the movie. Also, Lundgren’s ridiculous speech to his underground troops may be the best comedic acting of the year. In the end though, the slight bouts of action-movie flare are way too little and way too late. At one point a character asks Adkins, “Do you understand?” His character responds with a gruff action-hero “yes,” but the audience is left yelling a loud and resounding “NO!”