Scott Adkins could just turn out to be for action movies what Triple-H is for pro wrestling: a guy who becomes a star not because of any special “it” factor or inherent charisma, but because he puts in all the work hours and has famous friends. Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is at least his third film of the past couple years with Jean-Claude Van Damme and his second with Dolph Lundgren, both of whom are basically adding their names to this one in order to push Adkins, who is the film’s actual lead, but far less of a draw… as yet.
If you think the Underworld and Resident Evil franchises have overly complicated backstories at this stage, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet until you look into the convoluted history of the “UniSol” series. Following the Roland Emmerich-directed original, there were two direct-to-video sequels with neither Van Damme nor Lundgren, then a theatrical sequel that brought back Van Damme and added Michael Jai White and Bill Goldberg, then a reboot with Van Damme and Lundgren that ignored all prior sequels, and now this sequel to the reboot, featuring a totally new lead character so that you don’t have to worry too much about what came before, especially since the prior film introduced cloning a a way to bring back dead characters ad infinitum – an idea Resident Evil notably swiped for its own.
Day of Reckoning, shot in 3D (Van Damme’s nose and Lundgren’s chin do some serious screen-protruding in their closeups), begins with a nicely drawn nightmare, as the camera becomes our eyes in a family home filled with bad guys, who proceed to beat the living bejeesus out of you, the viewer. Then the lead attacker unmasks, and it’s Luc Deveraux (Van Damme), bald, looking like Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (a very deliberate association), having apparently turned from hero to wife-and-child murderer. Our POV, it turns out, was that of John (Adkins), a man with no memories save the murder of his family, on a mission to find Deveraux while avoiding a deranged and super-powered plumber who’s pursuing him (Andre Arlovski, returning from the previous film in a slightly different role, because clones). Key to the plot in some way is mind control – characters at various points get injected with a substance that prompts intense, seizure-inducing strobing and an image of a translucent Van Damme to appear, telling you you’re free. It’s really pretty weirdly artful for an action sequel of this sort; at times, it feels like Gaspar Noe took over directorial duties from John Hyams.
But beyond that, this is the kind of movie that feels like a genuine update of the grindhouse style – not the superficially slavish tributes that have come out lately with fake pops and scratches and deliberately bad plots, or even the Patrick Lussier “3-D plus nothing else!” gimmick flicks, but a genuinely felt piece of exploitation sleaze (the blood and breast counts are both off the charts) that’s also trying to tell an original story with some solid action and soap-opera worthy twists. Van Damme and Lundgren – who are mostly just crammed into the beginning and end of the movie – aren’t doing the ironic Chuck Norris Facts wink-wink thing. JCVD is more serious, perhaps, than he has ever been, while Lundgren works his method-acting, crazy-guy shtick that’s become 100% believable. Viewers may laugh, but more at the audacity of the gore rather than any kind of silliness. The full-speed ahead testosterone of this thing would classify it as an illegal steroid if it were distilled into injectable form. And that’s a concept that may only make marginally less sense than the plot, but who cares?
Which brings us back to Adkins, on whose shoulders most of this rests. I still can’t quite get into him as a deliverer of lines, but as a deliverer of punishment he is pretty damned incredible, both at more “realistically” brutal hand-to-hand fights and the elaborately choreographed ones that involve flying headscissors and the like. It’s no stretch to say this is the best Universal Soldier movie – better to say it’s the biggest cinematic boner your inner (or outer, depending) 17 year-old boy is likely to have this season.
Possibly giving it a run for its money in that regard, though, is The ABCs of Death, an anthology of 26 short films, each dealing out death as inspired by a different letter. Though in the case of some of these, if you feel aroused in any way afterward, you might consider locking yourself up. Virtually no taboo goes unused here: You get miscarriage, pedophilia, bondage, Japanese fart fetish, competitive life-or-death masturbation, Nazi porn, a gagged woman vomiting, kitten crushing, killer turds, infanticide… most of it is not to be taken seriously (with one major exception that’s a sort of PSA for awareness of real-world violence against women in Mexico), but more as sort of a live-action Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation, or, indeed, a sampler of Fantastic Fest itself (many of the directors are festival discoveries/alumni). It’s a midnight movie for folks with a sick sense of humor and an attention span dulled by booze. Feel free to take this review as a recommendation or a warning.