Not so much a traditional sequel as a hallucinogenic riff on an entire franchise, “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning” plays like the fevered fantasy of a die-hard genre fan who requires only the haziest sort of dream logic to connect extended sequences of hand-to-hand, foot-to-ass, machete-to-arm and bullet-to-head combat. There’s something perversely fascinating about helmer John Hyams’ freewheeling yet deliberately paced mashup of noirish mystery, splatter-movie intensity, first-person-shooter vidgame and “Apocalypse Now”-style surrealism. But it’s questionable whether the pic will develop anything larger than a cult following when Magnet unleashes it as a late-fall VOD and theatrical release.
Franchise mainstays Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren are back in action as UniSols, genetically enhanced and fantastically resilient bionic commandos. But they serve more or less as supporting players here, while most of “Day of Reckoning” focuses on Brit martial artist/action-pic thesp Scott Adkins as John, a fuzzily defined family man who awakens from a nine-month coma with jumbled memories of having witnessed brutal home invaders kill his wife and young daughter. Left with amnesia, John remembers only one thing with vivid clarity: The leader of the killers was a fearsome fellow identified by a helpful FBI agent (Rus Blackwell) as Luc Devereaux (Van Damme).
Devereaux, the agent explains while questioning John, used to work for the government, and now is classified as a deserter. But Devereaux himself more likely would call himself a messiah. With the help of comrade Andrew Scott (Lundgren), the seemingly indestructible special op has been methodically recruiting and deprogramming other UniSols, freeing them of control by government-employed overlords and readying them for revenge.
John repeatedly encounters an especially ferocious deprogrammed UniSol (Andrei Arlovski) while following a trail of clues that might lead to info about Devereaux — and, just as important, about John’s own forgotten past. Of course, this being a genre pic, that trail brings him to a topless bar, where he meets a beautiful dancer (Mariah Bonner) who claims to know him. Then things get really weird.
Hyams and co-scripters Doug Magnuson and Jon Greenhalgh reference a wide range of sources throughout, with “Blade Runner” and “Apocalypse Now” being only their most obvious influences. (That Van Damme is made to resemble a leaner, meaner Col. Kurtz certainly isn’t coincidental.) There’s also a plot twist on loan from a classic “Twilight Zone” segment in which George Grizzard played another man trying to solve the puzzle of his past. To their credit, however, the filmmakers make mostly clever use of their borrowings, and they play fair: That surprise twist is signaled early on by clues hidden in plain sight.
In any event, the twisty storyline serves primarily as an excuse to get the aud from one long stretch of mayhem to the next. Adkins may not be the most emotionally expressive of actors, but his formidable physicality serves him well during impressive action scenes that are additionally enhanced by the extra depth of field provided by 3D lensing.
The grand finale is a series of what appear to be single-take sequences of bone-breaking, bullet-blasting violence, almost all of it presented with a practical-effects, minimal-CGI approach bound to impress genre devotees. Better still, the climax allows Lundgren to exuberantly deliver a line that, in this context, comes off as the pic’s only moment of comic relief.
Even in their limited screen time, Lundgren and Van Damme demonstrate that you can teach old dogs new kicks. Other supporting players, including Arlovski, a Belarusian mixed-martial-arts champ, are adequate to the tasks at hand.
For the record, “Day of Reckoning” is the fourth pic in a series that began with 1992’s “Universal Soldier” (directed by Roland Emmerich), and continued with “Universal Soldier: The Return” (1999) and “Universal Soldier: Regeneration” (2009), which was also directed by Hyams and went direct to video in the U.S. There were two unrelated cable spinoffs (“Universal Solider II: Brothers in Arms” and “Universal Solider III: Unfinished Business,” both toplining Matt Battaglia) that have evidently joined the ranks of “Exorcist II: The Heretic,” “Jaws 3-D” and just about every “Halloween” pic between “Halloween II” and “Halloween H20: 20 Years Later” as sequels that true fans like to pretend never existed.