The Universal Soldier movies, largely terrible but for the modicum of pleasant style in the first and third, concern a secret government program that takes dead soldiers and reboots them into unstoppable cyborgs. Though mortals are both enablers of the situation and those caught in the middle, the meat of the movies are the cybernetically resurrected soldiers lining up along a hero and villain dichotomy with good soldier Jean-Claude Van Damme locked in a seemingly eternal struggle against bad soldier Dolph Lundgren. That it took this long for someone to treat robot zombie soldiers as terrifying is frankly something of a surprise. The clearly talented director John Hyams, who has been plugging away making direct-to-video movies for years now, and who co-wrote this with Doug Magnuson and Jon Greenhalgh, has made a film that appears to be exactly what it wants to be for good and ill.
Day of Reckoning opens with its best scene, a long, terrifying sequence in which a man (Scott Adkins) is awoken by his cute little daughter and, told that she heard a monster in the house, gets out of bed, walks down the hallway, turns on the kitchen light, and is confronted by masked intruders who proceed to beat him unconscious as they kill his family. Strong, shocking stuff, especially as the whole thing plays out with a subjective camera that puts the audience quite literally in the poor man’s eyes, unable to look away but for the flashes of darkness that cover the screen, frantic blinks that cement our uncomfortably close point of view. The biggest rug pull happens right before Adkins passes out, when his attacker stands over him and pulls off the mask, revealing a creepily bald Van Damme. Good is bad, up is down, safe is dangerous.
The movie that follows is a rather typical revenge picture in some ways, although it’s shot through with weird asides and gross fluorescent lighting that keeps the whole thing feeling unstable. Dialogue is occasionally inexplicable, deliberately confusing, or maddeningly opaque, with just about all of it delivered in what has to be purposely-flat affect. The plot complicates, smashing through typical car chases and shootouts while taking the time to pull over into atypical caesuras of mood and anxiety. I’ll put it this way: more time is spent in a hotel room not too dissimilar from Barton Fink’s than you’d expect. The threat of brutality lurks around every corner; the threat and the burden of a body spending an afterlife invaded and programmed hangs heavy over both the villains and our protagonist. This is a low-budget action movie that slithers with uncomfortable horror, playing as if it exists somewhere between hallucination and nightmare.
But while I admire the creativity on display, I found myself loathing the film’s unrepentant, unceasing cruelty, starting with that startling opening sequence that ends in the death of a small child and continuing through the film’s first bloody action sequence which involves men using prostitutes as human shields. A movie better be very good to make such scenes of purposeful ugliness worth sitting through and, though Hyams’s heavy-handed style reveals clear ambition, I was ultimately worn down as the movie drug to a close. By the end, I found it to be not at all worth the weighty nastiness it doles out in consistent doses.