Whenever I tell someone I’m a big fan of Dolph Lundgren they have a tendency to slowly walk away while looking worriedly at people around them, their eyes going: “Oh God, someone please help me!” But alas, there’s no help to come for the rest know it’s better to just let me feed because then I’ll leave the rest alone for a while.
So, how far does my Lundgren mania go? Well, let’s just say that I own some of his movies on DVD for the sole purpose of owning movies he’s in on DVD. I don’t have a poster of him yet. Nor his autograph or his soiled underwear but I’m working on at least two of these things. I’ll let you speculate on which ones.
If you were alive and reasonably old during the early nineties, like say ten or above, chances are pretty good you heard about Universal Soldier. Mostly because it starred two foreigners who could barely speak English mangling a Shakespearian plot about identity and sanctity of life. Also, there was a great deal of kicking… a great deal. And a combine harvester… I think you see where this is going.
Jean Claude van Damme plays Luc Deveraux, a farmboy who goes off for glory and duty to his country and serves as a soldier during the Vietnam war. But near the end of his tour, his good friend and comrade in arms, Andrew Scott goes what is in professional circles known as batshit bonkers and kills Vietnamese civilians indiscriminately but even more unforgiving, he slays all of his fellow soliders as well. Finding this to be unacceptable, Deveraux tries to stop him, ending with the two killing each other in the process.
While that is a movie in and of its own, that’s just the beginning of Universal Soldier. Both Deveraux and Scott’s lifeless corpses are put on ice and used in the “Universal Soldier” program, an initiative by the US government to create the ultimate soldier. But once they’re deployed twenty three years later it becomes pretty apparent pretty quick that there are some flaws with the idea, such as Andrew Scott going into a homicidal rage and killing indiscriminately and Luc Deveraux going AWOL with a reporter he saved from Scott.
Since then the franchise has been in a bit of a holding pattern. Day of Reckoning is the sixth movie in the franchise but really only one of three that can be considered somewhat canon. There were two direct-to-TV movies starring Matt Battaglia as Deveraux and then in 1999 they released “Universal Soldier: The Return” in which van Damme reprises the role as a Deveraux now cured of the UniSol stuff building additional UniSols for the government. In other word, he’s now officially alive again but despite his experiences in the past he’s willing to condemn other soldiers to the life he nearly had.
In other words, he’s a douchebag Jesus.
Needless to say, both TV-movies and The Return were retconned so hard they practically phased out of existence. “Universal Soldier: Regeneration” was a new start for the franchise where Deveraux is called back into action after having been put in stasis following the original outing when the Ukraine prime minister’s (TOPICAL!) children are kidnapped by a NGU, a new typ of Universal Soldier, and held for ransom.
The conflict was resolved by killing a bunch of dudes but at the end of the movie, Deveraux ran off to parts unknown, presumably never to be seen again. Oh, and Andrew Scott came back temporarily to get killed again despite having become so much mulch in the first movie. Cloning, people, it’s a lot easier than you think.
So now it’s time for the sort of sequel to Regeneration: Day of Reckoning. And if you’re a fan of Lundgren and van Damme then I’ve got some good news for you: they’re both back. The bad news is, of course, that they hardly feature in the movie at all. Instead it focuses on a new character named John played Scott Adkins, a relative newcomer to the mainstream action venue and his most notable roll right now is probably in Expendables 2 as van Damme’s henchman.
At the start of the movie he sees his wife and daughter brutally murdered by Deveraux himself before falls into a coma for nine months. Upon waking up with no other memories than his wife and child’s murder, he finds himself drawn into a mysterious past where not everything is as it seems. Pursued by a relentless UniSol assassin he begins to seek out Deveraux and his merry men to claim vengeance.
Day of Reckoning is a breath of fresh air in the UniSol franchise. Rather than mostly action like previous installments, Day of Reckoning instead tries to have some actual drama and intrigue. Although pretty predictable it’s more of a thriller, following John around as he starts to unravel his supposedly own past and the dark deeds he might have done and how much of his memory is actually true. Like I said, it’s pretty predictable and few of the twists will come as any big surprises but the fact that they even tried to go in this direction says good things about it to me.
The plot is slowly unraveled over the course of the runtime and it doesn’t really fall back in old and comfortable patterns until the end and it’s done with more or less an audible clunk with how blatant it really is. It goes from a pretty interesting thriller about identity to a pretty generic action movie with the subtlety of a drill in the brain. Up until then it also goes more for brutality in its action than quantity which underscored the difference in tone.
The decision to focus on a new character is also definitely welcome. Nothing ill towards van Damme or Lundgren but their characters have played out their parts. Bringing them back again and again and having them do the same things over and over again sets a limit as to where the movies can go from here. Scott Adkins is still a relatively new and young talent and could definitely use a franchise to make his own outside of “Ninja”. He has the chops for it, he just needs the opportunity.
But there’s also the problem with van Damme and Lundgren being past their prime. Again, not saying they can’t still put up a fight but the UniSols are supposed to be fast, efficient and nearly unstoppable but at this time in their lives, neither van Damme or Lundgren can put up a reasonable fight against someone as young and spry as Adkins. And no amount of stunt doubles will cover this realistically. Adkins wipes the floor with them and this makes the conflict pretty… dull. The only one who can put up a reasonable fight is Andrei Arlovski, an MMAer with a pretty impressive record who also happens to be about the same age as Adkins. He also starred in Regeneration as the antagonist UniSol.
I’m not trying to say that age is the ultimate factor, Lundgren despite his age is still pretty fit and well trained. But it is a factor and ignoring it won’t help anyone.
And the odd man out here is definitely van Damme who doesn’t really have much of anything to do in the movie. He’s now the leader of a band of rogue UniSols out to take down the government for what they did to them and are continuing to do on an almost daily basis. Which means he mostly sits around in a dark, dank bunker in the swamps twiddling his thumbs and killing off anyone he deems too weak, I guess. Gone is the sympathetic Deveraux from original and Regeneration and instead we have face-painted warmongerer who apparently has little sympathy for the little guy, condoning cutting a swath of destruction across a city of innocents.
Andrew Scott’s characterization has always been one of murderous rage whereas Deveraux was a protector of innocent. The explanation offered by the first movie is that the soldiers remember their final moments more clearly so that is what defines them. Andrew Scott may have been a nice guy but in his final moment he was child murdering, cut-off-ears-wearing, gun toting maniac so that’s what defined him as a UniSol. Alternatively, Deveraux’ last moments were spent trying to save a child and additional innocents so that’s what defined him as a UniSol.
The only point I thought the movie handled either character really well was in the beginning when the Plumber (Arlovski) assaults a brothel where Scott and a few fellow UniSols are partying like animals. Lundgren does really well here and the setting is used to great effect, giving Scott a really manic nature and character, sitting around with his hair slicked back and sporting a kickass white shirt, beer in one hand and whore in the other. It goes back to his psychotic portrayal in the first but it loses much of it the next time we see him, preaching to the UniSols.
Scott makes for a far better villain than Deveraux is what I’m trying to say. It doesn’t help that Deveraux spends the final fight painted like a clown.
Go ahead, try and take the final fight seriously. Especially when Adkins is clearly the better fighter now.
I hope they use any possible sequel to expand on the world they’ve now built. There’s conflict, there’s drama, there’s conspiracies and most importantly there’s two clearly defined sides. Up until this point it’s always been a bit of a struggle to find a villain for Deveraux. In the TV-movies they invented a brother to up the ante. In “The Return” it was a rogue AI. In Regeneration it was insurgents with hints at a much larger conspiracy. And now finally we have a huge conspiracy just waiting to be picked apart with judo kicks and bullets. And perhaps more importantly, the franchise has the opportunity to move away from Deveraux and Scott. The rogue UniSols have a clearly defined enemy in the government and the government has the option of cloning indefinitely.
Scott Adkins could definitely do something worthwhile here as he’s every bit the fighter van Damme and Lundgren were in the eigthies and nineties and at the very least their equal in acting. Bringing in more MMAers along the lines of Arlovski and Mike Pyle (played Capt. Burke in Regeneration) could make for a brilliant, action filled franchise with martial arts and stunts as their focus. A tighter, less star studded vehicle for martial artists looking to take a bite out of the B grade action movies of Hollywood.
The kind where you don’t fake bruises and blood with makeup.
But if they do make another I hope they go back to the same aesthetics and design as the first one. Say what you want about the movie’s quality and whatever it might have been ripping off but it sported a very cool, unique look for its UniSols, a look they’ve slowly been phasing out for some reason.
Unstoppable killing machine.
Maniacs in a boring bunker doing boring things.
See the difference?