With both Universal Soldier: Regeneration and its just-released follow-up, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, director John Hyams pulled off the not-inconsiderable feat of revitalizing a seemingly moribund franchise.  The original Universal Soldier is, at best, a passable slice of action-cinema; Independence Day and 2012 helmer Roland Emmerich brought some flair to the action scenes, but he couldn’t do much to improve a genuinely stupid story about a covert government program that resurrected dead G.I.’s for combat purposes.  That premise is loaded with humor – intentional and otherwise – but Emmerich kept the tone pitched to the same taciturn frequency as leads Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren’s grizzled visages.

Still, that first Universal Soldier is Long Day’s Journey Into Night when compared to its three immediate sequels – Universal Soldier II: Brothers in Arms, Universal Soldier III: Unfinished Business, and Universal Soldier: The Return, which made the mistake of trying to restore credibility to the series by coaxing back Van Damme (note: it didn’t work).  I paid attention to all these flicks because I have borderline Asperger’s when it comes to DTV fare, but you probably didn’t, and good on you for ignoring these “films.”  Had the well gone dry after The Return, I would have rejoiced long enough to completely forget the entire franchise.

And then a funny thing happened.  In 2009, Sony commissioned another entry, the aforementioned Universal Soldier: Regeneration.  This didn’t surprise me, nor did the film’s direct-to-video premiere; cheesy bloodbaths have an unfortunate history of self-propagating, and when they do, it’s straight to video they go.

What did surprise me was how good Regeneration was.

The quality difference between Universal Soldier: Regeneration and the first Universal Soldier is night and day.  Gone are the first film’s pulp theatrics and pseudo-sci-fi jargon; Universal Soldier: Regeneration is a lean, brutal war film.  A group of soldiers operating with the backing of a rogue UniSol (UFC champion Andrei “The Pit Bull” Arlovski, and that nickname tells you everything you need to know about his physical prowess) take control of a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, and only a U.S. strike force and the weary UniSol Luc Deveraux (Van Damme) have a shot at preventing nuclear winter.  Simple, direct, and very exciting, given director John Hyams’ approach to the material.  The son of Peter Hyams (who made the very underrated Outland and the very terrible A Sound of Thunder), Hyams the Younger attacks this film like he thought he was making The Bourne Supremacy.  He starts things off with an extremely bloody-yet-visually coherent car chase and then switches gears into closer-quarters combat, as Arlovski and Van Damme rip through their opposing sides to get to one another.  Hyams spent years making documentaries within the MMA field, and his work there has paid off in spades – he knows precisely where to put the camera for maximum velocity without sacrificing geographic/spatial clarity.

Note: the things that never made sense about Universal Soldier still don’t make sense here – the science is shaky, the ethics are confused, and the acting is questionable (Arlovski certainly wasn’t hired for his emoting skills, and Dolph Lundgren, in his big third-act appearance, proves he’s actually gotten worse as an actor in the twenty years separating Universal Soldier and Universal Soldier: Regeneration) – but Hyams keeps the pace so relentless and the action so brutal that logistical issues don’t matter.  In its visceral impact alone, Universal Soldier: Regeneration actually bests Sylvester Stallone’s Expendables movies, and it deserves added points for not getting bogged down in faux-dramatics like the Expendables features do.  Hyams got me legitimately excited about another Universal Soldier movie, and that’s no small feat.

And now, with Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, he’s pushed the limits of the series past anything I might have expected.  This is a radical, borderline-experimental thriller, and though it might turn off many Universal Soldier fans, I applaud the film’s willingness to test what a sequel can and cannot do.

If you only read the back of the Blu-ray box, you could be forgiven for thinking that Day of Reckoning is a generic, meathead extravaganza.  Nominally, it’s a revenge picture: after Luc Deveraux (Van Damme, again) and a team of UniSols murder his wife and children, distraught family man John (Scott Adkins, a bruiser who proves surprisingly empathetic) goes on the rampage, vowing to take down Deveraux at all costs.

But Hyams has more-than-a-few tricks up his sleeve to distinguish this Universal Soldier from the rest: Hyams pulls Day of Reckoning together out of equal parts revenge story, psychological drama, conspiracy thriller, Cronenbergian-body horror (anyone bitching about the violence in Django Unchained needs to stay far away from this movie – the gore is ghastly), and sci-fi head trip.  How trippy, you ask?  The opening scenes have so much aggressive strobing and POV effects that I thought I was watching the Capcom version of Enter the Void.

Day of Reckoning isn’t quite as satisfying as Regeneration, if only because the previous film had such a laser focus.  It achieved its goals with an economy that most contemporary actioners lack, while Day of Reckoning never really coheres, proving more digressive in its aesthetic and thematic experiments.  The violence hits almost-pornographic levels of disgust, Atkins’ psychological journey made me feel as discombobulated as he did after a certain point (and not in a good way), and – and I never thought I’d find myself saying this – Van Damme and Lundgren aren’t in the movie enough to justify the film’s bold, Apocalypse Now-inspired climax.

However, as with last year’s equally nervy Killing Them Softly, I found myself responding positively to the film’s unsuccessful pretentions.  Shoot-‘em-ups like this one are a dime-a-dozen, and as such, anything anyone can do to mix things up is a welcome treat, even if the weirder innovations stretch credulity.  In these two films, John Hyams has proved himself eager to go to extremes to revive tired material (just like Geritol!); the world of action cinema needs more people like him.

Sony’s Blu-ray looks great.  Hyams definitely isn’t going for perfect image quality – the image is appropriately warped and unusual at times – but the Blu-ray honors his aesthetic vision.  The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is a real beast, and it roars to life during the many action scenes.

Features are of a higher caliber than these types of movies normally get.  Hyams and Lundgren deliver a frank and informative commentary, and the disc also has three behind-the-scenes featurettes (“Coming Into Focus,” “There Is No End,” and “Production Wrap”) that chart the film’s production challenges.  It’s a good, solid supplement roster.

Unfortunately, there’s some controversy over this Blu-ray release.  Apparently, Hyams filmed Day of Reckoning in 3D, and while foreign markets get this dimensionally enhanced edition, we in the States only have a 2D edition.  Furthermore, early reports have suggested that this version of the film is not Hyams’ preferred Day of Reckoning cut – Hyams has gone on record as saying that his director’s cut got an NC-17 and that while he understood that he had to deliver an R-rated version for theaters and On-Demand, the Blu-ray would be his unrated, original vision.  Unfortunately, it appears that Sony has only released the R-rated version in America, and even though I can’t imagine Day of Reckoning being any more graphic than it already is, I question any motivations that may have erroneously led Hyams to believe he could present his final authorial intent on the HD format.

Still, what we’ve got is pretty great: brutal, shocking, and wild.  Bring on more John Hyams and Universal Soldier features.

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning streets on January 22nd.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

Culture Movie Review: UNIVERSAL SOLDIER – DAY OF RECKONING Continues Director John Hyams'...