After the simple action triumph of Universal Soldier: Regeneration comes John Hyams' follow-up, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. While I wouldn't call Day of Reckoning a good film in the traditional sense, it is certainly a fascinating one, filled with surprising plot twists and ambitious left turns regarding the Universal Soldier mythos. All these brave and occasionally ill-advised gambles results in an undoubtedly strange movie-watching experience. Here are just some reasons why.
(Massive spoilers ahead!)
Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren Are Hardly Present
Series regulars Luke Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren) are given very little to do in this sequel. While both get an incredible fight scene to call their own (Dolph's is particularly awesome), don't expect much of their characters. In fact, considering how Day of Reckoning offers us Deveraux as a seemly evil rebel leader with Scott as his right-hand lackey without ever explaining how that happened, it's difficult to even consider them the same characters.
The Plot Seemingly Skips a Whole Film
Tons of stuff appears to have gone down between Regeneration and Day of Reckoning, but we learn almost none of it and must accept the wacky situations presented in Day of Reckoning with little question or regard to continuity. This is actually a very bold and interesting choice, but it creates an uncomfortably abrupt break between films, leaving us a bit lost and confused. Hyams asks the audience to put together an abnormal amount of implied backstory all by themselves. It makes for a rough first viewing, but also means Day of Reckoning improves the more you watch it.
On Top of That: Amnesia
Unfortunately, most viewers won't give it that extra chance because so much of Day of Reckoning involves Scott Adkins' excruciating journey to uncover the truth behind his identity and the death of his family at the hands of (supposedly) Luke Deveraux. Adkins has no history with the series, nor does his character have any known history with Deveraux or Scott to help keep us engaged. Instead, we're forced to follow a clueless protagonist while we're already swimming with questions about what happened between films. Even all that would be OK if the execution of these scenes wasn't tedious and boring.
So according to this film there are two kinds of Universal Soldiers: ones with minds controlled by the government and ones with minds controlled by Luke Deveraux. Hyams illustrates this through Andrei Arlovski's character the Plumber, aka Magus, aka NGU, aka "Hey, is that the same guy from Regeneration?" who we get to see on both sides of the equation.
Apparently, the government Universal Soldiers all have normal day jobs until they're "switched on" by the government, after which they become hell-bent killing machines. The Universal Soldiers hooked up with Deveraux, however, just hang out in a cavernous bunker, drinking, fighting and waiting to take over the world. To help their boredom, there appears to be a brothel in town specifically geared to service Deveraux's rogue Universal Soldiers. Hyams introduces all these elements with such nonchalance that we almost don't notice its silliness.
Everyone Is a Clone Now
Clones are not new to the Universal Soldier mythos. The Dolph Lundgren who appeared in Regeneration was a clone, after all. But now clones are all over the place. Not only do we have yet another Dolph Lundgren but also another Andrei Arlovski and two Scott Adkins (with hints of more in the past). It seems highly likely that the Luke Deveraux in this film is not the original either. While all this sounds cool in theory, it kind of ruins any stakes we have in the characters. You can kill Dolph Lundgren a hundred million times now, and he'll never truly die.
Even more bizarre, not only are all these guys clones, but we learn in this film that they can regrow cut-off limbs. This totally out-of-left-field tidbit never actually becomes an important part of the film, but it further de-escalates any importance these characters might have by making them even more invincible.
On the other hand, it does lead to some pretty gory fight stuff, as it's a genuine shock when Scott Adkins gets some of his fingers axed off. Perhaps Hyams intends to use this more in another sequel, but as far as this film is concerned, the detail adds nothing more than unnecessary noise to this already confusing universe.
The Day of Reckoning
Dolph Lundgren gives a big rallying speech to this troops halfway through Day of Reckoning, and despite its heavy vagaries, this offers the only insight we get on Deveraux's big plan. Supposedly it involves cloning rebel Universal Soldiers at a much advanced rate than normal thus creating an army that will take over the government, or the world, or maybe just the city they live in.
We see the seeds for this at the film's conclusion in which Scott Adkins kills an FBI agent and replaces him with an identical Universal Soldier clone, indicating that they can apparently clone regular people too now, not just Universal Soldiers. While ominous, it still doesn't really speak to any specific endgame.
So just to be clear: unlike Regeneration, this film actually features regeneration. And despite being called Day of Reckoning, this film features no actual day of reckoning. Perhaps Deveraux's big event will take place in the film to follow, and whatever event its title teases will take place in the film after that.
Good and Evil Goes Completely Undefined
Finally, this isn't just a film where everyone's really bad; it's much more complicated than that. We begin the film watching Luke Deveraux murder an innocent family, so we know he's bad (setting up the audience baiting question "how did our hero become a villain?" -- a question the film does not care to answer). Eventually we discover that the film's opening never actually happened. It was all just a false memory implanted into Scott Adkins' skull to make him mad at Luke Deveraux.
And yet, even after realizing this, Scott Adkins kills Deveraux like a typical villain anyway. So now our hero killed an innocent man. On the other hand, Deveraux is forming an army of very unfriendly clones to help him take over the world. So that's not good either. But then, even after Deveraux's dead, Scott Adkins continues his work.
So we have a good guy going after a bad guy who turns out to be bad but not in the way we thought, and whose work the good guy continues after his death, thus turning him from a good guy into a bad guy. On top of that, the Deveraux we see here might not even be the Deveraux we know from previous films. Plus, there can always be another Deveraux to take his place. It's not time travel, but sussing out Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning can induce some serious headaches. That's part of what makes it such a anomalous film.