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  • Writer's pictureJake Sanders

Smashing Machines — Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning

Released in 1992 and helmed by hack extraordinaire Roland Emmerich, the original Universal Solider was a solid sci-fi actioner about resurrected super soldiers, best remembered for uniting Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme onscreen. The film was enough of a success to spawn a franchise, but by the time John Hyams took over the series in 2009, three sequels (two of which were TV movies) had dulled its shine.

Relegated to the world of direct-to-video, smaller budgets meant less oversight, which freed Hyams up to push the series in a bold new direction. After exploring a less conventional approach with Regeneration, Hyams went all in on his follow-up. The result was Universal Solider: Day of Reckoning — brutal, hugely ambitious, and more than a little pretentious for a film with one foot firmly in the Tapout tee market. Think Funny Games on a creatine-loading phase.

Drawing inspiration from arthouse shockmeisters like Gaspar Noé and Michael Haneke, Hyams hijacked the series to create a lurid portrait of a nation in decay. It’s a feverish, blood-soaked odyssey into the heart of darkness, complete with Van Damme’s once-heroic Luc Deveraux transformed into a millennial Colonel Kurtz.

In Universal Soldier (1992), Van Damme’s Deveraux is killed on the frontlines of the Vietnam War, only to be resurrected, mind-wiped, and injected with steroid-like compounds via a shady government programme, then puppeteered to continue fighting in whatever wars the United States government sees fit. Lundgren is Sgt. Andrew Scott, a lantern-jawed cliche of battlefield savagery, introduced threatening a screaming Vietnamese couple and wearing yes — a necklace of ears. The two kill each other during the film’s cold open (hastily buried by top brass for obvious PR reasons) only to find themselves in the same unit post-resurrection.

Jean-Claude Van Damme in Universal Soldier (1992)

Despite operating in broad strokes, the film’s pessimism regarding America’s foreign policy, and blunt depiction of its disregard for the sanctity of troops’ lives, mark the film as distinct from more jingoistic blockbusters of the era. There’s real melancholy in the concept of the immortal warrior, reduced to a lapdog of the state. The Universal Soldiers are widely known to the public, although their true nature is withheld (The Avengers by way of Seal Team 6). A general tells the media their anonymity is to protect the men’s families, when in truth it's to obfuscate the ghoulish origins of the unit. This could generously be read as a satirical comment on a culture that claims to care deeply for its troops when in truth they are only as valuable insofar as they are useful to the state.

As Deveraux gradually begins to rediscover his humanity, prompting him to go AWOL, it is played in similar comedic strokes to James Cameron’s T2. Attempts to wring pathos from the fragmented memories returning to Deveraux are also derivative of Robocop, but Emmerich is content with straightforward mimicry as opposed to anything as pioneering as either Cameron or Veerhoeven’s films.

Hyams picks up on the dangling threads of interest and pushes them to the extreme. Day of Reckoning becomes an unlikely State of the Union, drilling deep into the widespread rot afflicting the U.S. The latter-day sequel follows British actor and martial artist Scott Adkins as John, who wakes from a coma haunted by memories of his wife and child’s murder at the hands of Deveraux and his goons, setting him on the course for revenge. Light on dialogue or conventional narrative beats, Hyams prioritises atmosphere, placing the action in signifiers of America’s decay — a seedy, neon-soaked brothel, an empty sporting goods store, and a shitty hotel room. Those who enjoy the output of disreputable, politically questionable provocateur S. Craig Zahler will surely find similar pleasures in Hyams's depiction of modern America as a drab, lifeless backdrop for repeated instances of unspeakable violence.

Similarly, it's not an exaggeration to compare Day of Reckoning to Twin Peaks: The Return. Both depict modern America as an eerie, haunted, hellscape. The empty, non-spaces of Day of Reckoning, although likely a symptom of a limited budget, nevertheless signify a world gone wrong. Adkins’s character is battling through the wasteland, with only the scraps of his memory to guide him.

In one enjoyably on-the-nose shot, John catches his reflection in a blood-soaked, broken mirror. Is Day of Reckoning a comment on a post-Iraq America’s identity crisis? Are the Universal Soldiers themselves stand-ins for the broken, traumatised vets whose efforts amounted to little more than fruitless bloodletting? Or is it simply a director excitedly aping unlikely influences within the generally workmanlike framework of the DTV action movie sequel? As much as Hyams tips his hat towards his loftier inspirations, it's hard to imagine Lars Von Trier so elegantly directing and framing a fight to the death that involves two highly skilled combatants fencing with titanium baseball bats.

Perhaps a format directly marketed to young men, one as maligned as the non-theatric actioner, is the ideal vessel for this kind of critique. The decade since Day of Reckoning has seen much hand-wringing around young men’s media consumption — whether this be braggadocious home videos of Andrew Tate, the nebulous self-help doctrine of Jordan Petersen, and perhaps most felicitous for this review — the endless content mill of Joe Rogan.

While it is reductive and potentially harmful to lump together all these figures and the ideas they propagate, certain commonalities do emerge. Namely, the search for escape from the purportedly blinkered perspective of ordinary people. Tate, who was arrested and imprisoned on human trafficking charges earlier this year, goes on and on about freeing oneself from The Matrix, going so far as to refer to the police officers who brought him in as “Agents”. Petersen meanwhile, positions himself as a stern father figure, instructing his acolytes to clean their rooms, before careening into teary-eyed monologues about the Jungian subtext of Disney films. Joe Rogan’s scepticism of the COVID-19 vaccine led to a widespread symposium on the fight-commentator-comedian-podcaster, including the unearthing and circulation of clips from his show that are wildly offensive, even by the standards of the 2000s.

Every man under the age of 40 has to in some way reckon with Rogan’s output, with many having been forced to shame-facedly confess that their source for a spurious claim was a clip from his show thrust before them by their YouTube algorithm. Rogan’s fans see him as a curious everyman, just asking questions and refusing to blindly follow the mainstream narrative. His detractors see him as a gateway to the more toxic corners of the internet, where figures like Tate espouse a genuinely evil worldview that ensnares disaffected young men with promises of liberation from downward mobility and a “rigged” sexual marketplace.

Rogan’s podcast had already been on the air for some time in 2012, but it was a long way from its current iteration as an influential cultural mainstay. In Day of Reckoning, Hyams captures something that feels prescient, a sense of festering male angst and the search for a paternal guide through an era of immense uncertainty. The casting of professional fighters such as Andrei Arlovski grounds the film in the milieu of combat sports, a world Hyams had previously explored in The Smashing Machine, a wildly upsetting documentary about the early days of UFC

With this in mind, Van Damme’s Deveraux feels like a harbinger of what was to come. The former soldier is gathering an army of rogue UniSol subjects (many of whom are played by professional fighters) and untangling them from the government’s mind-control techniques. The phrase “Your mind is your own. Freedom is yours.”, delivered by Lungdren to a new recruit becomes a kind of mantra, a promise of salvation and escape from the society that has abandoned them. What glimpses we are given of their bunker border on a caricature of toxic masculinity — drinking, weightlifting, fighting, playing with guns — a de-feminised zone where men can be men: a manosphere if you will.

Regardless of how seriously one takes the plight of the Western man, there’s no denying that the ability to capitalise on masculine feelings of alienation and aimlessness is no joke. Day of Reckoning, with its marrying of Monster Energy machismo and more high-minded interests taps into the same raw materials that have elevated the likes of Rogan, Andrew Huberman, Chris Williamson et al into stratospheric success. The image of Van Damme, bald, and diminutive compared to his legion of T-maxed warriors, looks like the paranoid projection of those who genuinely believe Rogan is going to direct his audience towards a violent, chauvinist revolution.

Read any interview with Hyams about Day of Reckoning, and you can see how pleased he is at having successfully courted the critical community, who typically turn a blind eye to straight-to-DVD action sequels. Certainly, the film stands out in its fusion of European arthouse aesthetics with Joe Sixpack-approved thrills, and exists as a prescient look at masculinity in crisis. Although Hyams’s most high-brow influences would not exactly be out of place on a sixteen-year-old’s Letterboxd list titled “Fucked Up Movies”, there’s something to be said for how successfully he manages to have it both ways. If you come into it aware of its reputation, then of course you’ll be delighted to see a DTV action film that opens with an upsetting Hanekean home invasion. Equally, if you’re someone who just likes the UniSol franchise, you might just find it a strangely downbeat, but satisfying conclusion to a long-running series.

I would only hope that there’s someone out there whose cultural diet consists primarily of latter-day Steven Seagal films and JRE Instagram reels for whom this film unlocks the world of European arthouse cinema: “Free your mind. Your mind is your own.”


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