CATEGORIES Movie News
A few weeks ago, Hurricane Sandy was on its way, and I more or less knew that my home in suburban Connecticut would be without power for days on end. Of course, no power meant no movies. So, in addition to collecting bottled water and making sure all of the flashlights had batteries, I downloaded a film from iTunes to watch on my Macbook Air. That movie was "Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning."Much to my surprise, it ended up being a hugely entertaining beacon of light and one of the very best action movies of the year. But... what? Why? How? Read on for an explanation as to why "Day Of Reckoning" is so unthinkably great.

It Doesn't Matter If You Haven't Seen Another "Universal Soldier" Movie The original "Universal Soldier" was released back in 1992. Like "Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning," it features memorable performances by expendables Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren. I only sort of remember it. It involved clones or super-soldiers or something, and one of them was good and one of them was bad (I forget which). Since then, the "Universal Soldier" mythology gets really convoluted -- there were two direct-to-video sequels made in 1998 ("Universal Soldier II: Brothers in Arms" and "Universal Soldier III: Unfinished Business") followed by a theatrical sequel (1999's "Universal Soldier: The Return"), which neglected both the events of the first film and the direct-to-video follow-ups, but did star Van Damme. (With me so far?) In 2010, "Universal Soldier: Regeneration" was released theatrically as a direct sequel to the original 1992 film and saw the return of both Van Damme and Lundgren. "Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning" is a sequel to that 2010 film. Except that virtually nothing matters and the overly complicated canon is pretty much ignored. This is a very good thing. Because when you're half-asleep and listening to hurricane-force winds batter your house, it's hard to keep up with the minutiae of the "Universal Soldier" mythology.

Instead, "Day of Reckoning" stars Scott Atkins (a dude who is more or less a stuntman, which makes his acting chops even more surprising) as John, a man whose wife and child were murdered (brutally) by Van Damme's character, Luc Deveraux. So John goes on a quest of revenge to stop Deveraux, who is assembling an army of freed universal soldiers and is plotting some kind of huge military coup. Hot on John's trail, though, is the villainous Magnus (brawler Andrei Arlovski, a holdover from "Universal Soldier: Regeneration"). Lundgren shows up at some point, too. It's the revenge through-line that makes the movie so palpable, along with its merciful abandonment of previously established mythology. All you need to know is that the universal soldiers were created under a government program and they have nifty super-soldier abilities. You know, sort of like Captain America.

It's Not In 3D Originally, "Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning" was called "Universal Soldier: A New Dimension," which makes it seem like it's a theme park attraction, and plays into the fact that the movie was (supposedly) shot in 3D. I'm not sure if it even was shot in 3D or if it was post-converted or if the movie is being released theatrically with the added dimensionality, but it's coming out flat in America. And that is a very good thing. Not only will you be spared the surcharge, but the movie is so full-throttle that it doesn't even need debris zooming out at the audience.

The Action Sequences Are Genuinely Spectacular There's been a nice equilibrium in action movies this year -- for every "Amazing Spider-Man," we've been blessed with a "Raid: Redemption." But "Day of Reckoning" might be the best of the bunch. There is a sense of unpredictability at play, which makes the film feel breathlessly alive. The movie is low budget, for sure (it cost around $11 million, which is less than three episodes of "Fringe"), but instead of taking away from the movie's general tone or aesthetic, it adds to it. You know that these guys were actually trudging through both the swamp and depressed areas of Louisiana. That sense of urban decay and built-up grime adds more to this movie than any production design or art direction ever could. These sequences are also gloriously, CGI-free. You see real cars smashing into each other and, more importantly, real bodies getting beat up. It's exhilarating and real.

It Is So, So Violent "Day of Reckoning" is also being released without a rating, which is probably for the best, because, unlike any action movie in recent memory, it flirts with an NC-17. This is not a movie for the faint of heart. The violence here has consequences (like, say, having to watch your family get slaughtered), and it does much to humanize the army of amassed super-soldiers. There's one sequence -- an unbroken shot where our hero is making his ways through the bowels of Van Damme's underground lair -- that is shockingly intense and gory.

There's An Extended "Rolling Thunder" Reference (I Think) Both "Universal Soldier: Regeneration" and "Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning" were directed by John Hyams, the son of noted cinematographer and director Peter Hyams (who directed "The Presidio" and "The Relic"). Hyams moves things along at a quick pace, and I'm guessing that one of my favorite sequences, set at a brothel, is a knowing wink to "Rolling Thunder," a John Flynn film from 1977 that starred William Devane and a baby-faced Tommy Lee Jones as revenge-minded Vietnam vets. That movie's bloody climax takes place in a whorehouse, and while the sequence in "Day of Reckoning" takes place much earlier in this film, the similarities are there.

So, long story short: If you're in need of some action over the holidays, I recommend watching "Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning." The film opens theatrically this Friday and is available now on iTunes.