C'EST INCROYABLE. CONTAINS BIG-ASS SPOILERS.
What do you do with an elderly action franchise that's been running for too long and the leads are getting too battered and weatherbeaten to continue? In the case of the recent Die Hard sequel, you can just keep going but give him a son, in the case of the Bonds you can just keep on recasting (imagine the Daniel Craig ones if they'd still used Connery or Roger Moore). In the case of the intermittent Universal Soldiers series, which started back in 1992 as a dumb action thriller by Roland Emmerich, they've decided to abandon the mostly forgettable direction taken with the third film (Regeneration, the trailer of which I've just watched online and can't remember a thing about the film) and head instead for a kind of arthouse remake of Total Recall with an inappropriate ambient soundtrack. Albeit one with thudding fight sequences sprinkled throughout.
Ordinary family man John (Scott Adkins) is woken by intruders in the middle of the night: they beat him senseless with a crowbar and, in a genuinely startling moment, Jean-Claude Van Damme shoots his wife and his daughter in the face. Nine months later, John wakes from his coma and sets out for revenge. So far so Steven Seagal. But then he picks up a French accented stripper who already knows him, a UniSol masquerading as a plumber (Andrei 'The Pit Bull' Arlovski) attacks him twice, there's a hideously scarred gangster at the storage unit where he stockpiles weapons.... Is John who he thinks he is? Meanwhile Dolph Lundgren is ranting to his fellow UniSols that their time has come and Jean-Claude (who's been the good guy up to now) has shaved his head (is this an Apocalypse Now reference?) and painted himself like a cross between a circus clown and a Black And White Minstrel.
Happily Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning is not a film primarily concerned with amnesiac angst and identity crises. There are numerous headbangingly violent but curiously shot fight scenes as well: the opening sequence is all done from Adkins' point of view like the first act of Gaspar Noe's Enter The Void, Adkins' assault on the UniSol hideout is all shot from just behind him like a computer game (or, indeed, the second act of Enter The Void). In addition are several scenes of violent strobing which made even me feel unwell, and the whole thing's backed with this tinkly synth score that sounds like it belongs on a wistful little indie about Scandinavian dopers, not a two-hour thudfest in which huge guys repeatedly lamp one another and fight with machetes in confined spaces.
This is tosh, obviously. And there's not enough of Jean-Claude and Dolph, the two big names on the front of the box (and they never appear together). But it's entertaining, odd in strange and unexpected ways, while still delivering on the occasional spurts of gore and scenes of punching people in the face. And it's possible it might lead to an even weirder Universal Soldier 5. After A Good Day To Die Hard showed that action movies can easily settle for the same generic crash bang wallop (but much louder), Universal Soldier 4 suggests that franchises can branch out into exotic and peculiar new directions. Who knows what they'll come up with next? Subtitles? Claymation? A Justin Bieber cameo? The world awaits.