Review: Loopy and brutal ‘Universal Soldier 4’ should make fans Van Damme happy

I was going to write a formal review of “Universal Soldier 4: Day Of Reckoning,” and then I put it in the player tonight and the following happened on Twitter:

“Okay, ‘Universal Soldier 4,’ here’s your chance. Thrill me.

I will say that it’s a good sign that the first face I see in the film is Scott Adkins. That guy is awesome.

So far, Adkins seems to be doing nice work playing a sensitive father dealing with a personal trauma. When does he kick someone’s spine out?

I’ll say this much for ‘Universal Soldier 4’: I’m 40 minutes in and I have no idea what the hell is going on.

I am compelled to keep watching if only for the freaky Jean Claude Van Brando thing they’re going for. #thehorror #thehorror

Scott Adkins just got superpowers. Not sure why, but Scott Adkins with superpowers means I keep watching.

Two, two, two times the Adkins! Two, two, two times the confusion!

I love that Adkins is in ‘Zero Dark 30,” but watching this, I wonder why they didn’t send him after Bin Laden alone. Woulda been easier.

Another way they could have improved ‘Zero Dark 30’? Jean Claude Bin Laden.

John Hyams loves ‘Blade Runner,’ ‘Apocalypse Now,’ and dudes kicking holy hell out of other dudes.”

Technically, I feel like I could leave it at that and we’d be good.  That is a very accurate moment-to-moment summary of how odd it is to sit through the film, but I do have a little more to say about it.  When I say I had no idea what was going on, that’s not hyperbole.  There were stretches where I was baffled by the things people were doing or the way they were behaving or just the simplest of exchanges between them. 

It’s not confusing in the broad strokes.  Sometimes when people say about a film, “I had no idea what was going on,” what they’re really saying is “I completely and utterly didn’t care what was going on.”  When you’re disengaged from a film, even fairly obvious plot points can slip right by, even in a good film.  But when a filmmaker is like Hyams, obviously good at a few things, not so great at other things, narrative coherence becomes really fragmented on a moment to moment basis.  I get that in the film, Scott Adkins begins the movie as a family man who survives a vicious attack one night in his family home, where his wife and little girl and murdered in front of him.  He gradually becomes convinced, though, that he is not what he appears to be, and that he is actually somehow involved in a conspiracy involving a strange Kurtz-like figure at the heart of a phantom squad of super-powered lunatic ex-soldiers.  I can see the “Total Recall” and the “Blade Runner” and the “Apocalypse Now” in there, overt in moments, only-slightly-less overt in other moments.  I can see that Hyams really does like directing fight sequences and that the fight team in the film does some brutal work here, especially in the last 40 minutes or so.  But I can also see that from moment to moment, Hyams has no visible interest in whether or not anything we see happen makes any sense at all.  And it sort of doesn’t matter.

Dolph Lundgren makes a guest appearance of sorts, with one uncomfortably delivered monologue that makes very little sense of out of the motivations of these disgruntled super soldiers who have somehow broken away from their programming to lead a revolution of guys who dress like they’re in a paintball game, and one pretty decent fight against Scott Adkins.  Van Damme has a few more moments than that, and then one truly brutal fight towards the end.  Adkins takes a long time to kick into Universal Soldier mode, but once he realizes that he is basically Sean Young from “Blade Runner,” he has no choice but to break nearly every bone in nearly every person he encounters, and it is glorious.  Scott Adkins is one of those martial artists who has a pretty good screen presence and who appears to be a genuine threat to your wellbeing.  He is scary, and that’s exactly why I dig his work in the film.  I would not like to be hit or kicked by Scott Adkins, and that’s pretty much the standard for “convincing action hero” in my book.

Perhaps the greatest sin the film commits is that at one point, Adkins gets to play twins in a scene, but they do not have a significant fight of any sort.  If you wanted to make the next film about two Scott Adkins clone robot soldier zombies who kick each other through plate glass for two hours, I will buy multiple copies of the Blu-ray to give away as Christmas presents.  I promise.

On any sort of objective letter grade system, this isn’t a film I can give a good rating to, but if you want a few well-done fights and you like Adkins, I can’t completely recommend against it.  It’s no “Undisputed III,” but I was more entertained by it than I was by the last film in the series, and director John Hyams does enough right that I’m curious to see what else he can do.  Son of cinematographer/director Peter Hyams, he seems like the kind of guy who could make a solid career for himself by directing a fresh dose of ass-whuppin’ every year, hung on whatever concept he comes up with as an excuse.

“Universal Soldier 4: Day Of Reckoning” opens today in limited release and can also be viewed thanks to VOD.