Universal Soldier, you may remember, was a blast of pure 1992 cheese in which Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren play reanimated Vietnam super-soldiers who fight each other. It was pretty good! It was, in fact, the only pretty good movie ever made by German director Roland Emmerich, and its success is, in some way, the reason we now have to deal with Emmerich bullshit like 10,000 BC and 2012 and the inexplicable Shakespeare-didn't-write-anything exposé Anonymous. (Independence Day is not good if you're not 12, sorry.)
It may surprise you to learn that in the 20 years since Universal Soldier, five different sequels have entered the world. It may further surprise you that the last of those movies, 2012's Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, is a brutal Lynchian psychological horror movie with the most legitimately unsettling opening scene in recent cinematic memory.
I'm going to make a couple of suggestions here. First: I'm going to suggest that that you watch Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. I know that's probably going to be a hard sell. The straight-to-video sequel is not exactly a hallowed corner of the movie universe. For years, those of us with weak wills would sometimes take home one of these things from Blockbuster, and it would usually feature nobody actors basically reenacting the plots of the original movies. Best-case scenario, you'd get something like Tremors 2, where a couple of the original supporting players would show up to gamely mug their way through their old roles, and suddenly the giant underground worms would sprout legs and look like shitty CGI.
In recent years, though, a few resourceful action directors have done good things with low budgets, and so we get weird sequels like the Undisputed saga, in which a forgotten 2002 boxing-in-prison movie spawns two stupid and balls-out awesome underground-fighting-ring movies, neither of which features any of the original Undisputed actors. Good straight-to-DVD sequels aren't becoming the rule or anything, but they're at least possible now. And Day of Reckoning is a great one.
If you haven't seen any previous Universal Soldier, even the first one, it's fine, don't stress it. "The government is reanimating dead soldiers" is pretty much all you need to know going in. You could, if you wanted, watch 2009's Universal Soldier: Regeneration, the movie before Day of Reckoning and the feature debut from Reckoning director John Hyams. That one is mean, intense, frill-free, low-budget ass-kickery, and a few of its characters and themes show up again in Reckoning, though they've been through some mutations. (Regeneration was authentically straight-to-DVD, whereas Reckoning played in a couple of theaters at the same time as it debuted on VOD. The difference is really just semantic.)
But really, Day of Reckoning creates its own rule book and then throws that rule book out. You'll be a bit lost for a while, no matter how much you know going in. You'll see, for instance, bearded-monster MMA fighter Andrei "Pitbull" Arlovsky wander into a BDSM whorehouse full of dead reanimated soldiers, murder everyone in sight, get stuck with a mysterious injection, and then join the dead reanimated soldiers, and you'll have to sort of piece together what happened. Van Damme and Lundgren were enemies in the two previous movies where they both appeared, but they're allies here, and again you have to catch up. And anyway, neither is really the star of the movie. That role belongs to the British martial artist Scott Adkins, who is the fucking man in straight-to-DVD action movies. He's a block of sad glowering wood when he's not kicking people, but an absolute demon dervish when he is, and the part where he fights Arlovsky in a sporting-goods store is an intensely, nastily beautiful thing.
Now, my second suggestion: Don't watch the opening scene. Skip the first seven minutes. It's fine. Nobody will judge you. Here's what happens: Adkins is asleep at home with his wife and daughter. His daughter thinks she hears monsters, so Adkins goes downstairs to appease her. In his kitchen, he finds Van Damme and a crew of silent ski-masked goons. They beat him viciously with a crowbar, and then they drag his wife and daughter into the room and murder them in front of him. You see all this from Adkins's point of view, and so when he's panting and screaming and watching his daughter's brain hit the wall, it's you doing it. It's sudden, it's vicious, and you don't really need to see it. It will wrench your stomach into knots, and it might turn you against the movie before it even really starts.
I saw that first scene at an action-movie festival in Asheville, N.C., when the rest of the movie was still in post-production and wouldn't be out for months. (I was at an action-movie festival in Asheville because I was writing about it, and also because I am About That Life.) The festival's programmer was crowing about that opening scene; it was a real get for him. But I immediately decided that I'd never watch the rest of the movie, because I didn't like the way that scene made me feel. I had to hear over and over, from trusted sources, that Reckoning was good before I gave it a chance. They were right. It is.
Day of Reckoning doesn't stint on straight-up fights, so it's an action movie in at least some sense. That sporting-goods scene, with Adkins and Arlovsky flailing at each other with bats and barbells, is just a monster. Late in the movie, we get an extended fight made to look like one long tracking shot, and it might be even better. Van Damme only gets one fight and Lundgren two, but they both come off looking spry and mean, and Van Damme wears creepy juggalo facepaint for no reason in his sole screen throwdown.
But for all its fights, the movie is more of an unsettling horror headfuck than anything else. It has notes of Lynch and Cronenberg and Tetsuo: The Iron Man and Apocalypse Now. A painful flashing effect during the Van-Damme-is-in-your-brain-now scenes recall Into the Void and make this movie impossible to watch if you have epilepsy. The movie gets a lot of mileage out of Van Damme and Lundgren's faces, which are both way more fucked up and interesting than they were back in 1992. Lundgren looks like a Frank Miller drawing of Duke Nukem, while Van Damme looks like a just-starting-to-melt rubber Van Damme mask has been glued to a skull. They look wrong, and that wrongness extends to every facet of the movie and leaves its ideas bouncing around in your brain for long after the movie is over. Not bad for a fucking Universal Soldier sequel.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he's written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice,GQ,Grantland, and The Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
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