We live in a profoundly weird world right now, with franchises that have never been very good suddenly coming out with a genuinely worthwhile entry attached to a number that you would never, ever have expected to result in anything but the most vacant sort of cash-in: it started in 2011 with Fast Five, continued with Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol a year ago, and if three times is a trend, we've gotten there now with the most surprising good movie yet: Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, the fourth (or sixth, depending on how you count) movie in a franchise that began in 1992 with the ugly, noisy, dumb Roland Emmerich picture Universal Soldier, and hasn't gotten much better than that since: the theatrical sequel Universal Soldier: The Return, from 1999, embodies all the worst things about late-'90s sci-fi action; the 2009 DTV production Universal Soldier: Regeneration is impressive only in that it's at the lowest end of decent. I cannot speak to the two television movies that came in 1998 and 1999, but they have a toxic reputation.

But Day of Reckoning, now that's an actual great piece of brainy action cinema. It's also, sadly, self-negating brainy action cinema that has completely fucked itself by putting down roots in the wrong franchise: nobody who isn't a Universal Soldier diehard is going to be easily persuaded that there's any sane reason to go watch a twenty-years-later third sequel, but the Universal Soldier fanbase (I'm certain there must be one, though I cannot fathom why) will have no particular reason to admire a movie that really doesn't fit in with the other movies in any meaningful way beyond the basic concept of "genetically-enhanced super soldiers" - that I can recall, Day of Reckoning doesn't even mention the core series notion that the unisols, as they are horribly named, are the revived corpses of combat victims - and is so tonally and visually out of whack with the sort of largely ephemeral "blow shit up and joke" school of action cinema that the Universal Soldier films have thus far trafficked in that anybody who can get over the intense lack of continuity (in fairness, there's barely any continuity to speak of between any of these movies in the first place) and the limited role given to series mainstay Jean-Claude Van Damme, will still have to be okay with the fact that Day of Reckoning is much more laconic and, dare I say it, artsier than most things that get tagged with the name of "action films" these days. This despite being directed and co-written by John Hyams, the director of Universal Soldier: Regeneration, who made of that picture a sturdy, unexceptionally, generically fulfilling popcorn action movie.

Day of Reckoning begins with a flashy gesture, almost too flashy - it annoyed me at first, though as the movie evolves it ends up being mostly justified - that puts us inside a minutes-long first-person tracking shot, as a man named only John (Scott Adkins, martial artist and stunt man) groggily wakes up to prove to his daughter that there are no monsters in the house, only to find a trio of men in black standing in the kitchen with guns; they execute the John's daughter and wife before beating him into a pulp - still in first-person, you understand, and then he wakes up from a coma, in which he has lain for nine months.

I will not dwell too much on what happens to John after this, for it's largely opaque boilerplate: mysterious men activate a cloned sleeper agent named Magnus (Andrei Arlovski) at the time John wakes up, sending him to infiltrate the separatist cult run by old unisol Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren), whose resolute failure to stay dead between movies is left unexplained, but Scott flips him using a drug whose purpose remains unclear at first; John, meanwhile, finds that tracking down the shadowy figure who killed his family is not nearly as straightforward as he'd hoped, and things get increasingly confusing for him as different people seem to know things about him that simply can't be true - the savvy viewer likely has guessed the secret behind all this long before it's revealed, and maybe the film even expects us to. Long story short, John finds that his family was killed by legendary unisol Luc Deveraux (Van Damme), and he sets himself to finding the technological freak and wreaking his revenge.

A plot like many other plots: but Day of Reckoning is not an action movie like many other action movies. To start with, it's unbelievably languid, spending far more time with characters talking and reflecting, with John trying visibly to piece together seemingly incompatible pieces of information. And when it does erupt into messy, highly detailed violence, it's not at all like the kind of rat-a-tat punching and shooting that one would expect: in fact, the action in Day of Reckoning is some of the most imaginative I've seen in many a year, with every major setpiece done in a brand new style: one fist fight involves speed-ramping, but not in the violence-fetish manner of a Zack Snyder film, rather something more balletic and fascinated by the movement of the body; one is communicated almost entirely through whipsaw editing; the first, my favorite, plays around with video game language, using many perfectly centered over-the-shoulder shots, all taking place in rooms lit with a designer's sense of color, not a cinematographer's sense of plausibility; it plays like The Terminator by way of Shame, and it's the most excitingly unique action sequence I've seen since the side-scrolling hallway fight in Oldboy, back in 2003.

But the action, as I said, is only a small part of the whole, though enough to justify the film for the more discriminating action fan who wants a little more style and a little less adrenaline. The bulk of the film, unexpectedly, is character study; and Hyams is shrewd enough to know that he can't get away with doing a straight-up character drama intercut with action scenes, and so the nature of that study is mired in the best tradition of pulp sci-fi: the film explores notions of perception and self-identity by means of, and I'm very sorry but I need to SPOILER ALERT this bad boy, even though I was able to guess where things were going about a quarter through, as I think most of us would be able, as I think the movie is counting on, given how much it reveals this info with a "oh, by the way, this is what's going on" shrug - it explores these notions, I was saying, by means of a clone with implanted memories becoming subconsciously aware a great deal sooner than he's willing to admit to in his active mind that the only way things make sense is if he's living a lie, that he is not unique, but just one genetic manipulation out of dozens, and that he is living on behalf of someone else's design. Let's not pretend it's something bigger than it is: it's a hard-R action movie with some cool philosophy behind it, but as far as such things go it expresses its questions with a great deal more intellectual integrity than, the Matrix sequels, for example (I would say, personally, more than The Matrix itself); it uses cool, hip mindfuckery to describe a common feeling of helplessness with at least as much success as, say, Chris Nolan's films. It's still kind of trashy genre fare, but it is the open secret about trashy genre fare that it is better-positioned to describe the tensions of the real world in a more palatable way than "legitimate" forms, and in between the remarkably well-appointed action scenes that are still the best part about the movie, Day of Reckoning actually has some thematic bite to it. There's no getting around the unimpressive acting, or the unraveling third act, or the reflexively chauvinistic approach to its female characters, but the film has a lot more going on upstairs, and it explores it to much stronger effect, than its title and its outward appearance imply.