In the latest instalment of The Dusty VHS Corner, Tom Jolliffe explores Albert Pyun’s love for cyborgs…
With a career spanning over 30 years, Hawaiian director Albert Pyun has worked in just about every genre, and forged a reputation as a modern era answer to Ed Wood. Pyun’s career has pretty much entirely taken place in B movies. Almost fifty films ranging from low budget, to virtually no budget. His passion for movie-making is immense and he still works to this day, even through ill-health.
Pyun broke through in the early 80’s with fantasy epic, The Sword and The Sorcerer, which alongside Conan The Barbarian, played it’s part in re-popularising the sword and sorcery genre throughout the 80’s. He followed that with a string of often strange, cult films (Radioactive Dreams being a stand out). Pyun was also at the helm of an unsuccessful Captain America film back in the days when Marvel film adaptations were about as successful as the current England football team.
Pyun regularly oversees his films with a strong visual eye. Even if the end product sometimes feels like a jumbled mess, there’s often visual style and plenty of kinetic energy. Though critical acclaim has often eluded him, his choice of projects don’t often lend themselves to that response. He’s done fight films, he’s done creature features, and a number of out there ideas. He has certainly produced some original features in his time, as well as a large number that evoke the B-pictures he undoubtedly grew up watching. He persistently shows a willingness to experiment, to try new things. In 2005 he shot Infection, a film that takes place in one long continuous take (from the dash cam on a police car). This was a brave act that he would repeat in the recently completed, The Interrogation of Cheryl Cooper, which takes place in one take and entirely in an interrogation room. If there’s one thing Pyun can never be accused of it’s predictability.
So, what of Pyun’s fascination with cyborgs? Well, whether or not he genuinely has a fascination with cyborgs, I don’t know, but his back catalogue would suggest so. He’s made a number of films about, or featuring, cyborgs, starting off with Cyborg. It’s been something Pyun has revisited many times since. With that in mind I look at three of Pyun’s films featuring cyborgs. Let the fun begin…
Having gained some popularity after the success of Bloodsport, Jean Claude Van Damme found himself headlining one of a slew of Mad Max inspired post apocalyptic action films which littered video stores in the late 80’s. Cyborg has often been rumoured to have been the afterbirth of a failed Masters of the Universe sequel which never got off the ground. In part that is true. Pyun was hired by Cannon to direct a sequel to Masters, minus Dolph Lundgren and with Surfer Laird Hamilton set to don He-Man’s loin cloth instead.
At this point in Cannons history, they were falling apart following the joint failure in 1987 of Masters of the Universe and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Indeed Cyborg would mark their final theatrical release, and not long after, the company died. In the end it was decided not to pursue the Masters sequel, nor a mooted Spider-Man film (which Pyun was also attached to) but by this point a lot of sets and costumes had already been made for both. Some of these sets and costumes were then recycled and used for Cyborg, an idea Pyun quickly came up with following the demise of the two projects he was due to work on.
Van Damme stars as Gibson Rickenbacker, a drifter tortured by the memory of his lover and her son being killed by a gang of scavenging pirates, who also left Gibson for dead. Gibson now wonders the wastelands of a plague riddled post apocalyptic wasteland working as a hired bodyguard for those looking to travel the wastelands. He’s approached by a cyborg named Pearl Prophet (Dayle Haddon), who carries the cure for the plague in her memory, and needs transporting to Atlanta. However she’s soon captured by the Pirates who want to own the cure and the power that will come with that. Gibson joins forces with another drifter (Deborah Richter) to track the pirates and retrieve Pearl.
Cyborg is something of an oddity. There’s not much of a plot, but despite this the narrative structure is muddled, and indeed, given Pyun has long since lobbied for a directors cut, it might suggest the films cutting was not to his liking. It’s also very low budget, but despite that the film looks really good. Pyun’s visual flair is evident here and it’s nicely lit by cinematographer Philip Alan Waters.
Van Damme gets ample opportunity to do what Van Damme does best. There are a lot of fights here. They don’t rank as his best, with some questionable editing choices, but they’re not his worst either. His performance isn’t too bad either. In recent years Van Damme has improved a lot as an actor and shown his potential in a few films, particularly JCVD. He shows some early promise here, even if he hadn’t at this point, found consistency. The rest of the cast aren’t great while the bad guys seem to spend the entire film growling and yelling in a cheesy over dub.
Among his fans this probably won’t rank as one of Van Damme’s best, but the film never-the-less has a style of its own and feels like a unique entity in his CV, where-as of course some of his films feel like extensions of some others, such as Bloodsport, Kickboxer, A.W.O.L., and The Quest which come under that fight film label. Cyborg marks Van Damme’s one visceral, weirdly operatic (at times) and B-riffic post apocalyptic epic. It’s all over the place, it’s ridiculous at times, but there’s something compelling about it.
Beer rating: ★ ★ ★
Pyun’s second cyborg-related opus was Nemesis, which repeated a couple of elements, namely the central character having to transport important information, essential to the survival of the human race, and cyborgs of course.
Leading proceedings here is French Kickboxer Olivier Gruner in only his second film. Back in the 80’s or 90’s the action genre was normally made up of the genuine article. Gruner was no different. A former soldier in an elite force of the French Army, Gruner left and ended up becoming World Kickboxing Champion. With the chiselled physique and skills required to become an action star, it was no surprise he found his way into films, as he was launched to become a direct rival to Van Damme. It didn’t quite work out like that, but never-the-less, Gruner has had a lengthy career as a leading action man in straight to video actioners, which is still going today.
Nemesis sees Gruner as Alex, a cybernetically enhanced cop tasked with taking down rebels who constantly threaten to overthrow the government. After a mission goes wrong Alex begins to question his humanity. When he’s sent to track down a former partner selling information to the terrorists, he soon discovers there’s more to things than meets the eye, namely that the government is being run by cyborgs bent on ending the human race. Alex joins the rebellion and sets about taking down the robots, led by Farnsworth (Tim Thomerson).
Nemesis is a pretty decent action film. It might not be brilliantly acted, but Pyun injects plenty of visual flair into the film. Despite the low budget there’s a lot of action and it’s made to look big thanks to a drifting camera that never stops, be it elaborate tracking, crane or dolly shots. This is shot like a big action movie and there are more than enough pyrotechnics and big stunts to make this stand out. Gruner does the majority of his own stunts and is more than able as an on screen fighter. Likewise some of the set pieces are really imaginative. Gruner having to shoot through several floors of a multi-story building and falling through to escape his pursuers was particularly good, and would be recycled in Underworld some 10 years later.
Nemesis would spawn three sequels directed by Pyun (minus Gruner), which would pale massively in comparison to the first, and in particular the third film was possibly one of the worst films I’ve ever seen, but the first is an enjoyable slice of B-movie fun. Thomerson has fun as the villain, there’s some visual fx supplied by Gene Warren (Terminator 1 and 2) which aren’t brilliant (particularly in comparison to his work with Cameron) but kind of work because they’re not great. Nemesis still remains one of Pyun’s better films, and almost certainly Gruner’s finest hour.
Beer rating: ★ ★
Omega Doom (1996)
In Omega Doom, everyone’s favourite Dutchman (okay then…mine) Rutger Hauer stars in a post-apocalyptic, robot spaghetti Western. Yep…you did hear right.
Following a war between man and machine, the World is left ravaged with only a few robots left. Those that are left have divided into rival factions called Roms and Droids. Rumours circulate between them that human beings are about to come out and destroy the robots. Both the Rom’s and the Droids spend their time trying to find the “treasure” which is a large hidden cache of guns. He who finds the guns will have the power to rule what is left of the planet. Hauer, a malfunctioned former war machine plays both sides off against each other for his own ends in something akin to a B-movie, Science fiction version of Yojimbo.
Omega Doom is pretty inconsistent. Parts of it are terrible, parts of it are pretty good. Despite a short running time, not a lot particularly happens and it needs a jolt of energy at times. The sound design is pretty cheesy. A cast full of robot characters and each has to be accompanied with some far from subtle sound effects (and some pretty terrible robo-miming too). That said, it looks great and probably the best part of the film is the soundtrack from Tony Riparetti.
Hauer is typically reliable. No matter the level of film he’s in, and no matter whether it’s well made, or he’s in an absolute turkey (this ranks somewhere in betwixt) he’ll pretty much always give an interesting performance. This is no different and he’s a cut above most of the remaining cast. Norbet Weisser appears in a more comical role but is solid. 90’s soft-core specialist Shannon Whirry also stars, though isn’t given that much to do.
Again, in keeping with Pyun’s mantra, Omega Doom is a film which blends an unexpected mixture of influences together to form something that feels like a somewhat unique entity. It doesn’t always work, but never-the-less the intent is admirable.
Beer rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
Other Pyun cyborg specials of note: Knights, featuring Kris Kristofferson, Lance Henriksen and Gary Daniels. Also cyborg kickboxing flick Heatseeker featuring Keith Cooke and Gary Daniels.
Next Time: PM Entertainment RIP.