Tom Jolliffe looks at a pair of cyberpunk infused sci-fi films from 1992…
The year is 1992. Video shops are still a thing. I spend many an hour perusing them and there are a number of VHS covers that stamp themselves into my brain and will remain fresh in my mind almost 30 years. These are two films with an enigmatic, shades wearing hero on the cover. The artwork seems to promise action and gunplay, with a heavy leaning on s-fi. One is a film fairly alien to me as far as background knowledge. That is Nemesis. I had no idea of who this heroic cover hero was, nor his female sidekick (who as it transpires is more an antagonist, and not for long). The other film is Split Second. These were two of many that would catch my eyes over many years of browsing (wipes away a nostalgic tear). Split Second starred the late great Rutger Hauer. Back then I had an existing idea of who he was. I’d already been enamoured by Blade Runner and Ladyhawke.
It would take me a while to finally get round to seeing them. After all, though I’d had a solid access to films like these, occasionally the access would shut off and I’d be limited to my age bracket of PG/12. I saw Split Second first (thanks to a friend’s older brother’s video collection), then years later finally caught Nemesis on Satellite TV. So what of these two Cyberpunk laced video specials (both of which had theatrical releases, but saw the majority of their popularity with big video runs)?
Albert Pyun quickly established himself as a prolific specialist of low budget genre cinema. To some he was a director with a certain flair, and ability to inject a visual gloss to films with low budgets. To others he rose alongside guys like Fred Olen Ray as a kind of modern era answer to Ed Wood. Pyun certainly had (and still evidently does) a passion for creating cinema, and occasionally wild ideas that may have often been slightly too ambitious for the budgets he was working in. Still, he’s a cult artist with films like The Sword and The Sorcerer, Cyborg and the first big screen version of Captain America under his belt.
Nemesis is a heady fusion of Blade Runner and The Terminator. Ironically a notion of a human/cyborg amalgamation in Pyun’s Nemesis (the leading hero Alex, regularly opines that being 86% human, is still human) was a notion reused in both Terminator Salvation, and the more recent sequel, Terminator: Dark Fate (with Mackenzie Davis playing a human with cybernetic upgrades). Pyun had/has a recurring fascination with cyborgs. It began of course, with the Van Damme starrer, Cyborg, but ran through a whole host of films through the 90’s, including three Nemesis sequels, Knights, Heatseeker and more.
What’s particularly interesting about Nemesis is how much of a gumbo mix of influences and qualities it has. It’s odd and wildly inconsistent and epitomises both the greatest strengths of Pyun, and perhaps some of the weaknesses. It’s often seen as a Trash spectacular, but there’s certainly a philosophical tinge to it that underpins a few of the scenes, and he occasionally delves into that existential question about what it means to be human. At the same time there are many trashy elements, from excessive violence, lingering female nudity, gruesome visual effects, and some stop motion that’s very clunky.
As Alex, the film’s hero, we had a rising action star, Olivier Gruner. This followed kickboxing film Angel Town, a limited impact on the big screen but popular on video. Gruner, a French native, former Commando and former world kickboxing champion, certainly had the looks and physical capabilities. Even if he was initially somewhat stilted as an actor, often drawing comparisons to Van Damme for awkward dialogue delivery, he had a certain stoic enigma that works well in this film, even if his dialogue become garbled occasionally. Gruner’s physical dedication however (not limited to performing a lot of stunt work himself) added something to the film. Additionally, Tim Thomerson a cult B movie icon and long time Pyun collaborator is also in fine scenery demolishing form as the villain.
So Nemesis might be messy in places, but at its best it’s inventive, and an enjoyably goofy Sci-Fi action film. Pyun loads the film high with style and John Woo inspired gun battles (even before ‘John Woo’ inspired became a big thing in Hollywood). Excessive pyrotechnics are the order of the day too with sparks flying at will and destruction abound. One particularly brilliant set piece sees Gruner pinned down by insane levels of gunfire, and his only escape, some 4-5 floors up, is to shoot through the floors until he drops down to ground level (incidentally, Len Wiseman’s Underworld, whether intentionally or not, lifted that whole bit).
Loaded with neo-retro style, and its heady dose of mechanical battles, Nemesis remains a gonzo, but often brilliant piece of unique B movie enjoyment. The sequels were heavily stripped back in terms of budget and carnage (slightly surprising given the original films strong performance, but not so surprising given Gruner not returning). The fourth film in particular is utterly deranged and totally bizarre. There’s one of the most odd sex scenes ever and a death involving impalement by cyborg nipples that could only appear in a Pyun film, or perhaps from Shinya Tsukamoto whose Tetsuo series may have been a passing inspiration for the Nemesis franchise (not least number 4).
Get a blender. Throw in Blade Runner and Alien, add a dash of seasoning, and hey presto, you have a Rutger Hauer flavoured, CyberPunk scented soup of B movie goodness. The setting is a water sodden future London after rising water levels across the City have left much of it submerged. The film may be at heart an action/horror mixture, but the Blade Runner love is rife throughout, not least with the presence of Hauer, adorned with attire not a million miles away from Roy Batty, but also because it’s dripped in moisture, neons and much of it set at night. It’s very much a noir tinged tale as Hauer’s cigar chomping, sardonic and undisciplined cop tries to figure a series of grizzly murders. It soon becomes apparent, with Hauer persistently at loggerheads with his superiors and a partner thrust upon him, that there’s something extra-terrestrial hunting in the streets of London.
Split Second was initially greeted with lukewarm (at best) reviews and a disappointing box office return (which only cemented a seeming lack of box office magnetism for Hauer as a leading man sadly). Slowly but surely, like a lot of Rutger’s work across a decade period prior and up to Split Second, it has gained a cult appeal. The fairly solid budget provides more than enough visual dynamism and spectacle. Whilst the actual scenes of London flooded remain minimal (as some parts are high enough to remain just puddle soaked), the production design and creature fx are impressive. A solid cast of Brit actors make up a nice supporting network for the leading star too, with Alun Armstrong, Pete Postlethwaite, Ian Dury and Alastair Duncan. Additionally you have Michael J. Pollard, always an enjoyable presence and Kim Cattrall.
The biggest strength of the film though (of course) is Hauer himself. The material may be prime 50’s era B movie guff. The kind of thing Corman may have made of a time, and even with the clear influence of high brow sci-fi like Blade Runner and Alien, is still hokum. It’s very well make hokum though, with Hauer’s laconic and wry delivery, with more than a wink and nod, really help sell this as a rollicking good time. Hauer revels in the silliness, a man enjoying his roles (as he almost always tended to do) and making the very best of it. Like Nemesis too, it was a film that very much lived up to its eye catching VHS artwork. Both are available to watch on Prime and are well worth catching, with pizza and a cold one (other fast foods and beverages are available).
What are your thoughts on Nemesis and Split Second? Let us know your thoughts on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.