Tom Jolliffe looks back at the early Jean-Claude Van Damme starrer Cyborg…
April 7th, 1989. Hot off the monster success of Masters of the Universe, which went off as initially budgeted and without hitches, a sequel was released… or so what could have happened in theory.
As it was, the Dolph Lundgren-headlined Masters of the Universe was deemed something of a cheap (but still costly) box office disappointment. It struck the same year as Cannon misfired with another blockbuster, Superman IV: The Quest For Nuclear Man’s Perm. A budget reputedly sliced right back (as with many Cannon tales, there have always been conflicting stories of those wild, slightly cowboyish days) left a decidedly cheap looking final product, that still cost a hefty amount by Cannon standards. Two big outlays, which were supposed to be even bigger, had both tanked. Subsequent sequels to Supes, Masters, as well as other comic book properties such as Spider-Man, would be announced with pomp and ceremony but fail to materialise as the company slowly died (expedited too by the parting of Golan and Globus).
Albert Pyun was making a name for himself as a visually dynamic specialist in low budget genre cinema. His debut film The Sword and The Sorcerer had made a lasting impression. That film itself bore many Cannon-qualities and it was inevitable that Pyun would cross paths with Golan and Globus’ studio. He’d been initially tasked with delivering Masters 2 and Spider-Man back to back. Reportedly, money had already been spent on sets and costumes for both, prior to Cannon being forced to cancel deals with Mattel and Marvel. That would never stop the Go Go boys from producing something however, and Pyun conjured the storyline for Cyborg in a weekend. The film then shot in just over 3 weeks. You might say a luxury in low budget indie cinema these days, but it was an incredibly tight schedule back then. From two potential blockbusters, to a film costing a relatively paltry $500,000 (some existing sets/costumes etc not withstanding).
Van Damme’s second Cannon star vehicle would mark a first venture into sci-fi, and around that era a marked change of tone from films usually pre-occupied with underground fighting tournaments. There’s still plenty of fights and Van Damme’s trademark high flying kicks though. Cyborg was greeted with the kind of reviews one might expect from a low budget genre film with that title. Though there was a decided push to make JC a new Cannon feature star and plenty of faith despite initial hesitance, this had the feel of a cheap cast off. It’s since remained one of their more iconic works given the fandom Van Damme carries with him and a particular cult following for Cyberpunk gems like Cyborg.
For Albert Pyun, it wouldn’t endear him with high brow critics, merely cement a reputation as something of an Ed Wood for the 80s. For Pyun-ites, who revel in the eclectic gonzo range of his peak era output, it’s a benchmark film. It was one which began a distinct fascination with cyborgs and cyberpunk. In truth cyberpunk features don’t have a huge legacy, much of which lies at the hefty feet of Blade Runner (or more predominantly in Japanese anime), but Cyborg and future Pyun hit Nemesis are part of that low budget niche of films produced post Blade Runner, throughout the 80s/90s (and prior to a brief resurgence following The Matrix). Like Cannon, a studio perfect for Pyun’s gifts, there’s an interesting contradiction, even paradox… Cyborg looks at once cheap but grandiose. A distinct feeling of being filmed in warehouse spaces and sparse back-lots is evened out with stylish camera work, nice lighting and great use of water, mud and fire. The elements come to the fore to create something budget conscious but atmospheric, and somewhat remarkable given the restrictions it was film under.
The film, Van Damme included, is heavily stuffed with gym beasts like Vincent Klyn, Ralf Moeller and Stefanos Miltsakakis (who famously duelled with JC on a number films, including Maximum Risk). Every character is a shredded , muscular beast of oiled up masculinity, with the exception of the few female characters, including Dayle Haddon as a cyborg. As such, among all the murky post apocalyptic landscapes and biblical reference (JC is crucified at one point), there are a number of heaving, weighty fight sequences that feel like steel on steel (even among human duelists). It’s all ever so slightly madcap and perhaps un-honed, but that adds to a certain unique quality among Van Damme’s CV (and per normal for Pyun’s). Universal Soldier and Timecop were more polished, but they were perhaps just a bit more conventional too (they are, with probably good reason more widely admired however). I’ve yet to see the infamous director’s cut, oft plugged by Pyun himself (disappointed with the theatrical version) but it would certainly be interesting to watch.
Oddly in more recent times a lot of these once derided Cyberpunk films have seen a growing reappraisal as the trend itself (along with Steampunk) became more widely popular. Films like Johnny Mnemonic, Tank Girl, Split Second, even Stallone’s Judge Dredd get more love now than they did previously, and Cyborg likewise. There’s also something of a growing admiration for what some might previously have called trash cinema, harking back to the popularity of the B picture in the 50’s, and grindhouse drive-in theatre of the 70’s. So bad it’s good. Pyun’s epic almost Tolkien-esque quest brilliantly blends the 80’s Mad Max riff, with Blade Runner, Terminator and more in his own inimitable, slightly madcap style. The addition of having characters named after guitar models is also goofy but great.
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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 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, 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.