Review: Cyborg (1989) - Van Damme at his best. And its'... TWO SEQUELS? WTF?!
Bloodsport, Kickboxer, Cyborg. The occasional guy will pick Black Eagle in an effort to impress us with his knowledge of cheap and awful 80's action films. Which is Van Damme's most entertaining film? Sure, most people would go for the obvious Universal Soldier or Hard Target - bigger budgets, better productions - but for sheer entertainment value? This one.
And I love it for the crazy story behind it and it's director as much as anything else.
I like how genuinely nasty it is, too.
It's the future. A Plague has ravaged humanity and life is hard. Van Damme is a nice guy living in the countryside in a farmhouse with his surrogate family. The bad guys come along, tie them together with barbed wire and throw them down a well because you know, they're bad guys. When he manages to crawl out - wife and young son dead - he recuperates and he goes looking for revenge against this asshole and his gang of vicious thugs, as you would. And to make things worse they take the daughter with them - who is about 10 years old. Let's not even think about that.
Well they certainly look like they mean business. In an early Duran Duran video. Burn!
A few years pass.
The Cyborg in question isn't the man himself; it's a woman he later has to protect. A group of scientists have implanted information in her that will somehow lead to the world being less-fucked up. There's a plague - this will lead to a cure. He has to get her across the country to a facility where they'll be able to use this information. On their way - guess who they keep bumping into?
And that's the film. Protect robot lady, keep moving, kill permanently laughing villain. Simple. I love it.
They later beat the hell out of him and then they crucify him. If you're making a post-apocalyptic revenge action film you'd better make it nasty; otherwise what's the damme point? (do you see what I did there?).
They don't nail his feet though, so despite being immolated on a post the thickness of a telephone-pole, his repeated back-kicks - over the time of hours and hours - break that post in two. He is the ultimate freaking machine.
This is a picture of when Jean-Claude has been crucified.
In a demonstration of just how impressive the young Van Damme actually was a bad guy comes looking for him down in a sewer system he's managed to escape into - fleeing from the gang. Where's he gone? The guy trailing him is massive and with a knife so large it's bordering on being a sword. We cut between Van Damme and his hunter a couple of times. Van Damme is lit by a shaft of light coming from somewhere - the bad guy moving forward is in comparative darkness. Van Damme lifts his knife, double-handed above his head ready to attack. Why the hell can't this guy see him? The camera cuts to a wide shot and he's there - doing the freaking splits high in the air - each foot planted firmly on the opposite wall with nothing to support him but his own body strength. It's a practical effect - he's actually doing it. And then he drops on the villain and it's lights out for him. I was 13 years old when I saw this film for the first time. It blew my mind.
The story behind the film is just as good. It concerns Cannon Films (any fans of RedLetterMedia will have just gone on high-alert - go to Youtube to see their love for this production company).
The Cannon Group at this point were owned by Golan and Globus, two cousins. They had plowed a ton of money into Masters of the Universe (1987) - that's right, the He-Man movie starring Dolph Lundgrun and a very young Courteney Cox. It bombed big. If you're going to bomb, that's the way to do it.
They'd already gone into production on the sequel and spent $2 million on sets and costumes for it and a proposed Spiderman film - so they used that stuff for this film instead. Which is why some of the production looks so weirdly good and why some of it looks like the film was just shot in a field somewhere. Particularly the ending and the beginning - they look fantastic; like a proper film.
Cannon had lined up a guy called Albert Pyun (really deserving of an article of his own, he's legitimately fascinating) to make both films back-to-back - he had a reputation as someone who worked fast and cheap. He wrote the script for this in two days and shot it for $500,000 in three weeks.
And I love it. However, I realise that despite this, sequels to this film really shouldn't exist. It was made cheaply to recoup losses and make some cash back, mainly on the rental market. It wasn't a big hit (though its' cost to profit is pretty impressive - apparently making around $10 million). And the sequels... they kind of exist and kind of don't.
Albert Pyun has nothing to do with the sequels, so automatically our interest levels should be dropping. Ditto, Van Damme who quickly found himself flirting with actual proper stardom. Cannon wanted to keep Damme sweet and regularly appearing in their films, so they gave him final edit. Pyun got kicked from the edit room. More about this later. It's a long weird story.
I was going to put some of the artwork for the next film in here, but the original stuff isn't too great and the later re-packaging really focuses on the pneumatic attributes of the young Ms Jolie to a borderline perverted degree.
Cyborg 2 - Glass Shadow has literally nothing to do with the first film (there is one flashback shoe-horned in there for no reason), except the extent of the budget and the fact that it's sci-fi with cyborgs in it. Did Cyborg (it's achieved some cult status now, but then...?) have enough name recognition to entice an audience to a supposed sequel? Apparently so.
It's bad. You don't need me to tell you, you've just watched the trailer.
But get this; it stars Elias Koteas, Angelina Jolie, Billy Drago, and Jack Palance. Koteas and Jolie were unknowns, and Drago and Palance no-doubt did literally one day on set each, but still - that's a pretty good cast.
It's a pretty boring film (make that unforgivably boring), with much of the action set in a facility made up of small rooms and cement walled corridors. It's the future again. There's a conspiracy - corporations into robotics trying to kill off their competition. There's quite a bit of practice fighting in a dojo. Some talking. A scrapyard explodes at the end for some reason. It's notable for being Jolie's first starring lead in a film and how insanely young she looks and how icky her on-screen relationship with the older Koteas is. It is not a good film.
See, small-room dojo fighting.
So, some idiots rented this crap and it made some money because then Cyborg 3: The Recycler happened. It has Malcolm McDowell in it (but he went through a period of 10 years where he was in every film made, so this means nothing) and Zach Galligan, who at least people had heard of (Gremlins, kids).
And you know something - it's not that bad. For a few minutes.
Now, in the last few years the packaging for this film has improved to make it look exciting and dynamic, but I thought you deserved to see the original DVD cover.
The DVD cover insists Malcolm McDowell is the star of this, but he's in the film for about 4 minutes in total. I'm tempted to put a stopwatch on it.
The dialogue and initial setup seem promising. Humans and Cyborgs have lived together in harmony for 200 years, then there was some sort of catastrophe and now cyborgs who don't belong to anyone are hunted down by people like The Recycler, who chop them up and sell them for spare parts.
He captures one such cyborg and then gives McDowell a call, who's a buyer of such stuff. Malcolm's got a robot hand and he's having a manicure while sunning himself at some outpost/town - flanked by a couple of bodyguards. McDowell is a little terse, as the last time they dealt with each other the cyborg body he bought turned out to be a "glass shadow" and later exploded (a neat little reference to the previous film, I thought).
The deal gets tense, quickly. McDowell seems to be having a lot of fun - he's really chewing the scenery and the dialogue is pretty good. There's a brief altercation and then The Recycler kills him. And that's the end of McDowell.
I was kind of pissed. But then this happens.
Right after he kills McDowell The Recycler walks right into the nearby bar and pours himself a drink from a tap. It's white. Is it milk? It looks like milk and I'm pretty sure that it is milk. Did this film just kill Malcom McDowell and then make a Clockwork Orange reference? I'm not sure, but I think it might have done.
I think I've just discovered a forgotten minor sci-fi masterpiece.
And then it all goes wrong.
Richard Lynch (good value performance, lots of fun) as The Recycler starts hunting a rare, pregnant, cyborg who's worth much money. She runs off into the wastelands and finds a group of cyborgs who also fled society. A helpful human genius engineer (Galligan) fixes them all up and they wait for Lynch to show up with his expanded hunting party.
Each new actor we meet gets worse, there are some horrible speeches about how cyborgs are people too, and the music is terrible.
At least there's quite a bit of practical effects-work going on. Explosions, a beheading, guns everywhere - I appreciated the effort but I was past caring at this point.
I won't blow the ending. Get some friends round for beers and watch the lot. You'll have a bunch of laughs.
Now, while researching this story more and more interesting information just kept coming up about the films and the film-makers. So much so that I find myself, surprisingly, writing that we're not done with this yet. It's a real deep dive into independent, cult, cinema and there's too much of it for just this one article - so, there will be an unexpected sequel. And it goes some crazy, weird, places.