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CYBORG (1989)

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"It’s strange – but I feel he’s the real cure for this world…."

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cyborgDirector: Albert Pyun
Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Deborah Richter, Vincent Klyn, Dayle Haddon, Haley Peterson, Alex Daniels, Rolf Muller, Terrie Batson, Jackson Pinckney, Janice Graser
Screenplay: Kitty Chalmers

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Synopsis: In a post-apocalyptic New York, the injured Marshall Strat (Alex Daniels) orders the woman he is trying to protect, Pearl Prophet (Dayle Haddon), to go to the Bronx township to find a "slinger" to take his place. No sooner has Pearl left than Strat is overpowered by Fender Tremelo (Vincent Klyn) and his band of "flesh pirates". Hearing Fender tell his men to go after Pearl, Strat begs him to let her go, insisting that the information she carries could change the world. Fender says simply that he likes the world the way it is, and cuts Strat’s throat…. Meanwhile, Pearl has been cornered in an alleyway. Rescue comes from Gibson Rickenbacker (Jean-Claude Van Damme), who kills her attackers. Pearl tries to hire Rickenbacker to take her to Atlanta. When he proves reluctant, she reveals that she is a cyborg, and is carrying data which will help a group of doctors to develop a cure for the plague that has decimated mankind. Suddenly, Fender and his men attack. Rickenbacker is wounded and left buried beneath a pile of rubble, while Pearl is captured. Fender informs her that he will take her to Atlanta – but that once there, she will give the information to him…. Some time later, Rickenbacker struggles to his feet and sets out after Fender. By the water, he finds a scene of slaughter and a town in flames. Someone makes a move to attack. Rickenbacker knocks out his assailant, only to find it was a young girl. He builds a fire, watching over the girl until she recovers, and thinking back to when he was hired to guide another young woman, Mary (Terrie Batson), and her two siblings into the country; of the brief idyll that followed; and of the arrival of Fender…. The girl, Nady Simmons (Deborah Richter), recovers consciousness. She tells Rickenbacker that Fender and his men stole a boat; that she heard Fender say that his captive had a cure for the plague; and that they were headed for Atlanta. Determined to help Pearl if she can, Nady tries to recruit Rickenbacker to the cause, but he is unresponsive. However, as he is tracking Fender for his own reasons, the two end up as reluctant travelling companions. Taking a shortcut across the Wastelands, Rickenbacker and Nady are attacked by pirates, and must fight a bloody battle to save themselves. That night, they camp by the water, waiting for Fender’s boat to pass by. Nady offers herself to Rickenbacker but he gently rejects her, as his memories of Mary intrude…. Meanwhile, on Fender’s boat, Pearl, too, is lost in thought, looking back to her decision to sacrifice her own humanity for all humanity, and allow her colleagues to transform her into a cyborg….

Comments: So – we meet again, Mr Pyun….

I’m ashamed to admit it now, but when we were first settling upon our choices for this, uh, tribute to Cannon Films, I actually tried to weasel out of taking my fair share of the mutual pain by picking one that wasn’t a real Cannon Film, but instead had merely been partially funded by the company in exchange for some distribution rights. Well, my colleagues ruled against me, and rightly so; my choice might have been within the letter of the Roundtable law, but it was hardly within the spirit. All that was then left for me to do was to perform an act of penance for my cowardice, and to choose an alternative film that was the real deal.

Which brings us to Cyborg, the opening credits of which read:

Cannon Entertainment Presents

A Golan-Globus Production

An Albert Pyun Film

Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme

No-one out there can accuse me of trying to avoid my portion of pain and suffering now, surely…?

And pain and suffering there was, aplenty. Cyborg takes no more than a couple of minutes to establish itself as "An Albert Pyun Film". In fact, considering that every single aspect of this production would, in one form or another, reappear in the director’s later works, it could perhaps even be said that Cyborg is the Albert Pyun film. All the familiar elements are firmly in place. Firstly, and most obviously, this is a prime example of the director’s apparent obsession with making films about cyborgs; an obsession not one iota diminished by the fact that he clearly doesn’t understand what a cyborg is. (To be fair, he gets a lot closer to the mark in this film than elsewhere.) The action takes place in the standard cut-price post-apocalyptic dystopia, consisting mainly of artfully arranged rubble in the streets, and lots of abandoned warehouses and factories with light streaming through them in a strangely familiar manner. (No giant fan, though, I have to grant that.) The characters use a peculiar kind of jargon meant to remind the viewer that this is the future, but which instead serves only to render what plot points there are almost incomprehensible; while the screenplay itself is unabashedly derivative of other, incalculably better movies, and yet for all that is irredeemably tedious. Cyborg is basically by Mad Max out of Escape From New York, with a smattering of Bladerunner thrown in for good measure, and plot trimmings courtesy of – damn you, Pyun! – The Searchers. (The director himself, however, seems to have seen it differently. Incredibly, Pyun once compared Cyborg to a Sergio Leone film, thus rocketing himself into second place, right behind Jerry Warren, on my list of people who require a bitchslapping of the most urgent and thorough nature.) Indeed, the only vaguely original thing about Cyborg is the bizarre decision to name almost everyone in the film after guitar models or manufacturers, an inane conceit made even sillier by the fact that in the course of the film, practically none of the characters is ever called by name. We do not learn, for instance, that our hero is named "Gibson Rickenbacker" until the end titles. Frankly, I can think of very few things that better define the word "optimism" than the inclusion in Cyborg of a joke which assumes that, when the credits roll, the audience will still be in its seat.

Now, all of this was painful enough; but when I got to the end of Cyborg I found myself confronted by the most fundamental difficulty of reviewing any Albert Pyun film. Since my last venture into this territory I had forgotten (or blocked out) that the distinguishing feature of the director’s works is that while they are often set against events of literally apocalyptic proportions, nothing actually happens in the films themselves. This makes them remarkably hard to write about. (Not that that’s stopping me from blathering on about this one for several pages longer than necessary, you notice; I’m the Albert Pyun of film reviewers!) Despite an opening narration (delivered in gravelly tones which we later learn belong to the film’s Bad Guy, Fender Tremelo) that assures us of the collapse of civilisation, genocide, anarchy, starvation and the plague, the plot of Cyborg can be summed as "a guy walks around, gets beaten up a lot, and kills a bunch of people". Now, it is certainly true that a plot summary can fail to do any film justice – Citizen Kane, after all, could be summed up with "A man dies; a reporter talks to people who knew him" – but in this instance justice is pretty much done. However, while it’s highly unlikely that anyone goes to a film like Cyborg looking for an intricate storyline or character insights, it has to be said that there is an attempt at the latter, at least. If you tilt your head, close one eye, and squint really hard with the other, you can see that this film is meant to be about the redemption of Our Hero. Initially a "slinger", a killer of "flesh pirates" and a guide-for-hire who leads the dispossessed from the nightmarish city environment into the comparative safety of the country, Rickenbacker falls for one of his clients, and briefly, unwisely, lowers his guard. The outcome of this fleeting interlude is all-too inevitable (and not just because we’ve seen it in about a thousand different films over the decades), and Rickenbacker gives himself over to his lust for revenge until his experiences with Nady Simmons and Pearl Prophet finally persuade him that there might be more to life after all than just the slaughtering of flesh pirates. Naturally, this lesson isn’t learnt until after an incredible amount of physical violence has been dished out and taken, including – in the film’s unintentional comic highlight – the literal crucifixion of Rickenbacker on the mast of an abandoned boat. (The camera pulls back here in what’s meant to be a moment of dramatic revelation, but which instead left me speculating about just how the heck Fender & Co. got him up there in the first place!?) Indeed, the only thing funnier than the crucifixion itself, is the manner in which Our Hero gets himself down. I just bet that when he was three years old, he threw some almighty big tantrums….

Now of course, it’s only weirdos like me who worry about this "character" nonsense while watching an Albert Pyun film – not to mention a Jean-Claude Van Damme film. Everyone else, sensibly enough, is here for the fight scenes. In that respect, Cyborg fulfils all of its obligations. We have fights in alleys, fights in buildings, fights in swamps and fights in sewers; and at one point, JC even gets to do his beloved "wall-climbing splits" routine. And if the final body count ends up (in action movie terms, at least) being merely impressive rather than astronomical, the film makes up for that by being surprisingly violent and bloody. (Cyborg suffered MPAA trims upon first release, and in some territories had a number of scenes further pruned before its video release.) However, I have to say that I found the fights overall to be a bit of a disappointment. They are well-staged, granted, but they are also repetitively staged; by the twentieth bout or so, this proves to be more than a little wearisome – as indeed does the behaviour of Fender’s pirates, a largely inarticulate bunch, who spend an inordinate amount of time running around bellowing "ARRRRRR!!!!" before being dispatched by Our Hero. (Remarkably, these meatheads continue to bellow "ARRRRRR!!!!" even when they’re trying to sneak up on Rickenbacker.) Nor are the fight scenes improved by the way in which they have been put together, with an extremely annoying combination of slow motion action and hyperactive editing. (The former, in particular, was a very unwise move, in more than one instance giving us a good feel for the actual distance between the fist of the puncher and the face of the punchee.) Be that as it may, these scenes do serve their purpose, which is to prune away the minor characters and to set up the climactic battle between Fender Tremelo and Gibson Rickenbacker. Actually, the most interesting thing about this showdown is the sheer physical contrast between Van Damme and Vincent Klyn. Perhaps I can best explain what I mean by saying that had Cyborg been made a decade or so later (and on a rather higher budget), Klyn’s role would probably have been filled by The Rock. But regardless of the fact that the Bad Guy is about a foot taller than Our Hero, and a good number of pounds heavier, the fight reaches its predestined outcome when Rickenbacker delivers a kick that lifts Fender into the air and lands him on a meathook a good two feet off the ground – and after only one "he’s-dead-ooh-no-he-isn’t" false ending, too! Cyborg concludes with Rickenbacker accepting the mission that Nady Simmons had tried to force upon him, and delivering Pearl to her medical colleagues. He then disappears into the night, redeemed – or so we’re left to assume. One thing that the ending of Cyborg doesn’t deliver is something I’d been expecting all the way through: the revelation that Rickenbacker, or Fender, or both, were cyborgs as well. I don’t know why I expected that – the film’s Bladerunner references, perhaps, or maybe just JC’s stonewall inexpressiveness. Instead, the film-makers chose to go with a "humanity is superior" message; a message somewhat muted, it must be said, by the necessity of accepting the innate "superiority" of Jean-Claude Van Damme.

All of which brings us to perhaps the oddest thing about Cyborg, the utter irrelevance of both its title and its titular character, who barely even deserves to be called a MacGuffin. The cyborg in question is the twee-ly named Pearl Prophet, and the film purports to be about her journey from New York to Atlanta, with information stored in her database that will allow a small group of doctors to develop a cure for the plague that has decimated mankind. There are just two teensy problems with this scenario. Firstly, while we are assured by various characters of the devastating nature of this disease, we see absolutely no evidence of it within the film itself – or indeed, even of its existence. There are no scenes of the afflicted, no agonising deaths, not even any twisted corpses by the roadside. It’s kind of hard to put any emotional investment into a catastrophe that, for all we see to the contrary, might be no more than a collective delusion. Secondly, in perhaps the most head-scratching of the film’s various contrivances, Pearl’s journey to Atlanta proves unexpectedly simple when Fender Tremelo decides to take her there himself. The reason for this, if you can call it that, is that Fender decides he wants the data Pearl is carrying for himself: not to cure the plague, but so that he can withhold the cure. "THEN," he grates (just a word of explanation: Fender speaks all of his dialogue upper-cased, if you get what I mean), "THEN I WOULD BE – A GOD!!" Of course, a moment’s reflection reveals the slight flaw in ol’ Fender’s plan. There’s no fun, after all, in tormenting mankind if mankind doesn’t know it’s being tormented; similarly, it’s hard to get people to fall down and worship you if they’ve never heard of you in the first place. In short, Mr Tremelo’s impending godliness would seem contingent upon a non-existent means of mass communication. However, this unlikely desire for divine elevation in our Bad Guy serves its purpose, which is to prevent Fender from simply ripping out Pearl’s circuitry when he first captures her, and thus ending the film five minutes after it starts. (He could have done it quite easily, too: in order to prove her story to Rickenbacker, Pearl lifts off her wig to show him the unprotected wiring at the back of her head. Uh, I believe that’s what’s known as a "design flaw".) And you know, perhaps I’m underestimating the infrastructure still extant in this post-apocalyptic hellhole. After all, this is a world where people can travel from New York to Atlanta in about the same time it took the shark in Jaws: The Revenge to get from Amity to the Bahamas; where despite the toll taken upon the population, and the distances between the clutches of survivors, everyone seems to know everyone else; and where, while most people live by firelight, there’s electricity whenever it’s truly needed – like when Pearl was to get her data out of that impressively long-lived "computer system" in New York. Handy, that.

Cyborg was only the second starring role for Jean-Claude Van Damme, and his inexperience shows all too clearly. While his performance in the previous year’s Bloodsport was reasonably assured (perhaps because JC himself felt at home in the martial arts atmosphere), here he seems quite lost – at least in between the fight scenes. It didn’t help, of course, that at this point he was still struggling with his command of the English language; and nor did his production team do him any favours, considering the dialogue to was given to deliver, and the ridiculous costumes he was asked to wear. All of this, however, pales into insignificance beside the simply horrendous hairdo that JC sports during his all-too-frequent flashback scenes: it looks like he’s tried to make himself a wig out of a ball of wool. The welcome disappearance of this nightmare ’do, by the way, is supposed to represent the renegade Rickenbacker’s "taming" by the girl, Mary; it’s significant, dontcha know. (Mind you, JC is scarcely alone when it comes to jaw-dropping hairstyles: this is yet another "post-apocalyptic" movie where civilisation is going to hell in a hand-basket, but everyone took a moment to rescue their hair-dryers, curling irons, and braiding machines.) Understandably, in his "character" scenes, Van Damme wavers between an embarrassment he’s not yet actor enough to conceal (he’d eventually get there, as anyone who’s seen Knock-Off can testify), and a state of frozen immobility which suggests that, like a threatened animal playing dead, he thought that if he sat long enough without moving, the cameraman would eventually go away and leave him alone. The only time he comes out of this comatose condition, other than during the fights, is when he has his inevitable Action Movie Hero Moment: "FENNNNDERRRR!!!!"

If JC underplays as Rickenbacker, Vincent Klyn as Fender Tremelo turns in some overacting that almost reaches Richard Burtonian proportions. He growls, he bellows, he chuckles, he snarls – anything to let us know that he’s EE-VIL. Mostly, however, he just whips off his dark glasses and shoves his creepy pale eyes directly into the camera. (My theory? They’re pale because no light could possibly penetrate those shades of Fender’s, considering the inch-thick mud that’s plastered all over them. I guess only wussies clean their glasses.) As a screen presence, Klyn is effective; as an actor, he makes JC seem--- Well, no, perhaps that’s taking it a bit too far…. The rest of the cast is negligible, consisting mainly of body-builders like Rolf Muller and stuntmen like Alex Daniels; asking little more from them than an occasional "ARRRRRR!!!!" was a wise decision. Dayle Haddon has nothing to do as Pearl but look noble; while with Deborah Richter’s Nady, Albert Pyun keeps his record for creating unappealing heroines intact. Having said that, I have to confess that the only sequence in Cyborg that rang true for me came courtesy of Ms Richter. On the trail of Fender and Pearl, Rickenbacker and Nady find themselves on the coast near Charleston; and Nady proceeds to strip off and plunge into the water. This is, of course, the film’s Contractual Moment Of Nudity; but after the grime and violence that Nady has temporarily escaped, it is also quite believable. Later, sitting by the fire and wrapped in a blanket (as is Rickenbacker, although we did not see his swim, and were consequently spared the trademark JC butt-shot; I guess at this stage of his career, he didn’t have the clout – or the ego – to force the issue), Nady weighs up Rickenbacker’s lack of response to her attempts to recruit him to her cause, then observes astutely, "You’re not going to be here when I wake up in the morning, are you?" Desperate for his help, she then tries to buy it the only way she knows how, and lowers her blanket invitingly. Rickenbacker leans towards her, but surprises her, and perhaps the audience too, by gently pulling her blanket back into place. He then retreats to his own side of the fire. It’s a nice little scene, no more than that, but well performed by both actors, and a welcome moment of naturalism in a film that is all too often aggravatingly artificial; a quality, if that’s the right word, that seems to infect a great deal of Albert Pyun’s work. This film’s main virtue is not its direction, or its acting, or even its fight scenes (at least, not as far as I’m concerned), but rather its visuals. Thanks to some classy cinematography by Philip Alan Waters, Cyborg is a lot more interesting to look at than you might expect. (Waters seems not to have done principle cinematography for anyone but Albert Pyun; he deserves better.) As for the film overall--- Well, it’s neither as flat-out annoying as Captain America, nor as boring as Omega Doom, nor quite so mystifyingly pointless as Mean Guns. In short, it’s the best Albert Pyun film I’ve seen so far; and if by that I seem to be damning Cyborg with faint praise, well, I’m sorry, but I’m afraid that under the circumstances, faint praise is the best that I can do.


"I have absolutely nothing to add here."
This image was stolen from The Charter Terminal
just 'cos I couldn't help myself....

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