A storied writer, or possibly a drunk (oh, who am I kidding — there’s no difference), once said of a particular piece of writing that it was a mirror: when a monkey looked in, no philosopher looked out. While I’m sure Dr. Zaius would take umbrage at this gross generalization, the adage stands, at least for me, when it comes to the films of director Albert Pyun. I cannot hate them (well, except for Abelar: Tales of an Ancient Empire) no matter how bad they are, because when I look into them I see myself (a gibbering monkey). Albert Pyun has a magnificent, sprawling vision in his head. He has the drive to express this vision artistically — in his case, through the medium of film. And nearly every attempt at expressing this vision winds up a boring, biting reminder that sometimes the gap between our ability to envision something and our ability to execute that vision is insurmountably vast. Albert Pyun’s sundry failures are me — if I set out to recreate in film the lavish visions I have, they would wind up, I suspect, looking a lot like the films of Albert Pyun, except probably much worse.
It is for this reason, and because I never really cared about Captain America and so wasn’t emotionally scarred by Pyun’s “curious” interpretation of what people wanted from a Captain American film in 1990, that I don’t pack the vitriol toward Pyun than many of my fellow cult film critics seem to possess. It’s not that I don’t understand the source of the vitriol. I just can’t summon it myself. For me, Albert Pyun’s films are a smelly, incontinent, and sometimes violent stray dog that society shuns but I can’t help but appreciate. I recognize and agree with the many faults people find in his films — many of them are plodding, dull, poorly written, flatly lensed, badly acted, and often made under charlatan pretenses that bilked investors for thousands of dollars — but then, just as I’m convincing myself that the only rational response to anything Pyun makes is utter disdain, along comes a hammy Richard Lynch or Tim Thomerson or stop-motion animated killer robot, and I just shrug and say, “Get over here, ya scamp!”
Cyborg is an “important” movie in many ways. It was one of Albert Pyun’s last films to find its way onto theater screens before he was retired entirely to the world of direct-to-video movie making. It was one of the final productions for the legendary hack house of Cannon before studio founders Golan and Globus went to war with each other over some saucy dance movies. Parts of it were salvaged from the abandoned Cannon sequel to Masters of the Universe. And it was one of the final films Jean-Claude Van Damme made before he graduated, however briefly, to the ranks of A-list (or at least B+) action star. Thinking about the many beginnings and ends present within the modest confines of Cyborg is a fun way to pass the time, especially when you are watching Cyborg, which affords the viewer plenty of opportunities for paying attention to something else.
It is “the future,” but not too far in the future. Earth has been ravaged by nuclear war and a plague, leaving the place in tatters. The United States is a smattering of fortified cities isolated from the larger landscape of desolation, destruction, and scavengers so poor they have nothing to wear but the old cast-offs of Brett “The Hitman” Hart. As is often the case with cheap post-apocalypse movies, we have taken to wearing ridiculous outfits with pointless accouterments (seriously– outside of a pool, what advantage is to be gained by wearing swim goggles all the time?) and, for some reason, we stack tons of shit on the streets. In fact, we will very quickly learn that, while the city-states exist ostensibly to protect the civilized masses from the ravages of the wasteland, the cities are actually much worse and much fuller of killers while the wasteland just looks like the North Carolina countryside.
Ruling over this blight is beefy Oakley shades fan Fender Tremolo (pro surfer and future Baywatch cast member Vincent Klyn), who I assume regularly corresponds with the greased-up sax player from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. His rag-tag gang of Road Warrior fans consists of the usual bunch of leather daddies, body builders, and fans of furry vests. Together, I think they maybe are supposed to rule the remains of New York City with an iron — or at least chain mail — fist.
In this post-apocalyptic hell that looks like a series of affordable-to-rent abandoned construction sites and warehouses, men called “slingers” are sometimes hired to escort morons across the “wasteland” (North Carolina) to safety. Someone in New York, it turns out, has found a cure for the plague that has ravaged the world, and now they need a slinger to help guide the messenger to Atlanta. I assume they have to get the plague cure to Atlanta because everyone knows the Center for Disease Control is there, and there’s no possible way the cure could be further developed anywhere else…even though apparently someone in New York had at least enough lab equipment, money, resources, and free time to discover the plague cure in the first place.
A woman named Pearl Prophet (Dayle Haddon, “best known” for her starring role in Spermula) is chosen to deliver the cure because, naturally, who else would you want to walk from New York to Atlanta through a violence-wracked hellscape besides a brave but basically defenseless person? For some reason, the process of carrying the cure between cities involves Pearl being transformed into a cyborg (realized through some hilariously awful animatronics), since in the 1980s we had never heard of USB drives. You’d think that they could have powered up her body, made her a little tougher, while they were cyborgin’ her out, but I guess them egghead scientists never thought that traipsing across the blight would require a woman to defend herself or anything. Besides, that’s what the slingers are for, since why would you send, say, a heavily armed group of defenders to watch over the last hope for the salvation of mankind when you can save money and send one dude with a lead pipe and overcoat to face an endless barrage of murderous thug armies?
These geniuses also don’t think to make a back up file of the cure. We are reminded several times that if Pearl dies, the cure will be lost forever. Look, even in the 1980s we had floppy disks, and even all the 5 1/4″ floppy drives were destroyed in the nuclear war, we also still have ink and paper. I mean, these dudes had to figure out the cure in the first place, right? They had to do some figurin’. Did they burn all of their notes as soon as they were done? That’s just sloppy science, even for a Jean-Claude Van Damme film.
The plan to send one helpless cyborg and one dude out into the maelstrom of post-apocalyptic America goes about as well as you’d expect. They get like a block, maybe two, before they are set upon by Fender’s band of merry men. The slinger lasts about five seconds against them, and Fender is unmoved by news that Pearl has the cure for the plague. In fact, all things considered he’d just as soon not have the plague cured, since he relishes the chaos and assumes that he will eventually be crowned ruler of the wasteland or something to that effect. On the other hand, Fender reckons, having the plague cure as a bargaining chip means he could ransom it off for…well, frankly, his plan seems pretty vague. I think he was going to trade it for some sweet Stussy gear. So Fender decided he’s going to take Pearl to Atlanta, taunt the guys standing at the city limits or something, then this will somehow translate into his becoming a supreme ruler. Issues like, “why would anyone believe the beefcake in a chain mail vest when he shows up and claims to have a cyborg that can cure the plague?” go unanswered.
Before Fender and his band can get the show on the road, they cross Gibson Rickenbacker (Van Damme). Yes, everyone in this movie is named after a musical instrument, PA system, note, or I don’t know, like one of those metal stands you use to prop up your sheet music. And no, there’s absolutely no point to any of the names being this way, unless Cyborg is Pyun’s unwitting paean to the death of rock ‘n’ roll or something. Hell, the music in the movie isn’t even rock ‘n’ roll. Anyway, Gibson is one of those standard-issue stoics who secretly harbors a heart of gold and a tragic past, which is relayed to us in bits and pieces through the films’ roughly forty-seven thousand flashback scenes.
It is eventually revealed — to absolutely no one’s surprise — that Gibson’s dark past also involves Fender. Although Gibson initially rebuffs Pearl’s request that he be her guide, when he finds out sneering, growling, yelling ol’ Fender has kidnapped her, Gibson eventually decides that he will be the slinger to rescue her and guide the cyborg to Atlanta. It’s around this point that Pearl and her entire cyborg nature cease to have anything to do with the movie, even though it’s called Cyborg (not by the choice of Albert Pyun, or so I hear, who wanted the title to be something about Slingers). Gibson sets out in pursuit of Fender and the gang, picking up a doe-eyed sidekick along the way (Deborah Richter) so that finally someone besides Van Damme can do a bare-ass scene in a Van Damme movie.
The rest of the film is what I guess you’d call a “walking pace” chase movie. Gibson and tag-along Nady leisurely make their way across a procession of cost-effective shooting locations like fields, beaches, and abandoned warehouses. From time to time, Van Damme’s contract requires that Albert Pyun film him doing the splits or that jumping spin kick of which he was so fond, to there will be a slow-paced fight scene. When Gibson finally catches up with Fender in an abandoned factory, he discovers that Pearl is no dummy and has a plan of her own: let Fender and his well-armed army of goons escort her across the wasteland to Atlanta, where their demands for zinc oxide and protein shakes will be answered with a massive show of pro-Pearl force courtesy of the legions of soldiers and scientists eagerly awaiting her return. All things considered, it seems like the far superior plan, which makes Gibson sad. Of course, one might also wonder why, if the guys in New York are able to both cure the plague AND tell the guys in Atlanta that they’re shipping the plague down south courtesy of a cyborg courier, then… well… why the hell didn’t they just send the cure for the plague by whatever means they used to communicate the cyborg plan in the first place? “Oh man, this formula contains a lot of squiggly lines, and I just do not know how to describe that over the telephone.”
Disappointed that Pearl has come up with an infinitely better plan than he ever did, Gibson and Nady are forced to escape into a convenient nearby sewer system, pursued by a frizzy-haired glam metal fan who actually has a lot of lines in the movie, but all those lines are “Rawwwggh!” Cyborg has its fair share of padding, but what follows is perhaps the most bizarre example, though I think you really have to see it to get a grip on just how weird it is. Gibson and Nady drop down the manhole. A minute later, the screaming guy screams and follows them. Then there’s some shots of everyone running through the tunnels, and then a shot of another goon screaming and jumping down the manhole. And this repeats like five times, because apparently the bad guys chasing after Gibson did a staggered start to their pursuit or something. The only thing that breaks us out of this weird cycle of footage is Van Damme doing the splits and stabbing the frizzy haired guy in the face.
Things finally come to a head in an abandoned factory — this one is different from the last one because it’s raining, and also there’s a rusty car out front. This is probably the yellingest fight scene ever. Fender roars about every single thing that occurs, good or bad. Van Damme makes that face of his, the ones that looks like he probably should be yelling or is surprised by something, but he’s actually not. At some point, he realizes he’s making yellface without yelling, so he starts yelling too. Then there’s rain and fire and redemption and all sorts of deep things poorly realized at Albert Pyun levels of competence, but hey — like, I said, it probably all looked awesome inside Pyun’s head, and then Golan and Globus gave him $25 to work with.
Cyborg isn’t a movie I feel the need to rally around, but I do enjoy it. I don’t think I’d call it half-assed; everyone put their whole ass into this, and the result just happens to be as good as they could muster. One of the things I love about low-budget action and sci-fi from this era is just how weird and awkward everything is. This is almost entirely because of a lack of money and/or talent in front of and behind the camera, but the end result is that a movie like Cyborg comes out feeling really strange and alien, which is to the film’s benefit. Given how cookie cutter and bland modern sci-fi action has become, with almost nothing to set one film apart from another, it’s nice to go back and visit low-budget sci-fi from the 80s and 90s, when people were more than willing to make something that was partly formulaic, but also unique and really odd.
I won’t pretend that when I first saw this, back around 1991 or so, I liked it. But I was high on discovering Hong Kong action films, and anyone who liked Hong Kong action films back then couldn’t go ten minutes without mentioning how tragic it is that the US champions guys like Van Damme while ignoring this Jackie Chan fellow from overseas. So I pretty much turned my nose up at anything and everything that didn’t feature Chinese people crippling themselves in the name of a good stunt.
As I get older though, the movies I hated back then (yet still saw a remarkable number of), have grown on me, and with my Hong Kong snobbery having been dissipated by so many years of terrible movies from Hong Kong, not to mention realizations like “Huh, maybe the writing in Police Story is actually kind of bad,” I’m finding a lot to like in these movies I dismissed. Cyborg‘s inconsistent, sometimes downright plodding pace, now strikes me as quaint and welcome in this era of ultra rapid-fire editing and camera tomfoolery. I’m not going to try to convince you it isn’t boring to watch Van Damme walk across a field with no edits, but I have a much greater appreciation for a film that, whether it was out of cheapness or lack of talent, just sits back and takes a breath. There’s something almost meditative about it for me.
I also recognize more how all these Road Warrior/Reagan administration inspired post-apocalypse films strove to more or less ape the same look but, as a result of location and what could be found lying around, came up with very different variations on a theme. They’re actually not as alike as the categorization of “Road Warrior rip-off” would lead you to believe. I love that Pyun and screenwriter Kitty Chalmers (is that just a pen name for Albert Pyun?) decided everyone’s name had to be musical instrument related, yet there’s absolutely no reason for it at all. Hell, most of the characters are never even called by name in the movie. Very little about the world of Cyborg makes much sense, and not in one of those “in a world gone mad” ways, but more in a “we didn’t really think this through” way. In fact, it’s a strange sort of accomplishment to have a plot this thin that still so frequently doesn’t make all that much sense. Most of the action takes place just because, and many of the things that occur fly entirely in the face of what probably should happen. Why are all those guys running at one minute intervals, yelling, and dropping into the manhole over and over and over???
Plus, their inability to realize the Road Warrior look while still shooting for the Road Warrior look makes for some pretty hilarious costuming decisions, not the least of which is Fender’s chain mail muscle shirt. It’s like society collapsed, and all fashion decisions were left in the hands of Jon Mikl-thor. My favorite guy, though, has to be the cat kitted out in an umpire’s chest pad, one of those 1920s leather football helmets, and swim goggles. What series of events lead to this guy adopting that peculiar combination of gear as the assemblage that will get him through the day?
Acting wise, this is the type of film that plays to Van Damme’s strength as an actor — his main strength being that he didn’t really have many strengths as an actor at this point in his career. He got better. His job is to look stoic and remote, and then occasionally to yell, and he accomplishes that. This is only his second starring role after Bloodsport, and he’s less comfortable in the skin of Gibson than he was in that of Frank Dux, whose story was set in a world that, while not totally based in reality (well, other than the reality Frank Dux created inside his own head), is at least more familiar than the bizarre cut-rate cyberpunk world of Cyborg.
Also, unlike his contemporary American action stars of the late 1980s and early 1990s — I’m thinking specifically of Steven Seagal — Van Damme plays a character who absolutely gets the crap beaten out of him from pretty much start to finish. He loses fights, fails at missions, and even gets crucified. Apart from making him kind of a crappy hero (Pearl’s plan looks better and better the more you see Gibson in action), it makes Van Damme a more relatable protagonist. He’s not an indestructible killing machine; he’s just this dude who can fight, but when he tries to fight like nine roided up Alice Coopers, he gets his ass handed to him. The script, by the improbably named Kitty Chalmers, also tries (though doesn’t entirely succeed) to turn Gibson into a multi-dimensional human being instead of just a grimacing killing machine. So hey, points for effort.
Deborah Richter is also one of the less annoying annoying sidekicks I’ve seen from this era of action filmmaking, where every do-gooder muscleman was required by law to be saddled with a ditzy comic relief sidekick. The “emotional” scene between her and Van Damme on a beach is actually kind of touching, and her gratuitous nude scene is less gratuitous than most gratuitous nude scenes. Having escaped the filth and grime of a devastated city, and having just seen the ocean for the first time, she strips down and plunges into the waves. It’s a perfectly natural reaction, and hell — for once, a post-apocalypse film gets its requisite nudity from something almost sweet and innocent instead of via a rape scene.
The rest of the cast is… well, their job is to giggle like crazy people (or how movies always seem to assume crazy people giggle) or roar in rage, victory, disappointment, or because they just got a bowl of cereal or something. Hell, that frizzy haired dude who chases Van Damme into the sewer rips into the job of yelling with such gleeful abandon that even The Ultimate Warrior might advise him to tone it down a bit. Seriously, have you ever seen a fight? Most people have at some point in their life, even if they’ve never been in a fight themselves. Have you ever seen a guy in a fight who just roars and pumps his arms up and down non-stop? I’m not talking about an occasional, “Yeah, mother fucker, how you like that?” taunt when the opponent is down, but rather the endless, sustained screaminess that you get in so many movie fight scenes — like the ones in Cyborg.
Theoretically, this is an action film, albeit a curious, Albert Pyun-esque definition of an action film. That means a lot of the action is people walking across fields, or Van Damme looking pensively at the camera — but not directly at the camera, mind you, because he’s haunted. There are a number of fights, but Pyun doesn’t really understand filming a martial arts scene very well (but then, neither do like 90% of the directors who try to film them), and Van Damme is… well, you know. Plus, most of his opponents are anonymous stuntmen and bodybuilders, so it’s not like there was much anyone could do besides grunt a lot and rub their dusty, oiled up forms against one another. Van Damme gets to do that jumping spin kick a couple of times and does the splits, which is all you really need to let him do to keep him happy.
Pyun was still early in his career and had yet to achieve the infamy that would rightfully be his after the Captain America debacle. I actually like his workmanlike job here. It could be (probably is) because the relatively characterless (yes, I really do mean “characterless” as a compliment) approach to direction in films of this nature has become an antidote to the over-directed, over-stylized films of the current era. It may be nothing more of a result of Pyun being lazy in the editing room, or it may simply be an inability to understand pacing, or it may be because Pyun is lik eme and believes that direction should not get in the way of the film, but the end result is the same. Pyun points the camera at something and lets the action (or lack of it) play out for a spell without having to tint it green, or shake the camera around, or Photoshop in a bunch of lens flares.
Pyun’s career betrays a strange fascination with cyborgs (and especially kickboxing cyborgs) that starts in this film. Cyborg was followed by, among other, two more Cyborg films (though Pyun directed neither), four Nemesis films, Knights, and Omega Doom — all of which are about post-apocalyptic humans arguing with cyborgs in economical desert and construction site locations. I like to think that all of these movies form some sort of cohesive vision of the future, at least to Albert Pyun, one that he constantly strives to express and never quite pulls off. Also, unlike most films that involve technology and the future, Pyun here has a somewhat positive view of tech. The cyborgs are actually good guys. Pointless, helpless good guys, but good guys never the less.
If you’re not predisposed to like a film like Cyborg, you’re not going to like Cyborg. It’s not a movie that is going to surprise you or make a believer out of a skeptic. But I have no qualms about admitting that I liked it. Not a whole lot, but sort of a lot. Like Gibson, I may be a lone man facing a hostile wasteland in this opinion, but I make no apologies. Albert Pyun aims high and comes up with Van Damme doing the splits in old construction sites, and for some reason, that only makes me like the movie more. Plus, it really is endearingly weird without ever striving consciously for quirkiness, as would be done in the later Cyborg 3. There’s a knockabout charm to Cyborg in my opinion, a laid back, sort of quiet amiability about it — provided a movie about post-apocalyptic crucifixions, plagues, and misery can be called amiable.
Release Year: 1989 | Country: United States | Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Deborah Richter, Vincent Klyn, Alex Daniels, Dayle Haddon, Blaise Loong, Ralf Moeller, Haley Peterson, Terrie Batson, Janice Graser | Screenplay: Kitty Chalmers
Director: Albert Pyun | Cinematography: Philip Alan Waters | Music: Kevin Bassinson | Producer: Yoram Globus, Menahem Golan