Time to Frolic Afield once again for my monthly article on The Cultural Gutter! As a fan of cyberpunk from the 1980s, I often wonder if there’s any decent example of the genre that makes sense in what is basically our post-cyberpunk reality. Cyberpunk for a Cyberpunk World looks at why cyberpunk didn’t survive, why it should have, and how David Louis Edelman’s Jump 225 trilogy is the best example of post-millennial cyberpunk literature
In the early 1990s, I read Neuromancer. I read it enthusiastically, devoured every word , and fell in love not so much with the story, which was good, but with William Gibson’s razor-sharp acumen with the written word, with his style, and above all, with his ability to articulately describe sensations and scenes in ways no one had ever thought of, and yet made absolute and perfect sense and conveyed exactly certain feelings and visions that could not, it would seem, ever have been described any other way. At least not effectively. And yet, despite my unbridled passion for the book, when I started talking about it to someone a few months ago during one of those late-night sessions where conversation devolves into fuzzy reminiscence about setting motherboard jumpers and using VAX terminals, I discovered that all I had were vague impressions. Besides the names of a couple characters and a thing about spacefarin’ Rastafarians, I remembered absolutely nothing about the book.
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.
Movies try to evoke a wide range of emotions and reactions from their viewers. Shock, delight, sadness, joy, despair — in the century or so that humans have been making movies, the bag of tricks film makers use to manipulate our emotions has become large indeed, and the range of emotions and experiences movies seek to simulate has grown to encompass pretty much everything we’re likely or unlikely to ever encounter in real life. There are, however, a few mental states and experiences that, while a movie could potentially ask us to invest ourselves in, it probably shouldn’t. At the top of my list of experiences I don’t need recreated for me by a movie would be the frustrating tedium of phone-based customer support.
By the time the 1990s rolled around, I think everyone had given up on Rutger Hauer becoming some awesome super cool megastar, and “everyone” included Rutger Hauer himself. On the one hand, that’s too bad, because there for a while, he was a genuinely cool dude, good looking and charming but with something cruel and disturbing about him. There was no wonder a lot of the spooky ladies (and a fair number of lads) with whom I hung out with back in the day were loopy for Rutger. I’m pretty sure we had plans, at some point, to make a movie featuring Roy Batty in his little leather booty shorts from Blade Runner teaming up with Sting’s Feyd Rautha in his little metal thong thingie to… I don’t know glisten as they traveled from town to town, solving people’s problems.
I’m not saying we really thought the whole thing through. And anyway, Sting eventually bought himself a lute and became really boring, so I’m sort of glad we never made the movie anyway. But if we had, we totally would have made Sting recreate his Ace Face dance scene from Quadrophenia, only wearing his Dune thong. Well, whatever the case, those jerks in Hollywood would never give me the funding, and as a result, Rutger Hauer never became the mainstream icon he should have. On the other hand though, Hauer never bought a lute, and he did go on to do a lot of entertaining work, especially in the field of “low budget straight to video science fiction,” which happens to be one of my favorite fields of study, so I can’t totally bemoan the turn his career took. And now that he seems to be enjoying one of those late-stage career revivals, mostly by getting cast as a guy who is irritated by superheroes, I’d say things turned out OK.
But back in 1992, Rutger Hauer might have been bitter about mainstream success slipping through his grasp, though when I think about it, probably not. His biggest movies up until that point weren’t exactly mainstream. Ladyhawke was a quirky sleeper hit of a fantasy film, but I don’t think it really gained much of a following until it hit the newly forming home video market. Blade Runner was a movie everyone hated until it was heralded as a visionary classic years later, forcing people to pretend like they’d loved it since the day it was released and flopped at the box office because Harrison Ford wasn’t enough like Han Solo in it. Most of Hauer’s roles other than Ladyhawke were designed to creep you out — from Nighthawks to Flesh+Blood to The Hitcher. And heck, he was even kind of frightening in Ladyhawke, now that I think about it. If you weren’t terrified by Rutger Hauer by 1986, then something was wrong.
While he was honing his skills as a guy you’d fall for even though you knew at the end of the day he’d probably cut out your heart and eat it while saying something spooky and profound, he was also working diligently on a second persona: that of a cranky, world weary hero who seems to mutter or sigh all his lines. His first big stab at this was in the do-nothing 1980s actioner Wanted: Dead or Alive, best known — if it is known at all — for being the movie where Rutger Hauer blows up a guy from KISS. In 1989, he took his world weary sighing hero act into the near future for Blood of Heroes, a movie where he got to make out with Joan Chen and slam skulls onto spikes. By 1992′s dystopian futuristic serial killer alien (!) movie Split Second, he had either become so good at acting bored that he seemed totally bored with the movie, or he was totally bored with the movie.
Hauer stars as Harley Stone, a cop with a chip on his shoulder in the near future London of 2008. As we suspected would happen, 2008 is a mess. Global warming has wreaked havoc with the planet’s weather systems. London is in a state of perpetual flooding to which the people of the city, ever stolid and with stuff upper lips, have adapted by simply buying heavier galoshes. Harley spends his days plodding through the dirty, waterlogged streets during what seems to be perpetual night, hunting down a brutal serial killer who likes to cut out the hearts of his victims, which he politely mails to police because this movie is all about a big misunderstanding over the true meaning of Valentine’s Day. Harley is determined to catch the murderer since, as is usually the case with such plots, the maniac killed Harley’s partner, sending the high-strung cop into a spiral of self-destruction and obsession that manifests itself mainly in the form of Rutger Hauer wearing a big black trench coat and showing up too late to stop another murder. This is at least the third time Hauer has worn a big, bulky, black trench coat in a movie, by the way. This is the internet, so I’m sure someone has a website about it.
Harley’s superiors aren’t happy with his methods — you know how superiors are — so they take him off the case even though no obsessed lone wolf cop who plays by his own rules has ever, in the history of movies, been taken off a case and not gone right on working that case, especially if the reason he’s taken off is because “you’re too close to this case!” To this film’s credit, at least the cranky police captain realizes this and eventually reinstates Harley, albeit with a bookish new partner named Dick Durkin (man, if Dick Durkin and Harley Stone weren’t Tom of Finland characters…) even though, being a lone wolf cop, Harley naturally wants to work alone. Durkin (Alastair “Neil” Duncan) is, of course, an Oxford-y egghead who spouts off a lot of intellectual and psychological profiling nonsense, since in the 1990s serial killer profiling had suddenly become en vogue. Durkin assumes they can out-think the killer, use the powers of reason and deduction to detect a pattern and cut the killer off by understanding his psychology. Harley thinks they should just splash around seedy London strip clubs at random until something shows up that he can shoot.
It turns out, we learn, that Hauer also has horrible nightmares about the killer, and that in fact, they’re not nightmares so much as they are psychic glimpses through the killer’s eyes at the moment the murderer is about to strike. So I guess he wasn’t just wandering around at random after all. The movie then sees fit to sprinkle even more convoluted nonsense into the mix, as the killer seems to have a Satan fixation, may or may not think himself the Devil, may lead a cult, and other stuff meant to make things more complicated. That, in the end, the killer actually turns out to be a toothy eight foot tall space alien and/or genetically modified demon almost seems, after so much profiling and psychoanalytical babble, the most mundane and reasonable of explanations.
If he’s not busy walking around or having psychic flashes, Harley likes to retire to his squalid apartment, where he lets pigeons nest in his hair and does his awkward, tasteless best to sort of romance his dead partner’s wife, Michelle (Kim Cattrall, still sporting her beautiful jet black bob haircut from Star Trek VI). I know Kim has done, currently does, and probably always will do movies that I loathe, but none of that kills my adoration of the woman, which is based entirely on the only three movies of hers I’ve actually bothered to see — this, Star Trek VI, and Big Trouble in Little China. There’s no arguing with that pedigree, even if she’s more famous for something else. And hell — have you seen her lately? She’s still fabulous, and I appreciate anyone who is in their 50s and can still strut their stuff. I’m only forty, and the world has decided is is better off when my clothes remain donned.
No one really knew what to make of Split Second upon its release, including the movie’s own marketing department. Was it a cyberpunk tale set in a dystopian Blade Runner future, only with less money? Was it a mismatched buddy-cop movie? Was it an Alien rip-off? A Predator rip-off? A gory horror film? The answer to all those questions is “yes,” but that’s a hard movie to sell to people. As such, Split Second did nothing at the box office. In fact, so dismal was its showing that most people assume it was just a direct to video release. However, not all of the film’s misfortunes can be laid at the feet of its multi-genre approach to storytelling. No, at least some of those woes can be blamed on the fact that this movie also happens to be a joyless, somewhat listless mess.
For the most part, I remember the marketing being very sci-fi heavy, pitching the movie as sort of a rainier version of Predator 2. While there is some cross-over between horror fans and science fiction fans — especially after Alien — there’s also a lot of sci-fi fans who don’t care for gore and grue. But gore and grue is exactly what Split Second serves up, in fairly generous amounts, and I can only imagine how off-putting that must have been to people who expected something a little more light-hearted. The gore is made even more intense by the oppressively grim tone of the film and by the general air of sleaze that permeates this and pretty much any other movie that involves heart-ripping mass murderers and strip clubs. This movie, along with 1985′s Lifeforce and 1997′s Event Horizon serve in my mind as a sort of unconnected trilogy of “horror films that everyone thought were science fiction films when they walked into the theater,” though to be honest, I don’t think many people walked into the theater for any of those three movies.
Despite the fact that Rutger Hauer drifts through the movie with an endless supply of quips and one-liners, as was the style in the day (after all, the least you can do is give them a little something to smile about before you pummel them), there’s very little in the way of levity in this film. It takes the violence of an ’80s action film and strips it of the comic book sense of silliness, almost resulting in a satire of the tendency to crack wise while committing acts of unspeakable violence. Hauer mouths the jokes, but they’re infused with such an undercurrent of bitterness and cynicism that they’re more awkward and scary than they are funny — but that’s Rutger Hauer for you.
There were a lot of movies of this ilk released in the 1990s, as the shiny neon veneer of the 1980s wore off and gave way to grungier, more hopeless visions of the future informed by the popularity of cyberpunk literature, which by the 90s had become cyberpunk culture and was ripe for being appropriated, misunderstood, then misappropriated by film makers. The days of rollicking space adventures gave way to smaller-scale, much more pessimistic films like Split Second and Hardware. It’s odd, at first, to think that the ’80s were so full of gloss and glam despite being a decade in which we all thought we were going to get fried in a nuclear war, fried by the disintegration of the ozone layer, or just crushed by relentless economic bleakness. Then the 90s roll around, we get Bill Clinton in office, and suddenly the country is in pretty good shape. We got jobs, the Cold War was over, our president was into fat freaky chicks, and things were rolling along. But the entertainment of that era was relentlessly downbeat, from grunge rock to Alice in Chains style new metal to cranky science fiction movies, you’d think that the entire country had fallen apart.
But that’s the way the world works. Even though the ’90s were a safer, more peaceful, more stable time for us Americans, we still had to deal with the emotional backlash of what we were desperately trying to ignore during the 1980s. It wasn’t until we emerged from those days that we realized how screwed up everything had been, and with that revelation, a sort of general malaise settled in on society. We started griping and grousing even though things had gotten a lot better. The tone of Split Second is a direct result of the lingering deep blue funk that infected a lot of people. It’s mean and grumpy and largely misanthropic, but it overplayed its hand a little bit and was a little too much for a lot of people. There were also a lot of people who didn’t dislike the movie because of its misanthropic tone, but instead hated the movie because they thought it was terrible. And while I, perhaps predictably, liked the movie (I also liked Event Horizon and Lifeforce, as it happens), it’s not as if there’s much denying that it gives people plenty of critical ammunition.
For starters, there’s Rutger Hauer. His performance is, in a way, the embodiment of this movie’s overall tone — not misanthropic, in my view, so much as it is simply exhausted. I can’t tell if Hauer is doing a really good job or is simply sleepwalking through a movie in which he has no interest. Whatever the case may be, the end result is that he turns in a bored looking performance that creates a sort of bored atmosphere. A movie about a Satan-worshiping killer alien preying on strippers and with a psychic link to Rutger Hauer shouldn’t be this lacking in energy, but Hauer handles the whole thing with an overplayed world weariness that borders on lethargy. I understand he’s a man whose seen it all, but if we’re to believe him as obsessed and on the edge, we need to see a little more oomph put into his obsession. As played, he seems as dedicated to catching this killer as I am to trimming an inch or two of fat off my waist. Yeah, sure, I want to do it I guess, but you know, whatever. I also want to eat apple cider doughnuts.
Then there’s the case of the script, which starts out with a rote but dependable “cop tracks serial killer” plot, becomes a still somewhat rote but dependable “cop tracks monster” plot, and then all of a sudden is cramming in all sorts of ridiculous shit, most of which is half-baked and never really seems to have much to do with anything. Generally, I like when a screenwriter or group of screenwriters start to lose control of their own creation. As viewers we get to watch the thing grow more and ridiculous and nonsensical, until it seems like whoever was writing it was either simply holding on for dear life or was sitting in a room with a bunch of other people, smoking pot, and coming up with things like, “No, dude, check it out. What if it’s a DNA thief, and it’s got some of Rutger Hauer’s DNA? And that’s why they have a psychic connection, because like, you know, your psychic powers are stored in your DNA.” And then everyone exhales and bongs have written another goofy science fiction horror movie plot twist.
Thing is, as much as I appreciate the fact that the script for Split Second seems to go off the rails and meander farther and farther away from a point where it might have been thought out, it unfortunately goes about its descent into madness with all the energy of…well, Rutger Hauer’s performance. As nutty as it gets by film’s end, there’s too much between the opening and ending that seems like the movie is just spinning its wheels and trying to think of something to do next. It gets to the point at times where watching the movie is like being stuck in that same room of stoned writers while they spend ten minutes doing the “What do you want to eat/I don’t know. What do you want to eat?” round and round.
Much of the stuttering pacing is probably attributable to the inexperience of screenwriter Gary Scott Thompson, who would learn to pace his scripts more expertly by the time he was raking in the dough for the Fast and the Furious movies he wound up writing. 1992 sees him pretty early into his career as a screenwriter, and the lack of seasoning is likely why the movie ends up being so unfocused and susceptible to needing to pause and figure out where it’s going.
On the other hand, Thompson’s screenplay offers enough meat so that a talented director should have been able to stage a more exciting movie than the one we got. Tony Maylam wasn’t the man for the job, though. Despite his first directing job coming in the early 1970s, Maylam worked infrequently and then primarily on small-scale television projects and documentary films. He brings a decidedly plodding style and small-scale feel to Split Second, a movie whose ridiculous plot demands a much more robust job at directing. I don’t know what Maylam’s deal was, if this was the best he could do or if he just didn’t care. It hurts the film whatever the case, and Maylam himself wouldn’t work again until 2001′s Phoenix Blue, and after that he seems to have occupied himself mostly with making documentaries about automobile design.
Other aspects of the film aren’t as dull as Maylam’s direction, though. For the most part, the cast gives it their professional best effort — most of them are British, after all, and Brits rarely seem to half-ass it, no matter how silly the material. The supporting players and extras chew scenery, bellow, grimace, shout, grumble, and get choked by Rutger Hauer with admirable gusto. Kim Cattrall also turns in a good performance and radiates charm, even though she ultimately gets relegated to the unenviable “damsel in distress” role. And you know, even when Rutger Hauer seems to be only half present, he still brings a dangerous charisma and undefinable something to the role that makes him worth watching.
The performance of the movie has to go to Alastair Duncan though, whose sidekick character is given some truly unwieldy technobabble and psychobabble to spout. Somehow, he manages to mouth it all and make it sound convincing. His transformation from skeptical academic egghead cop to wild-eyed soulmate for Hauer’s Harley Stone may not be the height of originality, but Duncan makes it work wonderfully and provides the movie with one of its only moments of genuine humor that doesn’t involve pigeons sitting on Rutger Hauer’s head. These days, Duncan’s doing a lot of video game and cartoon voice acting, including doing the voice of Alfred on The Batman. What are the odds that both Harley Stone and Dick Durkin would go on to play roles in the sundry Batman franchises?
And the alien, or genetic mutant, or psychic freak, or whatever the hell the monster is, is also a great design. Obviously, though its behavior is all Predator 2, its look is a straight up rip off of the creature from Alien. Thing is, though, it’s a very good rip off, with lots of the drooling and sliminess that you expect from such creatures. We’re still solidly in the era of man-in-suit monsters, and at least by my standards, that makes for a much more interesting and menacing monster than could have been realized by CG — and I don’t just mean 1992 CG. Although I have made my peace with CG for the most part, I still have lingering disapproval for CG blood effects (juicy squibs are so much cooler looking) and for human-size, human shaped monsters rendered by computers rather than being played by a man in a rubber suit. Split Second‘s killer creature is no Pumpkinhead, but it’s a respectable beastie never the less.
It’s certainly weak enough in parts to disappoint more discerning viewers, and the gore and sleaze is copious enough to turn away anyone who got suckered into thinking they were going to get a straight sci-fi film or “Blade Runner but with a monster.” But I’m a pretty undemanding viewer, and the gore didn’t phase me, so I was able to chalk up enough enjoyment out of the film to like it, even though I wanted it to be better than it was. What couldn’t possibly be better, however, is the ending. There’s really no way to top Rutger Hauer pulling a monster’s heart out of its chest, then topping that off by shooting the heart with a giant shotgun, just because the monster pissed him off that much. Split Second isn’t necessarily a film I feel like I need to champion. It’s not a lost classic or a work of maligned and misunderstood genius. I wasn’t overjoyed with it, but I was pretty happy. If, like me, you have a certain tolerance for the unruly, low budget, cynical sci-fi films that came out in the early 1990s, you can probably wring at least as much entertainment out of this hateful little piece of sci-fi horror as I did.
Release Year: 1992 | Country: England, United States | Starring: Rutger Hauer, Kim Cattrall, Neil Duncan, Michael J. Pollard, Alun Armstrong, Pete Postlethwaite, Ian Dury, Roberta Eaton, Tony Steedman, Steven Hartley, Sara Stockbridge, Colin Skeaping, Ken Bones, Dave Duffy, Stewart Harvey-Wilson | Screenplay: Gary Scott Thompson | Director: Tony Maylam | Music: Francis Haines, Stephen W. Parsons | Cinematography: Clive Tickner
Back in the 1990s, I did a fanzine that was about as successful as I could hope for given my lack of financial resources. With nowhere to print it but an all-night copy shop manned by a guy named Fred the Bastard (who would let you make thousands of copies for the price of ten), I couldn’t really achieve any impressive sort of circulation. A couple hundred though. Not bad at the time, at least by my standards. It was a pretty standard type of zine for the time. Interviews with whatever punk rock bands had come through Gainesville int he past few months, record reviews, a bunch of random ranting, and of course assorted bits of collage art. Not having a layout program at the time, the whole thing was printed out in bits and pieces using a combination of my old Atari dot matrix printer and a newer HP DeskJet 500, and then I’d paste and tape it all together by hand. Part of the reason I have no photos from 1988-1994 despite having taken thousands is because I cut up almost all of them and pasted them into the zine layout. Double prints? Keeping track of my negatives? Who ever heard of such nonsense?
Back then, as with Teleport City today, I didn’t get much free stuff to review. Occasionally, something would trickle in, but for the most part, the zine got decent reviews in Factsheet Five and MRR, but that never really translated into a record company thinking we were worth sending a few records to. It’s a form of self-promotion the skill for which eludes me to this day. But we weren’t completely in the wilderness and every now and then my PO Box would surprise me with something besides another packet of unreadably awful Paul Weinman poetry “for my consideration.” Once it was an envelope full of someone’s hair — which was still more welcome than more Paul Weinman poetry. And once, it was a promotional kit for the latest Billy Idol album: a bizarre experiment called Cyberpunk.
I’m not going to get into the history of cyberpunk as a literary or social movement. You can read my review of Neuromancer if you want and get a taste (yes, yes, the review of Count Zero is coming soon). My relationship with the concept of cyberpunk was touchy. On the one hand, there was a lot about it that appealed to me. On the other hand, most of the people who considered themselves part of it (as people, not as writers) were way more cyber than they were punk, and ultimately, cyberpunk ended up being little more than a bunch of computer nerds being dicks to one another in IRC chat rooms and usenet groups. Which I guess is a problem one faces when identifying with a pseudo-subculture where many of the basic tenets of it do not exist. Using tin to read alt.cyberpunk or downloading issues of Phrack over a 1200 baud modem wasn’t quite as thrilling as “jacking in,” and wearing a black overcoat and mirrorshades ended up not looking as cool as the people wearing it thought. And as for the much coveted body modifications and cybernetics, well, unless you lost a hand in a car accident and got it replaced with a hook, about the most functional techno-enhancement for the human body was to get veneers put on your teeth.
But still, there was something that always kept me attracted to the whole ridiculous idea, even if I only hovered on the periphery, as I always have with, say, the industrial music scene. I read and made fun of Mondo 2000, as one was supposed to do. I “researched” smart drugs and all the other stuff that was going to catapult us into the future. I wrote articles in the zine about virtual reality and morality, about black-clad federal agents armed with automatic weapons storming the bedrooms of fifteen-ear-old hackers, about FidoNet and how this whole internet thing was going to change us all. Most of it was a load of nonsense, of course, though the internet did pan out, so at least we have that going for our futurist predictions.
Fascinated as I was with such claptrap, I kind of understood where Billy Idol was coming from when he made Cyberpunk. Pretty much everyone dismissed the album. Idol fans didn’t want to hear a bunch of computerized crap. Electronica and industrial fans thought Idol was jumping on a bandwagon, latching on to a word and a vague concept that had recently been discovered by the media. I was firmly with the latter, rolling my eyes and thinking to myself, “Oh brother.” It was quite a shock when the damn thing showed up in my mail one day. And it was a generous package, too: the CD, the album on vinyl, a remix album also on vinyl, and a 3.5″ floppy disk full of Macromedia Director nonsense that was doing its best to look all Blade Runnery or whatever. I wasn’t that big a fan of Billy Idol anyway, so an album that was Billy Idol sitting at his Mac, doing his best to imitate Front Line Assembly or whatever, and writing really cheezy lyrics about the future, instantly got the record thrown in my “fuck this” pile. I listened to the vinyl once to confirm that I hated it (I didn’t have a CD player at the time), then sold everything back to a record store. A few months later, I saw the CD I’d sold to them now sitting in the dollar bin, so I bought it again, then took it across the parking lot to a different record store and sold it a second time. On the merit of that alone, I was mildly positive about the CD.
Looking back, though, I can see how wrong I was about a lot of things. Billy Idol wasn’t just jumping the bandwagon. I think he was genuinely sincere. I don’t know if he stumbled across an issue of Mondo 2000 or just got drunk while he was watching a late-night interview with that absurd looking Jaran Lanier who would never shut up about how awesome VR was going to be, especially once we all had those full body tactile suits that would stimulate our various senses to create a total immersive environment from which we would never emerge. I reckon if they’d foretold that we’d be just as happy with a crappy streaming Flash video of Ava Devine’s grotesquely gigantic bouncing knockers, we could have saved a lot of R&D money that was sunk into virtual reality machines and the movie Lawnmower Man. Well, whatever set him off, I don’t doubt that Billy Idol really started to believe in all this crap, same as a lot of us did. Of course, for him, it all boiled down to lots of interviews about VR sex (most likely with the jailbait chick from the “Rock the Cradle of Love” video).
And if nothing else, Cyberpunk really was a record made by a man taking a huge gamble. He could have crapped out another Billy Idol record of melodic rock and done OK for himself, but instead he decided to go crazy and record an album full of electronic music. And he decided to learn how to do it all (or at least a lot of it) himself, using his own computer and whatever skills he picked up along the way. Sure he probably had some help, but whatever. We’re talking 1993. Most people hadn’t even heard of email, or the internet, and the World Wide Web was only just being launched. And there was Billy Idol, perhaps not doing the best job of being one of the earliest big name artists to turn to the cyber medium to promote himself, but giving it a go never the less. Bully for him! All in all, reflecting on Cyberpunk made me think that perhaps I’d been too rash and prejudiced against it back in 1993. Maybe it was time to give it another listen and see if time and evolving taste hadn’t altered my opinion of it.
Well, what do you know? I love Cyberpunk. Yes, it’s cheesy, ridiculous, goofy, whatever. You know from Billy’s opening narration to the first track, “Wasteland,” that you’re going to get something on the level of alt.cyberpunk fanfic more than the musical equivalent of William Gibson or Bruce Sterling. At the same time:
The future has imploded into the present. With no nuclear war, the new battlefields are people’s minds and souls. Megacorporations are the new government. The computer generated info-domains are the new frontiers. Though there is better living through science and chemistry, we are all becoming cyborgs.
The computer is the new cool tool, and though we say “all information should be free,” it is not. Information is power and currency in the virtual world we inhabit, so mistrust authority.
Cyberpunks are the true rebels. Cyberculture is coming in under the radar of ordinary society. An unholy alliance of the tech world, and the world of organized dissent.
Welcome to the cybercorporation.
Now that sounds exactly like the sort of absurd crap I would have been writing at the time, and if you ever go back and poke through old cyberpunk fanfic, most of the people were flaming Idol for writing such drivel while, at the same time, writing their own drivel that was just as bad or worse. And anyway, what follows the narration is a weirdly catchy blend of electronica and the catchy Billy Idol brand that had us all dancing with ourselves through the eighties. It lacks the aggressiveness of more “authentic” industrial and electronic outfits like Front 242, Front Line Assembly, Aphex Twin, and so on, but it’s still every bit as listenable as it is silly.
The rest of the album continues to be a sometimes awkward but generally enjoyable mish-mash of Idol’s trademark style layered with synthesized computer music, dance beats, and occasionally more aggressive industrial splashes. Plus lots of samples, naturally. Of course, he ruffled cyberpunk feathers not just by calling the album Cyberpunk, but also by naming one of the songs “Neuromancer.” And then he pissed off regular old alternative rock fans by doing a freaky electronic cover of Lou Reed’s “Heroin.” I have some Velvet Underground songs I like, but I’ve never been religious about Lou Reed, so I don’t mind. The second song, “Shock to the System” is purer Billy Idol, still working in some loops and sound effects but mostly being one of those middle-of-the-road punk-pop songs on which Idol build his solo career. “Tomorrow People” sees the bleach blond rocker back into the territory charted by “Wasteland.” He stays there for most of the rest of the album. “Adam in Chains” is almost ambient electronica, and the last song on the album, “Mother Dawn” could pass for someone’s catchy dance tune. Sure, it’s not really on the level of some of the better industrial bands of the time, but if nothing else, it is to electronic music what Billy Idol’s regular music was to punk.
Billy Idol, I stand before you a humbled man. Like the rest of the world in 1993, I scoffed and wrote nasty things about Cyberpunk. I was wrong. I guess it won’t exactly soothe Idol’s soul if I tell him this is actually now the only Billy Idol album I own, but hey. My life can’t revolve around making Billy Idol feel good. That’s what dancing with oneself is for. Most of the cyberpunk subculture didn’t work out, and these days it’s almost totally forgotten even by the VH1 shows where people who weren’t born yet sit around and reminisce about the 70s, 80s, and 90s. VR turned out to be a colossal wash-out. No one wanted to put on a helmet and log into a virtual office to look for a file when they could just point with a mouse and open the file. Smart drugs ended up being a load of dingo bollocks, too, and “better living through chemistry” just ended up being “I’m putting my kid on Ritalin.” I guess we got the Internet, and although you can’t cruise down to the body part shop and get a camera implanted in your eyeball or replace your hand with a metal hand where the fingers open up to reveal five tiny hands holding Derringers, but we are making some incredible breakthroughs in the field of prosthetic limbs.
But Billy Idol’s Cyberpunk? You know what? That one aged all right.
There are those in the world who write about the career of Rutger Hauer in much the same way that other people write about the film career of Elvis Presley, the general approach being one of “ain’t that a damn shame?” Hauer made a name for himself in America when he appeared in Ridley Scott’s seminal dystopian sci-fi masterpiece Blade Runner as Roy Batty, the leader of a gang of renegade androids being hunted down by Harrison Ford, presumably because they kidnapped his family or were on his plane without first obtaining the proper permissions. Hauer was already a familiar face to the ten non-Dutch people who watch Dutch films, and among that small population, the five fans of Dutch cinema who would actually watch Paul Verhoven films. When he appeared as a ruthless terrorist in Night Hawks, people started to take notice. Here was something interesting about the guy. And something scary. When a screenwriter told you Rutger Hauer was a murderous madman, you believed them.
A year later, Blade Runner catapulted Hauer into even wider American consciousness, and it seemed like he was destined for great things. But Blade Runner wasn’t quite the hit then that it has become today. Shortly thereafter, he appeared in the fantasy film Ladyhawke, which while not a blockbuster, certainly earned its fair share of fans and let Americans see Hauer as something more than a scary cyborg who howls, drives nails through his own palm, and spends his spare time catching pigeons and jumping around on rooftops. Hauer went on to appear in a string of modest genre hits throughout the 1980s, including The Hitcher, where he fed Pony Boy severed fingers, Flesh + Blood, where he competed for screen time with the frequently nude Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Blood of Heroes, where he and Joan Chen got to slam dog skulls onto a stick in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. However, while each of these films found an audience, none of them became much more than cult hits. Hauer’s intensity, his on-screen charisma, and his scary-yet-hot look seemed to imply that he was going to be big, just as soon as he found the right movie. And then something weird happened.
Exactly when and where, I can’t say for certain, though I’m willing to say things started to derail round about Blind Fury, which casts Hauer as a blind swordsman fighting the Mob. The modern-day mob, that is, the one with guns and hand grenades and black Crown Victorias; the one that would probably be able to kill just about any swordsman, let alone a blind one. Couple that with the movie where Hauer played a rogue cop who doesn’t play by the rules, battling evil terrorist Gene Simmons, and things really start to wobble. His long-anticipated portrayal of the vampire Lestat (Apparently he was Anne Rice’s personal choice) never happened, and by the time the movie was made, Hauer was too old, and the role went to Tom Cruise.
Throughout the 1990s, Hauer appeared in a series of misfires coupled with small roles (usually as the villain) in films with cult followings, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which wasn’t a hit at the time) and a role in the Most Dangerous Game inspired Surviving the Game, where he got to hunt Ice T. After initial excitement Hauer generated when he made the leap to America, it seems like studios lost any faith in him as a draw. Before too long, he found himself in direct to video film hell, and there he has remained alongside Seagal, Van Damme, and Mark Dacascos (actually, frequently alongside Mark Dacascos), emerging from time to time to appear in a supporting role in higher profile projects like Batman Begins and Smallville.
You could bemoan the state of his career and look at his appearance in things like Dracula III and Scorcher as something to be sad about as you think about what could have been. On the other hand, Hauer is one of that breed of actor who works consistently, averaging four or five movies a year, getting free vacations to whatever location is being used that week, and showing up for small roles in big films at least once a year. Most actors would be more than happy to fail in the way Hauer has failed.
Redline, which was originally titled Deathline, has nothing to do with the underground street racing circuit. For a movie about that, you will have to go see Redline — the one that features a car on the front cover, instead of Rutger Hauer. Both movies feature lots of hot ladies in really tiny mini-skirts. But the Redline we want is a movie that sees Hauer and his partners Merrick (Dacascos, who is Russian this week) and Marina (Yvonne Scio) as a trio of smugglers in the Russia of the near future, running some sort of biotech you would assume becomes central to the plot at some point. It never does, but it does give us an early opportunity for Merrick and Marina to betray Hauer’s Wade and shoot him dead, presumably over the lack of judgment he demonstrates in choosing his outfit from the Glenn Fry “Smuggler’s Blues” collection at Sears. Merrick then gets to be doubly evil, thus justifying his growing of a goatee, by betraying Marina as well. The corpses are picked up by Russian police, and for some reason Special Prosecutor Vanya (Randall William Cook) decides to use top secret military technology to bring Wade back from the dead. Thus revived, Wade promptly sets out to do two things: see some boobs, and kill Merrick.
Wade seems to have very little problem with the first task, as the Russia of the near future is much like the Russia of the present: full of hot chicks in skimpy outfits, dancing to bad techno music. Somehow, among all the aspiring models, porn stars, strippers, and prostitutes that Eastern Europe has to throw at him, Wade ends up meeting Katya (also Scio), who happens to look just like Marina. One would expect that this, a story about a resurrected man on a mission of vengeance encountering the a woman who is the spitting image of his deceased true love, would then go right into Rutger Hauer getting wrapped up like a mummy and doing that stiff-armed swat to the shoulder that has killed so many old British guys who dared disturb the tomb of Amon-Ra. Instead, it just continues with the second of Wade’s goals, which is to kill Merrick, who has become a player in the Russian mob, though one whose position seems tenuous. I reckon the Russian mob has a thirty-day trial period like any business thinking of hiring a contractor to a full time position.
Of course, if that was the plot, this movie would be far too simple. So we get layer upon layer of ulterior motives. Why did Vanya bring Wade back from the dead? Why do they keep cutting to random scenes of the Russian president (Agnes Banfalvi) giving speeches? Why is Katya helping Wade? Does Mark Dacascos own any shirts, and if he does, is he capable of buttoning the top few buttons? Is there going to be an ill-advised fight scene between Dacascos and Hauer? On the way to answering these and other questions the movie won’t make you care about very much, we get to see Rutger Hauer shoot a lot of people. He also gets beat up by a naked female body builder and a topless female boxer who seem to be hanging out in a mansion-turned-nightclub for no real reason other than all Russian mob meetings include a techno dance party and naked female boxers and bodybuilders, gets to have sex with a couple women in a shower (oh yes — there will be naked Rutger Hauer), gets to have sex with Yvonne Scio, and probably does it a few more times, but I lost track. So if you’ve been looking for a movie where most of the running time is devoted to Rutger Hauer shooting and screwing, this is your lucky day.
There not much in the way of redeeming factors for this film, but that’s never stopped me before. I seem to have a limitless capacity to appreciate dumb direct to DVD movies starring Rutger Hauer and/or Mark Dacascos. Couple that with my previously established weakness for what most of the world considers two-star sci-fi films, and I really had no hope of coming out of Redline as a member of the minority of people who actually enjoyed the film. It’s science fiction only in the most bare-boned sense. Hauer and his pals run illegal biotech, but that never matters. There are devices that let you have VR-style dreams, mostly about banging a couple hot Russian chicks in the shower, but we already have the internet, which is full of places where you can go to pretend you are banging two hot Russian chicks in the shower. The future looks pretty much like the present — which probably isn’t that far off from the truth — and the remnants of Soviet Russia that are littered around lend the film an interesting look. The sprawling mansions, underground dance clubs, and crumbling Soviet-era tenements afford the film a cheap but convincing setting that is a far cry from Blade Runner but better than, say, Flash Future Kungfu.
Hauer’s performances can be hit or miss, depending on his mood. He’s actually fairly engaging in this movie, even if he spends half of it on autopilot. There are moments when he actually acts, and you get to see a little flash of the magic that Hauer once possessed. He’s a little heavier these days than when he played the ultimate combat cyborg and ran around in little black leather biker shorts (obviously purchased from the same store Sting shopped at for Dune), but for a cat in his 50s, he’s still doing OK, and he certainly looks to be in better shape for this film that he was in a lot of his previous direct to video outings — possibly because he knew he was going to be in the nude, as they say, though not as frequently as his female co-star, Yvonne Scio.
Scio’s a beauty (I’d go with Kylie Minogue beets Anna Falchi), and she’s a far better actress than one usually expects from these sorts of films. Redline seems to be her first English language film after a career in her native Italy. Since then, she’s appeared in some bit parts, some television shows, and probably most notable to the sort of people who frequent Teleport City, the Sci-Fi Channel original movie A.I. Assault. I quite like her. She has natural charisma and energy, and even though she’s from the “skinny ass-kicker” mold I so rarely buy into, she handles the action scenes believably. The final revelation regarding her character is somewhat ridiculous, but then, pretty much everything about this movie is somewhat ridiculous. Plus, she’s an actual woman, born in 1969, not a teenager, and she’s kept her freckles. Yeah, I dig Yvonne Scio.
Completing the main cast is our man Mark Dacascos, the Don “The Dragon” Wilson of the 21st century. Dacascos got his start back in the 80s, with a series of bit parts and minor television roles. In 1993, he starred in a movie called Only the Strong, which tried unsuccessfully to convince people that a martial arts based danced practiced mostly by dumpy hippy chicks in dirty linen pants and white dudes with dreadlocks and devil sticks was somehow awesome and the preferred style of combat for all vicious street thugs in Rio, who apparently are more than willing to put their bloodlust on hold long enough for the resident dude with a boom box to find a song with the right rhythm for the fight. While that movie may not have been any more successful than Rooftops at convincing us that capoeira would ever defeat gymkata or Tony Jaa with big-ass elephant tusks strapped to his arms, it did convince a lot of people that Dacascos was someone on which they should keep an eye. In the early 1990s, a lot of Americans were discovering Hong Kong cinema and getting caught up in the films of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao (among others). So the folks prone to paying attention to such things wondered if there wasn’t an American star who could even come close. Exposure to Chan’s hyper-kinetic, stunt-driven action style meant that audiences were no longer going to buy into guys like Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme.
The answer from the U.S. seemed to come in the form of one of two people: Brandon Lee or Mark Dacascos. But then Brandon died, and Dacascos just never clicked with audiences. He went on to star in Double Dragon, a movie that asked audiences to believe that Mark Dacascos would play second kungfu fiddle to a guy from Party of Five — the most unbalanced kungfu match-up since Bruce Lee fought Gig Young. Dacascos then became the go-to guy for direct to video action films now that Don Wilson was slowing down, and they were unable to fit anymore numerals after the Bloodfist title. Even in DTV hell, Dacascos managed to shine from time to time. He starred in both Crying Freeman and Sanctuary, two adaptations of manga drawn by Ryoichi Ikegami. When they adapted The Crow for a television, Dacascos played the role formerly inhabited by Brandon Lee (more or less — I know they are all supposed to be different Crows, but really — a vengeful kungfu ghost in mime make-up is a vengeful kungfu ghost in mime make-up). He appeared in the rotten Hong Kong action film China Strike Force, a movie that decided the final fight shouldn’t be between Dacascos and Aaron Kwok (two actors who know how to fight on screen), but should instead be between Kwok and Coolio…on top of a precariously balanced sheet of glass, meaning that 1) the fight consists mostly of the guys trying to keep their balance and 2) the fight would have stunk anyway, because it was Coolio versus Aaron Kwok. Shortly thereafter, he reminded people how awesome he could be when he showed up in Chris Gans’ Brotherhood of the Wolf as a silent native American bad-ass.
Since then, he settled into a comfortable and prolific career in movies only people like us would ever watch, including Solar Strike, The Hunt for Eagle One, Alien Agent, and of more recent infamy, I Am Omega, The Asylum film studio’s quickie rip-off of both The Omega Man and I Am Legend (Asylum being the people who gave us such films as Snakes on a Train, The Da Vinci Treasure, and Pirates of Treasure Island, among countless others). Although he usually ends up throwing a punch or a kick here and there, these days he relies very little on his athleticism and martial arts prowess, concentrating instead on his ability to sit in hot tubs, shoot people, and pass for pretty much ethnicity the screenplay calls for.
He also seems to appear with shocking frequency alongside Rutger Hauer, making them sort of the Bing Crosby and Bob Hope of crappy direct to video action and sci-fi films. The partnership that began here with Redline continued with Scorcher and not one but two Hunt for Eagle One movies. Here’s to wishing them a long and fruitful joint career as the lords of direct to video action films.
Speaking of the lords of direct to video, you can’t escape any discussion of Redline — and lord knows the world is crawling with people who want to discuss a sci-fi action film in which Rutger Hauer gets beat up by a naked female bodybuilder — without mentioning the director, Tibor Takacs. The man is responsible for at least one film a week that plays on the Sci-Fi Channel. He’s perhaps best known for directing the 1987 cult classic The Gate, but since then he’s blessed the world with a whole slew of horrible crap that I seem to watch with alarming regularity and joy: Viper, Tornado Warning, Rats, Kraken: Tentacles of the Deep, Ice Spiders, Mega Snake…Mansquito! He gave the world Mansquito, for crying out loud! And somewhere in there, he managed to direct a Sabrina the Teenage Witch film. His relationship with Dacascos goes as far back as Sanctuary and Redline, both in 1997, and they worked together again on The Crow television series. You know, if you told me that as of tomorrow, all films were going to be directed by Tibor Takacs, star Mark Dacascos and Rutger Hauer (and hot chicks in short skirts), and involve fighting giant snakes and/or spiders, my only real regret would be that there would then be no more Uwe Boll films.
Come to think of it, why hasn’t Mark Dacascos been in an Uwe Boll film yet?
Takacs also wrote the screenplay for Redline, along with a guy named Brian Irving who seems to be Takacs’ frequent partner in crime. They collaborated together on Rats, Sanctuary, and Nostradamus. Like I said, turn on the Sci-Fi Channel any Saturday, and you are pretty likely to see a film these guys made.
I suppose that this being a work of speculative fiction, one could search for meaning amid all the chaos and scenes of Rutger Hauer killing people. Beneath the sci-fi and action film veneer, this ends up being a political thriller as well, possibly even a spy film. But to read too much meaning into anything is to ignore the greater body of work this writer-director has created. His vision of the future plays like a version of modern-day Russia with a a bunch of Strange Days grafted on to get the film put in the science fiction section. There’s absolutely no reason the mysterious Special Prosecutor needs to resurrect a dead Rutger Hauer in order to sick him on the members of a Russian gang as part of some convoluted plot to assassinate the too-friendly and reform-minded president. It seems like his method of planning is to never let anything be done in one step if it can be done in ten. The guy might have even succeeded with his coup had he spent more time figuring out how to just shoot the president, and less time bringing Rutger Hauer back from the dead and hatching assorted schemes with Mark Dacascos, in an attempt to manipulate Dacascos into crossing his mob bosses, so that…oh, really. You know what? Very little of it makes a lick of sense, and if you try and dissect it any further than “Rutger Hauer looks at boobs and tries to kill Mark Dacascos,” you are probably going to give up. At least Takacs didn’t make the future some totally dystopian Blade Runner meets 1984 (this being before The Matrix) cliche.
In fact, I like the whole idea of scifi films set in Russia and Eastern Europe. The 80s and 90s were dominated by the William Gibson-esque assumption that the future would be dominated by Japan, and everything would be controlled by steely-eyed yakuza in black suits, with a tendency to still use samurai swords even though the rest of the world moved on to guns a couple centuries ago. While Japan still enjoys the reputation of happening fifty years in the future thanks in no small part to their love of flashing cell phones and disturbingly realistic robotic love dolls, it turns out that the future is probably going to play out in places like Russia, China, and oh, let’s say India even though they don’t like science fiction. Russia certainly lends itself to easy sci-fi. You hardly even have to dress the set. Now all we need is a movie where the dejected future samurai corporate hitmen of Japan have to fight for their livelihood against a bunch of future Russian mob corporate hitmen.
So, what have we said? None of it makes any sense, right? The pace is awkward. Not exactly slow, because Rutger Hauer is always killing people or getting it on, or Mark Dacascos is always getting in or out of the hot tub, but there’s no real energy to most of the action. It’s a Canadian co-production, and Canadian films often have a weird feel tot he pace. But then, Canadian films are rarely this mean and scummy, so that compensates somewhat for the meandering clip. Much of the film feels like running in place, albeit fairly amusing running in place, because Rutger Hauer is walking around blowing the hell out of anything and everyone with almost no consequences at all (eventually, they put a bounty out on him, which delights the bloodthirsty hobo vigilantes to no end) and not the slightest concern. As far as we can tell, he was a smuggler, but not a killer, so for him to suddenly become a nonchalant killing machine who will just haul off and blow away anyone with even the most tenuous appearance of guilt or malice is…well, I guess if you were a dead guy walking around Russia looking to avenge your own murder, maybe that’s the sort of thing that makes you put less value on life. Or maybe Tibor Tikacs just didn’t give a shit and figured that watching Rutger Hauer shoot like a thousand guys is more fun than watching Rutger Hauer shoot one guy then agonize about the moral implications of his actions afterward.
All that negative stuff aired, it’s probably no surprise that I actually kind of like Redline. It’s a modestly entertaining, largely tasteless exercise in gratuitous sex, sleaze, and violence, and that’s usually all it takes to make me happy. Throw in some engaging actors, lots of skimpy outfits, big guns, a ludicrous plot, insane amounts of murder that never seem to attract the attention of the police, and Rutger Hauer getting the sleeper hold put on him by a naked bodybuilder chick, and you have the recipe for a decent if idiotic trip to the near future.
Release Year: 1997 | Country: Canada and The Netherlands | Starring: Rutger Hauer, Mark Dacascos, Yvonne Scio, Patrick Dreikauss, Randall William Cook, Michael Mehlmann, Ildiko Szucs, Istvan Kanizsay, John Thompson, Gabor Peter Vincze, Scott Athea, Attila Arpa | Writer: Tibor Takacs and Brian Irving | Director: Tibor Takacs | Cinematographer: Zoltan David | Music: Guy Zerafa | Producer: Brian Irving | Alternate Titles: Deathline, Armageddon, The Syndicate