Last of the Monster Kids

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Wednesday, May 11, 2016

JCVD-A-THON: Cyborg (1989)

It’s a well known bit of B-movie trivia. Eighties cheese factory Cannon had already begun work on a sequel to “Masters of the Universe” when the first He-Man movie bombed. Experienced Cannon-man Albert Pyun was to make that part two and a long-gestating “Spider-Man” adaptation simultaneously. Looking to utilize costumes and sets intended for these aborted projects, Pyun cobbled together the script for “Cyborgin a weekend. Pyun initially intended the film for that other Cannon-sanctioned face-kicker, Chuck Norris. Golan and Globus, in their infinite wisdom, slotted Jean-Claude Van Damme into the lead instead, based on the success of “Bloodsport.” “Cyborg” was another hit for the young Van Damme even if it wasn’t enough to save Cannon’s flailing finances.

Story wise, “Cyborg” is a bit of a mess. It’s not terribly shocking to discover it was written in two days. The apocalypse has come and gone, as it often does in B-movies. A nuclear war and subsequent plague has reduced America to a hellish wasteland. A cyborg named Pearl carries a cure to Atlanta, Georgia, the last sane bastion of humanity. A group of madmen, led by a blue-eyed psycho named Fender, murder Pearl’s bodyguard. Before Pearl herself is captured, she seeks out a slinger – a mercenary and guide – named Gibson. He’s reluctant to take the job but, after rescuing another young woman, decides he does want to save humanity after all. However, the path to Atlanta is fraught with danger. Gibson has a personal score to settle with Fender. Before he can defeat the bad guy and save the world, he has to defeat his own demons.

“Cyborg” immediately reminded me of post-apocalyptic anime like “Violence Jack,” especially in a scene where Fender and his men cruelly burn down a village. The film’s free-wheeling mayhem and macho showdowns certainly remind me more of the macho chaos of “Fist of the North Star” then the organized world-building of “The Road Warrior.” “Cyborg” begins with the villain describing the sick world in glorious terms. This sets up a heightened, ridiculous universe for the characters to inhabit. “Cyborg” isn’t more or less campy then similar films from the same time. Its sometimes mean-spirited violence, goofy costumes, and utterly sincere script combined to make a slightly implacable but likably nutty B-movie.

The first thing you’ll notice about “Cyborg” is its insane costume design. Fender is introduced wearing steel chain-mail like a poncho, his hair in dreadlocks and glasses on his face. His goons often wear leather vest, bandanas, studded wristbands, elaborate masks, and pastel colors. Everybody looks like extras from an especially grimy hair metal music video. Most of the sets are abandoned warehouses and dingy shantytowns. Yet even these have a certain amount of low-budget flair. The score is composed primarily of shrieking synth notes. There’s a random moment of stop-motion animation, when the cyborg reveals her true nature. The story, which frequently cuts back and forth between flashbacks and the present, has a rambling, disjointed quality. In other words, pretty much everything about “Cyborg” is unintentionally but compellingly goofy.

Jean-Claude Van Damme’s acting ability hasn’t grown much since “Bloodsport.” Gibson doesn’t say much, mostly quietly brooding when he’s not opening various cans of whoop-ass. The character has a tragic backstory. A decade ago, he took another job to escort a woman and her daughter to safety. After guiding the woman to her ranch, Gibson fell in love with her and adopted the daughter. Of course, Fender and his goons murdered the mother and abducted the girl. (If you think having a relationship with a woman affects Van Damme’s ever-present gayness, he later dismisses the blatant advances of a female character. So there’s that.) Most of Gibson’s past is revealed during nightmares, daydreams, and an extended torture scene. The bad guys crucify Jean-Claude on a boat mast which he then kicks down one-footed, sweating and screaming in rage. Van Damme’s emoting skills are still unpolished and the script doesn’t leave much room for his quirky attributes.

His ass-kicking skills, however, work like a fine-tuned machine. Van Damme is introduced slashing a bad guy’s throat. With a few character developing scenes aside, most of “Cyborg” is devoted to ass-kicking. During a scuffle in an abandoned building, he cracks arms, kicks people off ledges, shatters steel bars, gets into several knife fights, and performs a roundhouse kick with a serrated boot. A shoot-out in an abandoned factory is not as innovative but does include a few clever moments. Like Gibson zip-lining down a chain or a dummy careening off a cliff. Pyun’s editing can be weirdly erratic but his direction is frequently colorful. A clever moment has Van Damme using his God-given propensity towards splits to get the literal drop on a bad guy. A stalking scene through the sewers is shaded in shadows. The final fight, in a junk yard, is accented in blues and purples. It also has JCVD kicking a burning man into a car, which then explodes. The shirtless brawl between hero and villain concludes with gratuitous stabbery.

Also adding to “Cyborg’s” appeal is its fascinatingly bizarre villain. Vincent Klyn, a surfer from New Zealand, plays Fender. Klyn’s accent is undecipherable, pin-balling between vaguely Australian to sort of Southern, but always features plenty of reverb and distortion. With his creepy glare, billowing scream, and robotic body language, Klyn is a memorable if hilariously tone-death villain. Deborah Richter plays Nady, the woman who Gibson picks up. As far as love interests goes, she’s contributes little to the plot. Richter’s acting is fine, even if the script has little use for her. Weirdly, the titular cyborg has a small role in the film. Dayle Haddon is appropriately stilted.

“Cyborg” would spawn two unrelated sequels, the second of which starred a young Angelina Jolie. (Part three tried to match that star power by combining Malcolm McDowell, Zach Galligan and William Katt.) Albert Pyun would return to cyborgs as a topic two more times, with “Knights” and “Omega Doom.” As for the original, it’s not quite an eighties action classic. However, the fight scenes are good and the film’s content is often amusingly goofy. That counts for somethin’. [7/10]

[THE VAN DAMMAGE: 3 outta 5]
[X] An Entire Fight, Sans Shirt
[X] Close-Up Screaming
[] Dancing
[] Jump-Kicks A Guy, Through Something
[X] Performs Either a Split or a Spinning Roundhouse Kick

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