I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Cyborg

tn_cyborgYears ago when I saw a little movie called DOUBLE TEAM I remember coming out of the theater and running into an acquaintance, a friend of a friend named Corey who was waiting for the next show. We got to talking about Van Damme, and it was kind of shameful how many of them he mentioned that I hadn’t seen. So this guy decides right then and there that we’re gonna meet once a week in a neutral location and we’re gonna watch a Van Damme movie. And I don’t remember how long we did that but it was probly a month or two of important learning. You know, it’s the same as with KICKBOXER or BLOODSPORT, you try to find a mentor or a buddy to take you under his wing, and that’s how you get your start. So shout out to Corey. And I hope I’m doing my part to pass on these lessons to the next generation.

Anyway, that was the last time I saw CYBORG. On a screen bigger than I’ve ever owned, but full frame VHS, and when I was younger and dumber in my ongoing journey to filmatistic enlightenment. Here’s all I remember: Van Damme doing the splits between two walls, a guy with sunglasses grunting, being bored.

Okay, I wasn’t that far off, this is sitll a bit of a chore for me to get through, but I repsect it more at this stage in my evolution. CYBORG is from the Cannon Group, it’s directed by our friend Albert Pyun, it doesn’t really have any concepts that separate it much from other post-apocalypse movies (with a little BLADE RUNNER and TERMINATOR influence thrown in the mix), but the thing I didn’t get back then is that it’s a fuckin art movie. The plot is minimalistic, there’s very little dialogue, lots of wind and dreamy slow motion. Van Damme plays a mysterious figure apparently called “Gibson Rickenbacker,” a so-called “slinger” or bounty hunter helping a woman named Pearl (Dayle Haddon, NORTH DALLAS FORTY) who has the cure for a deadly plague to travel through the wasteland to Atlanta. And she’s part robot, by the way.

mp_cyborgBThat’s one thing you would never expect from the title: she’s the cyborg. She’s Johnny Mnemonic, basically. You’d think she’d be able to have super strength or shoot lasers out of her mouth or something but instead she has a high kicking meat bag to protect her delicate wiring.

This was Van Damme’s followup to KICKBOXER, and that movie’s more fun but he has more of a badass presence in this one. He doesn’t have that dorkiness that he started his career with. It helps that he doesn’t have to read many lines, but he’s giving a performance here. You wonder what he’s thinking. Gibson never says who he is, but we periodically see snippets of his memories of his former life with a pony tail and a family. We piece together the specifics of how the villain of the piece (one-time actor Vincent Klyn) ruined his life and must be avenged.

We meet that guy before anybody else, and he’s ridiculous. He’s a huge white guy with long dreadlocks, a chain mail vest and giant Boz type sunglasses. His eyes glow and his voice is artificially deepened. He narrates the opening, explaining that he doesn’t want the disease to be cured. “Restore it? Why? I like the death! I like the misery! I LIKE THIS WORLD!”  He’s the old guard afraid of change. Lord Humongous worrying about gentrification. There goes the neighborhood, you know.

(I don’t think I ever realized the title track of Method Man’s second album samples quotes this guy.)

He’s apparently named “Fender Tremolo,” the leader of “the pirates,” who literally travel in a small, stolen boat as they go around pillaging and shit. They kidnap Pearl, and Gibson teams up with Nady, a woman who survives one of the group’s pillagings and wants to help bring the cure to the world, since the plague killed her family. Gibson just wants to kill that motherfucker Fender.

The action is slightly stilted in the way the shots are pieced together, but kind of cool when it happens. Lots of high kicks, of course. Stabbing, crossbows, swinging, pretty intimate stuff.

The best act of violence and most iconic shot in the movie by far happens when a bad guy is stalking Gibson through a dark sewer tunnel type place. We keep seeing closeups of Van Damme clutching a knife to his chest, waiting for the moment to strike. When the camera pulls out a little we realize that he’s not waiting around a corner, he’s directly above his pursuer, doing the splits between the two walls. And he stabs downward. Way to one-up that old hanging-above-the-door ninja trick.

Pyun really lets the camera worship the villains. He does it in time-honored ways (eight rugged pirates walking slow motion toward the camera with flames behind them) and in more unique ones. I love, for example, when the camera pans from Gibson peacefully asleep on the floor, arm draped lovingly around his lady, to the four muscular pirates leaning in his window, watching them, smirking. Or the one where they stand in a dramatic, frozen pose like Michael Jackson’s dancers as the camera cranes up and spins around to show that Gibson is crucified high up on the mast of a wrecked ship.

mp_cyborgThe emphasis is on atmosphere and mood, show over tell, mystery over explanation. That puts it in line with modern arthouse takes on genre like THE ROVER or MEEK’S CUTOFF. But it’s Van Damme, so there is some macho in there. Sweaty, bloody muscles. Endurance. One of the biggest sequences is the aforementioned crucifixion. He’s hanging up there in agony for an awfully long time. He keeps flashing back to Fender lowering him and his family (I thought it was his wife and kid, but read it was his sisters) into a well holding onto a rope of barbed wire. This memory fuels his resolve to kick dents in the mast until it breaks and falls over. And then Nady is standing there saying “I told you you’d need my help.” (Probly could’ve used it more a few minutes ago.)

It’s the visual detail that makes it stand out from other Pyun works, which don’t always smack of this much effort. There’s some pretty great looking cinematography  and interesting locations. Apparently it uses sets and props that were made for abandoned Cannon/Pyun MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE 2 and SPIDER-MAN movies, but it doesn’t look like it. It mostly seems like outdoor, found locations. Alot of attention seems to be paid to the little touches, like the wreckage and the dried mud smears on Fender’s glasses. For the most part it’s more like a western than a sci-fi movie, but the few uses of animatronics and dummies to show the cyborg parts are really well done. Also a couple enjoyably cheesy matte paintings.

I really think the main thing holding this back is that, for my tastes, the score by Kevin Bassinson (POLICE STORY international version) kind of sucks. It’s keyboards, but not the low, rumbling, pulsing type we all love. It’s the high pitched Full Moon Video fake orchestra style, that drips artificial cheese sauce all over pretty much every scene. I honestly think if you could take that off and replace it with a really moody TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE or maybe RAVENOUS type score that this might all really work. After writing this I found reference to a rejected score, and I know that (like most of his movies) Pyun has made a director’s cut in recent years. I don’t know if that has a different score, but I’ve heard it’s a much more ponderous version of the movie. I don’t know. Anyway, the movie’s power is all in the mood and the existing score ain’t doing it for me.

I don’t know if I’ll ever love this one, but we are all growing. We are all learning. I respect CYBORG now.

 

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Monday, December 22nd, 2014 at 1:43 pm and is filed under Action, Reviews, Science Fiction and Space Shit. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

20 Responses to “Cyborg”

  1. I also never liked this one much growing up, but enjoy it more after revisiting it later in life. I swear Pyun said it wasn’t just the sets that were meant for a Masters Of The Universe film, but they adapted the script from an unmade MOTU film as well.

  2. How have I made it this far in life and never realized that the hero and villain (as well as several other characters in this movie according to IMDB) are named after guitars?

    I’m sorry I let you guys down. I’ll do better next time.

  3. Count me in the same camp that didn’t much like CYBORG upon first viewing. For me, that was almost 25 years ago when it debuted on VHS. This past year I bought a Blu-ray 3-pack of Van Damme movies from a pawn shop and gave it another a try. It’s still not a great movie but the cinematography and overall atmosphere really draw you in. I never understand how the sets could have come from an abandoned MOTU sequel until I read it was supposed to involve He-Man returning to a post-apocalyptic Earth destroyed by Skeletor.

  4. Going to review CYBORG 2, Vern? That has Angelina Jolie (!) and Elias Koteas in it.

  5. CYBORG CUBED starring Malcolm McDowell was pretty good. Better than the second movie.

  6. I always wanted Vincent Klyn to play the evil brother of Mark Dacascos in a movie.

  7. Cyborg 2 also had a post-City Slickers Jack Palance and the eternal Billy Drago.

    It’s weird that I have watched Cyborg 2 a whole bunch of times but never the first one.

  8. I actually ended up watching this on Christmas Day 2005, so it was kind of nostalgic for me to see this review pop up at this time of year. Didn’t think much of it, even though it was exactly the kind of thing I was in to at the time. I remembered finding the opening scene pretty impressive at the time, but watching it on YouTube now it seems pretty poor, including (as said) the score.

    There’s a video here containing I guess the extra stuff in the Directors Cut. It definitely makes a case for Pyun’s original vision being more interesting, but it was still far from an actual movie at this stage. There’s a bit of a Mallick vibe going on! And yes, there is a score and IMO it seems much better, but it’s not the Carpenter kind of sound Vern was looking for, more akin to Tim Truman who composed the last season of MIAMI VICE. Synths with the odd bit of 80s rock/hair metal guitar
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vY0NnHie5ww

    Wasn’t it CYBORG that Pyun originally wanted to have no dialogue? Always hoping someone will go through with making a silent action film, shame no one picked the baton up after THE ARTIST. Though there’s always a chance I’d end up hating it; always assumed I’d love QUEST FOR FIRE but couldn’t get through it when it came to it, although I was a little younger then.

  9. Apparently it uses sets and props that were made for abandoned Cannon/Pyun MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE 2 and SPIDER-MAN movies, but it doesn’t look like it.

    I actually think I’d really dig the idea of trying to make one of these weird, post-apocalyptic movies, using sets and costumes leftover from other weird, post-apocalyptic movies that were never made.

    On Netflix streaming there’s a bunch of these weird fantasy movies that I’ve never heard of that they made in the last couple years (The Dragon and the Paladin, War of the Elves or some shit, I don’t remember, they’re mostly pretty forgettable) that I am 100% convinced only exist because New Line had all those Lord of the Rings props and costumes leftover, didn’t know what to do with them, and decided to just sell them off to any knucklehead who wanted to make a movie with orcs in it.

    I feel like that’d be kind of a fun project to work on, though? Definitely there are dumber reasons to make movies.

  10. “He keeps flashing back to Fender lowering him and his family (I thought it was his wife and kid, but read it was his sisters) into a well holding onto a rope of barbed wire”

    Not sure about wife, but it seemed to me she was a single mom who already had a daughter who he helped out as a “slinger” and then ended up falling in love with. I believe there is also a love scene, so I’m really hoping it was not his sister. I mean it’s a pretty bleak future, but not sure if it’s that bleak.

    Cyborg is probably my favorite Van Damme movie. Apparently a lot of the violence was toned down, but when I looked at the comparison between the Pyun self released “director’s cut” (which is basically a VHS workprint) it didn’t seem like it. From what I’ve heard it would seem some of the footage was simply lost.

  11. Loved this when I was about 11. I was pretty convinced this was up there with the best action movies. In the years since, I have gone the other way and have fallen away from it. It’s still one of my favourite JCVD’s though.

  12. Cyborg 2 also has Angelina Jolie’s natural, pre-enhancement boobs… if you’re into that sort of thing.

  13. I’m here just to point out a couple of trivia:

    1) Gibson, Rickenbaker, Fender, Tremolo, Pearl: it’s all guitar brands/model/accessories. Look it up.

    2) Vincent Klyn was one of the nazi surfers in Point Break

  14. Viewing this as “a fuckin art movie” is the right answer. And the most favorable approach.

    CYBORG has its moments — I vaguely recall some strange amateur surgery action early on and at least one homoerotic rainy fight sequence where the dialogue was “aggghhhh!!!” “fuck you aaagghhhh!!!” “ggaarraghhh” and so on — but ultimately it’s little more than a franchise stepping stone to THE RECYCLER and less embarrassing JCVD joints.

  15. Valido – Funnily enough I just watched POINT BREAK again last night and you’re right. To think that just like Vern I had thought that he didn’t do anything beyond post apocalyptic chainmail wearing pirate. I wonder which other of our genre favorites he ended up popping up in post-CYBORG.

  16. I also remember how my cousin used to confuse Vincent Klyn with David Johansen back in the day. I never really got it but then again he did eat a lot of paint chips when we were still kids so…

  17. The Original Paul

    December 25th, 2014 at 2:05 pm

    Yeah this would be the kind of thing I’d watch just for curiosity value if it wasn’t for Vern’s and others’ remarks about the score. That would seriously annoy me I think. Oh well.

    It’s gotta be one of the few Van Damme movies I haven’t seen, or at least don’t remember seeing.

  18. I saw this at a grind house theater when it first came out. I don’t remember much about the film (I think the final fight is at night in the rain maybe?), but I remember getting really disgusted at the crowd when a woman is being chased around a bombed out building and a group of men in the audience screaming for them to rape her, and then other guys joining in with what they would do to her. I don’t think there was a single female in the theater (only about a third full) but disheartening to say the least. But I’m sure the action wasn’t that good or I would have made an effort to have seen it again since.

  19. Now that Vern has reviewed the sequel, I’m reminded of the existence of the original – quite possibly the most iconic bad movie ever made. There’s so much badass iconography in this one – the costumes, the martial arts poses, the weird rotating shotgun thing Van Damme has. The aforementioned “stabbing in the alley” scene, the beautiful overhead shot of the villain slowly stalking Van Damme and the girl in the rain. The images from the trailer for this are probably all ingrained into every kid’s head who grew up in the 80s.

    And yes, this movie totally apes Terrence Malick before aping Malick was cool. There’s context-free flashback shots of two people hugging in a cornfield or something with no dialogue that literally seem straight out of To The Wonder. Pyun really does seem to concentrate on mood over story, as evidenced by the fact that the main plot device (the titular Cyborg) seems to disappear for long stretches of the movie, even though all the other bad guys are present (do they just keep stashing her somewhere?) It’s almost like they made a movie just about Van Damme getting revenge on this evil gang and added the entire Cyborg subplot in post months later.

    Oh, it’s also funny how similar this is to The Dark Knight Rises – the hero and the villain have a hand-to-hand battle halfway through and the villain is inhumanly indestructible, no-sells every single punch and mops the floor easily with the hero. Batman/Gibson is broken and poetically left for dead, but pulls himself together. At the end there’s a rematch where the hero doesn’t seem to do a single thing differently, but he’s more pissed off this time and suddenly Bane/Fender is able to be hurt and defeated. Yes, I know this is the basis for many action movies but at least in stuff like the Rocky series the hero learns a trick or two in between fights.

  20. Such a weird movie. I loved the actual Cyborg stuff early on, which is pretty much dropped after the first five minutes. I also enjoyed that scene where they escape from the sewer and they’re on that river and all the baddies keep flying at JCVD.

    Nemesis (director Albert Pyun’s other postapoc cyber action melody) was way more incomprehensible, but had higher quality action.

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