GUYVER, a.k.a. THE GUYVER is a 1991 sci-fi/martial arts b-movie that I saw back in the day and decided to revisit when I did that Polygon piece on ’90s comic book movies. The idea comes from a manga that had also been turned into anime, which is pretty apparent just from the look of the main character.
Jack Armstrong (STUDENT BODIES) plays Sean Barker, a blandly handsome karate student who finds an alien super weapon hidden in some garbage (much like Stanley finding a magic mask in the river in THE MASK) and it merges with his body, giving him the power to encase himself in bio-mechanical armor and weaponry. We know he’s mixed up in an ancient intergalactic war because of some detailed text and narration that opened the movie. It started by saying:
“At the beginning of time, aliens came to the Earth to create the ultimate organic weapon. They created Mankind. By planting a special gene into man they created the ZOANOIDS — Humans who can change at will into super monster soldiers.”
Cool. Got it. The table is set. Oh wait – you’re not done? Okay, go ahead.
“Eons later, the Zoanoid leader, called the ZOALORD, has awakened and formed the Chronos Corporation to further develop the Zoanoid techology for world domination.”
Oh, okay. So that’s what our good guy is gonna be fighting against, this is a good set up here, now let’s get into–
“Among the alien remains, was found the ‘Unit’ — a bio boosted alien armor. Worn by the aliens it serves as an ordinary shield. If the wearer is human it increases his natural powers a hundred fold — he becomes the ‘GUYVER.’ But how to activate it remains a mystery.”
Yeah, so as you can see that’s a mouthful there, that’s pretty clunky how much they tried to cram in there. I can at least admire that they end it on the perfect line to leave us wondering wh– oh, for God’s sake.
“Dr. Tetsu Segawa, a research scientist at Chronos, senses danger if this ‘unit’ is activated by the Zoalord. Now the doctor has stolen it and is on the run.”
And instead of smash cutting to this doctor running they start with a quiet establishing shot of the abandoned lot he’s about to run onto.
That opening scene also gives us some glimpses of what’s going on. The doctor (Greg Paik, PENTATHLON, 2005 best picture winner CRASH) is sort of a whistleblower fleeing from the labs of the Chronos Corporation (still wearing his lab coat) to the L.A. river culvert to stash “the unit.” He’s chased by a group of thugs led by Michael Berryman (THE HILLS HAVE EYES) and including Jimmie Walker (LET’S DO IT AGAIN). The weird thing is that both Dr. Segawa and Berryman’s character Lisker transform into monsters before they fight. Walker’s M.C. Striker stands by to yell “Teriyaki sauce! Turn him into sushi!,” which I’m guessing was not in the script.
The doctor is killed and his monster body shrivels up and nobody would ever know what happened if grizzled C.I.A. agent Max Reed (Mark Hamill, CORVETTE SUMMER) hadn’t been spying on the whole thing. This is a very different character for Hamill because he has a trenchcoat and a mustache and he smokes and chews gum, sometimes simultaneously. Nobody believes him about what he saw, but he goes to talk to the doctor’s daughter Mizky (Vivian Wu, THE LAST EMPEROR, TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES III), who runs the dojo Sean goes to. He has a crush on her and worries when he sees her through her office window talking to Agent Reed and crying.
I have to admit that although this is a pretty cool movie I pretty much hated the hero right at the beginning when he went to Mizky’s place. Even though he just watched her receive the news that her father was dead, and then spied on her at the crime scene, and then she opens the door with a frown and tears streaming down her face to tell him she’s not giving him a ride to class today, this is the look he gives her:
What a dipshit. I don’t blame them for pretending Mark Hamill is The Guyver on the cover.
Anyway yeah, he gets more interesting when the alien parasite turns him into a super weapon. His transformation happens while being beat up by street toughs. They have the stereotypical clothing and they’re in an alley and he’s throwing them into garbage cans and empty cardboard boxes like you’d expect, but they also make a joke about them all being trained in kung fu, so they can get some choreography in there. (I’d say who did it, but they’re not listed on IMDb.)
The unit falls out of his backpack, his face gets smashed into it, and he melts into a mass of veiny bumpy flesh that opens like a cocoon, revealing his biomechanical armor. It’s really cool and then they interrupt the mood with a dumb joke where one guy pulls out nunchakas and makes Bruce Lee squeals. I hate that shit.
Although a director’s cut eventually became available, apparently the distributor made some changes to the original American release, trimming some of the, uh, humor to emphasize the action more. I definitely have some sympathy for that.
There’s plenty about this movie I don’t like. I have a hard time with the dorky lead, the intrusive bad humor and the cheesy keyboard score by Matthew Morse (NINJA VENGEANCE, SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT 5: THE TOYMAKER), and though Hamill is way cooler than our protagonist his grittiness feels pretty forced. But what makes it worthwhile is the plethora of elaborate monster effects. The Guyver is such a cool and unique design for a live action movie, maybe a precursor to SPAWN but without the American super hero trappings (like the cape and the Spider-man-style mask). But we also got plenty of humans transforming into weird lizardy dudes. Even the head of the Chronos Corporation, Fulton Balcus (David Gale, RE-ANIMATOR), is a fuckin Zoanoid. And you know how Zoanoids are. They have a slit that opens up on their head and they do mind control shit on you.
There are so many monsters in this. Here’s a part where a bunch of them are in the same shot. It’s a boring, static camera angle, but still. That’s quite a group there.
It’s cool when the doctor turns into his monster form but instead of roaring he keeps talking about his concerns.
I guess in general they just talk like normal humans.
Zoanoids are just like us, really. I guess it’s kind of funny that Striker still says dumb Jimmie Walker shit when he’s a monster, but it would be better if he wasn’t such a cartoony caricature design. And if the movie didn’t end on him saying his famous catchphrase. I hope he really wanted to do that because it would be so sad if they forced it on him.
They also have him do the ol’ “monster walks onto set of movie and they think he’s an actor in a suit” joke. At least it’s a good excuse for a Linnea Quigley cameo.
The coolest turn of events is when one of the monsters kills The Guyver by digging the metal ball out of his head. His whole body deflates and shrivels up, turning to slime.
So poor Sean Barker is dead for a while, but that ball sits in the Chronos lab and some muscle tissue starts to grow out of it…
…and let’s just say it gets thrown at one of the Zoanoids and he swallows it and then the blade on the top of the Guyver head tears out like a shark fin as he fully reconstitutes himself and bursts out of the sucker’s belly. Now I’m absolutely not saying that THE GUYVER is better than THE ROCKETEER, but The Rocketeer never died and shriveled up and then started to grow himself back and got swallowed by a monster and ripped out of it like a xenomorph. That’s just a fact. So this goes a long way toward rehabilitating a previously lame-o hero. Especially when he announces, “I’ve been rejected by death” and does a martial arts pose.
The second coolest turn of events is when poor Agent Reed gets turned into a bug against his will. That is one fucked up transformation.
How did this manga movie become such a glorious showcase for creature effects? Well, it’s directed by veteran makeup artists Screaming Mad George and Steve Wang. If you weren’t reading Fangoria in the ’80s and ’90s maybe you wouldn’t have heard of Screaming Mad George, but he was a guy who made gory music videos for his punk band and then started getting jobs doing makeup effects on BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA and PREDATOR. His distinctive creations include the cockroach sequence from A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4, a bunch of crazy shit in FREAKED and AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS, and the Sistine Chapel of slimy latex FX grossouts, the motherfucking shunting in SOCIETY. He got a credit for “surrealistic makeup designer and creator” on that, and it was one of many collaborations with Brian Yuzna, who produced this one.
This would be George’s only feature film as a director, but Wang would go on to do a couple more, which I will be reviewing this week.
“I’m absolutely… saying that THE GUYVER is better than THE ROCKETEER!!!” raves outlawvern.com
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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.