At the end of last month we lost Albert Pyun, prolific and perhaps infamous b-movie auteur, chronicler of kickboxing cyborgs, mounter of simultaneous productions, and occasional blurrer of lines between drive-in exploitation and abstruse art movie.
I did not always have generous things to say about his films, but something about them kept me coming back, so over the years I’ve reviewed DANGEROUSLY CLOSE, CYBORG, CAPTAIN AMERICA, KICKBOXER 2: THE ROAD BACK, NEMESIS, KICKBOXER 4: THE AGGRESSOR, and MEAN GUNS, and of course I have chapter in Seagalogy about his Seagal movie, TICKER.
When I reviewed KICKBOXER 2 back in 2009 the man himself showed up in the comments and thanked me for the review, even though it included the line, “The director is Albert Pyun, but I never would’ve guessed that because it’s both watchable and kind of good.” He had a very gracious and self-deprecating attitude, promising “I hope I am improving to at least an almost semi-coherent level of competence,” and he came back a few times responding to questions and comments. Too bad he dodged my question about how he made it look like a dead Van Damme in KICKBOXER 2 (claiming it was someone who died from watching the beginning of ALIEN FROM L.A.).
After that we corresponded off and on through 2017, when he told me he hoped to meet me when he brought ROAD TO HELL to Seattle. In addition to M.S. he’d been struggling with early onset dementia, as my dad had, so I knew it would be very emotional to meet him, but as far as I heard he never made it here.
He did, however, live another five years, release another one called INTERSTELLAR CIVIL WAR, and keep on working and re-working movies to the end. An amazing person. I wish I’d been able to tell him that in person, or find better words to say it over the internet.
But this week I’d like to celebrate Albert by reviewing three of his movies that (at least in North America) were only ever released on VHS. So welcome to A TAPE RAIDER TRIBUTE TO ALBERT PYUN. I really haven’t seen these yet, so I can’t guarantee I’ll like all of them. I’m not a monster so I’m pretty sure I’ll be nicer about them than I once was, but I will be honest. I’m positive that’s what he would’ve wanted.
First up is KNIGHTS, which was Albert Pyun movie #2 of 3 in 1993 (between BRAIN SMASHER… A LOVE STORY and ARCADE). I’d actually intended to see this since reading about it in the book World Gone Wild, particularly intrigued that it stars a female kickboxer who hadn’t really acted before. I’m sorry I put it off so long, but it was worth the wait, because – with one major caveat that I will get to – I think it’s a genuine banger, and my favorite Albert Pyun film I’ve seen. You know, it has some dialogue that’s clunky in a laughable way, but on most other levels it’s legit good: cool main characters, great concept and mythology, great cast, succinct and effective storytelling, some good low budget FX work, and genuinely impressive action.
Some claim it was intended as a sequel to CYBORG, which would make sense. It also reminds me of NEMESIS in its building of an interesting future world, but its storytelling is more clear and direct, and it’s anchored by two very strong leads: 5-time world champion kickboxer (18 wins, 1 loss) and BATMAN RETURNS Catwoman stunt double Kathy Long as wasteland warrioress Nea, and the great Kris “Catch you fuckers at a bad time?” Kristofferson as her high-kicking cyborg mentor Gabriel. Now that’s a movie.
Famous western location Monument Valley also stars in the role of post-apocalyptic earth. After whatever happened a group of about 50 cyborgs built as government assassins were reprogrammed to think for themselves. Unfortunately they invented a way to refuel themselves using fresh human blood. So they go go around conquering human tribes, enslaving some as their soldiers, killing others, inspiring tales of demons and vampires. Few have seen them, but Nea escaped an attack on her tribe that killed her parents when she was a child. She hasn’t gotten over it, and seeks revenge.
As an adult she’s the only survivor of a much larger massacre, so she’s around to witness the arrival of Gabriel, the one good cyborg sent by “the creator” to hunt down the others. He’s not immortal, but he has a year’s supply of fuel and is confident that will be enough. The truth is he’ll need help, so luckily Nea overheard where the cyborgs are headed, knows a shortcut that can be used to head them off, and leverages that information to get Gabriel to train her while her leg heals from an arrow wound. She says she wants to learn to be “devastating” – later another character says, “I am quite devastating,” so we know this is a common term for fighting prowess.
Pyun, cinematographer George Mooradian (BLOODSPORT 4: THE DARK KUMITE) and editor Dean Goodhill (who followed this with Oscar-nominated work on THE FUGITIVE!) deliver ample training montages on beautiful plateaus as Nea gains an unlikely amount of martial arts skills and is ready to hunt cyborgs like zombies. Their Naruto-esque headbands and metal forehead crosses don’t seem to give much protection to the one vulnerable spot in their brains.
We also have some bad guys worthy of these cool heroes. The sadistic leader of the cyborgs is Job, played by grandmaster Lance Henriksen in full weirdo mode. He has big padded shoulders and one very long robot arm with kind of an insect hand. In one of his early scenes he strangely dips it in water like an animal cleaning its paws. In another he has a woman servant who polishes it. In two scenes he has a pet parrot (not the same one – two different colors) and in one he lets the parrot nibble on his lower lip. He refers to young Nea’s tribe of farmers as “pumpkinheads” – a good Henriksen filmography in-joke. I thought he also sometimes wore a cool skull mask, but that is in fact a separate character called Master Builder, who is played by Brad Langenberg and dubbed by Henriksen. I suppose that’s a storytelling failure that I thought these were one character, but I forgive it.
It was Henriksen’s role before HARD TARGET. In the book Not Bad For a Human, he told Joseph Maddrey that there was no dialogue in the script and he had to improvise. “I didn’t really care about the story so much as the power that my character had.”
Another strong villain is the cyborg Simon, played by Pyun regular Scott Paulin (CAT PEOPLE, TEEN WOLF, CAPTAIN AMERICA). He’s a more playful, enjoying-his-evil type of villain and it’s fun to see Gabriel take him out. Also I like that Nea smashes his face and it tears off his nose skin to reveal metal beneath. At that point I was wondering how these guys are such a threat – seems like having robot arms in the post-apocalypse would just lead to incurable infections – so the metal under the face helped sell me.
To make sure there’s some good fighting in this we also have Gary Daniels (FIST OF THE NORTH STAR, COLD HARVEST, HUNT TO KILL) as David. But honestly, with the help of lots of baggy desert garb, they do a good job of doubling the non-fighter-actors. I figured Kristofferson couldn’t be doing much of that kicking, but I accepted that Gabriel was.
Another thing that’s very effective is the human characters willing to do the bidding of the cyborgs. Their victims try to shame them for it but they think they’re justified, throwing in with the oppressors for self-preservation. A timely/timeless depiction of how this stuff works.
I knew I was way more involved in this than some of the other Pyun movies because when (SPOILER) Gabriel suddenly got blown to pieces and I said “Oh no!” it was because he was a cool character I wanted to see more of, not because I needed Kristofferson on screen to keep my interest. Although I’m sure this was a story choice designed to keep his shooting days down, it ends up being very cool for the following reasons:
1. It gives Nea a window to take charge
2. The top half of his body survives and she carries it around and in one part they fight together with him strapped to her back, sort of like the Doubleman in EL TOPO, and then she says “You’re pretty good for someone with no body.”
3. After that he crawls over to a dead cyborg, uses a machete to saw him in half and improbably attaches himself and has legs again
Any discussion of KNIGHTS tends to call it an American wuxia, which I wanted to hold off on since overall it’s more like a western and I didn’t want to set unfair expectations. But there’s undeniably a bunch of Hong Kong flair to the way the cyborgs leap and drop into scenes, some flying swords, some catching of arrows, and whooshy sound effects. Nea, being a mere pumpkinhead, does not fly, but she does do a bunch of flips, and she reminds me of Bruce Lee the way she runs around dispatching opponent after opponent with precise moves. The finale is an extremely ambitious action sequence where she plows through a ridiculous number of foes. I can’t think of another $1 million movie from America that pulls off anything like that.
And I can’t say enough about how cool Long is as Nea. Her moves, her poses, her posture, her muscles, her minimal dialogue out of a barbarian picture. Paired with the gruff, natural charm of Kristofferson, with them even kind of quipping back and forth with each other in their crude barbarian/cyborg way, this is just an adorable odd couple of asskickers.
So here’s the one and only catch. During her quest, Nea is reunited with her little brother Chance (Ben McCreary, KINDERGARTEN COP), but after our heroes kill Job the ultimate boss, Master Builder, kidnaps (what kind of a name is) Chance (mah momma tuke juan) and escapes on a hang-glider (!), headed for somewhere called Cyborg City. (I assume that’s because cyborgs live there, but I won’t rule out that they’re huge fans of CYBORG and named their city after it). So it really feels like holy shit, we are headed into an even crazier last act here, this is turning out to be an honest to God masterpiece.
Instead Nea and Gabriel are walking into the desert and she narrates that they headed for Cyborg City to save her brother but first had other adventures. And it’s fucking over! On a second viewing I’ll be ready for it, I’ll be able to appreciate the very good finale and forgive this unrequited cliffhanger. But on a first viewing I wasn’t ready for this confident speeding train of a movie to crash right into the side of a mountain.
Interviewed in World Gone Wild, Pyun said that the cliffhanger was intentional because he did plan a sequel, and even had funding, but decided not to do it because they’d had such a hard time shooting fight scenes in 120 degree weather. The plot he describes, though, is a prequel about the creation of the cyborgs. So maybe that poor kid was always doomed to stay in Cyborg City.
So yes, unfortunately KNIGHTS is one of the ones that hasn’t even made it to DVD in the U.S., let alone HD. I rented it on VHS; you may have to find it in the Cyborg City underworld. Apparently Pyun made a director’s cut with the much cooler title THE KINGDOM OF METAL, but it was from his unrestored workprint. Anyway, some version needs to exist on blu-ray. Get on it, somebody.