Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Cannon Files: CYBORG (1989)

(US - 1989)

Directed by Albert Pyun.  Written by Kitty Chalmers.  Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Deborah Richter, Vincent Klyn, Dayle Haddon, Alex Daniels, Ralf Muller, Haley Peterson, Terrie Batson, Jackson "Rock" Pinckney. (R, 86 mins)

The making of CYBORG was apparently an arduous process.  The budget was low, the project thrown together, and the director was fired during post-production.  One of the cast members--Jackson "Rock" Pinckney--lost an eye in a mishap with a prop knife.  According to legend, Cannon honchos Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus had deals in place to with Marvel to produce SPIDER-MAN and with Mattel on a sequel to 1987's MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE, and both were to be shot simultaneously by journeyman director Albert Pyun (THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER) in North Carolina at the deserted DEG Studios.  DEG Studios was constructed by Dino De Laurentiis for his short-lived DeLaurentiis Entertainment Group, which released a bunch of movies in 1986 and 1987 before going bankrupt by the end of 1987 (many DEG titles were held in limbo for years, such as BILL & TED'S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE, acquired by Orion and released in 1989, and William Friedkin's RAMPAGE, completed in 1987 but unreleased until Miramax picked it up in 1992).   By 1989, Cannon was on life support from a string of costly, high-profile box office duds borne of Golan & Globus' quest to be respectable, high-rolling, Oscar-baiting A-listers;  a bunch of standard-issue B-movies that were no longer making money (including many cheaply produced at their Apartheid-era South African branch that they denied existed); the ill-advised purchase of Thorn-EMI's movie division; and far too many dubious and impulsive business deals drawn up on cocktail napkins. Golan would leave the partnership and form 21st Century Film Corporation later in 1989, though Cannon would wheeze on until 1993 with Globus and, briefly, Italian schlock king Ovidio G. Assonitis (BEYOND THE DOOR, TENTACLES) running things, with occasional desperation Hail Mary's like 1990's LAMBADA that inevitably tanked and became industry punchlines.  In short, Cannon's best days were clearly in the past, and they simply didn't have the cash flow to be dealing with big-budget superhero movies, as clearly evidenced by 1987's pitiful SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE.

In order to recoup some of the money already spent on their never-to-be SPIDER-MAN and MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE 2, and to spotlight rising star and "Muscles from Brussels" Jean-Claude Van Damme, whose 1988 breakthrough BLOODSPORT provided Cannon with one of their very few recent successes, Golan & Globus had Pyun use some costumes and some sets that were constructed for the abandoned projects and, with screenwriter Kitty Chalmers (apparently a real person), hastily assemble the post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller SLINGER, which ended up being retitled CYBORG by the time it was released in April 1989.

Jean-Claude Van Damme as
Gibson Rickenbacker
CYBORG's budget was officially $500,000 (though Pyun has said it was more like $400,000), a far cry from the $20 million Cannon spent on MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE and the $12 million they paid Sylvester Stallone to star in OVER THE TOP just two years earlier (a record payday for a movie star at the time--half of the film's budget went to Stallone's salary).  In their 1980s heyday, most Cannon genre fare had a unique feel, with their stock company of behind-the-scenes technicians and actors frequently turning up.  Almost all of them ran in the vicinity of 100 minutes.  There was a formula and nine times out of ten, they stuck to it.  If you're a Cannon junkie, it doesn't take long to notice that something about CYBORG is...off.  And the more you get into it, the less it feels like a Golan-Globus production and more like a corner-cutting Concorde/Roger Corman venture of the era, from the truncated 86-minute running time to the obvious backlot DEG sets that often make it the stagiest post-apocalyptic film this side of the Burbank Studios-shot THE ULTIMATE WARRIOR (1975), which looked like a TV show despite starring Yul Brynner and being directed by ENTER THE DRAGON's Robert Clouse.  And other than the fight scenes, there's not much in CYBORG other than the characters walking around, because that's all that the budget allowed.  Perhaps Pyun was simply giving us a preview of his landmark "Gangstas Wandering Around An Abandoned Warehouse" (© AV Club's Nathan Rabin) trilogy.

Dayle Haddon in the title role as the cyborg Pearl Prophet

The story takes place in the early 21st century, after a plague has wiped out most of mankind.  Nomadic, vicious pirates roam the land.  Cyborg Pearl Prophet (Dayle Haddon, a French-Canadian model who had a busy career in European softcore porn in the '70s--including the title role in 1976's SPERMULA--before playing Nick Nolte's girlfriend in the 1979 football classic NORTH DALLAS FORTY) has the key to a cure for the plague implanted in her brain and needs a "slinger"--a mercenary guide--to guard her on her trip from New York to the CDC in Atlanta.  Enter "slinger" Gibson Rickenbacker (Van Damme), who takes the job but quickly loses Pearl when they're ambushed by a marauding band of pirates led by the ruthless Fender Tremolo (Vincent Klyn).  Gibson and Fender have a past:  Gibson is haunted by memories of a previous slinging job where he fell in love with Mary (Terrie Batson), the woman he was protecting and was helpless to stop her from being killed by Fender (Van Damme is not helped in these scenes by a hilariously awful flashback wig).  Fender's gang also includes Mary's now-grown sister Haley (Haley Petersen), who's torn between her loyalties to the two men.  Gibson joins forces with another lone traveler, Nady Simmons (Deborah Richter), and ventures to Atlanta to find Pearl and get his revenge on the nefarious Fender.

Vincent Klyn as Fender Tremolo

Cheap, disjointed, derivative (the most creative element is that all the characters are named after some kind of musical equipment brand or music term) but strangely entertaining, CYBORG also feels oddly retro for 1989, with a look and feel that seems more fitting for the string of post-ROAD WARRIOR ripoffs that petered out around 1985.  And, despite being an American film shot in English, it almost feels like an Italian post-nuke since everyone but Van Damme appears to be dubbed.  Pyun had CYBORG taken away from him during post-production, but he began selling his "director's cut" DVD, culled from a VHS workprint copy, on his web site in 2011, with more violence (CYBORG was apparently cut to secure an R rating), a completely different score, and without some of the reshoots he did back in 1989 (Fender's demise is different in each version).  In Pyun's director's cut, Klyn (or the guy dubbing him) dubs every male character except for Van Damme, which was probably intended as a "placeholder" dubbing track until a final mix could be arranged.  I haven't seen Pyun's cut, but by all accounts, the theatrical version supervised and edited by Cannon is the much more polished and professional film (and if Pyun's post-1980s output is any indication, I believe it).  Pyun had worked with Cannon before on 1986's DANGEROUSLY CLOSE, 1987's DOWN TWISTED, 1988's ALIEN FROM L.A., and he directed most of 1989's JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (shot mostly in 1986) even though Rusty Lemorande gets sole credit.  And there must've been no hard feelings over CYBORG with Golan, since Pyun's next project would be CAPTAIN AMERICA for Golan's 21st Century.  MGM just released CYBORG--in its 86-minute theatrical version--on Blu-ray in a surprisingly solid HD transfer at a low price, so fans of this cult classic--yes, it has a devoted fan base--will definitely find that worthwhile.

CYBORG opened in theaters the same day as MAJOR LEAGUE, THE DREAM TEAM, and DEAD CALM, and it's a testament to how popular Van Damme was at the time that the film landed in fourth place.  Van Damme was making a name for himself while still essentially a B-movie figure on the fringes of the mainstream, and was in a relentlessly busy period (with BLOODSPORT, BLACK EAGLE, CYBORG, KICKBOXER, DEATH WARRANT, LIONHEART, and DOUBLE IMPACT hitting theaters from 1988 to 1991) of building a grass-roots, word-of-mouth following and establishing his action bona fides before graduating to the A-list with 1992's UNIVERSAL SOLDIER and 1993's HARD TARGET.  20-plus years and countless straight-to-DVD titles later, with his recent turn in THE EXPENDABLES 2 reminding everyone that he's indeed still around, it's easy to forget how popular Van Damme was in his heyday, and he achieved it the old-fashioned way:  by paying his dues and working his ass off.

CYBORG was a moderate box-office success and arguably Cannon's last hit (though Chuck Norris' THE HITMAN grossed a few million in 1991), and proved popular enough in video stores and on cable to spawn two non-Cannon sequels.  1993's CYBORG 2 had little relation to Pyun's film other than cyborgs and a brief stock footage shot of Van Damme in a dream sequence.  Directed by former Cannon production assistant Michael Schroeder, CYBORG 2 was notable at the time for the appearance of a slumming Jack Palance--a year after his CITY SLICKERS Oscar--bellowing dialogue like "If you want to dine with the devil, you'll need a loooooong spoon!" as a cyborg named "Mercy," but back in 1993, no one knew much about second-billed, 18-year-old newcomer Angelina Jolie as "almost human" cyborg Cash Reese.  Schroeder also helmed 1995's CYBORG 3: THE RECYCLER, which brought back the Cash Reese character but replaced Jolie with Khrystyne Haje from the ABC sitcom HEAD OF THE CLASS (1986-91).  CYBORG 3 featured a cast that screams "1995 straight to video," including Malcolm McDowell as "Lord Talon," Richard Lynch, Zach Galligan (GREMLINS), William Katt as "Decaf," Margaret Avery (THE COLOR PURPLE), and Kato Kaelin, credited as "Beggar" in what must've been a real stretch.

1 comment:

  1. Jesus. I have no idea that Cyborg 2 and 3 were real, haha. Great blog!