Director: Albert Pyun
Producer: Menahem Golan, Yoram Globus
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Deborah Richter, Vincent Klyn, Dayle Haddon, Alex Daniels, Blaise Loong, Ralf Möller, Haley Peterson, Terrie Batson, Jackson ‘Rock’ Pinckney
Running Time: 82 min.
By Kyle Warner
I had never seen 1989’s Cyborg before last night. The film has something of a reputation both here and elsewhere on the net as the one early Jean-Claude Van Damme movie you would be better off skipping. So of course I had to seek it out.
Cyborg has an unlikely story of how it came into being. The Cannon Films production company was dealing with financial troubles after a series of box office bombs, perhaps chief among them being Tobe Hooper’s troubled Lifeforce in 1986. Cannon had plans to make a sequel to Masters of the Universe and a live-action Spider-Man film with director Albert Pyun (The Sword and the Sorcerer), but financial difficulties forced them to cancel their deals with Mattel and Marvel before the cameras started rolling. In order to best make use of all the costumes and sets they’d already created for both abandoned films, Pyun wrote a screenplay, credited the script to his cat, cast the up-and-coming star Jean-Claude Van Damme, and set to work on Cyborg in an attempt to recoup the studio’s losses. (Some TV guides and film databases confusingly still refer to Cyborg as a He-Man sequel. Even RottenTomatoes, where the film sits at 14%, currently lists the film as Masters of the Universe 2: Cyborg)
Considering the unlikely origins, Cyborg is actually better than you’d expect. Which is not to say that Cyborg is a good film – it isn’t – but it’s an interesting and peculiar one. Unlike many of Van Damme’s other lesser efforts, there’s nothing by-the-numbers here. Pyun may never have been a celebrated director (Ed Wood comparisons are apparently not uncommon), but he does show a particular sense of style.
The film takes place in a post-apocalyptic America, where a plague has wrecked the world and only a female cyborg (Dayle Haddon) has the key to finding a cure. But there’s a problem: the most powerful gang in the wastelands will do anything they can from seeing the scientists succeed in saving the world. As Vincent Klyn’s grunting villain Fender explains it in the opening lines of the movie, “Restore it? Why? I like the death! I like the misery! I like this world!” Fender abducts the cyborg and it’s up to a hero with a sad story (Van Damme) to save the day.
What’s odd is that the cyborg of the title is really the least important part of the movie. She’s the film’s MacGuffin, I suppose, the thing that makes the story go and the object that heroes and villains alike are fighting over. Even the fact that she’s a cyborg is barely important to the story. At one point we get to see her reveal her mechanical brain. It’s a scene where the actress steps out and is replaced by an animatronic, rubber face. It’s an odd effect, straddling the line between realistic and fake, resulting in something uniquely unsettling (think: The Polar Express). Other than this scene and one other that reveals a metal eye, we basically forget she’s a robot. Indeed, we basically forget all about her or the cure because… umm… where’s the plague, exactly? I remember one kid covered in boils but other than that I’m pretty sure the plague is already a distant memory. (Cyborg would get two sequels, one starring Angelina Jolie (!), Jack Palance, and Elias Koteas, the other featuring Malcolm McDowell. I’ve not seen either film but by almost all accounts they’re weaker than Pyun’s original. They do appear to make better use of the sci-fi cyborg aspects of the story, though.)
Cyborg ain’t much of a cyberpunk action movie, nor is it an apocalyptic contagion thriller. Instead, Cyborg owes much to George Miller’s idea of the apocalypse, with many of the villains looking like they’d just failed auditions to join Lord Humungus on the set of The Road Warrior. Extreme costumes, hairstyles, and madness reign supreme in Cyborg. Even Van Damme gets in on the fun, with flashbacks revealing him to have a Revolutionary War haircut that’s not at all silly looking, honest…
Filled with decapitated heads, crucifixions, and all manner of ultra-violence, Cyborg has an unexpected mean streak that you don’t see in many Van Damme features. While I wouldn’t say that the violence makes the film more entertaining, it does result in some shocks that add to the film’s peculiar “charm.” Unfortunately, the action seems to have been edited by throwing the movie into a blender and hitting the highest speed, resulting in breakneck cuts that confuse and draw attention to themselves.
Pyun’s budget constraints are readily apparent from the start. In an odd way that’s difficult to explain, it’s like you can actually see the edges of the set at times. Overactive smoke machines and cheap backdrops are difficult to ignore. And some sets are strange and difficult to figure out. When the heroes are chased through a sewer system, sunlight beams in from the walls. But aren’t they underground? So is it sunlight or artificial light? If it’s artificial light, where’s the sewer getting its electricity, and why? Am I not supposed to ask these things? Too bad!
To sum things up: Cyborg is cheap, silly, and weird, but it’s the fun kind of cheap, silly, and weird. I would never call this a good movie but at least it’s never a boring movie. At times, it’s impossible to look away from. And considering the film’s strange pre-production story, it’s really a wonder it makes as much sense as it does. So, it’s my opinion that Cyborg doesn’t really deserve the reputation of being one of Van Damme’s absolute worst. While it may be totally skippable for the casual fan, I’d watch Cyborg over Death Warrant, The Order, The Quest, Derailed, and Second in Command any day of the week. (But please don’t make me.)
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 5/10