Alright gang, it's time for a brand new column that gives me an excuse to consume mass quantities of under-seen and possibly underrated B-movies. Albert Pyun may not be a household name, but he's a staple for people that love weird and sincere movies featuring low budgets, campy performances, and lots o' cyborgs. I recently found a VHS tape that caught my eye with some kickass box art and discovered that it was directed by Albert Pyun. After scrolling through his IMDb page, I was reminded that this guy has directed a lot of movies that have a special place in my heart and many others that I haven't had a chance to watch yet. He semi-retired from filmmaking a few years ago due to illness (although he has several projects lined up on his IMDb) and I thought it would be a fitting tribute to randomly go through his filmography and try to better understand an artist often mentioned in the same breath as Ed Wood (it says it in his IMDb summary!). So this is for you Albert and it begins with that very VHS tape, 1992's Nemesis.
I have to admit, I have little to no idea what the plot of this movie is...but I kind of love it. Nemesis is such a mishmash of tones, personalities, and Pyun's previous work, but it's still a lot of damn fun. Pyun borrowed ideas and cast members from some of his previous work like Cyborg (which you can bet your ass I'll be covering for this) and Dollman (which will be a nice crossover with my Full Moon Empire column) to create a sort of Post Nuke Noir with Western and Asian shoot-em-up elements tossed in for good measure. A lot of the acting is serviceable at best and the plot is needlessly convoluted/full of silly technobabble, but the low budget effects and almost nonstop action make this a very charming and entertaining movie. It grossed about $2 million during its very limited theatrical run (less that 25 theaters) and spawned a quadrilogy of films, which I will watch for this column, despite what I've read about them. Nemesis also helped cement a running theme in Pyun's work that he perhaps became most known for, the post-apocalyptic man vs. machine film. Pyun actually began developing the film in the late 80s as part of a 3 picture deal with Canon Films, but was pushed aside when he was tapped for their Masters of the Universe sequel and Spider-Man adaptation. Both of these films fell through and their sets/props salvaged for Pyun's Cyborg, oddly enough. That film got Pyun going on Nemesis again (then titled Alex Rain after the main character) and after several changes like setting the film in the future and changing the lead to a teenage girl (to be played by a young Megan Ward, rawr), Pyun found investors willing to make the film, but there was one condition. He had to replace the lead with the producer's secret treasure, a French kickboxer named Olivier Gruner, who had only acted once previously in 1990's Angel Town (which I need to see immediately).
Gruner plays Alex Raine, a human cop who becomes more machine than man with each deadly encounter in the line of duty. Gruner has the body and screen presence of a young Jean-Claude Van Damme (which I'm sure the producers thought he was on his way to becoming) with the looks of a young Eric Roberts only, you know...lesser. Between his rather lacking acting talents and being unable to understand most of what he says, I'm surprised at how much I actually ended up liking him. His natural stiffness and lack of emotion suited the cop wrestling with his fading humanity quite well. He is very physically capable in the role, though he doesn't really get a chance to use his fighting abilities as most of the action is gun-centric. One of my favorite things in the film, that's almost like a running joke, is Raine's change of hair style/length/color to mark the passing of time. It adds a pretty hilarious undertone to certain scenes, such as his recruitment by Farnsworth (Pyun and Full Moon favorite Tim Thomerson), where he looks like Charlie Sheen riffing on Rambo as Topper Harley in Hot Shots! Part Deux only, you know...lesser.
So, here's the plot as far as I can figure. Alex Raine works for the LAPD, taking out human terrorists fighting against “The Man” that is slowly becoming more “The Machine”. After an intense action scene where he saves a dog and gets blown to bits, Robocop style, he's put back together with even more machine parts than he already had. After a bunch of rehab and recovery, as well as a new addiction to his pain meds, Raine gets revenge on the lady that killed him/challenged his humanity. He then quits the force, much to the dismay of his android handler Jared (Majorie Monaghan). Her sidekick shoots the fucking dog too! Bad Form! After a little time as a freelance information smuggler (which he ain't no good at!) he gets blown away again, rebuilt...again, and imprisoned until Farnsworth needs him for one last job. He needs to recover intel that Jared has stolen and plans to give to the terrorists. She turned (or did she?), so now Raine has to go after his ex-boss and ex-lover (oh yeah, they were lovers too) and stop her before some summit thing between America and Japan happens. And if that wasn't enough, they put a bomb in his heart that is set to explode in 3 days if he doesn't complete the mission! This leads to a bunch of action, double crossing, and way more plot than I'm willing to continue writing about. We also gets brief appearances by Jackie Earle Haley and a very young Thomas Jane, who is baby-faced and bare-assed, just as God intended.
The main surprise from this film is how beautiful it looks (even on a crappy VHS tape). Frequent Pyun cinematographer George Mooradian gets some great shots from a number of visually interesting locations and set pieces, sometimes tinting the film's color for emotional effect/it looking cool. Pyun also has a lot of fun with the camera, whirling around sets and sweeping through corridors to give the film an incredibly fast pace, even when the characters aren't having ridiculously long shoot outs a few feet away from each other. I also have to give props to the special effects team (how else are they suppose to do their job? Ba-Dum-Tss!) for the cyborg effects and the big stop motion (referenced in the credits as “Go Motion”) action scene during the film's climax. These are all really well done considering the obviously low budget and add much of the charm that makes this film work. The shoot out action scenes can get a bit repetitive at times, but Pyun finds ways to spice it up by throwing in silly bits like Raine shooting circles around himself to drop through multiple floors in what appears to be a 2-story hotel. It doesn't make a lick of sense, but it does make for both silly and compelling action.
Nemesis is a nice little forgotten gem in Pyun's playground. It shows many of the strengths and traits Pyun has as a filmmaker that has kept him in the business for over 30 years, but doesn't really get dragged down by his weaknesses like some of his other films. This is a movie that I definitely recommend watching and the perfect way to kick off a series like this. And if you're feeling nasty, you can buy the whole series of films on Blu-Ray. I can't wait to tackle his Kickboxer sequels, but that may turn into an epic piece (I got lots to say about the Kickboxer series) and I don't want to blow my wad just yet. So, join me next time for Pyun's second feature film, a post-apocalyptic (see a theme forming here?) old-timey detective story with a bitchin' soundtrack that should be much more of a cult classic than it is. Find your way through the wasteland with nothing but your wits and your Radioactive Dreams.