We all feel like the world is going to come to an end any moment, plunging us into a dank dystopia of warring factions battling tooth and nail over food and resources, but, man, the ‘8os were primetime for the apocalypse. You couldn’t go into a video store and throw a stone without hitting some film, usually, but not always, Italian, presenting a world in which water/oil/cocaine has dried up, leading to lawless bands of leather-clad miscreants patrolling the wasteland, ready to torment our gruff, dusty heroes. Granted, this had less to do with fear of the end of civilization than trying to ride the coattails of MAD MAX and its sequels, but hey, the apocalypse was still an ever-looming threat in ‘80s genre cinema.
Not all of these films were great — most weren’t even good — but they all hold a special place in the hearts of most genrefied misfits. None can match the adventures of Max Rockatansky through the barren Australian outback, but with their vaguely kinky spikes and leather style and dedication to campy, brutish thrills, most are at least fun. And that include’s the cheesetastic but action-packed corn of Albert Pyun’s cult classic CYBORG, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme.
CYBORG was made out of necessity. Cannon Films, the legendary purveyors of cash-strapped, violence-filled ‘80s action extravaganzas, needed a film. The mini-major had deals to make both a MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE sequel and a live-action SPIDER-MAN movie, both to be directed by their new discovery, Albert Pyun. But Cannon didn’t have the money. The studio snorted lines and spent all their cash on films that audiences didn’t want to see, and their attempts to make bigger films had to go down the fiscal drain. (R.I.P. SUPERMAN IV.) Cannon had to sell back the rights (to Mattel and Marvel, respectively) leaving them with some pre-built sets and no movie to film on them. And so they did what any self-respecting, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps outsider film company would do.
They wrote a film in a weekend and pitched a half a mil into getting something onto the screen.
For a film with such a catch-as-catch-can backstory, CYBORG is not half bad. Good? No, hardly. The lack of a budget undercuts any kind of apocalyptic scope the film might have had (most of the film takes place in visually unremarkable back alleys, beaches and decrepit warehouses), the villain, as muscular as he is, is hilariously un-menacing (he looks like ‘80s/’90s heavy Brian Thompson remade as a glowering hair-metal bassist) and its often woefully acted. But is it fun? Hell and yes. CYBORG is kind of a perfect example of ‘80s Cannon Velveeta: dumb, not as slick as it thinks it is, but eager to entertain.
And how can one NOT be entertained by a movie in which our hero is named Gibson Rickenbacker? He’s played by the Muscles From Brussels with a single note of glowering stoniness. Rickenbacker is a “slinger” — a mercenary — who is tasked with bringing a cyborg to Atlanta, where scientists are working on a cure to a plague that has wiped out most of humanity. However, on their journey, they are overcome by vicious pirates led by Fender Tremolo (yes, Fender Tremolo — the use of instruments as names is one of the film’s assets), who wants to own the cure in order to capitalize on it for himself. Rickenbacker, seeking vengeance on Tremolo for a personal past wrong, pursues him with the help of a young woman named Nady (Deborah Richter) he meets along the way.
There is no high art in CYBORG — there’s barely even a film that is “good” in the traditional sense. Not to say that it’s “so bad it’s good” camp. No, CYBORG is mostly a showcase for Van Damme’s lithe kickboxing talents. It’s popcorn junk food of the highest order, the kind of thing Cannon specialized in, and delivers on what it promises — Van Damme, handsome, sweaty, and tautly muscled, in his first real role after breaking out in BLOODSPORT, plowing his feet of fury into hordes of unfortunate henchmen. Richter makes for a plucky sidekick, and Vincent Klyn is a hilariously cartoonish sneer of a human being as the blue-eyed hunk of evil wood known as Tremolo.
CYBORG, Vincent Klyn, 1989. ©Cannon Films
Shout! Factory’s new Blu of CYBORG looks good, probably the best its been since a sweaty Van Damme was kicking mofos in the face back in his ‘80s heyday. The extras are serviceable behind the scenes featurettes and extended interviews from Mark Hartley’s Cannon doc ELECTRIC BOOGALOO that are “fans only.” But any self-respecting fan of cinema cheese is going to want this edition of the grunting Belgian muscleman’s post-apocalyptic cult classic.