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Cyborg (1989)

For my money, the saddest story in Cannon’s history is that of their attempts to become a legitimate force rivaling major studios. They spent a small fortune to secure the film rights for He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, arguably the defining kids’ cartoon of its era. Unlike Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Cannon put some money behind their live-action take on the show. It’s just that, for Cannon, putting all their money and resources into something meant a meager (for a fantasy-action epic) $10 million budget and a whole lot of crossed fingers.

Had Masters of the Universe succeeded, Cannon might still be around today. During the film’s production, they had so much confidence in its success that they moved along to their next big project: a live-action Spider-Man film, which would have starred stuntman Scott Leva (or, legend has it, possibly Tom Cruise). After Cannon optioned the rights to the character, Cannon went through an extensive, expensive development process. Because Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus misunderstood the concept of the character, they originally planned it as a horror film for Tobe Hooper to direct, with a script based on a treatment by Outer Limits creator Leslie Stevens. Stan Lee eventually explained who Spider-Man actually was, and they were on their way. Unfortunately, the high-profile failure of Superman IV forced them to slash the budget, causing most of the talent to abandon the project.

By 1987, all their hopes and dreams were pinned on Masters of the Universe, which cost more than Superman IV and needed to succeed in order to balance Cannon’s books and give them a way to finance Spider-Man. It flopped. Most attributed its failure to the idea that kids had moved on—after all, He-Man had gone off the air in 1985, and kids have notoriously short attention spans. Anecdotally, I’ll say this: my sister and I were at a prime age for He-Man fever, and although new episodes stopped airing in 1985, reruns continued throughout the run of She-Ra: Princess of Power (which began its run in late 1985, shortly before He-Man ended). We forced our parents to rush out and see the film when it hit theaters, and we loved it. So, personally, I attribute its failure to the mishandling of its marketing. Cannon made the foolhardy decision of promoting it as an action film for teens and adults. But who over the age of ten would want to see a He-Man movie? It’s actually a decent movie, but I can understand why their intended audience stayed away in droves while confused parents either barred their children from seeing it or simply ignored its existence.

Cannon had already sunk about $2 million into the development of Spider-Man. It was ready to go—budgeted, scheduled, with most of its sets already built on soundstages and backlots in Wilmington, North Carolina. It was going to share its set with a Masters of the Universe sequel still in development. The only problem was, Cannon didn’t have any more money to actually make the film. Veteran Cannon director Albert Pyun—who was slated to direct both Spider-Man and the Masters of the Universe sequel—took a look at the half-completed sets and realized he could salvage what Cannon had already spent by exploiting yet another popular genre: the post-apocalyptic thriller. Shooting on a budget of $500,000 (since the sets were already built, I assume the majority of this money went to spraypaint and codpieces), Cyborg capitalized on the cyberpunk movement with a tale of a grimy, plague-ravaged future world populated by the gang from Michael Jackson’s “Bad” video.

Personally, I’m a sucker for post-apocalyptic settings, even in bad films. If they can manage to keep some consistency to the world they’ve built, ideas about what the aftermath of a cataclysmic event might be have always fascinated me. Cyborg is no exception, which I think makes me a bit more lenient toward its numerous flaws.

The film stars Jean-Claude Van Damme as Gibson Rickenbacker (flaw #1: the cutesy naming of every character in the film after some sort of music manufacturer). Before I give you some indication of the story, I have to say that I noticed an interesting recurring theme among Cannon’s biggest action star. Forget Sylvester Stallone—who made a scant two films for them, and Over the Top isn’t even really an action film (despite its almost-pornographic depiction of biceps in action)—and think about the top dogs in Cannon’s arsenal: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Chuck Norris, and Charles Bronson. I’ve commented on it before, but it didn’t really crystallize until I started to look at Van Damme’s Cannon output. They all have one thing in common—a wounded vulnerability that sets them apart from most of the action stars of their era. Aside from an ineffectual wisecrack now and again, they’re humorless men haunted by tragic pasts.

Despite his name, Gibson Rickenbacker is no different. Flashbacks slowly reveal a life destroyed by Fender Tremolo (Vincent Klyn), a musclebound pirate who evidently borrowed Meg Foster’s creepy eyes for the role. Known as a “slinger”—a guide who can navigate the pitfalls of a society overrun by pirates like Fender—Gibson reluctantly helps a beautiful woman, Mary (Terrie Batson), and her two adorable moppets. In a story that probably would have made a better movie than the rest of Cyborg, the cynical and aloof Gibson learns to love and finds happiness. He and Mary abandon their journey and settle in an old, rickety farmhouse, where they live in peace—until Fender and his pirates slaughter Mary and her son and kidnap her daughter, all for reasons only partially explained.

Some time later, the unsubtly named Pearl Prophet (Dayle Haddon) hires Gibson to take her to Atlanta. Presumably, her destination is the CDC, because she has a cure for the plague that has decimated mankind. Gibson doesn’t trust her, until she pulls off the back of her head and shows him she’s the titular cyborg. Her partner, Marshall Strat (Alex Daniels), turned her into a cyborg so that her new computer brain could infallibly carry the cure to Atlanta—assuming she can make it alive.

Within minutes of their first meeting, Gibson watches with moderate apathy as Fender kidnaps Pearl. See, pirates don’t want a cure for the obvious reason that their days of looting and pillaging will end once disease stops decimating the populous. (The obvious question about there not being much to loot and/or pillage never occurs to Fender or screenwriter Kitty Chalmers.) Gibson follows Fender, but he repeatedly says he has no interest in saving Pearl or curing the plague. He has a blood feud with Fender, and he won’t stop until the pirate is dead. He considers saving mankind more of a side benefit than a primary goal.

Gibson doesn’t so much team up with Nady Simmons (Deborah Richter) as let her follow him. Even though she frequently frolics in the nude around him and occasionally offers him sexual favors, Gibson is the stoic eunuch type. Nady’s mostly there for exposition and comic relief as Gibson pursues Fender, who has taken a barge down the Intercoastal Waterway toward his base of operations in Charleston.

Not much happens during what screenwriters call “the second act,” which is kind of a problem, especially for a film this short. It’s relentlessly, almost nauseatingly violent (allegedly, Pyun had to cut nearly fifteen minutes to avoid an X rating, and what remains is still pretty nasty), more than any other Van Damme movie. Part of that comes from the queasy, post-apocalyptic environs; perhaps because it was rendered so cheaply, the world Pyun creates actually looks like many parts of this country right now, making it all too believable that poverty and despair can crush us. The bulk of the nastiness, however, comes from unnecessary flourishes like Gibson’s razor-tipped shoes, which allow him to slit throats while high-kicking. I suppose it’s effective, but not in an enjoyable way.

When Cyborg isn’t mindlessly violent, not much happens. The early flashbacks are effective, but once they go away, Pyun places the burden of entertainment squarely on the shoulders of Gibson and Nady, who are not exactly Tracy and Hepburn. Encouraging moments—like Mary’s daughter reappearing as a bloodthirsty, teenage pirate—occur periodically, but they never develop into anything interesting.

I didn’t find enough here to recommend the film, but it’s also not nearly as bad as the scathing reviews that greeted Cyborg upon its theatrical release. It starts strong and then sputters to the finish line, but it never lacks imagination (even when mining post-apocalypse clichés, which it warps into something like a futuristic snuff film). Its $10 million gross didn’t save Cannon, but at the time it got released, nothing could.

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