July 28, 2011

JCVD, crossed up

The only interesting thing about Cyborg is that it represents another step in the career of one Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Van Damme is trying to make the leap from European body building champion to American movie star. It has been done before, and Arnold Schwarzengger’s lessons are there for all to study.

Van Damme has learned well. Like Schwarzenegger, he knows not to talk much (Belgian-born, his accent is about as thick as his biceps) and to do a lot of scenes with his shirt off. He has the body and he has the looks, although he doesn’t seem blessed with Schwarzenegger’s droll sense of humor. In fact, he doesn’t display much sense of anything, except how to move.

His martial-arts skills came in handy in his first starring vehicle, Bloodsport, a karate-chopping extravaganza that did strong business internationally. Now comes Cyborg, a trip into the science-fiction landscape of The Terminator and The Road Warrior.

The script (by Kitty Chalmers) is pretty much incoherent. The earth, some years in the future, has been devastated by a plague, but a cure is held in the brain circuits of a cyborg, a robot. This cyborg must reach, of all places, Atlanta, where a small group of scientists is waiting to secure the data. Times are tough for a traveling cyborg, because a group of marauders called the Flesh Pirates are roaming around asserting their nasty will.

So Van Damme, a sort of roving samurai, makes sure the cyborg reaches Atlanta. Director Albert Pyun obviously has been inspired by Kurosawa’s action movies, and there’s some decently mounted hand-to-hand fighting and a violent climactic battle in the rain. There’s also a wild and weird crucifixion scene in which Van Damme painfully knocks himself off the cross when the bad guys aren’t looking. Ouch.

Otherwise, Van Damme glowers, and manages lines like, “I deedn’t make thees world.” I have to admit that when he and the main villain (Vincent Klyn, a champion surfer) faced off, they reminded me of Hans and Franz, the Germanic body building brothers on “Saturday Night Live,” flexing and bellowing. But don’t tell Van Damme I said that; his muscles aren’t cotton stuffed in a sweat shirt, they’re real.

First published in the Herald, April 14, 1989

To be fair, maybe the cyborg is going to Atlanta because the Center for Disease Control is there. And they’d be smart enough to have built a secure plague-resistant HQ, for sure. So I take that comment back, and regret the umpteenth iteration of the “accent thick as muscles” line, too. Frankly this movie sounds like fun, especially the part about JCVD knocking himself off the cross in mid-crucifixion. For more on the cinema of Albert Pyun, check the review of Dangerously Close and the comments section.

Dangerously Close

February 14, 2011

Cannon Films is the upstart low-budget studio that cranks out Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson movies, as well as the occasional “A” film, such as Fool for Love and Runaway Train. It’s just the kind of company where innovative talent can sometimes rise through the ranks of exploitation filmmaking and attract attention—as with Roger Corman’s company during the 1960s, which gave breaks to Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, et al.

For its opening 20 minutes, Cannon’s Dangerously Close looks as though it’s going to be just such an attention-grabbing film. We’re introduced to a weird high school club called the Sentinels, who take their vigilante function quite seriously—seriously enough to engage in “an intense survival game” called Hunt-Down, in which they terrorize kids who have irked them in some way.

At school, the Sentinels are peace-keepers, and they look and speak like a bunch of buttoned-down, clean-cut creeps. Their leader (John Stockwell, who also had a hand in the script) approaches the editor (J. Eddie Peck) of the school paper, in an attempt to gain some healthy P.R.

He introduces Peck to his parents’ lavish mansion, to his gorgeous girlfriend, and to a local nightclub. Most of these opening scenes are shot in a grabby, non-realistic style, and there are some shots—the girl emerging from a pool at sunset, the camera traveling the length of a dinner table, the nightmarish lighting of the mad club—that’ll make you sit up straight in your seat.

All that jazz is thrown at you by director Albert Pyun, who is a person to watch. This isn’t just grandstanding; it defines the insane world of the Sentinels, and suggests how a kid could get seduced into that world.

Sad to say, the momentum from this impressive opening dribbles away surprisingly quickly. It soon turns conventional, with Peck uncovering evidence to finger the Sentinels in their illegal activities. Aside from a disturbing, Deliverance-like sequence involving the mock hanging of Peck’s punk friend in a forest, there’s little else to make the film distinctive.

It’s still more interesting than the average teen movie, but the power of those early scenes makes the film’s ultimate normality quite frustrating.

First published in the Herald, May 1986

All right, maybe it was grandstanding. I have not followed the career of Albert Pyun through the Z-movie underworld he has inhabited, so I can’t really be definitive on this. I only know that at the time, the first 20 minutes of Dangerously Close looked like something, and one always hopes a new auteur might be just around the corner, and you never know where the next Scorsese might pop up. This was also Carey Lowell’s first movie, for those of you who care about that.