Cyborg is Cannon Films at its Cannon Filmsiest. The Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle debuted in theaters on April 7, 1989, arriving at the tail end of Menachem Golan and Yorum Globus’ wild ride through the world of cinema, sandwiched between Bloodsport and Kickboxer (along with roughly 25 other films). Made for $500,000, it grossed $10 million, one of the last successful forays of a failing production house, which would close its doors only 8 months later.
Cyborg is a bad movie. But it is bad in a way that also proves compulsively watchable. Cobbled together from the remains of two ill-fated Cannon projects — a sequel to their Masters of the Universe and an attempt at a Spiderman adaptation — the film is a true Frankenstein’s monster.
Written by would-be auteur Albert Pyun — who might be best remembered for The Sword and the Sorcerer, but who I prefer to think of as the man behind Max Havoc: Curse of the Dragon — Cyborg was specifically created so as to recoup the potential losses on costumes designed for those earlier projects. I don’t know if there is a precedent for this, but it is endlessly, ludicrously enjoyable to think about.
Allegedly written in less than a month, Pyun skimped on narrative, and even named all his characters after musical equipment. Van Damme plays Gibson Rickenbacher. The villain (played by a monosyllabic Vincent Klyn) is called Fender Tremolo. The cyborg, who holds the potential cure to a plague, is Pearl Prophet. Fender’s crew includes sidekicks Marshall Strat and Furman Vux. It is delightfully idiotic.
Apparently, Pyun hoped to shoot the film in black and white and score it to intense metal, but the Cannon impressarios decided this was ridiculous. (A truly amazing thing: when Goran and Globus reject your idea as too absurd, you know you have engineered something wacky.) Instead, Cyborg is a frenetic grab-bag of homoerotic frames, grunting, incoherent dystopian set-pieces, martial arts bloopers, and weirdly insistent crucifixion tropes.
We open on a hellscape of a shattered world, sometime in the future. The narration is provided by Fender Tremolo. It’s an odd touch that the villain introduces the film, especially considering Fender spends the rest of the film shouting things like, “Blaaaaargh.” But it’s also odd that the cyborg isn’t the main character — you’d think, like The Terminator, The Running Man, or any number of action films, this would not be the case. But more on that in a minute.
Fender tells us:
First there was the collapse of civilization: anarchy, genocide, starvation. Then when it seemed things couldn’t get any worse, we got the plague. The Living Death, quickly closing its fist over the entire planet. Then we heard the rumors: that the last scientists were working on a cure that would end the plague and restore the world. Restore it? Why? I like the death! I like the misery! I like this world!
After the credits roll, he repeats this, in case we missed it literally seconds ago. Which is really kind of considerate, I guess. Maybe you were out of the room.
The plot is all in that narration. A cyborg has been developed. She was once human, but now has a computer brain, and she holds the secret to the cure. She is trying to get to Atlanta. (Because the CDC is still there? This is never clear, but it does provide opportunity for many people to say, “Aaaaattttlaaaaaanta,” so that’s positive.)
Unfortunately, she’s taken hostage by Fender and his crew, who have their own nefarious designs. Van Damme’s Rickenbacher is what’s called a “slinger,” essentially a gun-for-hire. He has a history with Fender, in the sense that Fender raped his ex-lover and forced the youngest daughter to drown the rest of the family in a well before kidnapping and corrupting her. Fender is bad.
Rickenbacher takes up with a woman named Nady Simmons (Deborah Richter, the worst) and the two of them travel south to save the world and/or get revenge. Much kicking and stabbing ensues.
Pyun frames everything in murky darkness, with water pouring down whenever possible. His camera adores gleaming, oiled muscles and bloody torsos. If there is no sex in the film, it’s only because every scene is inherently sexual, lingering fetishistically on flesh. Most fights take place in what appear to be backlots and scrapyards. Pyun never found a shot he didn’t think could be improved with the addition of a few more pieces of garbage and bit more bicep.
Cyborg is fascinating for a number of reasons, but the connection between its eroticism and death fetish is its most notable. For reasons left unexplained, Fender and his men simply love nailing people to crosses. It’s their favorite thing to do. Their other favorite thing is to remove the flesh of their victims — an interesting corrollary to the film’s fixation on pre-removed flesh. It’s a fleshy affair.
After stumbling through high-profile disasters like Superman IV: Quest For Peace and Over The Top, Cyborg marked a return to Cannon’s bread and butter: shitty exploitation filmed on the cheap, with little or no concern for coherence and a whole lot of attention to profit margins. It worked, though not quite well enough to save them in the end.
Today, Cyborg is a cult classic, one of the true “has to be seen to be believed” exercises in popcorn-gobbling incompetence. It remains a bewildering fact that the same guys who made Cyborg financed Love Streams, but the 80s were a weird time no matter how you slice it.
Van Damme would go on to make many more pictures, but his work with Cannon may represent the purest distillation of his screen presence. Haunted, wounded, very strong, with limited English and, perhaps for this reason, not much to say, he unquestionably owns the screen in Cyborg. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing may be left to individual taste.
However, if you enjoy filmic silliness, stories built around outlandish costumes, gaping at deeply questionable narrative choices, and extraordinarily fit guys who mostly say, “Uuuuuuuuuunnnnnnnnnngggggghhhh”, Cyborg is the movie for you.