Ahead of the forthcoming Pyun-produced fifth film, Matty briefly looks back at the cult auteur’s first four robo-schlockers.
Occupying a spot at the top end of the much maligned Albert Pyun’s dense resume – neatly sandwiched between his kooky Big Trouble In Little China (1986) riff Brain Smasher… A Love Story (1993) and his magnum opus, stylised shoot-’em-up Mean Guns (1997) – is 1992’s exhilarating NEMESIS. Originally conceived as a female cop fronted serial killer thriller, then envisioned as a taut conspiracy flick during Pyun’s tenure at a waning Cannon Films, a change of the protagonist’s gender and a change of studio found the filmmaker once again waist deep in his now patented territory of robots, martial arts, and bone-crunching action. It was a mix that had served his beloved 1989 future-shocker Cyborg well; previous eclectic cuts The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982) and Down Twisted (1987) had hinted at it, but it was Pyun’s shepherding of the Jean-Claude Van Damme bruiser that laid the groundwork for the kind of quirky genre excitement that the Hawaiian-born maestro was really capable of. And while the rough n’ ready Mad Max (1979)-ness of Cyborg was visually and tonally worlds away from the first sleek, William Gibson-infused Nemesis, it was enough to convince backers Imperial Entertainment that the director needed to harness the skills of another European arse-whupper to topline the film: this time, French kickboxer Olivier Gruner.
Fresh from Imperial’s passable thumper Angel Town (1990), Gruner is Alex Rain: a burnt out, cybernetically enhanced cop coerced into one final assignment by his superiors (performed with great comic book pomp by cult heroes Brion James and Tim Thomerson). Rain’s mission is to take out an old acquaintance turned snitch who plans to thwart a summit meeting along with her gaggle of techno terrorists or something – but Nemesis‘ convoluted plot barely matters, so forget it. Pyun sure does! Juggling nods to everything from Escape From New York (1981) to Philip K. Dick, Nemesis’ script (which is credited to the mysterious ‘Rebecca Charles’ – likely, an unverified Pyun pseudonym) is a fun sci-fi patchwork but it’s no more than a threadbare way for Pyun to link a procession of blistering, bullet-soaked set pieces.
A master of mayhem, the helmer’s balletic orchestration of Nemesis‘ crazed scenes of gun-play and kamikaze stunt work is pure raucous poetry. Cribbing from John Woo and preempting The Matrix (1999), they’re striking, ballsy and fabulously over the top. The clip is dizzying, and Pyun’s unwavering commitment to crowd-pleasing spectacle is the driving force of Nemesis‘ two and three as well.
Of course, the sequels’ complete switch in story and aesthetic will likely startle the unprepared. There’s a few crossover touches to appease the devout (such as the return of Thomerson’s Farnsworth in 3) but it’s those who approach 1995’s NEMESIS 2: NEBULA and 1996’s NEMESIS 3: TIME LAPSE as what they are – franchise restarts – that’ll be more richly rewarded. Gone, for instance, is the cyberpunk milieu of the original. Instead, Pyun defaults back to a Cyborg-like desert-cum-wasteland (which, obviously, is much easier to realise on a drastically reduced budget). The eminently watchable Gruner is also absent, his version of Alex now replaced by bodybuilder Sue Price. And though her delivery is strained even by the occasionally stony Gallic grappler’s standards, Price’s re-interpretation of the character (despite Nebula‘s opening expository mumbo-jumbo trying to claim otherwise; apparently, the two namesakes are supposedly completely unrelated) is every bit as perpetually fascinating and as surprisingly soulful as Gruner’s.
Made back-to-back, Nebula and Time Lapse work best watched that way too. Humanity’s unwitting saviour, in the former, Price goes toe-to-toe with the eponymous Predator (1987) meets Terminator (1984) hunter droid; in the latter, she’s battling a bevy of robo assassins (whose looks, as with the original Nemesis’ gunplay, were again echoed by the Wachowskis in The Matrix Reloaded (2003)). Barely pausing for breath, Nebula is the conventionally better of the pair. Punctuated by Pyun mainstay Tony Riparetti’s rousing score, it’s basically one giant extended chase sequence that grabs you by the throat and straight-up demands you enjoy it. Time Lapse (or depending on your territory, ‘Prey Harder’), meanwhile, is arguably the closest Pyun has ever come to making a whacked-out acid western – well, the excruciating Left For Dead (2007) notwithstanding. It truly is Pyun’s El Topo (1970): a cerebral, intriguingly impressionistic mix of violence, bizarre dialogue, and artful weirdness that’s only real negative is some staggeringly lame CGI effects.
It’s NEMESIS 4: CRY OF ANGELS (1996, aka ‘Nemesis: Death Angel’) that’s the saga’s standout, though. Shot over five days during Pyun’s Bratislavan Adrenalin: Fear the Rush (1996) reshoots, Cry of Angels is an ink black gem. In it, Price’s Alex is now a cynical, hard-faced assassin who’s decommissioning an assortment of cybernetic horn-dog scum, all while dodging the bounty placed on her own head by a disgruntled ex-employer (Pyun regular Andrew Divoff). Melancholic and evasive, this distinguished quickie’s raft of graphic bloodletting, full frontal nudity, and explicit simulated bonking will likely be deeply unpalatable for some, Pyun lingering on the gore and Price’s hulking physique with fetishistic glee. However, for those with an appetite for oddball, horror-and-sci-fi-soaked erotica, this moody potboiler is as classic as the tremendously enjoyable original Nemesis.
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