Albert Pyun & The Birth of Filmwerks

Matty reflects on Hong Kong ’97, Spitfire and Heatseeker: the first three films Albert Pyun made under his Filmwerks banner. Featuring archival, previously unreleased comments from producer and Filmwerks co-founder Gary Schmoeller!

Founded in 1993 by director Albert Pyun, longtime collaborator Tom Karnowski, and producer Gary Schmoeller, Filmwerks’ opening salvo was a trio of straight-to-video actioners for Trimark Pictures. As Schmoeller told me in a 2015 interview I conducted for mine and my Schlock Pit co-conspirator Dave Wain’s Killjoy (2000) chapter of It Came From the Video Aisle!: Inside Charles Band’s Full Moon Entertainment Studio:

“I had been working with Brian Yuzna and working with Charlie Band via my brother, [Puppet Master (1989) director] David, and had established myself with the bond company, Film Finances. And they’d recommend me to the big distributors at the time, like Trimark. So I started line producing and hiring unit production managers. At the time, pre-sales were very strong — you know, financing films through pre-selling contracts — and so I went through that process about four or five times and I realised I could do that too. So pretty soon I was working with Albert and Tom and we formed Filmwerks where we started pre-selling and financing our own projects.”

“Filmwerks was a small operation. Basically, there were four of us: Albert, Tom, me and then our line producer, Jessica Budin. We’d get the projects started and Albert and Tom would run off and shoot them. I actually financed the pictures. I put all the financing together. So those five years at Filmwerks were just pressure, pressure, pressure on me because we had to close our loans before we could make anything. Most of the guys had cash flow and they’d cash flow their pictures and take their time closing the loans. We didn’t have that option. I was just under a tremendous amount of pressure because I’d have Tom and Albert overseas ready to shoot, and I had to close the loan so we could pay our lead actors and get going! It was a great time for me personally because I became a true producer; but it was miserable because of the stress of financing, which is a difficult process.” 

Though released in the following order, Hong Kong ‘97 (1994), Spitfire (1995), and Heatseeker (1995) were all made in tandem, sharing cast and crew and shooting in Los Angeles, Orlando, Rome, Hong Kong, and the Philippines. 

“We made all three for $6 million,” explained Schmoeller, “And we travelled fifty-six thousand miles in fifty-two days to make those projects. We took twenty people with us — the DP, 1st AD, wardrobe, make-up, myself, Tom, Albert — and each time we went to Rome, we put Rome in two of the pictures. When we went to Orlando, we put Orlando in two pictures. [Chuckles] I remember one sequence in Hong Kong where Tim Thomerson and Brion James were in one film in the morning, and then in the afternoon they were in another film. And they loved it. The actors always loved Albert because we went to such great places, and we provided travel. Albert didn’t like to shoot in L.A. But Albert was capable of doing that: he was one of the few directors that could keep up with that mental load. Not many of ’em can, but by then he had about twenty pictures under his belt. He’d learnt how to cheat and direct, and he let the actors do what they — he didn’t try to mould an actor into something that he wasn’t, you know? He let Tim Thomerson be funny, he let Robert Patrick be Robert Patrick. He hired them for what they were in the picture. And we just put different clothes on ’em [laughs]. But we had car wrecks and explosions; we were able to do a lot of things that would bring a lot of production value to a little low-budget action picture. Part of Hong Kong ’97 we shot in Civic Bay, and the US had already given Civic back to the Philippines. And we had a scene where we had three-hundred Chinese Red Army soldiers coming off this ship. So we had three-hundred extras, uniforms, explosions, this big ship — and it cost us nothing down at Civic Bay! They were putting us up in this, what used to have been officers quarters in Civic Bay, and it literally cost us nothing.”

Robert Patrick in Hong Kong ’97.

Of Filmwerks’ inaugural slate, HONG KONG ‘97 is the weakest. Framed against the backdrop of Britain’s then upcoming 1997 handover of Hong Kong’s sovereignty to China, Hong Kong ‘97 is a clumsy and somewhat awkward mish-mash of romance and assassination, telling the story of a hitman’s existential crisis after his execution of a prominent political figure results in a bounty being placed on his own head. The gunman is played by the aforementioned Robert Patrick who also pops up with co-star Brion James in an uncredited cameo at the start of Spitfire. Several threads weave in and out of Hong Kong ‘97 but none are developed beyond the rudimentaries, with Randall Fontana’s unfocused script pulling in too many directions, piling incident upon incident at the expense of storytelling. Worse are Pyun’s sub John Woo stylistics and his uncharacteristically clunky staging of Hong Kong ‘97’s numerous scenes of gun-fu. Considering how ruthlessly assembled such similar sequences were in the helmer’s iconic sci-shooter Nemesis (1992), and how perfectly Pyun would infuse the balletic carnage of his other classics Brainsmasher (1993), Knights (1993), and Mean Guns (1997) with a bevy of Asian cinema-inspired licks, it’s very disappointing. As an action flick, Hong Kong ‘97 — which shares its name with an infamously awful Japanese homebrew SNES game — is sloppy and too bereft of the requisite levels of excitement.

Still, there is pleasure to be had. While Pyun flubs the action beats, he does imbue the film with a gently mesmeric sensibility. There’s a strange, floaty, almost ethereal feeling to Hong Kong ‘97; in between the haphazard set pieces and reams of convoluted exposition, Pyun unleashes several passages that invoke genuine melancholy as Patrick, in a good if unremarkable performance, questions his lifestyle and reconnects with an old flame (Ming-Na Wen — Chun-Li in Street Fighter (1994) and the voice of Disney’s Mulan (1998)). Pyun had, of course, experimented with this mournful and dreamlike vibe before in Radioactive Dreams (1985) and Cyborg (1989). However, it would be among the increasingly more outré Pyun joints that followed Hong Kong ‘97 where the much maligned auteur’s penchant for angsty and surreal soul-searching really started to bubble. The brilliantly odd tone poem Nemesis 4: Cry of Angels (1996) in particular is virtually an angrier, Eastern Bloc remake of Hong Kong ‘97, with Pyun semi-regular Andrew Divoff occupying the same place in both movies (he’s the duplicitous associate who sanctions Patrick and, in Nemesis 4, Sue Price’s contract killings).

There’s also an amusing meta commentary to be drawn from Hong Kong ‘97. Despite James bagging the acting honours with his spirited turn as Patrick’s tally-ho mentor, replete with plummy British accent, it’s tempting to read Tim Thomerson’s character as a Pyun viewer writ large. He’s an average Joe inadvertently caught up in the mayhem, and he exhibits all the anger and bewilderment that virginal watchers of Pyun’s output often experience. But like those of us who begin jiving with Pyun’s art — those of us who click with his offbeat narratives and wildly shifting tones and modes — Thomerson’s pen-pusher soon gets stuck in and is quickly wielding a pistol with the best of them.

Spitfire (1995)
Real-life gymnastics champ Kristie Phillips in Spitfire.

A highlight of Filmwerks’ sixteen-title library and of Pyun’s entire CV, SPITFIRE is excellent. A giddy, slightly spoof-y blend of espionage, gymnastics, comedy, and family saga, Spitfire is, in essence, a retread of Brainsmasher. Conceived by Pyun and written by him, David Yorkin, and Heatseeker scribe Christopher Borkgren, it’s another tale of a talented young woman suckered into a madcap adventure thanks to a relative. This time, instead of Teri Hatcher’s model, it’s real-life gymnastics champ Kristie Phillips’ feisty gymnast who finds herself embroiled in a globe-trotting caper involving her estranged super-spy father (Lance Henriksen, reuniting with Pyun after chewing the scenery with wanton abandon in Knights), a gaggle of nasty counter agents led by a deliciously haughty Sarah Douglas, and some nuclear missile launch codes. Naturally, Phillips is better suited to the bursts of spinning and twirling as she trades blows with wave after wave of bad guys than the acting, but she’s given solid support by an enjoyably slapstick Thomerson as a boozy sports journo who, like his character in Hong Kong ‘97, unwittingly tags along for the ride.

As with Hong Kong ‘97 there is an element of ‘event, event, event’ to Spitfire, with a couple of moments seemingly shoehorned in purely for the sake of having something — anything — happen. However, where Pyun used Hong Kong ‘97’s staccato momentum to mask a lack of focus and cohesion, in Spitfire, it fits with the ideas that are stitched deep within its fabric. Sharply directed and brimming with zeal and conceptually appropriate aesthetic verve (Mark Emery Moore’s fluid steadicam work is superb), Spitfire is a briskly paced and energetic film about movement and forging forward. It’s about athleticism and resilience; a spring-heeled ode to pressing on and keepin’ truckin’ in the face of overwhelming adversity, be it for competitive or personal reasons.

Said kineticism translates to Spitfire’s funniest running gag as well. Already teeming with tongue-in-cheek pokes at James Bond, the 007 school of bed-hopping, ‘spy who loved me’ behaviour gets a right skewering when Pyun reveals that Henriksen’s womanising has resulted in a few more illegitimate children than just lil’ Charlie — and the pair of them are happy to help their younger half-sister in her own jet-setting crusade.

Heatseeker (1995)
Keith Cooke and Gary Daniels in Heatseeker.

Recent years and declining health have found Albert Pyun candidly reflecting upon his legacy, usually on social media. Perhaps the most surprising revelation has been that he possesses zero affinity for what the masses believe to be his signature traits, with robots and martial arts simply affording him the chance to forge a living as a filmmaker. Pyun’s thoughts on his patented subject matter notwithstanding, in general premise HEATSEEKER could be seen as his quintessential text hybridising, as it does, the futuristic robo-schlockery of Cyborg, Nemesis, and Knights with the stringent, mano-a-mano arse-kicking of his Enter the Dragon (1973) type thumpers Bloodmatch (1991), Kickboxer 2 (1991), and Kickboxer 4 (1994)

Alas, in terms of quality, Heatseeker is strictly mid-range Pyun/mid-range Filmwerks. It’s better than Urban Menace (1999), Corrupt (1999), The Wrecking Crew (2000), Crazy Six (1997), Postmortem (1998), and Blast (1997) in regards to the latter, but it’s no Omega Doom (1996)Spitfire, Adrenalin: Fear the Rush (1996) and Mean Guns. Its plot is wafer thin. What there is concerns a completely human, prize-winning MMA fighter (Keith Cooke who, in addition to playing Reptile in the live action adaptation of Mortal Kombat (1995) and Sub-Zero in its 1997 sequel, is, fittingly, a prize-winning mixed martial artist) forced to enter a brutal tournament for cybernetically enhanced bruisers (fellow professional killing machines/stuntmen/hard bastards Richard Cetrone, Lester Griffin, and John Machado among them) in order to free his kidnapped girlfriend (Pyun starlet Tina Cote) and beat the piss outta his main tin-man foe (a furrow-browed Gary Daniels). It’s nothing but a series of punch-ups and kick-a-thons — which would, admittedly, be kind of exhilarating if Pyun didn’t capture them so flatly. Like Hong Kong ‘97, Heatseeker’s action is shoddily executed and its wealth of scraps are plagued with a curiously detached air due to Pyun’s cost-driven decision to lens them all at a distance (the tournament footage was done in one and a half days). There’s no impact or attempts to immerse; there’s no visceral or emotional response to the violence that Pyun presents because of his arm’s length visual style and the barely two dimensional characters that populate his and Christopher Borkgren’s loose screenplay. 

And yet, irrespective of its flaws, Heatseeker is magnificent. It’s fabulously watchable — less a conventional bit of cinema, more a slyly seductive blitz of stimulation and experience. There are images that spark the imagination, from the sweat-soaked streets of Manila and Pyun’s use of candy-coloured costumes for his deluge of corporate villains (embodied by the director’s most frequently used stock player, Norbert Weisser, and another appearance by Thomerson, who’s gifted anime hair and a coke nail); to the teasingly quick flashes of David Barton’s war wound FX make-up — all flesh and blood and steel when fighters are rendered obsolete after each round of Weisser’s capitalistic kumite. There’s a hinted at, elliptical nature to it, as if we’re being primed and edged to the precipice of ecstasy. It’s a symptom of the undercooked script for sure, but Pyun’s conjuring of accidental vagaries are quietly sublime and satisfying in a perversely unsatisfying way. His unexpounded nods to the cyberpunk milieu of William Gibson — Pyun parading a realm controlled by mega-corporations, a world where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer — engage and delight, whether they ultimately serve a purpose or not. In Heatseeker, Pyun isn’t interested in elaborating on how things got this way and what Cooke’s hero can do to change them. They just are. And it elicits a truly potent headrush if you surrender to the film’s richly imperfect charm, and are willing to accept that the meat of Heatseeker occurs in what we don’t see.

Portions of this essay appear in Matty Budrewicz & Dave Wain’s forthcoming book, “Schlock & Awe: 2,001 Forgotten Films of the ’90s Rental Realm”.

Follow Matty on Twitter @mattybudrewicz

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