Blast (1997) & Mean Guns (1997): Albert Pyun’s Jailhouse Rock

Matty looks back at the cult auteur’s time behind bars (so to speak).

Opportunism and B-flicks go hand in hand, and whenever a gift horse presents itself, any indie-minded genre peddler would be insane to look it in the mouth. Such is the case of Albert Pyun. A filmmaker for whom sitting still is not an option, even in recent years amidst dwindled budgets and declining health (as of this writing, the MS and dementia-stricken auteur is continually noodling on a raft of projects), the stories of Pyun cobbling movies together on the fly and between other assignments are legendary. Witness: his ace sci-fi dramedy Deceit (1990) and awesome, black-hearted gem Nemesis 4: Cry of Angels (1996) — a pair of Pyun essentials quickly and secretly fashioned on Cannon and Dimension’s dime, respectively, as the shows that preceded them, Cyborg (1989) and Adrenalin: Fear the Rush (1996), were being faffed with by prima-donna stars and meddling producers. And following his stint in Bratislava with Adrenalin, Nemesis 4, and Omega Doom (1996), lady luck threw Pyun his juiciest bone yet, at least as far as production value goes.

Designed and built in the wake of the 1994 Northridge earthquake, The Twin Towers Correctional Facility is a state-of-the-art prison in Los Angeles that, today, is probably best known for housing Paris Hilton during her brief jail term in 2007 and being the current abode of disgraced XXX icon Ron Jeremy. However, back in 1996 and 1997, prior to the $400million slammer’s official opening, The Twin Towers was standing empty due to a lack of operational funds. As Pyun’s former Filmwerks compadre, Gary Schmoeller, explained to me in a mammoth, career-encompassing chat conducted for mine and Dave’s contribution to the 2017 book, It Came From the Video Aisle!: Inside Charles Band’s Full Moon Entertainment Studio:

“There was a year or so when The Twin Towers was finished but not occupied. They built it for millions and it was completely empty — no inmates or anything. And me, Albert, and [Filmwerks’ other co-founder] Tom Karnowski found out about it so we wrote two scripts that we could set there, purely because we knew it was available. We paid, oh, I don’t know, a few thousand dollars to film there and we had the complete run of the building: we could go anywhere in the prison and do anything that we wanted to do and the LA County Sheriff’s Office were just glad to have whatever income we could provide so they could keep the lights on [laughs]. But it was the neatest experience ever for making films. No prisoners, just a small crew of staff, and we filled the place with people and guns and action and they loved it.” 

Lensed over twelve days in April 1996 for a budget of $700,000, Pyun’s Die Hard (1988)-aping BLAST (1997) was the first Filmwerks joint to shoot at The Twin Towers.

Not to be confused with Anthony Hickox’s identically titled ‘Die Hard on an oil rig’ from 2004 (which, incidentally, had the distinction of being penned by Die Hard’s co-scribe, Steven E. de Souza), Pyun’s passable McTiernan homage, in which the Nakatomi Plaza and Bruce Willis are replaced by a training pool and Mortal Kombat’s (1995) Linden Ashby, concerns the US Women’s Olympic Swim Team [1] being taken hostage as they prepare for Atlanta 1996. Leading this hostile storm is future horror hero and Pyun semi-regular Andrew Divoff (Hong Kong ‘97 (1994), Adrenalin, Nemesis 4) as Modo. A grim, dead-eyed terrorist, Modo and his nondescript gang of rent-a-mercs have wired the ladies’ practice space to explode, leaving the authorities and those trapped inside (roles inhabited by more Pyun perennials: Norbert Weisser, Tim Thomerson, Tina Cote, Yuji Okumoto, and Thom Mathews) to rely upon Ashby’s ex-Olympian caretaker and a paraplegic counter terrorism expert (Omega Doom himself, Rutger Hauer, whose bored-seeming turn was boxed off by Pyun in a single nine hour shift) to save the day. Can they do it? 

What do you think?

Blast is as rote as they come, and the biggest surprise within Pyun’s flat, pseudonymously-penned sceenplay [2] is that it necessitates Hauer being slathered in brownface in order to play a Native American. It’s a quirk that’d be genuinely offensive if it weren’t so silly. 

That said, there is a certain degree of potency to Pyun’s tried n’ tested premise, particularly when Blast is watched with knowledge of the actual bombing that really did mar the Atlanta ‘96 Games in mind [3] — a heinous act of terrorism Pyun evoked after the fact with the addition of a ‘based on a true story’-type opening pledge. Moreover, despite the immediate shock of the typically rather flamboyant and rambunctious Pyun scaling down the film’s action to the bare minimum, and eschewing his usual glossy pageantry in favour of a grittier, documentary-like style, as a technical exercise, Blast ranks among the director’s most meticulously composed and visually arresting pictures. 

Saddled with extremely dodgy cropping on VHS and slightly less dodgy cropping on 101 Films’ UK Blu-ray, Blast’s gorgeous and disarmingly intimate scope photography has since been revealed via MVD’s US disc. And what a treat George Mooradian’s work is! Employing bold patches of colour to break the sterility of the locker room and swimming pool areas (in addition to The Twin Towers, Blast’s poolside stuff was shot at Long Beach’s now-demolished Belmont Plaza), Mooradian, the secret weapon of many a Pyun epic, is the film’s greatest asset. He conveys tension and unease with his soul-piercing close-ups, and keeps things moving with his kinetic verve, often in the face of Pyun’s dialogue-driven floundering. 

Vastly superior to the tepid Blast is Pyun and Filmwerks’ second Twin Towers opus, MEAN GUNS (1997). In fact, Mean Guns is vastly superior in general: this dynamic bullet ballet is Pyun’s crowning achievement and a perfect slice of VHS-era entertainment that warrants a place in the Top 5 of every enthusiast, student, and disciple of straight-to-video filmmaking.

Why Mean Guns is so damn good is threefold. The obvious pleasure is that it’s simply a rollicking yarn. Its hook is irresistible: one-hundred crooks of assorted skill and status, each deemed to have wronged a criminal organisation called The Syndicate (a nod to star Ice-T’s hip-hop collective Rhyme Syndicate, surely), are summoned to a desolate, vaguely futuristic penitentiary and are forced to compete in a six hour battle royal for a $10million purse. Pyun directs it to the hilt.

Relating Andrew Witham’s zesty and immensely quotable script at a consistently snappy pace, Pyun sustains energy throughout, unloading a succession of gunfights, bat fights, fistfights, scraps, scuffles, melees, and fracas with bombast, surreal flair, and wry metaphorical moxie. Because although Mean Guns is an excruciatingly violent film, packed to the gills with as much carnage as Pyun’s second-tier masterpiece, Nemesis (1992), the helmer wedges his tongue firmly in cheek and pitches the mayhem as something as darkly funny as it is gratuitous. It’s not ‘real’ but nor does it pretend to be. There’s no blood or graphic exit wounds etc. There’s only dreamy lighting, floaty camerawork, and a pulsating mambo soundtrack, and therein lies the clue: 

As with a lot of Pyun’s finest, Mean Guns is set in a quirky and strange world of its own; a cartoony, high-contrast comic book ether populated almost exclusively by wicked yet perversely likable bastards whose self-serving acts of murder and mayhem are so routine — so normalised — that they’re more bothered by the volume of the lively Latino dance tracks (the bulk of which are fashioned by Pyun stalwart Tony Riparetti) blaring through the prison speakers than the faceless body count piling up around them.

And that’s Mean Guns’ next plus point: the central characters at the heart of Witham’s story are excellent. There’s Ice-T’s platinum-grilled Syndicate rep, Moon. There’s Christopher Lambert’s cackling and slightly creepy hitman, Lou, and his po-faced rival, Marcus, who’s essayed with authority by Michael Halsey. There’s Kimberly Warren’s ruthless bitch, D; Tina Cote’s airheaded but resourceful hooker, Barbie; Yuji Okumoto and Thom Mathews’ scene-stealing double act, Hoss and Crow; and Deborah Van Valkenburgh’s frightened civilian caught in the crossfire, an accountant-cum-snitch called Cam. All are fantastic — both character and actor — and, in regards to the film’s production nuts and bolts, Pyun ought to be heralded for juggling his ensemble around the restrictions caused by Mean Guns’ cheap n’ cheerful making. 

Indeed, at the risk of revealing the magician’s secrets, Mean Guns should be screened in film schools to aspiring producers and directors to show them the importance of preparation and planning. Due to scheduling and budgetary reasons, neither Ice-T, Lambert, and Halsey were available for the entirety of Mean Guns’ thirteen day shoot in November/December ‘96. In fact, they were rarely available on the same day, let alone at the same time. Pyun’s Adrenalin collaborator Lambert, for instance, is in 90% of the movie but was only booked for two days (and paid over half of the film’s $2,095,000 budget for his troubles), resulting in Pyun having to ‘shoot out’ his coverage, from dialogue to action, in two eleven hour chunks. The rest was accomplished with doubles and clever staging and cutting — but unlike, say, Bela Lugosi and his chiropractor in Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), or Steven Seagal and his ponytail-wigged stand-in in the bulk of his post 2009 oeuvre, you’d never know unless you hadn’t been told. 

However, what aids this glorious sleight of hand is Mean Guns’ third and, arguably, most prominent bastion of joy: Pyun’s exquisite harnessing of The Twin Towers. Milking the production value for all it’s worth, Pyun and go-to DP George Mooradian ensure that The Twin Towers is as big a presence as Ice-T and Lambert et al. And whereas Blast merely used it as a location, here, in Mean Guns, it’s a formidable character and, dramatically, a fiercely appropriate visual representation of what’s going on. Every deliciously framed and precision-blocked vista, which, like Blast, Mooradian shoots in scope, is akin to an Edward Hopper painting, Pyun fixating on The Twin Towers’ geometrical architecture, silent spaces, and vast sparseness to amplify the cool, amoral cores of the thugs duking it out within its walls. 

A quick note on Blast and Mean Guns’ release: 

Upon completion, Blast and Mean Guns proved to be immensely profitable ventures for Pyun and Filmwerks. The former’s US video rights were sold to Warner Bros. for a princely $2million, while the latter was positively a blockbuster: Pyun flogged Mean Guns to HBO for $1.5million and netted a staggering combined total of $13million in domestic and foreign sales. 

[1] Yes, that is a pre American Pie (1999) Shannon Elizabeth in one of those slinky swimsuits.   
[2] It’s credited to ‘Hannah Blue’.
[3] On Saturday 27th July 1996, Christian extremist Eric Rudolph detonated pipe bombs at Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta, killing two people and injuring one-hundred and eleven others.

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