Mercy Me! — Michael Schroeder & Cyborg 2: Glass Shadow (1993)

Matty looks back at the sci-fi sequel that wasn’t a sequel… Until it was.

It had happened before. 

During his previous gig, helmer Michael Schroeder was led to believe by backers CineTel that he was making a tough cop vs. killer thriller called ‘Dead On’. Imagine Schroeder’s surprise then, when, on the last day of shooting, his crew rocked up in T-shirts emblazoned with Dead On: Relentless II (1992). Of course, the fact that ‘Dead On’ was continuing the adventures of Leo Rossi’s maverick detective Sam Dietz and featured copious references to William Lustig’s first Relentless (1989) kind of flies in the face of him allegedly not knowing it was a sequel, but still: for the second time, Schroeder had began something that he believed was going to be released on the big screen as one thing and now, once again, it was going to be plonked straight-to-video as a follow-up…

Albert Pyun’s Jean-Claude Van Damme-starring sci-fi romp Cyborg (1989) was a hit for Cannon. It was a hit in cinemas and an even bigger hit on tape. A sequel was inevitable. While the specifics are a little murky, Cannon themselves were supposedly set to craft one until the company’s financial difficulties put the breakers on it. Thus Cyborg’s rights landed in the lap of Mark Amin’s Trimark Pictures, roughly at the same time they were mounting a slate of sequels to a few other lucrative properties that they hadn’t originally produced themselves. And pretty soon, Warlock: The Armageddon (1992), Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993), and The Philadelphia Experiment 2 (1993) were being joined by CYBORG 2 (1993).

According to a 1994 interview in Imagi-Movies, Schroeder had “inherited” Cyborg 2’s script. Initially reluctant to tackle the project, Schroeder signed on to direct after he was assured it was actually an unrelated standalone by the name of ‘Glass Shadows’ and that all the Cyborg 2 guff was purely for pre-sale purposes. Moreover, he was allowed to completely rewrite Ron Yanover and Mark Geldman’s screenplay. 

“[The script] had some nice scenes, but it was very technical, very impersonal,” explained Schroeder. “It read like a repair manual for a VCR; it also read like a $40-million film. We knew we didn’t have that kind of budget. The one thing I knew we did have was a good story, and I thought that, if we bolstered the relationship between Colt and Cash and told that story instead of trying to do an effects film, we’d come out with a pretty nice picture. So we do have some effects and stunts, but they were hand-picked, not wall-to-wall. I think I had a lot to do with sharpening the dramatic story, combining some characters and adding some new ones, writing a lot of the relationship scenes, and taking out very expensive effects scenes in order to propel the story along.” [1]

Schroeder also detailed his plans for ‘Glass Shadows’ in Fangoria, hubristically stating:

“There was talk of using clips from Cyborg, but since they’ve been watching dailies [the producers] haven’t said anything about that. They’re so excited about the way this picture stands on its own that there hasn’t been discussion about laying in some of that cheesy Van Damme footage [as flashbacks]. Nothing against Van Damme, but Cyborg is a horrible film, and it has nothing to do with my movie. What we have is a good sci-fi story. It’s got a post-apocalyptic love story going for it. It’s like Blade Runner (1982) meets Logan’s Run (1976), with some horrific things thrown in.” [2] 

Alas, upon completion, Trimark quickly reneged on their promise. In post, a thoroughly humbled Schroeder was told he had to incorporate flashbacks to the first Cyborg as ‘Glass Shadows’ was — yep — Cyborg 2. Glass Shadow, singular, would serve as a subtitle. Like it or lump it. Worse, Schroeder’s decision to shoot in Scope was in vain. Though Trimark had pledged a U.S. theatrical bow, declaring that a ‘1993 Theatrical Release’ was imminent on the trade poster, the sweeping and epically shot Cyborg 2 was quickly booked in with the pan and scanner in preparation for its debut as a video premiere. It arrived on cassette here in the U.K. on 2nd October 1993 via PolyGram and was ushered into stores stateside through Trimark’s VHS division, Vidmark, a month and a half later, on 24th November. 

Having recently rewatched the film in its OAR for the first time thanks to a gorgeous-looking widescreen Italian DVD, the thought of Cyborg 2’s haphazardly cropped version being its most commonly seen presentation fills me with horror. In its true 2.35:1 form, Cyborg 2 is a visually luxurious movie, and Jamie Thompson’s striking cinematography is a vital part of its allure. Reuniting with Schroeder from Relentless II, Thompson’s canvas is a frieze of comic book chiaroscuro and sleek, futuristic élan; a prying, shadowy vision of a conglomerate-controlled cyberpunk nightmare that showcases Elisabeth A. Scott’s spare but gadget-driven production design, and emphasises the idea of emotional and social emptiness that lies at the heart of Cyborg 2’s story. Squashing these painterly vistas into a square box is borderline criminal, regardless of how well Cyborg 2 plays a tip-top cut of VHS-era sci-fi. 

With that in mind, it’s tempting to call Cyborg 2 the best of the three-strong Cyborg saga [3]. In fact, the only thing that stops me is my unwavering zealotic commitment to Albert Pyun and Jean-Claude Van Damme because, by any objective metric, Cyborg 2 is most definitely that. Among the numerous pleasures of the film is Schroeder’s aforementioned hubris. As Cyborg 2 unspools, Schroeder deftly blending modest but crisply assembled action sequences with themes of love and existentialism, there’s a wonderful sense of sincerity to it. A wonderful sense that Schroeder, true to his words in Imagi-Movies, has fulfilled his mission of fabricating a taut skiffy tale with memorable characters and solid dramatic footing. 

The intricacies of Cyborg 2’s narrative developments might be a little pat, but the romance between the film’s heroes — weary cyborg trainer Colt (Elias Koteas) and his arse-whupping, tin-woman charge Cash (a pre-superstar Angelina Jolie) — feels genuine. Colt cries out for a meaningful connection to something — to anything — and Cash needs Colt in her quest from killing machine to soulful humanoid. Designed for corporate espionage by the dastardly Pinwheel Robotics and pumped full of a powerful liquid explosive (the eponymous Glass Shadow), Cash’s arc is kicked into gear by the omnipresent Mercy (Jack Palance). Fresh from his Oscar win for City Slickers (1991) and shown as a pair of lips/eyes on TV screens and computer monitors for the bulk of Cyborg 2’s duration, Palance’s cybernetically enhanced freedom fighter coaxes Cash into fulfilling her real destiny.

She’s not a self-destructing weapon to be used against rival company Kobayashi Electronics.

Her and Colt are the star-crossed force who’ll help Mercy free the world from the shackles of Pinwheel and Kobayashi’s oppression, creating a utopia for mankind and androids alike.

Spouting Mercy’s zingy, fortune cookie rhetoric with relish and appearing in totality in the film’s last couple of reels wielding a rocket launcher, the bionic-legged Palance is Cyborg 2’s scene-stealing highlight. However, he’s nearly matched by the rest of the cast. Koteas is typically excellent, giving credence to my long-held theory that he simply cannot give a bad performance. Jolie tackles Cash with gusto, and her turn — which was inspired by the studious, observatory demeanour of her then-pet lizard — certainly isn’t the embarrassment she claims it to be today on the rare occasion Cyborg 2 is broached in interviews [4]. Allen Garfield is great as Pinwheel’s icy exec, and the perpetually awesome Billy Drago is succulently sadistic as the foppish Danny Bench, the preening and psychotic bounty hunter (a ‘cycler’) on Colt and Cash’s tail.

Criticism could be levelled at the dodgy old age make-up at Cyborg 2’s close. They render the film’s sign-off more accidentally hilarious than bittersweet but it’s a minor and forgivable quibble. Ditto the lack of any explicit robot FX which, other than a stunning, KNB-conjured endoskeleton right at the start, are maddeningly absent, robbing Cyborg 2 of a proper robo-shlock pop. As said, though, it’s trivial. Cyborg 2 is so stylish, so richly orchestrated, and so enthusiastically delivered that to claim it as anything other than brilliantly entertaining is grossly inaccurate. 

[1] Cyborg 2: Stealth Sequel Sneaks onto Video Store Shelves by Steve Biodrowski, Imagi-Movies, Vol. 2, No. 1, Fall 1994.
[2]  ‘Cyborg 2’ by Anthony C. Ferrante, Fangoria #129, December 1993. The article gives a breakdown of several calamities that plagued the film’s production too: an unspecified cast and crew member’s fingers were inadvertently shot off in a botched firearm gag; a cameraman took a tumble into some water; a roof caved in on the crew; an explosion went wrong and burnt multiple stuntmen; and some poor sod almost choked to death eating their lunch.
[3] Schroeder would return — albeit under protest — for Cyborg 3: The Recycler (1994), an acceptable franchise capper.
[4] Further Jolie titbits: the seventeen year-old Jolie was recommended to audition by her kickboxing teacher and applied for — and was granted — an emancipation order so she could work Cyborg 2’s non-union hours.

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