Nu Model Army: The Cyborg Cop Trilogy

Matty dissects a key series of the video store era. 

Blockbuster, Global, an indie, your local newsagent, or that shifty-looking fella who used to shuttle around the streets in a Ford Escort van — in the early to mid 1990s, wherever videos were available, you were never more than a few feet away from a film about robots.

It was James Cameron’s fault, mostly. The perpetually innovative firebrand had set pop culture ablaze with The Terminator (1984) and had broken box office records with his equally iconic sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). To the surprise of no one they rented through the roof once they hit tape. 

Paul Verhoeven and Ridley Scott need to take responsibility too. As with The Terminator Verhoeven’s RoboCop (1987) had entered the zeitgeist, and it and Irvin Kirschner’s RoboCop 2 (1990) were as popular on small screens as they were on the big one. Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), meanwhile, was in the process of transitioning from flop to cult to full-blown classic.

Now, as every student of the video era knows, with great success comes great imitation — and it wasn’t long before The Terminator, RoboCop, and Blade Runner were sharing shelf space with a raft of droid-centric potboilers like Richard Stanley’s Hardware (1990), Roland Emmerich’s Universal Soldier (1992), Albert Pyun’s power-packed double of Cyborg (1989) and Nemesis (1992), and more stringent, designed-for-VHS fare such as Phillip J. Roth’s Prototype (1992) and John Eyres’ Project Shadowchaser (1992). In short, action-spiked sci-fi tales of tin-men, tin-women, scientifically augmented agents, metallic super-troopers and all their various offshoots were in vogue, and it was a bandwagon that up and coming shingle Nu Image were keen to jump on. 

Israeli entrepreneur Avi Lerner founded Nu Image in 1992 after selling his lucrative South African theatre chain, Nu Metro. Joining Lerner in Nu Image’s formation was his younger brother, Danny; fellow Israeli Danny Dimbort; and South African businessman Trevor Short, who had joined Nu Metro in 1989 as an executive following an advisory position within the South African government that pertained to film legislation. Based in Los Angeles but operating out of L.A. and South Africa, Nu Image’s plan was simple: they were going to make low-budget genre movies for the ballooning video market. They weren’t going to be picky either. Although each film would be mounted and bankrolled carefully, the goal was to create things that would sell. Product. As Nu Image’s head of production, Boaz Davidson, famously stated: “We’re not a studio. We’re a sales company.” 

Since all of Nu Image’s boss-men had brushed with The Cannon Group, their maiden voyage was a cheap, South African-shot programmer called Lethal Ninja (1992) that was intended to ride the coattails of Cannon’s American Ninja (1985) flicks — the first two sequels of which Nu Metro had a financial stake in — as well as evoke the name of a certain buddy-cop saga starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. Enjoyable if as unremarkable and derivative as its deli platter fashioning suggests (‘a little bit of this film, a little bit of that film…’), Lethal Ninja sold OK enough internationally and snagged the right viewership to allow Nu Image to develop a second feature that was to be just as shameless in its pandering. A la Cannon’s Cyborg, Nu Image’s sophomore outing was going to cater to martial arts fans AND sci-fi nuts. To ensure audiences knew exactly what they were getting, during pre-sales at the 1992 American Film Market, Dimbort branded it with the most Ronseal-esque moniker imaginable: ‘Cyborg Ninja’. And in a move that really underlines how incestuous and self-perpetuating the entire B-movie/direct-to-video bracket of filmmaking used to be, Dimbort even recruited longtime acquaintance Sam Firstenberg to direct it — the actual helmer of Cannon’s American Ninja 1 and 2

Of course, ‘Cyborg Ninja’ didn’t last long. Not only did the rest of Nu Image hate the title, ninja movies were petering out. And with Fred Dekker’s RoboCop 3 (1993) on the precipice of release after being bumped from its summer ‘92 slot due to backer Orion Pictures’ bankruptcy, something with mockbuster clout was required in order to cash-in on its hungry demographic. 

‘Cyborg Ninja’ became CYBORG COP (1993). 

But, you know, as if it matters. If you want to split hairs, the whole shaboodle is a giant bait and switch. There’s definitely a couple of cyborgs in Cyborg Cop, but they’re neither ninjas nor the five-o. Instead, the Kung-Fu-y arse-kicking and law enforcement aspects of Cyborg Cop’s itemised plot are facilitated by a story that’s basically Universal Soldier meets the Island of Lost Souls (1932). In it, a maverick DEA agent, the familiar-sounding ‘Jack Ryan’ (a cartoonishly intense David Bradley [1]) thumps his way into the Caribbean hideout of drug kingpin/arms dealer, Kessler: a flamboyant, Moreau-tinged sum’bitch (essayed by John Rhys Davies in an outrageous, Lancashire-accented display of hammy virtuosity) who also happens to be turning unlucky humans into a private robo-army thanks to his passion for robotics [2]. Cue a shedload of gunfire; a barrage of land-blasting explosions; a Dukes of Hazzard-style car chase; a wealth of enjoyably naff zingers and quips; a bit of will-they-won’t they? romance in the form of Ryan’s love interest, Cathy (Double Impact (1991) beauty Alonna Shaw); a dollop of family drama; a half-hearted poke at capitalism and the media’s power to manipulate in the RoboCop mode; a neon-lit mad science lab; a designer drug factory manned by a bunch of topless black women; a reggae musical number; and a gallery of supporting players recognisable to anyone who’s ever watched a genre movie made in South Africa, including but not limited to: Todd Jensen (Project Shadowchaser: Night Siege (1994)), Ron Smerczak (Return of the Family Man (1989)), rainbow nation theatre darling Kurt Egelhof (Traitor’s Heart (1999)), and Rufus Swart (Dust Devil (1992)) as the central, Schwarzenegger-esque humanoid [3]. 

Again, ‘itemised’ is the key word. Aided by the crisp, ruthlessly efficient cinematography of frequent collaborator and fellow Nu Image stalwart Joseph ‘Yossi’ Wein — helmer of the aforementioned Lethal Ninja — Firstenberg delivers the exploitable goods by the kilo, paying especially close attention to Bradley’s bursts of karate, Tae Kwon Doe and assorted rough-housing, and the charmingly rubbery “cybornetic” (sic) FX work of Steve Painter and Jason Reed. As Firstenberg chuckled to us in 2019: 

“These films were made for teenage boys — and men who still thought they were teenage boys! Avi and Danny were very keen on finding a formula and sticking to it, and as soon as they identified the audience and parameters for each project, you had to fashion the film accordingly.” 

Cyborg Cop was issued on North American and British cassette in February 1994 by Vidmark and Medusa/20:20 Vision respectively, slap-bang in the middle of RoboCop 3’s theatrical runs on each side of the Atlantic (November ‘93 in the U.S., June ‘94 in the U.K.). On the strength of its pre-sales alone, Nu Image quickly nudged a sequel into production. Owing to his dependability, Firstenberg was rehired to bring CYBORG COP II (1994) to life and was told he could do as he pleased within the remit of a single limiting yet perversely liberating instruction detailed to him by Danny Lerner: Lerner wanted the same in terms of the action/exploitation meat n’ potatoes, but it had to be bigger, louder and slicker in execution. Suffice to say, bigger, louder and slicker is exactly what Firstenberg gave him. In spades [4]. 

Ratcheting up the bullets, bangs, and bone-crunching violence, Cyborg Cop II ranks among Firstenberg’s finest and should be considered both the peak of the Cyborg Cop trilogy, and the first truly essential text in Nu Image’s sprawling catalogue. A thrilling mini-epic, the plot finds a deranged death row inmate, Jesse Starkraven (get it? It’s because he’s ‘stark raving mad’) being transformed into a mutinous, cap-sporting bionic bastard intent on world domination. Naturally, our old pal ‘Jack Ryan’ (Bradley — the coolest wearer of a bumbag on the planet) is the only bloke who can stop him.

Unspooling on several of the same sets and locations as the Nu Image-produced Project Shadowchaser: Night Siege, and bolstered by John Rosewarne’s budget-stretching production design and the returning Wein’s plush photography, Cyborg Cop II is a picture of tremendous spectacle. Each cut yields a fresh, smirk-inducing sight or sequence artisanally crafted to be savoured and rewound in perpetuity. Witness: The barnstorming opening gang war… A fleet of square-shouldered droids with Gatling gun and flamethrower hands… A brilliantly OTT battle at a commandeered petrol station, replete with a mother-and-child bystander for added peril… And the blissful histrionics of Morgan Hunter as the psychotic Starkraven and his robot alter ego, the chillingly sentient Spartacus. Why Hunter didn’t became one of ‘90s B-cinema’s go-to bad guys — as opposed to appearing in bit parts and then vanishing into the ether — is a mystery as baffling as it is depressing, particularly as his verbal jousting with Bradley, who has his own renegade/maverick shtick down pat, is as impressive as the pulse-quickening mayhem that Firstenberg merrily unleashes. Indeed, if it weren’t for Bob Mithoff’s insanely annoying arcade game score, Cyborg Cop II would be a five-star direct-to-video masterpiece. But credit where it’s due: the rest of Mithoff’s deathly racket might be aural torture, but the military-gothic stomp of his ‘March of the Cyborgs’ cue is stupendous.   

As with its predecessor a sequel was greenlit months before its VHS bow, and when Cyborg Cop II surfaced in the U.K. and the U.S. in March ‘95 via Columbia-TriStar and New Line CYBORG COP III (1995) was already in the editing bay. Curiously, New Line had elected to release Cyborg Cop II as ‘Cyborg Soldier’ — a handle Nu Image later co-opted for their unofficial fourth instalment in the series in 2008 — and the distributor chose to rechristen Cyborg Cop III in a similar fashion. Ahead of its U.S. home video premiere in April ‘96, New Line retitled Cyborg Cop III ‘Terminal Impact’ [5]. Their decision was rooted squarely in business: The House That Freddy Built had struck a domestic (stateside) output deal with Avi Lerner and his boys, and they didn’t want to promote another company’s wares (i.e. Vidmark and the original Cyborg Cop) by clueing people in on ‘Cyborg Soldier’ and ‘Terminal Impact’ connecting to something that wasn’t a New Line property. 

That said, connectivity isn’t exactly at the forefront of the Cyborg Cop triptych. Beyond Bradley’s character, the thematic tethering between Cyborg Cop and Cyborg Cop II is negligible at best.

In Cyborg Cop III it’s totally non-existent.

A complete standalone that tells a wholly separate story, Jeff Albert and Dennis Dimster’s script is closer in tone to the jocular hijinks of Lethal Weapon (1987) and 48 Hrs (1982) than the Terminator/RoboCop scaffolding of Cyborg Cops I and II. Still, Cyborg Cop III remains a rollicking entertainment thanks to the precise stewardship of Yossi Wein — swapping his light meter for the director’s chair [6] — and the sparkling repartee of new leads Frank Zagarino and Bryan Genesse. Immediately prior to Cyborg Cop III, Zagarino and Genesse had locked horns as the steel antagonist and everyman hero of Project Shadowchaser: Night Siege. This time the duo portray a pair of very human federal agents — Zag the by-the-book straight arrow, Genesse the Gibson-tipping hot-head — that tangle with suave baddie Ian Roberts and his throng of university-harvested super-soldiers. 

Granted, the action isn’t quite as rapid fire as the armrest-gripping tomfoolery of the first and second film. But what is on show is so terrifically rendered and so robustly executed by the late, great Wein that Cyborg Cop III is impossible not to like. The cheeky Terminator-aping police station massacre is fabulous. Shame Sam Sklair’s score is almost as irritating as Mithoff’s, mind…

[1] Bradley had previously worked with Avi Lener on American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt (1989) and American Ninja 4: The Annihilation (1990), and with Sam Firstenberg on American Samurai (1992).
[2] This plot point is a holdover from American Ninja 2, whereupon a mad scientist creates a strain of super-ninjas.
[3] Contrary to rumour, Cyborg Cop wasn’t Swart’s final on screen role and nor is the actor dead. He’s alive and well and continues to earn a living on television, stage and as a voiceover artist in South Africa.
[4] It’s an approach that’s done wonders for Nu Image in the years since. Millions of dollars and star wattage aside, there’s little difference between the sort of testosterone-fuelled carnage offered by the Cyborg Cops and Nu Image’s recent, better known action smashes, The Expendables Trilogy and the ‘Gerard Butler Has Fallen’ franchise.
[5] Cyborg Cop III was released in Britain by 20th Century Fox as part of their U.K. output deal with Nu Image.
[6] Wein had, though, supervised the original Cyborg Cop’s post production in Johannesburg and London when Firstenberg tottled off to make Blood Warriors (1993) — starring Bradley and Cyborg Cop III’s Zagarino — in Indonesia.

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