Soul of a New Machine: Four Science Fiction Programmers by Richard Pepin

Matty knuckles down with Cyber Tracker (1994), T-Force (1994), Hologram Man (1995) and CyberTracker 2 (1995) — the first quartet of “high-tech action pictures” directed by the PM Entertainment bigwig. 

At the dawn of 1993 producers Richard Pepin and Joseph Merhi, the P and M of PM Entertainment, were worried. The type of action, thriller and martial arts flicks that they made their name with — Repo Jake (1990), Final Impact (1992), a bunch of Wings Hauser vehicles, etc. — weren’t shifting like they used to. Having already started to assemble a slate of family films, Pepin, Merhi and PM sales executive George Shamieh identified another trend they could jump on: the video and cable market’s growing thirst for shoot-’em-ups and chop-socky capers with a sci-fi twist — specifically, the kind of robot-centric fare that contemporaries Albert Pyun, Nu Image, EGM, and Phillip J. Roth were belting out. The artist to Merhi’s businessman and, crucially, a fan of the genre, Pepin was especially enthused and personally elected to take the reins of PM’s inaugural sci-fi action extravaganza, CYBER TRACKER (1994).

If Pyun’s Nemesis (1992) is ‘Blade Runner (1982) meets The Terminator (1984)’; Nu Image’s Cyborg Cop (1993)Universal Soldier (1992) via the Island of Lost Souls (1932)’; EGM’s Project Shadowchaser (1992)Terminator crossed with Die Hard (1988)’; and Roth’s Prototype (1992) RoboCop (1987) by way of body horror’, then Pepin’s diverting programmer deserves at least a modicum of respect for being the only film within the ‘90s DTV robo-schlock canon to hybridise elements of the form’s big budget inspirations to such a flagrant degree that it’s miraculous Ridley Scott, James Cameron, Paul Verhoeven, and Roland Emmerich didn’t sue. Imitation and plunder are the essence of direct-to-video moviemaking. However, even by expected standards Cyber Tracker is utterly shameless — albeit joyously so. 

Written by PM perennial Jacobsen ‘Joe’ Hart (Zero Tolerance (1994), Rage (1997)), its plot is rooted in a Blade Runner and RoboCop-flavoured iteration of Los Angeles where, in the futuristic landscape of 2014 (!), a Tyrell and OCP-esque conglomerate, Cybercore Industries, have — of course — privatised law enforcement and developed a line of robotic police officers (the eponymous Cyber Trackers). Close to Verhoeven in their humour, Hart and Pepin engage in some smart world-building asides. Pockets of exposition paint a vivid picture of the sort of moral and ethical decline that would leave the door open to such a callous and corporate approach to civil protection in the first place; swipes at rampant capitalism and societal desensitization that Pepin contrasts with his typically escalatory approach to gratuitous mayhem. Per the PM action dictum, in Cyber Tracker more is indeed more. 

Protested against by the masses (a splash of commentary post Rodney King and the L.A, riots perhaps?), the cop-bots are championed by Cyber Tracker’s Dick Jones-scented villain, Senator Dilly (John Aprea). At a press conference where the Trackers’ ability to serve as judge, jury and executioner is being brought into question, Dilly is nearly assassinated by a member of a rebel sect — but he’s saved in a flurry of bullets and arse-kicking by his shady bodyguard (Aussie bruiser Richard Norton) and the film’s hero, honourable secret service man Eric Phillips (Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson). It’s wonderfully exciting — and hot on its heels comes an equally stirring car chase that defines the cat n’ mouse framework Cyber Tracker slips into when: Phillips uncovers the real reason for Dilly’s interest in Cybercore’s Computerised Justice Program; is framed for a crime he didn’t commit; and is forced to go on the run with a feisty, rebel-aligned journalist (Stacie Foster), Universal Soldier-style, as a fleet of Terminators — sorry, Trackers — pursue them.

Blatantly fashioned in the Arnie mode, right down to the leathers, each Tracker is essayed by rent-a-heavy Jim Maniaci; an obvious cost-cutting measure on the part of the notoriously frugal PM that, creatively, lends the droids a uniformity in line with the film’s dystopian themes. As comparisons go Maniaci lacks the bone-freezing ferocity of Schwarzenegger. He’s also no Frank Zagarino (Project Shadowchaser) or fellow chrome-plated chrome-dome Morgan Hunter (Cyborg Cop II (1994)). That said, he makes a stronger fist of it than his co-star, Wilson, did as a tin-man in the Corman-produced Futurekick (1991), and Maniaci and Pepin clearly enjoy playing in The Terminator sandbox. Maniaci is a hulking presence and a credible threat, and the Cameron lifts represent Pepin at the top of his game: from an opening gambit that’s basically his version of the Tech Noir shoot-out, to a cheeky riff on The Terminator’s iconic police station massacre. 

Lensed in late summer 1993 and bandied about the American Film Market the following November, Cyber Tracker was in profit prior to its home entertainment debut due to robust foreign presales and PM’s supply-and-demand pact with HBO [1]. Encouraged by the numbers, PM mounted a run of similarly minded potboilers — “high-tech action pictures” as Shamieh called them. At the urging of their financiers, Pepin himself quickly brought in T-Force (1994) and Hologram Man (1995), before shepherding the inevitable CyberTracker 2 (1995)

Essentially a Cyber Tracker sidequel, the excellent — if occasionally sloppy — T-FORCE parks itself in identical terrain. Another genre potpourri, it’s basically Die Hard, Universal Soldier and Alien Nation (1988) thrown in a blender, with Pepin’s Cyber Tracker scribe, Joe Hart, sprinkling in a few ideas derived from author Isaac Asimov, and an even more prominent streak of social satire. 

The first of three sci-fi action pictures that Jack Scalia anchored at PM (the others being The Silencers (1996) and Dark Breed (1996)), the ‘80s TV heartthrob turned ’90s B-movie lead stars as crotchety maverick detective Jack Floyd. On the beat in a different iteration of future-shock L.A., Floyd is an anachronism; a bloke ill at ease with every major technological advancement, and, thanks to latent daddy issues, irked that robots now dominate the service industry. “They’ve ruined the American work ethic,” he sighs in one of T-Force’s explicitly satirical moments. After all, at the time of this wickedly clever film’s making, immigration was a hot button issue in America, with the country’s foreign-born population nigh-on doubling by the middle of the decade. Replace ‘robots’ with ‘Asians’ and ‘Mexicans’ and T-Force, like the punnily-titled Alien Nation which used extraterrestrials as their immigrant analogues, would work just as well.

However, in the wake of a critical incident at the L.A. Embassy orchestrated by a suave, Gruber-y terrorist (a lovely extended cameo by Vernon Wells, apparently cosplaying as Noel Edmonds), Floyd has to dump his prejudices and team with a droid, Cain (Bobby Johnston), in order to defeat the titular cybernetic super-soldiers when they go rogue. It’s here where T-Force shines. The tough, funny and ultimately very sweet buddy-cop journey between Floyd and Cain is delightful as animosity evolves into friendship. Sure, it’s nothing new, but their arc is spiritedly performed by Scalia and Johnston, and Pepin demonstrates an obvious affection for the characters. 

The T-Force themselves are a compelling bunch, too — and compared to the Cyber Trackers, they have richer personalities. Created by the doomed Dr. Gant (Martin E. Brooks) and led by the charismatic, Roy Batty-ish Adam (Evan Lurie, who’d previously dominated as Predator in PM’s deliciously homoerotic, Wilson-starring thumper Ring of Fire II (1993)), the steel squadron possess a sentience on par with the Blade Runner gang, and their arguments in support of their own existence are delivered with passion and pathos by Lurie and former American Gladiator Deron ‘Malibu’ McBee (as The Force’s lion-maned second in command, Zeus) [2]. 

Cast and key personnel such as VFX supervisor Frank H. Isaacs and stunt coordinator extraordinaire Cole S. McKay aside, HOLOGRAM MAN is unrelated to PM’s loose Cyber Tracker/T-Force continuum but is worth mentioning with them because it’s so damn good. Arguably Pepin’s masterpiece, the pleasures of this ferocious and stylish bottle rocket are embodied by the stupendous bus chase that occurs early doors. Homaging both Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) and Jan de Bont’s Speed (1994) — which skidded into U.S. theatres two-and-a-half months ahead of Hologram Man’s shooting in September ‘94 — it’s a monumental passage of knuckle-whitening excitement:

Tense, thrilling and scrupulously crafted — Hologram Man in a nutshell.     

Wearing its influences as proudly as Cyber Tracker, T-Force and, broadly speaking, the rest of PM’s obvious ‘mockbusters’ (Out For Blood (1992), Firepower (1993), Skyscraper (1996)), Hologram Man is Rachel Talalay’s Ghost in the Machine (1993) and chunks of various cinematic ‘men’ of the period — Batman (1989), The Lawnmower Man (1992), Demolition Man (1993) and, surprisingly, Sam Raimi’s Darkman (1991) — served on a deli platter. The Elfman-spiked swagger of John Gonzalez’s score segues into one of the finest, throat-grabbing starts in the entire PM catalogue as Pepin introduces us to the film’s protagonist, Decoda (TV Tarzan Joe Lara, fresh from Steel Frontier (1995), another PM sci-fi action flick), in the middle of a blisteringly presented gunfight. A clean-cut, straight arrow rookie and a vocal champion of the Big Brother lite Caltech Corporation that holds sway in Hologram Man’s version of — yep — future-shock Los Angeles, Decoda is aghast when his veteran partner, the gruff Strickland (John Amos), proposes that they let a perp melt. Nevertheless, the chalk n’ cheese pair are pals — but, like Floyd in T-Force, Decoda is left questioning his beliefs when Hologram Man’s big bad, dreadlocked lunatic Slash Gallagher (T-Force’s Evan Lurie), kills his mentor…

Laced with the vitality of a Saturday morning cartoon (it’s tempting to cite Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Biker Mice From Mars as touchstones in terms of tone), the bulk of the film unfurls five years later, when the by-now imprisoned Slash, his molecules reduced to data in a computerised prison system, breaks free of his digital shackles and resumes his merry crimewave as a stereoscopic fiend (rendered via Isaac’s charmingly dated FX). Reuniting with his nutty henchmen One-Eye (the brilliant Nicholas Worth) and Eightball (Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister Jr.), Slash and his boys are fabulous pantomime villains, and the brawny Lurie is mesmeric, barking line after highly-quotable line with a bombast akin to that of Al Pacino screaming through a loudhailer. 

And yet, for all the film’s camp posturing, there’s an intelligence and nuance to Hologram Man’s screenplay (which Lurie co-wrote with PM regular Richard Preston Jr.) that teases a perverse harmony to Slash and Decoda — a notion amusingly in tune with the fluid, yin-yang character dynamics of another ‘man(n)’, Heat (1995) director Michael. Slash and the increasingly jaded and cynical Decoda are two sides of the same coin. Their frustration at the greed and totalitarianism they’re surrounded by (in a telling plot point, nasty Caltech president Michael Nouri is more annoyed by Slash and his goons stealing his millions than he is the destruction they’re causing across the city) just happens to manifest in different ways. 

Boasting a slightly tweaked title, CYBERTRACKER 2, meanwhile, is as blissfully xeroxed and pandering as its predecessor. Despite housing a strange and tonally jarring non-sequitur involving a karate-flailing moppet that seems to suggest PM were hoping to reconcile the film with their kiddie romps (a la the sanitised RoboCop TV series), the otherwise extremely violent CyberTracker 2 is, on the whole, as magnificent as Hologram Man. Beginning with a tribute to RoboCop’s drug den bust and featuring another rephrasing of The Terminator’s police station massacre that somehow manages to trounce the one in the original Cyber Tracker, Pepin unleashes carnage and spectacle with a surgeon’s precision. Yet what strikes this time is how the Canadian helmer uses his adopted home of Los Angeles like a playground. The look and feel of L.A. is a key component of every PM production. Pepin’s gaze, though, is on another level. You can tell when the boss is in the office — and in CyberTracker 2, Pepin conjures some of his grandest images. At once a tour guide and alchemist, his sharp sense of geography and where to put the camera for maximum evocation renders many of the City of Angels’ most recognisable locations completely otherworldly [2].

A superior continuation, CyberTracker 2 is Pepin’s Judgment Day; a feeling emphasised in its narrative developments, elaborate set pieces, and a metatextual casting choice. 

In regards to the former, CyberTracker 2 positions Maniaci’s minigun-toting Tracker as a good guy protector — sans the leather and in a RoboCop suit, no less.

In regards to the action, the film’s standout sequence is a stunning high-octane car chase down the L.A. River, between the First and Seventh Street Bridge (where the race in Grease (1978) was shot, and the same place PM had used for a comparably natty car chase in Ring of Fire II). Patterned after T2’s rolling dirt bike/Harley/truck fracas, it’s a bollock-knotting display impossible to discuss without resorting to cliché: simply, the work of PM’s go-to stunt coordinator, the aforementioned Cole S. McKay, has rarely been better.

And in regards to the meta casting, CyberTracker 2’s answer to the T-1000, a granite-jawed mound of flesh and steel called the SuperTracker, is inhabited by Peter Kent — Arnold Schwarzenegger’s longtime stunt double.  

Alongside Kent and a returning Wilson, Foster and Steve Burton [3], CyberTracker 2’s supporting cast is loaded with cult appeal. Nils Allen Stewart, Tony Burton, Lady Avenger’s (1988) Peggy McIntaggart, John ‘The Crypt Keeper’ Kassir, and Pierre David favourite Christopher Kriesa all appear — but it’s Anthony De Longis, best known for teaching Michelle Pfeiffer how to crack a whip in Batman Returns (1992), who brings the pomp as the film’s dapper arms-dealing villain, Paris Morgan. In a nifty nod to a nod, Pepin’s Hologram Man scripter, Richard Preston Jr., has the tech-loving Morgan motivated by the same desires as John Rhys Davies’ antagonist in Cyborg Cop. Like Davies’ flamboyant gunrunner/inventor, Morgan is building a robot army to — what else? — take over the world with.

Alas, unlike the Cyborg Cop saga, the Cyber Tracker series didn’t extend to a third chapter. While PM were happy to keep cobbling together science fiction (see: The Silencers, Dark Breed, and The Sender (1997) — all directed by Pepin), when CyberTracker 2 hit U.S. video stores on 5th December 1995, the writing was on the wall for films about robots. 

Buyers weren’t interested.

The fad was done.   

[1] In the U.K., Cyber Tracker was released on cassette by Guild Home Video in April 1994. In the U.S. it premiered on tape via Imperial Entertainment Corp. (the producers of Albert Pyun’s Nemesis franchise) on 14th September ‘94, and slipped into steady rotation on HBO subsidiary Cinemax’s Action strand a month and a half later.
[2] The Japanese Union Church, as seen in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987), among them.
[3] As an aside, The Dragon sports the flowing locks he’d have in Virtual Combat (1995), Night Hunter (1996), and Batman Forever (1995). They and CyberTracker 2 were shot within nine months of each other. 

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