Cyborg (1989) Retrospective

SUMMARY

A plague known as the living death cripples civilization. A small group of surviving scientists and doctors — located in Atlanta, Georgia, home of the CDC — work on a cure to save what remains of humanity. To complete their work they need information stored on a computer system in New York City. Pearl Prophet volunteers for the dangerous courier mission and is made into a cyborg through surgical augmentation.

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Pearl, accompanied by bodyguard Marshall Strat, retrieves the data in New York but is pursued by the vicious Fender Tremolo and his gang of pirates. Fender wants the cure so he can have a monopoly on its production. Strat, badly injured while fighting the pirates, tells Pearl to leave him and find a mercenary, known as a “slinger”, who can escort her to safety. She gets cornered but is saved by a slinger named Gibson Rickenbacker. After she explains her situation, they are overrun by Fender’s gang, and Gibson is knocked out by falling debris. Fender demands that she accompany him to Atlanta or die.

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Fender’s gang slaughters a family and steals their boat. They head south for Atlanta via the Intracoastal Waterway with the captive Pearl. Gibson, who had been tracking the pirates, arrives at the scene of slaughter later that night. A shadowy figure attacks him, but he disables her. She turns out to be Nady Simmons, a young woman who mistook him as a pirate. Nady, whose family was wiped out by the plague, joins Gibson. Gibson is less concerned with a cure for the plague than with killing Fender. Gibson and Nady trek southward through the wastelands, where bandits ambush them. Concerned for Nady, Gibson unsuccessfully attempts to convince her to stay away. After declining sex with Nady, Gibson reveals that all he cares about is revenge against Fender, who killed his lover and destroyed his chance to have a normal life and family.

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Intercepting Fender and his crew near Charleston, South Carolina, Gibson defeats most of his men, but Fender shoots him with an air rifle. Now nursing a gunshot wound, Gibson realizes Haley (his dead lover’s younger sister whom Fender kidnapped) is now a loyal member of Fender’s crew. He flees the pirates and ends up alone with Pearl and Nady. Pearl refuses to go with him — she calculates that Gibson is not strong enough to defeat Fender and will be unable to get her to Atlanta safely. She says she will go along with Fender and lure him to his death in Atlanta, where she has resources at her disposal.

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Tired, wounded and badly outnumbered, Gibson flees with Nady through the sewer into a salt marsh, where they are pursued by the rest of the pirates and eventually separated from each other. Gibson is thoroughly beaten by Fender and crucified high on the mast of a beached, derelict ship. Haley lingers at the scene but still leaves with Fender. Gibson spends the night on the cross. In the morning, near death, he kicks the mast repeatedly with his dangling foot in a last fit of rage. The mast snaps, sending him crashing to the ground, his arms still tied and nailed to the cross. Finally, Nady appears out of the marsh to free him.

Gibson and Nady intercept Fender once again in Atlanta, this time better prepared. Fender’s gang is taken down one by one until he and Gibson face off. During their fight, Nady rushes Fender with a knife, but he stabs and kills her. Gibson in turn stabs Fender in the chest. Thinking him dead, Gibson embraces Haley, who, during the battle turned decisively against Fender. However, Fender gets back up, and they continue to battle in a nearby shed, where Gibson finally kills Fender by impaling him on a meat hook. Gibson and Haley escort Pearl to her final destination, before heading back off.

 

Early poster for Cannon's Cyborg
Early poster for Cannon’s Cyborg

 

DEVELOPMENT

By the end of the decade for Cannon Films, with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission investigating their finances and the junk bond market collapsing around them, things were bleak for the company. It was during this time that they had begun making a sequel to their film, Masters of the Universe, based on the toy line from Mattel. Similarly, they had the rights to do a film based on Spider-Man, the popular Marvel Comics character. They began an ambitious plan to do both a Masters of the Universe sequel AND a Spider-Man film, both directed by Albert Pyun at the same time. Things fell apart, though, and through bizarre circumstances, those two films instead became the 1989 film Cyborg, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, the last film produced by Golan and Globus under the Cannon Films label.

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I knew that Cannon had the rights to “Spider-Man” and sequel rights to “Masters of the Universe”. I also knew that the “Spider-Man” rights were about to expire. I proposed to Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus that I make both pictures back to back in North Carolina (at De Laurentiis’ studio in Wilmington). Cannon agreed. And I cast both pictures. I can’t remember who we cast for Peter Parker, but big wave surfer Laird Hamilton was cast as He-Man (replacing Dolph Lundgren).

Brooklyn sets for “Spider-Man” were built on the Wilmington stages and I had a number of creative discussions with Stan Lee and Joe Calamari of Marvel. I had wanted to use the Black Spidey costume, but this was vetoed. The script was based on the original story only. The budget was my largest at $6 million. “Masters of the Unverse 2” was based on my story. Sets and costumes were built. The film was fully cast. Mattel Toys had a great many approvals and it was a trying process getting everything approved by the corporate giant. It had a budget of $4.5 million.

Laird Hamilton
Laird Hamilton

The original Masters of the Universe film starred Dolph Lundgren as He-Man and it was typical of most Cannon Films productions in its low budget production (it actually cost more than a typical Cannon film, it was just a lower budget than what most other film companies would have spent on a similar film). Even though it appears to have actually slightly lost money for Cannon, they were confident that a sequel would do even better at the box office. Lundgren, though, did not want to do the sequel, so surfer Laird Hamilton was cast to be the new He-Man.

However, Cannon’s rights agreement with Marvel required Cannon to release a Spider-Man film by 1990, so they came up with a clever approach. Writer/director Albert Pyun explained how it would work: Albert Pyun: “The concept was to shoot 2 weeks of “Spider-Man” first. The section of Peter Parker’s story before he was bitten. Then we would shoot 6 weeks of “Masters 2?. The actor cast to play Parker would undergo a strenuous 8 week workout regimen supervised by a fitness professor at UCLA, Dr. Eric Sternlicht to build size and muscle mass. After shooting “Masters 2? we would resume shooting “Spider-Man”.

The deals with Mattel and Marvel were practically negotiated but unfortunately, Cannon’s cheques bounced. They had no money left and none of the films could be finalized. Sadly, $2 million were already spent on sets and costumes and that shouldn’t go to waste unused. There had to be something cheaper than He Man and Spider Man (which probably would have cost more than $10 million) that could be made with the stuff they had. So Albert Pyun sat down one weekend and wrote the story to Cyborg/Slinger. The film’s costs revolved around approx. $500.000 incl. the fee for Jean-Claude van Damme (who was Cannon’s suggestion although Pyun preferred Chuck Norris at the time). It was produced with the already existing set design and costumes. I wrote a first draft of what became “Cyborg” over a weekend and brought in a young actor – who wanted to be a screenwriter – to do polishes. His name was Don Michael Paul and he has gone on to write and direct “Half Past Dead” and Harley Davidson and the “Marlboro Man”.

 

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BEHIND THE SCENES

“There are 40 fight scenes in this movie, but they are not repetitive. Each one is photographed differently. There is a separate mood and style for each. I think that all the fights have their own distinct personality. We tried to make them like characters.”

Pyun feels, however, that this is much more than an action film. “I think people will be surprised that they can see a picture with this much action and still become so emotionally involved and drained.” What’s so emotional about cannibals and robots? “Take the Cyborg herself, for example,” Pyun explained. “She is a woman who has sacrificed herself in order to save humanity. The plague, which is the main villain of the movie, has resulted in people giving up hope and faith. They no longer live in a civilized fashion because they could die tomorrow, so why bother. The only chance to save the people, and their humanity, is to eliminate the plague. Pearl Prophet has given up her humanness to save the world.

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And what of Gibbs? Is he more than just a fighting machine? “He is a complex man,” Pyun said. “At the beginning of the movie he is after Fender, although we don’t know why. Later we learn that Gibbs was a Slinger, but after falling in love decided to hang up his weapons and retire. Then the Flesh Pirates killed the woman he loved. After that, Gibbs shut himself off emotionally from the rest of the world, feeling that there was no longer any reason to care about anything. The drive to find and kill Fender was the only thing that kept him moving. Pearl is physically mechanical and robotic, Gibbs is in a sense robotic because of what has been done to him emotionally. And through their journeys we see how they both regain their humanity.”

With 40 fight scenes, is the final battle between Gibbs and Fender anticlimactic? No way! With lightning, wind, rain, fire and more explosions than the fourth of July, it will be a showdown worth waiting for. With the highly trained, superlative physiques of stars like Jean-Claude van Damme, Vincent Klyn and Rolf Muller to equip, the challenge of creating weapons to match your actors is no small affair. The task of supplying a full array of lethal, futuristic weaponry for “Cyborg’s” combatants fell to Special Effects Supervisor Joe Digaetano.

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“Director Albert Pyun wanted a certain realism to the weapons, but at the same time, he wanted everything surrealistic, larger-than-life. He wanted believable and primitive weapons that were also sophisticated,” said DiGaetano. “So, we decided to expand on weapons already in existence, keeping them believable in terms of guerrilla warfare fighting”

The weapons designed and built by DiGaetano and partner Larry Reid include a four-barrel arrow blaster that operated like a gatling gun, a six-barrel steel ball shooter and Gibson’s “bang-stick,” fashioned after the shark dart-gun carried by Scuba divers. In all, over 100 custom made weapons were built for the film, from rubber knives to wooden swords 10 swords that were wired up to send out showers of sparks when touched together.

Taking Pyun’s request for realism seriously, DiGaetano imported a special piece of his own to the Wilmington set – a customized gun that actually shoots arrows, knives and spears accurately. “What this means, explains DiGaetano, “Is that an actor can be shot, stabbed or speared while running or turning or standing, and be able to move immediately after being hit. This means the director can have continuous action, rather than having to stop the camera and pick up the shot each time. Again, it lends more realism to the film.”

The actor being shot at with this device wears a special steel-and balsa wood panel. And, adds DiGaetano, “You have to be a certified marksman, which I am. One miss and the actor is dead. Which is why only fire the gun…”

To transform a fictional view of some distant, savage “New Dark Age’ future into an on-screen reality involves a vast army of film artists and technicians. Two of the chief players in bringing about the eerie, apocalyptic vision of the world according to “Cyborg” are Set Decorator Yvonne Hegney and cinematographer Philip Waters.

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“Well, for starters,” comments Hegney, “I had eight different sets to decorate, including a swamp that we built on the back lot at DeLaurentis Entertainment’s Wilmington, Nouth Carolina lot. We used twenty-five loads of dirt, 56 cubic yards per load, and eighty garbage bags filled with Spanish moss, plus a hundred five-ton truckloads of vines, not to mention rented trees!” “We also rented the dirt, by the way. It was easier and cheaper that way besides, on the rental they come back and pick it all up when you’re through.”

Hegney’s staff was also responsible for various Cyborgian set furnishings. “I went around to all the city dumps and scrap iron places. Early one morning, around 4:30 AM, I got in. a fight with a bag lady over a night stand. She was determined to have it so I backed off and let her cart it away.” Hegney estimates that more than 4,800 pounds of scrap metal were hauled to the DEG backlot, not including twenty-four cars procured from a local wrecker. Hegney’s personal favorite from her “Cyborg” trash-scavenging days? “Well… think it was the voodoo doctor set with it’s shrunken monkey heads. You know, it’s amazing how well you get to know a city and its people by their trash…”

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As for cinematographer Philip Waters, his favorite aspect of the “Cyborg” experience was the fact it gave him the chance to apply his filmmaking expertise to a wider canvas marking his transition from music Videos and concerts to full-length feature films. “I think Albert Pyun decided to use me because of my background filming concerts. I’m used to working fast, getting as many shots as possible, something this film required. I mean, for every fight scene you have to do anywhere from two to six cuts. That requires very fast set up, not at all unlike shooting concerts where you get no run-throughs. But despite the fast pacing on “Cyborg,” Waters added, “it was nothing compared to the pressure I’ve felt shooting concerts.” “Shooting a major concert, means you go through 100,000 feet of film that night and the next day somebody sits down and looks at your work. You either get the shots, or you don’t. And if you don’t,” he adds with a smile, “you don’t get the next job.”

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Interview with Albert Pyun

 How was to work with Menahem Golan of Cannon?

Albert Pyun: Fun. Crazy. And LOUD! He loves movies and the whole movie world and that was exciting and infectious. A good man. You got an idea, you went right to him and pitched it. His eyes would light up and he’d say “Go make it! I want to see that movie!”. He was great for a young crazy filmmaker like me. The only movie I regret not getting made there was a remake of Johnny Guitar with Mickey Rourke in the Sterling Hayden title role.

Cyborg is considered your best movie. What do you think about it?

Albert Pyun: I’m conflicted about it. The released version isn’t the movie I made but I can see why people love it. I hope one day to get my operatic version of Cyborg out.

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How was working with Jean-Claude Van Damme on the Cyborg shoot?

Albert Pyun: Right from the start I could tell Jean-Claude was going to be a handful. He had been in the business long enough to get some pretty big wounds. I think he felt disrespected. I didn’t have any major problems with him, other than how long it took him to get to the set.

How did you find Vincent Klyn? It’s hard to imagine Cyborg without his unforgettable performance as Fender, one of the great villains from the 80’s action cinema.

Albert Pyun: I was casting Masters of the Universe 2 and went to Hawaii to meet with a big wave surfer named Laird Hamilton to replace Dolph. At the meeting with Laird, Vince somehow convinced him to let him tag along. I was impressed with both. When Masters got cancelled I remembered Vince.

In some moments of Cyborg, you bring several elements from the Spaghetti Westerns to compose the narrative. Do you have some influence of the subgenre on this sense?

Albert Pyun: Yeah, I wanted to bring that theatrical style and drama to the post apocalypse genre. Adding martial arts as well which hadn’t really been done either. I thought martial arts and spaghetti stylization really lent themselves to a futuristic opera of violence.

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RELEASE/DISTRIBUTION

Sheldon Lettich (screenwriter): “Cannon had a test screening of the original cut of “Cyborg,” which I attended. Out of 100 people in the test audience, only 1 person gave the movie a favorable rating. It doesn’t get much worse than that, except for the fact that the audience was laughing hysterically during the final fight between Gibson and Fender. A few days later JC returned from Thailand, where he had just finished filming “Kickboxer.” He watched the film and agreed with the test audience’s assessment, and then he volunteered to re-cut the movie, for free.”  The film was a modest hit, taking in over $10 million at the box office. It has become a cult classic in the years since. However, from an ingenuity standpoint, it was clearly a major success.

Violent scenes were heavily cut to gain an R rating rather than an X, including a throat-slitting and some blood and gore during the village massacre. Also excised was the death of a man Van Damme was fighting, which caused an inconsistency that made him look like he suddenly disappeared

Jackson “Rock” Pinckney, who played one of Fender’s pirates, lost an eye during filming when Jean-Claude van Damme accidentally struck his eye with a prop knife. Pinckney sued Van Damme in a North Carolina court and was awarded $485,000

CAST/CREW
Jean-Claude van Damme as Gibson Rickenbacker
Deborah Richter as Nady Simmons
Vincent Klyn as Fender Tremolo
Dayle Haddon as Pearl Prophet
Alex Daniels as Marshall Strat
Blaise Loong as Furman Vux / Pirate / Bandit
Ralf Möller as Brick Bardo (credited Rolf Muller)
Haley Peterson as Haley
Terrie Batson as Mary
Jackson ‘Rock’ Pinckney as Tytus / Pirate

Several of the characters’ names are references to well-known manufacturers and models of guitars and other musical instruments.

CREDITS/REFERENCES/SOURCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY
La Cosa Fantastico, #113
money-into-light.com
io9.gizmodo.com
denofgeek.com
majortomsmovies.com
radioactivedream.blogspot.com

 

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