A look back at one of the wildest action bangers from B-movie master Albert Pyun.
In the realm of low-budget genre films, director Albert Pyun stands out. No matter what you think of his work, he always brought something fresh to each movie he made in the 1980s and 1990s. Pyun became the uncrowned king of cyborg B-actioners with his classics Cyborg and Nemesis.
But there is another cyborg-themed film in his oeuvre that is absolutely on par with those two, and it’s Knights. After he dumped his crew and himself in the desert of Utah for a few weeks in 1993, they returned with a terrific action extravaganza!
Time had Long Emptied the World and in its Wake Came the Cyborgs
In a distant future, humans roam the desert in nomadic tribes. A cyborg army led by the lunatic Job is amassing power by draining people’s blood as fuel for their bodies. Nea is rescued by the rogue cyborg Gabriel during a raid on her village. He teaches her secret martial arts techniques to become the only human that can kill the a cyborg and save humanity.
Knights? No, it’s vampire cyborgs! But they also ride horses and wear medieval-style weapons and armor, so what they really are is vampire cyborg knights! Computer scientists in our world and countless movie androids (= cyborgs in Pyun terminology) since Blade Runner have been agonizing over how to create artificial consciousness. Pyun comes to the rescue and creates a metaphor that is brute and beautiful at the same time: inject yourself with human blood!
You Have Been Programmed With a Lot of Confidence Chips!
And if that premise wasn’t outlandish enough already, Pyun mixes it up with a serious Western vibe! Apart from casting Western specialist Kris Kristofferson in the role of Gabriel, and featuring a lot of close-ups shot with wide angle-lenses akin to Sergio Leone’s classic Spaghetti Westerns, the real attraction is the shooting location, the plains and mesas of Monument Valley.
Cinematographer and long-time Pyun crew member George Mooradian created spectacular takes with the characters often dwarfed against the panoramic backdrop. No matter what you are filming, everything looks awesome in this landscape. You could have someone sit at a table eating a cake, and it would look epic!
Kristofferson is rugged and charming as always, and his character Gabriel is always eager to share one-liners of deep wisdom. On the evil cyborg team, Lance Henriksen gives one of the most memorable performances of his career. His character Job impresses with an eccentric fashion sense and spacey sunglasses. He also carries a parrot with him at all times, has a giant robot arm with a claw, and starts to moan and drool uncontrolled whenever he gets irritated. Movie villain of the year 1993!
To Kill Us, He Must Be Metal!
Five-times world kickboxing champion Kathy Long takes it up for the humans with her character Nea. Being trained by Gabriel to become a cyborg killer (the secret: putting stakes into their head), she hammers whole squads of cyborgs and their human minions into the ground. Even though she’s not a professional actor, she gives a spirited and charming performance. Long pulls off some awesome moves, and it would have been great to see her as action heroine in more films, but her career in the movie business never took off, unfortunately.
And her performance is just part of the awesome fights sequences orchestrated by Pyun, which, to say it right off the bat, are some of the best you’ll find in a DTV flick from the 1990s. Knights is one of the first US movies that made an effort to capture a martial arts fight as fluently as possible, as opposed to the choppy editing of the time where sometimes a single kick was butchered up into three takes. There’s even some wirework which was not done at the time anywhere else than in Hong Kong. It’s not at the same level at the Wuxia classics, but it all looks pretty neat, and Pyun’s effort to pioneer it in the US absolutely needs to be applauded.
The films also pokes fun at the sometimes funky naming of Wuxia attack patterns, when Gabriel and another cyborg discuss their fighting styles while battling to the death (”Your Mont Blanc offense is exquisite, but my Valhalla attack is quite dazzling!”). And all the superhuman jumping and flipping actually makes sense here, because they’re cyborgs! It’s all exciting stuff, and the action keeps coming almost non-stop, every five minutes someone is getting thrashed. Gary Daniels is part of the cast as master henchman to Job, and gets to do a couple of nice fights. And the great Chad Stahelski started his career as a stuntman with Knights!
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Capture da Humans, Harvest Their Blood!
The action, quirky visuals and splendid atmosphere are the film’s biggest assets, and that is more than enough to forgive the flaws in other departments. The low budget is clearly an issue, maybe the producers realized they had nothing left to shoot the film with after the paychecks for Kristofferson and Henriksen went out. There are almost no props, all sets are either just in the middle of nature, or feature a couple of tents at the most. That severely limits the world-building, which is done only through dialogues hinting at a fascinating world we can only imagine. As for acting and dialogues, you may find them (choose one): A: trashy, B: hammy, or C: it’s alright, they are cyborgs.
As so often, Pyun created an eccentric and beautifully filmed action flick out of almost nothing, The ending of Knights opened the door for a follow-up film that never happened, but his sequel to Nemesis two years later at least had a very similar vibe and setting. In order to be able to fully enjoy Knights, you need to take a bit of a benevolent stance towards its obvious flaws. But if you can open yourself up for it, it will bring out your inner child, and I’ll always be grateful to Albert Pyun for being able to do that.