The best and most ultimate from acclaimed action movie director Albert Pyun!
Albert Pyun had a long career in the movie industry, spanning more than three decades. Unjustifiably accused of being one of the worst directors of all time, he undoubtedly was involved in several films of less than average quality. On the other hand, his creativity and talent for creating eclectic and atmospheric settings are evident in many of his works. His best movies had a juvenile, naive vibe where he light-heartedly combined existing themes and tropes from film history and pop culture. This approach ultimately made them incredibly charming, it just seems that he was rarely able to pull together a consistent movie, be it for budget or other reasons.
But sometimes he succeeded, and in this article, I’ll discuss five of Pyun’s entries into the action movie genre that I can recommend without reservation. Of course this list is subjective, and a notable omission are his fight action movies like Kickboxer 2, Heatseeker and a few others. While some of them had decent action scenes, everything else about them was too lackluster to be included in this list. His best movies still had plenty of good fights, but also had a lot more to offer than just that.
5) The Sword and The Sorcerer (1982)
The evil king Titus Cromwell raises the demon-sorcerer Xusia from the dead, and with his help conquers the kingdom of Ehdan. The royal family is killed by Cromwell, only their youngest son Talon survives. Many years later, Talon has become a mighty warrior, and joins the rebellion against Cromwell to free Ehdan and to avenge his parent’s death.
The Sword and The Sorcerer was Pyun’s debut movie, and it already carried a few of his later trademarks like atmospheric set pieces, but also a muddled plot and subpar acting. The movie was released in 1982 in the same year as Conan The Barbarian, at a time when the Sword and Sorcery genre was really popular. Compared to some of its peers from that era, The Sword and the Sorcerer has not really aged well, and there’s just nothing original about it. Yet it is still a reasonably entertaining movie, there’s plenty of sword fights, monsters, and also some gore and nudity. It’s overall a colorful affair, there’s always something happening, and it never gets boring. Talon’s triple sword with shooting blades fits right in, as a weird but somehow cool gimmick.
The Sword and the Sorcerer is a solid, but uninspired B-fantasy movie, and it was an overall decent debut for Pyun. He went on to direct more original movies afterwards, such as Radioactive Dreams, before focusing on the action genre in the late 1980s.
4) Mean Guns (1997)
Crime syndicate boss Moon invites 100 fellow gangsters into an empty prison. He declares that they have six hours to kill each other until only three of them remain. The winners will share a prize of 10 Million Dollars.
The premise for Mean Guns is very simple, and the movie follows through on it without any distractions. Mean Guns is a stylish affair for a low-budget action movie, filmed with a high contrast and lots of filters, it looks fairly slick. Everyone is a hard-boiled character wearing sunglasses and a black coat, which together with the sterile cinematography makes for an interesting attempt to convey an uber-cool flair. And then there is the unusual choice of mambo music as a soundtrack for the movie, which really adds a fitting upbeat vibe to a movie that does not take itself too seriously.
As this is a movie about going from 100 gangsters to three within 90 minutes there’s almost non-stop action once the game starts. And what Pyun puts on display looks pretty good, there’s plenty of gunfire and hand-to-hand combat, and the amount of firearms shown in the movie should please gun fetishists. Even though there’s an excessive amounts of kills, there is rarely any blood. Apparently the reason for this is that the movie was shot in a real prison shortly before it’s opening, and the crew needed to keep the walls and floors clean. Of course Pyun can be accused of just creating a cheap hybrid of a John Woo movie and Pulp Fiction here, but it all has a lot more momentum than your standard B-action movie. Mean Guns is a very good example for how Pyun was able to work with a low budget and create a quirky movie with a unique style.
3) Cyborg (1989)
Human civilization lies in ruins after a lethal plague has decimated the world’s population. The CDC sends the cyborg Pearl to download important information from a computer in New York that could help to find a cure. She enlists the services of the mercenary Gibson to protect her. On their way, Pearl and Gibson are attacked by a gang of pirates led by the sadistic Fender. Pearl gets captured, and Gibson picks up Fender’s trail, against whom he also has a very personal vendetta.
Cyborg may be Pyun’s best-known movie, mostly due to Jean-Claude Van Damme’s participation as the lead actor, and because it can be considered an archetypical production of the Cannon studios. As usual, Pyun had to work on a budget, but with Cyborg he made one of the best-looking movies in his career. The very first scene of the movie throws us into a nightmarish vision of a post-apocalyptic society, and the visuals he crafted for Cyborg in this scene and a few others are truly engrossing. The outfits of the characters, especially the pirates, are also in a league of their own, goofy and cool at the same time. The fashion choices for characters in many of Pyun’s movies were quite original, and it was always interesting to see what he would come up with.
A lot of creativity went into the movie, but its distribution over the different departments is highly uneven, especially the acting and script are quite abysmal, I’m afraid to say. The fight scenes are okay, but look fairly static due to choppy editing. Van Damme does what he was good at during the 1980s, which is kicking, punching and shooting people. His counterpart Fender (played by Pyun regular Vincent Klyn) also has a strong physical presence, and his character is truly one of a kind.
His intimidating posture, constant grimacing, and communication mostly through grunts or shouting single words make him a truly bizarre villain. The ambitious vision of Pyun who never had enough to work with may never have been more visible than in Cyborg. The movie was still a considerable financial success for Cannon earning 10 million Dollars against a budget of 500k. Some years ago, Pyun released a director’s cut called Slinger which was supposed to improve the coherence of the movie, and while there is some improvement, it’s rather marginal, at least for me.
Cyborg features stunning setpieces intermixed with horrible acting and a non-existent plot. I believe it’s best to approach Cyborg not as a consistent movie, but as an atmospheric journey through a post-apocalyptic wasteland, with a couple of decent fights thrown in between.
2) Knights (1993)
In a distant future humans roam the desert in nomadic tribes. Nea’s parents were killed by a squad of cyborgs and their leader Job. The cyborgs are hunting humans to use their blood as fuel for their bodies. Many years later, Nea seeks revenge and teams up with the cyborg Gabriel, who has been programmed to exterminate Job’s party.
On the surface, Knights may look like another typical low-grade Pyun movie, but Knights elevates itself above its peers for several reasons. First and foremost it has a striking cinematography. Filmed in the mountains and mesas of Utah, the characters are frequently dwarfed against the monumental backdrop of the desert, and many scenes have an epic vibe to it simply because of the scenery. Knights is a fast-paced affair, every five minutes or so there’s someone getting thrashed. The fight choreography is noticeably above the average of your typical B-action movie. Frequent cuts are avoided, and the actors and stunt people involved in the fight scenes display some impressive skills. Much of the action is nicely over the top, as the superhuman cyborgs are jumping high and throw their enemies far.
The cast of main characters also has a big contribution why the movie works so well. Kris Kristofferson plays a rugged, but charming character, as he mostly does. Lance Henriksen gives it all as the major villain. Wearing an eccentric outfit, his portrayal of cyborg leader Job involves a lot of yelling, drooling and crazy faces. Equipped with a single giant robot arm, and frequently holding and cuddling with a parrot, he comes across as more of a pirate captain than a cyborg. Kathy Long as the main protagonist radiates a coarse charm and displays her impressive fighting skills frequently.
Knights is sparking with creativity and energy, and is a charming romp that mixes Pyun’s trademark cyborg theme with a wild-west setting and spectacular cinematography. Sadly enough, it’s still awaiting a proper re-release on DVD or Blu-Ray.
1) Nemesis (1992)
Cybernetically enhanced LAPD cop Alex Rain hunts android terrorists. After a run-in with some heavily armed enemies he starts to question his job as a killing machine, and leaves his profession. But his past catches up with him, and he soon becomes entangled in a violent conflict between cyborgs, androids and humans.
With Nemesis, everything seemed to fall in place for Albert Pyun for once. A reasonable budget, plenty of well-staged action, and a plot that moves at a good pace. Of course it’s a rip-off of other cyborg movies like The Terminator, Blade Runner, and Robocop, and the thin story just serves as a justification to put as much violence and explosions on the screen as possible. That’s not a problem, as no time is wasted with endless explanations on character’s motivations and world-building, which keeps the momentum high. Things even get intellectual occasionally, as philosophical one-liners about the soul and the human condition are inserted throughout the movie, typically right before or after someone gets killed.
As usual with Pyun’s best movies, one of Nemesis’ greatest strengths is it’s visuals. There’s quite a variety of locations, including dark urban alleys, industrial wastelands, desert ghost towns and tropical jungles that are photographed beautifully. The neo-noir fashion adds to the overall originality of the visual presentation, almost everyone is walking around in sunglasses and trench coats long before The Matrix came along. The bullet-hole floor and door as uber-cool means to enter and leave rooms are also used heavily in Nemesis.
Special effects are decent, with some nice mechanical/prosthetic effects that are mostly used when someone loses one of their cyborg parts in combat. And whenever someone shoots something (really anything), there’s a good chance it will explode. Lead actor Olivier Gruner is a martial artist first and foremost, but he plays his part well enough. It’s also noteworthy that Nemesis features a lot of bad-ass female characters, which was not such a common thing for action movies from the early 1990s.
Nemesis is a wild ride that never bores and churns out thrills at high pace. It has aged surprisingly well, and showed Albert Pyun at the absolute top of his game.