In 1992 Albert Pyun realized his ultimate action masterpiece with Nemesis, a film the world is still recovering from…
Albert Pyun may be best known for his Van Damme vehicle Cyborg which he cobbled together from the remainders of sets and props of two abandoned Cannon productions. Pyun had a great talent for creating eclectic and atmospheric settings, and competently staging action sequences, yet people have always been quick to dismiss his films as utter trash or a guilty pleasure at best. At which point in his career he picked up this reputation I don’t know, but it couldn’t have been in 1992 when he took the opportunity to realize his ultimate vision for action cinema, and created Nemesis.
With Nemesis, everything seemed to fall in place for him for once, he had a reasonable budget at his disposal, was in creative control as director and writer (under pseudonym), and worked with an aspiring new action hero (Olivier Gruner).
Cybernetically enhanced LAPD cop Alex Rain hunts android terrorists. After a run-in with some heavily armed enemies, he loses some body parts and is rebuilt. After his recovery he starts to question his job as a paid killing machine, and leaves the LAPD. His past violently catches up with him, and he gets entangled in a conspiracy that involves his former employer, a datachip with the mind of his android ex-lover, and a sinister plot for world domination.
Putting the Punk Back in Cyberpunk!
Nemesis is a film that would not have existed without other movies such as Blade Runner, Robocop and The Terminator that came before it. But as opposed to the flood of copycat cyborg movies in the 1990s, Nemesis has a plot that actually requires to pay some attention to it, not least because it is a bit muddled occasionally. Nemesis also puts the “Punk” back into Cyberpunk big time with a quasi-anarchic society and its members causing as much chaos as they can with cutting-edge cyber-technology.
Pyun throws a staccato of classic Cyberpunk themes at the audience, and Nemesis features discourses on familiar topics such as biological vs. artificial consciousness, and identity crises of humans and androids alike. And while it’s not a philosophical treatise and often far from a coherent display, it’s surprisingly thoughtful in some moments and its ideas retain some relevance even today.
Throughout his career Pyun created several films with a unique visual style such as Radioactive Dreams, Vicious Lips and Mean Guns, but Nemesis arguably is his best-looking film. A glossy and light-suffused cinematography gives the movie a sultry elegance and often makes it look like a blend of an arthouse and a softcore flick. All the locations are photographed beautifully, and the different settings (dark urban alleys, desert ghost towns and tropical jungles) contrast each other nicely.
The fashion of the characters in Nemesis may already be worth a whole article in itself, also in relation to how the famous Matrix movies are suspiciously similar in outfitting their protagonists. Every single character makes interesting attire choices, but what sticks out most are the cyborgs with their Armani suits and Gucci sunglasses. Their classy look is deceiving, as they are all just a bunch of violent vandals. The soulless stare of these cold killers and their monotone, inhumane voices also render them a nice caricature of corporate level managers.
Olivier Gruner and Badass Women of Action
Nemesis features a lot of badass female characters, which was still rather unusual in action movies in the 1990s. Most women have male names (such as Max Impact!), and vice versa. Together with a consciousness swap between genders, Pyun coarsely connected the traditional Cyberpunk transhumanism theme with feminism, and nicely visualized the concept that gender differences may become obsolete when everyone is a cyborg.
Nemesis was supposed to be the entry point for newcomer Olivier Gruner to the action movie business, and while his career never really took off afterwards, he’s doing a more than decent job in his portrayal of the film’s main character Alex Rain. He’s jacked, good-looking, and cynical, it all adds up to create a believable kick-ass action hero.
Alex finds a formidable antagonist in LAPD commissioner Farnsworth, who is played by the great Tim Thomerson. Thomerson is the very embodiment of coolness in Nemesis (and one of the best villains in movie history in my book), who is either scheming, shooting, or just standing around looking grim while shouldering his shotgun. Farnsworth must have been another inspiration the Wachowskis found in Nemesis, as The Matrix’s main baddie Agent Smith is an almost exact copy of Farnsworth, a slick-looking, sadistic control freak. The coolness of the film’s characters is also enhanced by its dialogues, which are chock-full with awesome cybertech one-liners.
But, How Ultimate is it?
All this craziness is masterfully interwoven by Pyun with many spectacular action sequences, and what he puts on display in the action department is the crowning achievement of his career. Every single action scene becomes a playground of massive destruction, with complex set pieces that are executed flawlessly (watch out for an insane shootout on a muddy waterslide!). The gunplay is of the highest quality, with obvious inspiration drawn from John Woo’s classics. Hundreds of bullets are flying left and right, unleashed from gigantic weapons that are fired from the hip with magazines that never run empty, and there’s explosions everywhere.
Pyun can also pride itself as inventor of the bullet hole floor and door as convenient means to entering and leaving rooms, as well as creative weapon customizations, such as a grenade launcher mounted onto a shotgun. The practical effects are cost-effective, but not too shabby, with a lot of body modifications and violent disassembly of the cyborgs during combat. Pyun seemed to have taken a lot of pleasure in coming up with new ways for arranging the piles of skin and metal that frequently remain in the aftermath of the many shootouts. The overall production quality is just awesome for a movie with a budget of 2 million USD, we can only wonder how Pyun pulled it off without robbing a bank halfway during shooting.
With Nemesis, Albert Pyun forcefully broke through the conventions of 1990s DTV offerings, and arguably created the best low-budget action flick ever. Full of raw energy with an overload of visuals and ideas, it should have been the door opener for him toward bigger projects, but sadly this never happened. Nemesis is Pyun’s Godfather, a film that captures the essence of his style in every frame, and which has become an eternal masterpiece of action cinema.