Bizarrely entertaining, Cyborg with young and dashing Jean-Claude Van Damme quickly became a cult classic. Released just as the VHS market was booming, it shows just how much people were hungry for this sort of action. Not that you had much of a choice since there was a limited number of movies available in your local video store. It’s hard to describe just how different things were back then. Each movie you chose to watch was a personal experience. Just imagine if somebody limited the number of movies you could watch per month now. You would remember the ones you saw even if they were quite bad. This example has a negative vibe to it unlike the liberating vibe of being able to turn your house into a freaking movie theater.
I think this is one of the reasons why Cyborg became such a hit despite its obvious flaws. Plus I think it made a big impression on a lot of kids and teenagers, who wasn’t supposed to see it. In this article, we will be going over how this movie came to be, the crazy production stories, and finally what it’s about. I’m sure there are a lot of movies like this out there, some with even more surreal stories. However, there’s something about this one that makes it stand out. First of all, I should tell you that JCVD is not the cyborg here. A couple of years later he will play a genetically enhanced soldier in one of his best movies, Universal Soldier. On an unrelated note, he will also end up playing a lot of double roles where he plays twins or clones.
The Legend of the Cannon Logo
The story of how this movie came about is an incredibly interesting one and true piece of movie history. Cannon films, best known as the kings of the action B movies of the eighties suffered a series of failures towards the end of the decade. I mean, they singlehandedly kickstarted the ninja craze with their The Ninja Trilogy starring Sho Kosugi. Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson also starred in a number of highly successful Cannon movies like Missing in Action and Death Wish sequels. However, after Superman IV: The Quest for Peace flopped at the box offices in 1987, things started getting critical. They’ve decided to produce their two next hits simultaneously. The movies in question were the sequel to 1987 Masters of Universe and the new Spiderman movie. The rights for the comic books were quite cheap back then following a series of bad adaptations.
They paid just $225,000 to Marvel Comics for Spiderman with just one condition. It had to be released by 1990 or the rights would expire back to Marvel. It’s 1989 and two years after their last flop, Cannon was on the ropes. Still determined to make these two movies, they went ahead with the production with Albert Pyun as the director of both of them. Read on to find out how two became one. One that turned out to be the last movie Cannon theatrically released.
I highly recommend the Electric Boogaloo: The Wild Untold Story Of Cannon Films documentary detailing just how crazy these guys were. Especially if you’re a fan of all those shlocky eighties movies. One final note on them is the infamous Slavenburg affair. The bank they used since 1979, Slavenburg, was raided by Dutch police in 1983 in a case that continued up until the early 90s. It revealed how the bank laundered money from criminal organizations and profits from drugs and prostitution. I simply knew that cocaine is somehow going to make it in this article.
Pyun to the Rescue
So, these two movies were Cannon’s last chance to recover financially. Albert Pyun was set to direct both of them. Mostly because of his experience with science fiction, and connection to Cannon. Although his movies were all low-budget features like Radioactive Dreams and Vicious Lips. His biggest hit was The Sword and the Sorcerer from 1982. However, the determining factor was his ability to deliver. Just one year earlier, in 1988 he saved their Journey to the Center of the Earth production by working around the unfinished special effects. The end result was a horrible movie but a movie nonetheless.
The two current productions ran into similar problems and the filming simply stopped. Having already invested well over $2 million on sets and costumes, Cannon asks Pyun to come up with a script for a new movie. A movie that would somehow make use of all the assets they’ve already created. He wrote it over the weekend and this is how Cyborg came to be. Pyun combined two of his scripts Johnny Guitar and Alex Rain into one hell of a movie. A movie that with a dark atmosphere to it, a more a war movie than a western. A couple of years later, he shot Nemesis based on the Alex Rain character.
You would think that is already crazy enough, but we’re just warming up. Pyun originally envisioned the movie as an opera without any dialogue. The cherry on the top was the grainy, black and white cinematography. He quickly gave up on the idea and continued with a more traditional style. The original title of the movie was Slingers as in Gun Slingers of the Wild West. The director’s cut of the movie explains who are the slingers and frames the story more like a western. More about that in the next paragraph. You can feel this futuristic western vibe throughout the movie, although Pyun cites The Terminator as one of the major influences on the movie. Some of the others are The Searchers, Mad Max, and Conan the Barbarian.
Van Damme to the Rescue
Fast-forward a couple of months and the new movie, Cyborg is finally ready to hit the theaters. Cannon decides to do a test screening with disastrous results. Out of a hundred people, only one liked the movie. However, producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus are like fuck it let’s release it anyway. At this point, Van Damme steps in and explains that he could edit the movie to make it more engaging. After all, he did all the editing on his breakthrough hit Bloodsport just a couple of years earlier. Golan and Globus agree and let JCVD do his magic. He cut out most of the drama and storytelling, focusing on the fights. After two months of hard work, Cyborg came to life. This is the version of the movie that made it to the theaters.
Albert Pyun got ahold of the rest of the material in 2011 and three years later released a director’s cut version. Titled Slinger, it features his editing and some previously unreleased scenes. Focused more on the story and framing the movie as part of a franchise it’s currently available on Amazon. However, some people found the alterations too jarring and actually detrimental to the quality of the movie. Oddly enough, this director’s cut was released in Germany, a country where they’ve cut out all the violent scenes from the movie back in 1989. This reduced the runtime to just under an hour, making it a disjointed mess you simply couldn’t understand.
Meet the Cast of Cyborg
It’s funny to think that Pyun originally wanted Chuck Norris in the lead role. Luckily, producers Golan and Globus were convincing enough, ultimately persuading Pyun to choose Van Damme. The story of how they settled on him is also a funny one. Van Damme used to sit on the sets of Cannon films waiting for his opportunity to strike. And when I say strike I literally mean strike as he waited for Menahem Golan to get out of his trailer and impress him with his skills. He did a spinning kick and split right in front of Menahem and got the role right then and there.
This little move also symbolizes the arrival of the next generation of action movie stars. Bronson, Norris, Connery and Moore move over and welcome Lundgren, Van Damme, Chan and Seagal. This just shows you how big of a stars Schwarzenegger and Stallone are with careers spanning multiple decades. Van Damme was at that time still a relatively unknown actor, with one hit and only a couple of minor roles in other movies. Your hero is only as good as your villain and opposite of Van Damme we have the formidable Vincent Klyn. At that time he was one of the top five surfers in the world and this is how he got the part.
Pyun saw him surfing one day and impressed with his imposing physique offered him a role in his upcoming movie. The rest is history. Another funny connection to Germany is Ralf Moeller, who plays Brick Bardo here. This former body-building champion, best known as the title character in the television show Conan the Adventurer, had such a thick German accent that all of his lines had to be dubbed. You’ll recognize him as the huge henchman sporting a spectacular mullet. Ralf is not the only champion in this movie as we also have Stefanos Miltsakakis, world champion in Pagration, an ancient Greek sport combining wrestling with boxing. One of the stars of B action movies of the late 80s and 90s, Matthias Hues still regrets the decision to turn down the role in this movie.
Characters – The evil prevails in the wasteland
We already talked about how Cyborg is a futuristic western with analog characters. They all have names somehow related to various music equipment. Probably stemming from Pyun’s original script. Gibson, Pearl, Fender, or Marshall are all either guitar manufacturers or drum sets. Van Damme’s character is your standard-issue brooding good guy with a big chip on his shoulder that he uses to his advantage. However, the one that had the biggest impression both on me and most people who saw this movie is Fender Tremolo, the main antagonist. His wild spark in the eye, the propensity for torture, and general meanness stayed with me all this time. He revels in this post-apocalyptic dog-eat-dog world. He feels at home in this cruelest of the environments.
All this possibly points to the complexity and troubled nature of his personality. The fear of humanity and showing signs of weakness. Just imagine if they tortured him for years before these events, turning him into the monster he’s now. After cyborg Pearl tells him that she’s not thinking about doublecrossing him because she knows how strong he is, Fender screams at her: “Don’t look down on me!”. This is his only interaction that shows what could be lurking behind this tough-guy facade. A man so afraid that he’s not smart or strong enough, that he’s willing to do anything to make people think he is. Sadly, a theme all too familiar in real life. It also shows a surprisingly human side of Pearl Prophet, a cyborg that’s carrying the cure for the plague. The rest of the henchmen are pretty stereotypical.
The actual production of Cyborg
The filming wrapped in just 23 days with less than $500.000 spent on top of the previous $2 million. Cyborg was shot almost entirely in Wilmington, North Carolina with a couple of scenes shot in Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and Titan Missile Museum in Arizona. To save on money, most of the cast took on multiple roles, playing up to three different characters, mostly henchmen of evil Fender. Unfortunately, during one of the scenes, Van Damme accidentally hit Jackson Pinckney’s eye with a prop knife, effectively blinding him. Jackson sued him eventually winning over $485,000 in damages. Knives and machetes weren’t the only weapons used with Van Damme sporting a futuristic-looking six-shooter. A far more interesting weapon was the one Klyn’s was using, a Tippmann SMG-60 paintball gun.
One of the recurring elements of the story was the zoom-in on Vincent Klyn’s face and his theatrical removal of sunglasses. Despite some speculation, Klyn is also not a cyborg here. There’s only one cyborg here, Pearl Prophet.
Moving on, when Vincent took off his sunglasses he revealed his strange eye color prompting those rumors. Because of budget cuts he only had two pairs of contact lenses and having lost the first one early on, the rest of the shoot he had to be extra careful not to lose the last one. During one of the fight scenes, the unimaginable happened and he apparently lost them. This caused the filming to be stopped with him returning to his trailer only to find that they moved to the back of his eye socket because of all the smoke and dirt. By blinking a lot he was able to return them in the right position.
Cyborg 1989 – Cheesy, over-the-top and dark entertainment
Made at the height of the post-apocalyptic craze of the eighties, Cyborg isn’t much different from all the other B movies of that period. I mean any movie that opens with full-frontal nudity can’t be all bad? Both the story and the action have this silly, almost cartoonish vibe to them. Everything is all too predictable and stereotypical. However, there’s loads of fun to be had with this movie. You can count how many times Klyn is going to take off his sunglasses revealing those light-blue contact lenses. You can also count how many times people will be sharpening their knives, apparently a very important task in the wasteland. I also have to add how much I loved his little boot knives. They’re such an eighties gimmick it’s fucking adorable.
The wasteland that looks pretty decent. You can feel the dirt and that grimy vibe around it. They actually didn’t make a campy and trashy movie because they went all in playing everything super-serious no matter how preposterous it is. And the locations really helped punctuate that. So, the sets are pretty decent, looking like something out of the Fallout video game franchise. Apart from the windmill that’s actually just a tarp. Keep an eye out for that scene, it’s fucking hilarious. There are also a couple of scenes that were directly lifted from westerns. Like the one with the barbed wire and the well copied from Once Upon a Time in the West.
Blood and Guts of the Wasteland
Cyborg is also very bloody with a lot of murders, torture, and mutilations. Something that earned it the dreaded X rating and forced the producers to cut out most of the graphic violence. One wonders if this is the result of those edits, what the fuck did they cut out? During the first viewing, you might miss all the decapitated bodies in the background or people just cutting into corpses like they’re pies. However, if you pay attention to what’s happening in the background you’ll see a lot of jarring and downright disturbing items. Heads cut off and hanging as ornaments or on spikes are pretty regular for this post-apocalyptic environment. Not to mention the vicious and gory fights featuring all kinds of knives and machetes.
When was the last time you’ve seen a crucifixion in an action movie? Here, they’re a regular thing. Actually, the fucking opening scene features several completely naked poor souls crucified in the streets. Even our protagonist ends up strung up. I already mentioned the scene where a young girl is forced to hold on to a barbed wire tied to her family hanging above a deep well. And while these scenes sound twisted, they show us a side of humanity that we often don’t want to look at. The side that usually rears its ugly head during war. There are no rules and most of the population just reverts to their barbaric settings. It’s a harsh, violent, and unforgiving world showing you glimpses of our past. We’ve come a long way from those times. On the other hand, we’re just one apocalypse away from this living nightmare.
One hell of a final fight
The end fight is just the pinnacle of everything we have witnessed so far. You simply knew the whole movie is going to boil down to this. The grand finale and the fight between Van Damme and Klyn. Klyn also finally takes off his chainmail armor revealing spectacular musculature after wearing it for an entire movie. He really looks like someone who spent all their life in this harsh environment. Lean and motherfucking mean. And when I say lean, I really mean lean, densely packed with contractile tissue, probably from all the surfing. Opposite of him we have Van Damme with his perfectly sculpted body. I kind of cheered for Klyn to kill this pesky guy and continue ruling the wasteland.
During this fight, yelling was just as important as the kicks and punches. If you ever wondered what does the term yelling match entails, you can find out right here. However, yelling is not the only thing that was over the top. I have never seen a fight in a movie with so much flexing. Our dynamic duo was at the top of their form and they weren’t afraid to show it. And Klyn definitely made up all that time in the heavy chainmail armor. Taking place during the night and heavy rain, this is one spectacular finale. A finale that strangely worked well. Yes, despite all these almost childish gimmicks the fight was exciting, entertaining, and above all a cathartic experience.
The legacy of Cyborg
As is the case with any semi-successful movie from the eighties, Cyborg spawned several sequels. The first one was released four years later and in my opinion, is much better than the original. Starring Elias Koteas but more importantly 18-year-old Angelina Jolie in her first lead role, it features a much darker atmosphere and coherent storytelling. With its cyberpunk setting, it’s worth watching. The third part titled Cyborg 3: The Recycler was released a year later and it’s definitely the weakest of the bunch. There was even talk about the prequel titled Rise of the Slingers but nothing came of it.
Cyborg is also the first movie in Pyun’s Cyborg trilogy. The second movie is Knights, starring kickboxing champion Kathy Long in her Hollywood debut. This time there are a lot more cyborgs who are killing other cyborgs. The third and final movie is Omega Doom starring Rutger Hauer. And while Knights wasn’t a success, this one sure is. It’s a cult classic worth checking out, although I liked the original story much better. The screenplay written by Albert Pyun and Ed Naha was originally set in Paris, at EuroDisney. The characters were supposed to be animatronic theme park figures who continue to operate after a global catastrophe. Finally, Pyun also directed Nemesis, a cyberpunk classic that spawned no less than four sequels. So, if you want to continue the exploration of the genre you will have your hands full.
It’s not surprising that Cyborg served as an inspiration for many metal bands and Method Man no less. The supercharged masculinity and sadistic character of Fender struck a chord with a lot of people. Death metal band Mortician used the intro in their song World Damnation. Klyn’s narration is also in Chimairas’s song Resurrection. And if you didn’t know that there were any Christian grindcore bands now you know as Vomitorial Corpulence used the same intro in one of their songs.