by Lucius Shepard
May 6, 2008
Over the course of his twenty-five-year career, the native Hawaiian director Albert Pyun has made forty-three movies (more if you give credence to rumors that he has worked under a variety of pseudonyms), the majority straight-to-video efforts—all have been either reviled or ignored by the critics. His work has been compared to that of Ed Wood and a number of his pictures have received ratings lower than 2 on IMDB, ratings even lower than Wood’s. His collaborators include Jim Wynorski, the exploitation director, who has made pictures like Busty Cops 1 and 2, The Bare Wench Project, The Breastford Wives, and Alabama Jones and the Busty Crusade (with Wynorski, you know what you’re getting). His films are populated by a who’s-who of B-list has-beens, actors on the way up or in the midst of a career slump or looking for a quick payday: Charlie Sheen, Rutger Hauer, Snoop Dogg, Ice T, Christophe Lambert, Teri Hatcher, Angelina Jolie, Courteney Cox, Thomas Jane, Dennis Hopper, George Kennedy, Michael Dudikoff, Tom Sizemore, Mario Van Peebles, Jean Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, Jack Palance, Elias Koteas, Billy Drago (one of the great B-movie villains), Burt Reynolds, Rob Lowe, Natasha Henstridge, Kris Kristofferson, etc.
Pyun rarely has a guaranteed budget (never one that could be called substantial), and he often shoots two films at once, using the same actors in both, stealing a few hours here and there, making the second picture in less than a week. Occasionally things tend to get hinkey with the money. For instance, in 2004 Pyun and his producer John Laing traveled to Guam, where they convinced the government to finance their movie Max Havoc: Curse of the Dragon. In 2006 Laing defaulted on the loan, blamed Pyun for the debacle, and left the Guamians holding the bag for seven figures. The matter is currently being litigated in Guam and in the US.
Every now and then in many of Pyun’s movies there’s a flash of original thought, a snatch of excellent cinematography, some minutes of film that persuade you to keep watching—this may be attributed to the fact that Pyun was trained by Kurosawa (yes, that Kurosawa), mentored by Takao Saito, one of Kurosawa’s cinematographers, and by Toshiro Mifune, the star of Kurosawa’s most famous films (The Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Rashomon, Throne of Blood). You wouldn’t expect a person with this history to achieve such ignominy, but as a child Pyun compulsively attended theaters frequented by marines from the Kaneohe military base—the standard fare consisted of low-budget horror and action pictures, movies that funded his creative vision more, it would seem, than did his time with Kurosawa. He started making his own movies on a borrowed 8mm camera while in his teens and, following high school, he traveled to Japan to study under the master. Upon his return to the States, he became a director of commercials and finally made his first feature, The Sword and the Sorcerer, in 1982 at the age of twenty-eight.
The Sword and the Sorcerer attempted to catch the wave of fantasy films initiated by John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian and to an extent it succeeded, becoming a minor hit. It’s at best a mediocre flick, but has a certain verve, abundant nudity, and enough ultra-violence for three films, much of it dispensed by Prince Talon (Lee Horsely) who, armed with a ridiculous three-bladed sword, cleaves heads, torsos, limbs, and alternatively finds more creative means of slaughter, including roasting alive, as he battles a brutal tyrant (another great B-movie villain, Richard Lynch) and his sorcerer Xusia (Richard Moll, who played Bull on “Night Court”). If you’re in the mood (read “toasted”), the movie can be hugely entertaining despite the primitive acting and inept almost everything else.
Pyun followed his debut with, notably, two pictures of even less merit, Vicious Lips (aka Pleasure Planet), a movie about an interplanetary rock band, and Radioactive Dreams, a post-apocalyptic flick concerning two boys, Phillip (John Stockwell) and Marlowe (Michael Dudikoff), who are locked into a bomb shelter along with a supply of 40s-style detective fiction by Dash Hammer (Don Murray) and Spade Chandler (George Kennedy) and emerge after a massive nuclear exchange as hardboiled detectives into a world of mutants and cannibal hippies and punk rockers and two weird kids who wear leisure suits and drop the F-bomb constantly and are eaten by a giant rodent. Dudikoff is especially bad, here supplying none of the gravitas that he brought to his American Ninja movies, but his performance is saved by an amusing dance scene. There is a plot about the sole remaining MX missile. The post-apocalypse has never seemed so dull.
In 1988 Pyun hooked up with Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus and their Cannon distribution chain, and made Alien from LA with swimsuit model Kathy Ireland in the title role—this was an attempt to cash in on Night of the Comet, a film in which the end of the world is rendered as a Valley Girl comedy. It achieved some notoriety when it was chosen as one of the films lampooned by MST3K, but is much funnier, I think, with the cuts made by that program restored. Ireland adopts a little-girl helium voice for most of the film (she slips out of character now and again) as she plays Wanda Saknussemm, a descendant of Arne Saknussemm (the original explorer of the sub-surface world in Jules Verne’s novel) who stumbles into an ancient underground world. Pyun gives his underground civilization unexpected texture and depth, its own slang, and bizarre characters that suggest a fascinating world beyond the camera’s view; but he fails to exploit this and focuses on a dreary chase scenario. A year later, Globus and Golan were plagued by trouble on the set of their remake of Journey to the Center of the Earth—they fired director Rusty Lemorande (one of the producers of Yentl) and brought in Pyun, who turned the film into a sequel to Alien from LA. The product of this union is unwatchable. An odd note for Pyunologists: one of the minor characters is named Brick Bardo, after an actor in films directed by Richard Dennis Steckler, a character name that constantly re-occurs in Pyun’s films, most prominently in Dollman and Bloodmatch.
That same year, 1989, saw the surfacing of Pyun’s great theme, if one can call a hybridization of martial arts and science fiction a theme, in the form of Cyborg, which was initially intended to be a sequel to He-Man, but somehow morphed into a vehicle for Jean Claude Van Damme. Like many of Pyun’s “better” pictures, it rips off half-a-dozen other flicks, but it grossed forty million worldwide, a hefty sum at the time, and was a smash hit as a video rental. It also features an uncredited nude appearance by the young Angelina Jolie, who went on to appear in Cyborg 2 (not a Pyun film, but made by one of his protégés, a second-unit director on Pyun’s Ravenhawk), a movie whose best assets are an over-the-top performance by Jack Palance as the bull-cyborg Mercy and more gratuitous breast shots (a Pyun specialty) than any film in recent memory.
One noteworthy disaster of the Golan-Globus-Pyun triumvirate was Captain America, a film that was slated to be the first of a franchise; however, the financing fell out. Pyun brought the picture in, but it was a shadow of what it might have been . . . yet one wonders how far the quality actually dropped, considering its director. Captain America featured Matt Salinger, the writer JD Salinger’s son, as the shield-throwing hero. When the movie tanked, so did his career—lately he has shown up in small parts in a couple of Steven Seagal pictures.
1991’s Dollman, starring the glib Tim Thomerson (loved his performance in 2006’s Evil Bong) as a two-foot-tall cop from Arcturus chasing an equally diminutive criminal through the Bronx was one of Full Moon Productions' (a studio noted for their trashy films) worst pictures and, according to many, one of Pyun’s best, though I would argue with that rating. Pyun’s best film is, to my mind, Nemesis, made in 1993, featuring another kickboxer, Oliver Grunier, as ex-LA cop Alex Rain, whose body has been eighty-five percent replaced by cybernetic parts. Rebecca Charles’ screenplay, despite having to throw in the big guns and explosions that the picture’s video niche demands, captures the gritty nihilism of cyberpunk better than any studio film. It has its weak spots, but some of the images, particularly that of Deborah Shelton crawling across the floor until Tim Thomerson wipes her memory by jamming his fingers into her eyeballs, are going to stick with me. Nemesis spawned three sequels, each worse than the last.
There once was a film called Gymkata, starring American gymnast Kurt Thomas. It’s a classic bad movie, the idea being to make gymnast Jonathon Cabot (Thomas) into a superspy and send him to the tiny country of Parmistan (whose national war cry is the bloodcurdling YAK’MALLAH!) to participate in the Game, a kind of decathlon/obstacle course that takes advantage of the fact that much of the architecture of the country doubles as gymnastics equipment, all this so the winner (hopefully Cabot) can beg a favor of the king, in this instance, asking for permission to build a radar installation in Parmistan that will help with SDI. It’s insanely funny. My favorite moment is when Cabot finds a pommel horse gussied up to look like . . . something else, in the middle of a medieval loony bin, and uses it to kick people; but there are many, many more just as funny. Presenting a female complement to this, Pyun gives us Spitfire, starring US National Champion gymnast Kristie Phillips as the gymnast/secret agent. The pre-title sequence offers the longest and most gratuitous breast-revealing scene in B-movie history, and follows that with one of the most improbable gymnastic scenes ever put on film. Following that, the movie lapses into a viewing experience best described as torture. But as the first half of a double feature with Gymkata, it makes some sense.