In a plague-infested, Mad Max-meets-Masters of the Universe style urban wasteland future, everyone is into martial arts, nobody can act, and the bad guys all have really ridiculous haircuts. Chaos reigns, as a band of cyberpunk ‘pirates’ led by the magically monikered villainous colossus Fender Tremolo (Vincent Klyn) kidnap a female cyborg who may just hold the key to saving the world. Enter Jean Claude Van Damme’s equally brilliantly named Gibson Rickenbacker, a directionless drifter with a tortured past and unfinished business with Fender, who will have to summon all his strength and high-kicking kung fu courage to become the hero a dying world needs him to be.
This another one of those Cannon films from the 80s, where production values were usually secondary to having a big name action star wasting a whole bunch of baddies in ever more bloody and explosive ways. The whole picture basically looks like it was filmed in rubbish dumps and abandoned warehouses, with piss-poor makeup and effects, and even worse acting ensuring that this one will hardly be remembered as a classic of the action sci-fi genre. For a film with two main characters named after respected makes of guitars, there is also a whiff of irony about the fact that the flick’s twiddly 80s synth soundtrack is more offensive than its multi-coloured, child-murdering villains. This is one of the earlier entries on JCVD’s CV and it shows, as though he proves dangerous in a scrap, his lines are minimal, probably due to his still developing acting skills. We all have to start somewhere.
Thankfully, Van Damme’s undeniable martial arts skills make this one almost watchable, strutting his stuff in overblown fight scenes packed with neat weaponry, like bola whips, spears and deadly boots containing concealed blades that mean Gibson can kick and stab baddies at the same time. He routinely takes on up to eight bizarrely dressed, gas-mask wearing goons at once, his acrobatics providing the perfect distraction from the film’s terrible, muddled plot. The drifter also shows off his stealthy sneakiness by regularly sneaking up on the baddies, picking them off one-by-one with his bare hands.
At first, Van Damme’s weary traveller comes across as a bit of an asshole, claiming he doesn’t give a damn about curing the plague and that he’s only in this for revenge. However, along the way, as he takes beautiful, young, fellow drifter Nady (Deborah Richter) under his wing, his past is slowly teased out and we learn just how heroic he really is. After checking out his radical battle scars, his blonde, buxom travel companion attempts to seduce him, but Gibson’s having none of it. Cue corny flashbacks that reveal a horrifically pony-tailed Gibson taking money to lead a young mother and her kids out of the war-torn city, only to fall in love with her. We discover that the bad guys eventually caught up with his new ‘family’ and killed them all, leaving Gibson for dead. This is what made him so hard and dispassionate, afraid of forming attachments ever again. When it transpires that the ‘daughter’ he once thought dead is actually now all grown up, raised by Fender as one of his despicable lackeys, our hero is ever so slightly pissed. In this harsh future, you can’t afford to be soft, and Gibson proves harder than most.
Still, he is revealed to be slightly more fallible than your usual action hero, whining as he takes a fair few lickings from his foes and routinely having to run away from danger throughout the movie. There are a number of tedious scenes of Gibson and Nady running, though one escape scene involving the Muscles From Brussels swinging out of harm’s way on a bloody great big metal pipe, ploughing through baddies as he goes, is highly entertaining. Our hero has to rely on luck on more than one occasion, but shows immense bravery against impossible odds, never giving up, despite getting his ass handed to him regularly. He risks life and limb to save Nady when he could quite easily be escaping – the sign of a real virtuous champ. The dude even gets completely brutalised, then physically crucified by his cackling adversaries, before bouncing back from near death to save the day. In fact, it seems to be the point of the whole movie that Gibson must be completely broken down, must hit rock bottom, in order to be reborn as mankind’s true saviour, just like that other great hero from history: Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man. We can rebuild him…
In an outrageously cool scene, hung from a cross, Gibson draws on his rage, his memories of all the injustices that Fender and his crew have wreaked on him throughout his life, in order to summon the strength to tear himself free and stride into battle against his nemesis. Appearing like a glistening, bare-chested, vengeful bat out of hell, stood in the pouring rain, armed with a bow and arrow, Gibson calls his enemies out, ready to finally become the hero we suspected he could be. The pulse-pounding battle in the middle of a thunderstorm is incredibly stylish, with Gibson tackling a man on fire before going toe-to-toe with Fender, both combatants stripped to the waist, shivering, but ready for all-out WAR. It is an exceptionally cool moment in a really rather lacklustre movie, but it’s worth waiting for. Fender, resembling a testosterone-fuelled WWF wrestler is an absolute man-mountain and the fight is bone-crunchingly brutal, with heads being slammed in car doors and both men roaring like bears as each thudding roundhouse kick hits home. Unlike their previous duels, this time Gibson does not back down, faces up to his destiny and is rewarded when he boots the wretched blackguard so hard that he flies across the room and is impaled on a gigantic meat hook. Awesome.
Van Damme emerges from this one a hero, but he takes an awful long time getting there. The film is certainly packed with violence, but so much of it is shown in jarring, super slow-motion that the full effect of JCVD’s radiant martial arts prowess do not fully get the chance to shine through. The Belgian would have to wait for a better director to truly harness the skills that would solidify his place as a true legendary Hard Bastard. And would it have killed them to have chucked in a few jokes?
INVINCIBILITY: 4/10 – The guy gets battered far too easily, far too often.
COMBAT SKILLS: 6/10 - Utilises an impeccable arsenal of weapons and shows off his martial arts, but the slow-mo kind of ruins it.
ATTITUDE: 7/10 – Acts like a bit of an asshole, but he’s been through a lot. Comes good in the end.
OUTRAGEOUSNESS: 8/10 – Pulls himself down off the cross after being crucified!!!
BODY COUNT: 25 kills in 84 minutes – not bad. Room for improvement. 4/10
JCVD’s SCORE: 29/50