1989 is the year that made Jean-Claude Van Damme a household name. Though already a world-renowned karate champion by the time he came out to Hollywood, Van Damme was consigned to extra work and bit parts until 1987, when he finally got a major role as a villain in No Retreat, No Surrender. By 1988, Van Damme was finally headlining his own features in both Black Eagle, and, more famously, Bloodsport for Cannon Films. The following year, JCVD was poised to become a full-fledged action star through his partnership with Cannon, appearing as the above-the-title lead in both Kickboxer and the sci-fi actioner Cyborg, my first exposure to Van Damme and still one of my favorites of his filmography.
Directed by my beloved Albert Pyun, a filmmaker whose work I have championed time and again on this site, Cyborg casts Van Damme as Gibson Rickenbacker (and, yes, before your eyes roll out of your head, know that everyone in this movie is named after instrument brand names), a mercenary/"slinger" who agrees to shepherd the cyborg Pearl Prophet back to the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta in a post-apocalyptic America wiped out by disease. Pursuing them the whole way is a band of murderous pirates led by Fender Tremolo (Vincent Klyn), who doesn't want the cure that Pearl is carrying to make it back to the CDC. He likes the world the way it is, which we know because he announces as much during the voiceover that opens the film. The rest of the film finds Gibson, Pearl, and Nady (Deborah Richter), an orphaned girl they pick up along the way, attempting to outrun and fight off Fender and his goons with the fate of the world at stake.
Masters of the Universe and then as Spider-Man, to which Cannon held the rights in the 1980s. Both were to be directed by Pyun. Legal battles and rights disputes prevented Cannon from moving forward with the project, but as the studio had already sunk roughly $2 million in sets, costumes and preproduction costs, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus commissioned Pyun to write a film to make use of the sets and shoot a movie to recoup their costs. Pyun conceived Slinger, part post-apocalyptic western, part rock opera, with a guitar-heavy score by his usual composer Tony Riparetti. He wrote the film for Chuck Norris, who was making a lot of movies with Cannon during the '80s, but the studio was interested in launching Van Damme as their new in-house star. He was cast and, as an up-and-coming star really trying to flex his muscle (so to speak), created a tumultuous production. An actor literally lost an eye during filming. Van Damme and his creative partner Sheldon Lettich (who would go on to write and/or direct a number of JCVD's movies), unhappy with a test screening of Slinger, went to Cannon and recut the movie, locking Pyun out of the process and making significant changes.
And so Slinger became Cyborg. It was cut down from an X (for violence) to a more commercial R rating. Tony Riparetti's score was jettisoned in favor of a cheap-sounding synth score. The entire film was reworked to change both the nature of the conflict -- rather than restoring power to the world, as in Slinger, Cyborg is now about recovering the cure for a plague that has wiped out humanity -- and the villains, who were changed from Satan worshipers to anarchists. The ending is much bleaker. Slinger was to be, in general, a much darker and nihilistic film, so I sort of understand why Van Damme and the producers at Cannon wanted something commercial, especially as they wanted to use the movie vehicle to continue their push for JCVD. I'm not saying I agree with the changes on an artistic level, but I get why they were made. Plus, it's pretty much the story of Albert Pyun's career: he's a visionary who works fast and cheap in less-respected genres, then has his films second-guessed and recut when he delivers something weirder and more ambitious than his financiers expected. It's why I love him.
Does it feel like I'm overstating the strengths of what is regularly dismissed as cheap Cannon schlock? Probably. But the whole point of these #HeavyAction columns -- in much of what I try to write, actually -- is to find artistic value in films that are rarely recognized for being art. Cyborg is art. For a film born of such challenging origins, thrown together to make use of some sets, written in a weekend, it succeeds where so many others like it (even in Pyun's own filmography) come up short. Its spareness is a strength, its villain truly intimidating, its vision of a desolate future and a world ruled by violence different than pretty much all the other low-budget action films of the period. Kickboxer was Van Damme's commercial calling card in 1989. Cyborg is its bastard cousin, but in the best possible way. It challenges the language of traditional action cinema and forces Van Damme into corners he might not have otherwise explored so early in his career.
Enemies Closer are among his best specifically because his performance is so good in both, not because of the way he does the action. His entire career can be viewed in comparison to what started here in Cyborg.
I was lucky enough to see the Slinger cut of Cyborg screened theatrically (from a workprint) a few years back with Pyun in attendance, not long before he was diagnosed with dementia. It's interesting as a curiosity in how it differs and better represents Pyuns' vision, but it still feels edited by necessity and not choice and pasted together with awkward voiceover not recorded by Van Damme. The version was available for years on Pyun's website, as well as on Blu-ray in Germany. The theatrical cut is out on Blu-ray in just a few weeks from Scream Factory, but the Slinger cut will sadly not be included.