Picture the apocalypse. Chances are there’s very little Oscar Isaac in blue body paint but a whole lot of fire. In Apocalypse 101 you’re taught that, come the end of days, fire will be found spurting from the ground for no discernible reason and burning continuously in small, well-ventilated areas. There’s a lot of fire in Cyborg. It’s probably why Fender Tremolo (Vincent Klyn) wears sunglasses all the time – it’s a terrifying practicality. And in this achingly realistic portent of global things to come and Californian things that were, Fender stalks the earth as our oh-so-80s villain. He’s poised, looks a little like a Cobra crossed with a Hemsworth brother and enjoys spending his time engaged in some light pillaging.
First there was the collapse of civilization: anarchy, genocide, starvation. Then, when it seemed things couldn’t get any worse, we got the plague; the living death, quickly closing its fist over the entire planet. And then we heard the rumors: that the last scientists were working on a cure that would end the plague and restore the world.
Restore it? Why?
I like the death! I like the misery! I like this world!
– Fender Tremolo
Standing against Fender is Gibson Rickenbacker. Inhabited by Jean-Claude Van Damme, Rickenbacker is a man of vengeance, trudging through this wasteland bloodied, alone, and invariably shirtless in search of his nemesis. And though his motivations are gradually revealed through flashback over the course of a brisk 82 minute runtime, we’re never really sure how much we know this man who, like much of the cast, is named after a guitar. We’re not sure about that either.
What we know is that Gibson is stalking Fender and his crew, made up of Mad Max 2 style oiks with names like Tytus and Brick Bardo while Fender is seeking Pearl Prophet and Marshall Strat (mmhm, more guitars), the former a cyborg with a cure for the global plague stored in her head, the latter her bodyguard. Strat needn’t have turned up though; he’s caught, and sacrifices himself with the words “go to hell!”. Fender smirks – of course he does – and replies “been there”. Within ten minutes, so have we.
So, Fender and fraternity set off with the cyborg in tow, Gibson in pursuit, on the way to the last bastion of science, Atlanta. As far as saviour cities go it’s a faintly amusing choice, one that sounds just a little like another doomed civilisation. At one point we come across a fork in the road: to the left, Wasteland; to the right, Temptation; straight ahead, Charleston. Cyborg is neither a subtle nor a particularly balanced picture. But therein lies the charm that Van Damme’s films were always capable of and so many of his tier 2 contemporaries, like Lundgren and Seagal, just weren’t.
Cyborg is content to keep us grounded in simplicity. Gibson, Van Damme, is the hero, whether he likes it or not, and Fender is the villain. Where more recent releases might focus on the breakdown of humanity or the global reaction to catastrophe, Cyborg is confident enough in its chase. Pertinent questions – how did another continent fare? how did another city fare? how did that place down the road fare? – don’t matter. Even the cure seems inconsequential.
JCVD gets too little credit for his acting. Here is a man who can stare into the middle distance for the entirety of a film’s duration, even when his eyes are closed. In Cyborg that’s understandable. Why would you want to focus on anything out here? Just as soon as something catches your eye it’s strung up, burnt down or tossed aside. So, when propositioned by a sometime companion, Gibson looks past the woman in front of him and covers her up. What innocence is left seemingly resides with him alone – this is the cure for “humanity”, this 5’8” Belgian man who apparently has access to hair gel even after the end of the world. Evidently, to director Albert Pyin, it’s easier to invest in a blank canvas than one already painted over.
Ultimately Cyborg suffers from a sadly inadequate synth soundtrack and the inability of Pyun to keep the camera still during shots of a beautifully stark wasteland. But there still remains a simple, brutalistic savagery to Cyborg, one of Van Damme’s better efforts that manages to find time for the requisite half dozen roundhouse kicks and trademark splits. And, for all its oft-frenetic bleakness, Pyun never lets up on the colour. Perhaps it’s a mark of the decade in which it was made, but Cyborg‘s palette is totally rad to the max. More modern entries in the genre double-down on the brown and the grey but Cyborg, with its neo-Vikings and makeshift crucifixion sites, is like the apocalypse on a sugar trip. Even its darkest hour, the final confrontation during a torrential storm, looks like it was filmed in the factory from Flashdance. Though that would actually explain why Tremolo needs those sunglasses…