Since his debut in 1982 with the light-hearted sword and sorcery fantasy, The Sword and the Sorcerer, Albert Pyun has directed over fifty feature-length genre films; from cyberpunk to blaxploitation. If you grew up watching midnight cable television – or renting VHS tapes – during the 80s/90s, it is extremely likely that you are already familiar with Radioactive Dreams, or Cyborg, or Nemesis. Without any doubt in my mind, he was one of the hardest-working filmmakers in America. So to say that Pyun, as a director, was prolific is an understatement… Just like his cybernetic creations, Albert Pyun was a machine!
The fantasy genre flourished in the early 1980s, spurred on by the success of the tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. Clash of the Titans (1981), Excalibur (1981), Conan the Barbarian (1982), and The Beastmaster (1982) were all released with great fanfare. The Sword and the Sorcerer had arrived at just the right time to capitalise on the success of this golden age of sword and sorcery, becoming the most profitable independent movie released in 1982; almost beating Universal Picture’s Conan the Barbarian in box office revenue.
During his earlier years, Pyun received an invitation from the Japanese actor, Toshiro Mifune, to travel to Japan for an internship on the 1975 Akira Kurosawa film, Dersu Uzala. Mifune was known for his frequent collaborations with Kurosawa between 1948–1965; starring in such works as Rashomon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954), and Yojimbo (1961). Unfortunately, Kurosawa would ultimately cast Maxim Munzuk in the starring role of Dersu Uzala, so Pyun worked with Mifune in television instead, under the tutelage of Kurosawa’s Director of Photography, Takao Saito.
From Takao Saito, Albert Pyun developed an artistic flair, which was evident in his sophomore release. Working with Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis, Pyun’s post-apocalyptic sci-fi/comedy Radioactive Dreams (1985) would later inspire the role-playing video game Wasteland (1988), and its spiritual sequel, Fallout (1997). Shortly afterwards, Pyun would also begin collaborating with The Cannon Group, during their infamous Golan-Globus era. Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus had bought the financially struggling film studio and began tapping into the ravenous b-movie market of the 1980s; producing low-budget genre schlock guaranteed to make bank at the box office and through home video.
During this time, Albert Pyun also directed the sci-fi/horror, Vicious Lips (1986) for Charles Band’s Empire International Pictures; a working relationship that would later lead to Pyun directing the direct-to-video sci-fi flicks Dollman (1991) and Arcade (1993) for Full Moon Entertainment. Arcade in particular is significant for being co-written by David S. Goyer, later known for writing Marvel’s Blade (1998). For Charles Band, Pyun had to remould his style to fit with the Full Moon aesthetic, but for Cannon, he had more creative control.
Albert Pyun’s 1986 action/thriller, Dangerously Close – a statement on Jingoism that was spreading throughout America at the time – was a minor success for Cannon, which led to Pyun working with the studio throughout the remainder of the 1980s; releasing Down Twisted (1987), Alien from L.A. (1988), and Journey to the Center of the Earth (1989). With Pyun, Cannon had found a fast and efficient filmmaker who could work with a shoe-string budget. With this in mind, Albert Pyun was offered the opportunity to direct Marvel’s Spider-Man and the sequel to Masters of the Universe; a live-action fantasy starring Dolph Lundgren, based on the Mattel toy line.
Unfortunately, Cannon was struggling financially by the late 1980s. 1987’s Masters of the Universe and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace had both failed at the box office, which left Cannon unable to recoup their production costs. Facing bankruptcy, Cannon decided to cancel their deal with Marvel and Mattel – losing the film rights to Spider-Man and Masters of the Universe in the process – but they also had another problem… Cannon had already spent a significant amount of funding (estimated around $2 million) during the pre-production of the now cancelled Spider-Man and Masters of the Universe II. A new Cannon project was needed. Something really low-budget that would prove to be profitable at the box office. So within 48 hours, Albert Pyun wrote the script for a martial-arts cyberpunk hybrid that would capture the imagination of Cannon’s core demographic: Cyborg.
In an effort to save humanity after a plague cripples civilisation, a small group of surviving scientists and doctors in Atlanta work towards producing a cure but require additional information, currently stored on a computer system in New York City. Understanding the risk involved, one scientist volunteers for surgical cybernetic augmentation; an essential procedure if she plans to traverse a ravaged post-apocalyptic America overrun by pirates on a suicide data recovery mission.
Having previously found success with Bloodsport (1988) – Jean-Claude Van Damme’s debut starring role – Cannon decided to offer the martial artist the lead role in Cyborg (1989), previously intended for Chuck Norris. Envisioned as a futuristic western, JCVD portrays a lone gun-for-hire out for revenge. He also served as an uncredited editor, re-editing the film after its initial test screening in order to intensify the action, having previously edited the fight sequences for Bloodsport. This wouldn’t be the first time Albert Pyun was removed from the editorial process, and it wouldn’t be the last! Released in 1989, Cyborg would become another financial success for Cannon and Albert Pyun – a defining moment in his career – but the studio couldn’t escape their overall, increasing financial loss.
Cannon was eventually purchased by Pathé which led to Menahem Golan resigning. The Golan-Globus era was over at Cannon, but Pyun’s creativity would find a new home… Golan’s severance included control over 21st Century Film Corporation, a theatrical distribution company, along with the Marvel film rights held over by Cannon for another popular comic book superhero: Captain America. Captain America (1990) also had a tumultuous production history under Cannon. Initially, Michael Winner (Death Wish) was attached to direct in 1984, but would later leave the project; leaving Captain America in the hands of John Stockwell (Rock Star), with a screenplay written by Stephen Tolkin (The Craigslist Killer).
Albert Pyun was a fan of Captain America growing up and believed Tolkin’s screenplay captured the essence of the comic book, so he was instrumental in convincing Golan to greenlight the live-action adaptation for 21st Century, believing he could make a great movie with a modest budget. Pyun had previously directed another sci-fi/comedy known as Deceit (1990), in which two extraterrestrials plan to destroy Earth, but postpone our planet’s destruction so they can try to score with a beautiful blonde portrayed by Samantha Phillips (Phantasm II). Believing in the potential of Captain America, Pyun essentially gave 21st Century his latest film so they could sell Deceit to raise further funding. A bank loan was agreed to secure the rest of the budget and Captain America entered production.
However, once production started Pyun quickly realised that the money was gone! The bank loan fell through and Captain America’s budget was slashed in half whilst the cast and crew were on location. Significant changes had to be made to the screenplay to remove many of the proposed action sequences, but Pyun was still invested in the story. To him, the most interesting aspect of Captain America was Steve Rodgers. What price did he have to pay to become Captain America? So, despite a stressful production – Pyun even admitted to continuing to shoot after running out of film one particular day, so nobody would know they had no funds left – Captain America was ready for its theatrical release.
Menahem Golan first screened Captain America for Columbia TriStar, but they were displeased with the lack of action. Like Cyborg before it, Captain America was re-edited without Pyun’s involvement to intensify the few action sequences that were actually shot, but in doing so 21st Century made the situation worse; Captain America’s plot became even more confused and the movie was shelved until 1992 when it was eventually released on home video.
Albert Pyun would continue to work with 21st Century Film Corporation; directing the martial-arts action flick Bloodmatch (1991) before their closure in 1996. During the early 90s, Pyun would also direct two Kickboxer sequels for Kings Road Entertainment – Kickboxer 2: The Road Back (1991), written by David S. Goyer, and Kickboxer 4: The Aggressor (1994) – and Knights (1993), which was originally intended to be a sequel to Cyborg. The Sword and the Sorcerer may have been Pyun’s most successful movie financially, but for many of us, Cyborg became the cult classic most synonymous with the cult director, and Knights is an entertaining pseudo-sequel.
Cyborg is also the reason why I’m about to speak so fondly of the cyberpunk-inspired action flick, Nemesis (1992). During Albert Pyun’s time working for The Cannon Group, Nemesis was conceived as a police/serial killer procedural thriller set in the future, under the working title: Alex Rain. When Cannon ran into their aforementioned financial problems, Alex Rain was shelved so Pyun could focus on other projects, most notably Cyborg; Alex Rain being the seed that planted the cyberpunk setting in Pyun’s mind.
After Pyun had directed Arcade for Full Moon Entertainment, he began to revisit the idea of Alex Rain, redeveloping the plot, before pitching his low-budget thriller to Imperial Entertainment. Imperial agreed to make the film under one condition; martial-artist Olivier Gruner (Angel Town) would play the lead. Pyun had originally written the lead character for a female actress – considering Kelly Lynch (Road House) and later Megan Ward (Arcade) – but agreed to the change if he had complete creative control over the rest of the production. Imperial accepted and the title was changed.
In the year 2027, whilst working for the Los Angeles Police Department, Alex Rain is gunned down during a routine assignment by a small faction of the terrorist group known as The Red Army Hammerheads; but not before dispatching all but their leader, Rosaria (Jennifer Gatti). As Rosaria approaches the severely injured Alex, she discovers that he is cybernetic.
“We’re trying to save humankind, and you, you protect the machines… Well, no wonder you protect them, you’re mostly machine, you’re not really human anymore are you?”
In an act of defiance, Alex lifts up his head – looking at Rosaria dead in the eye – and responds:
“86.5% is still human.”
With Nemesis, Alburt Pyun wears his influences on his sleeve. Take Alex Rain for example: He is a burnt-out police officer that is almost killed in the line of duty. He survives only due to cybernetic reconstruction (RoboCop), is implanted with a bomb (Escape from New York), and is subsequently given the assignment to track down a cyborg terrorist (Blade Runner). It is one of those rare instances where style triumphs over substance. From the moment the title appears until the end-credits roll, Nemesis is over-the-top, gun-fu-style action within a neo-noir atmosphere that is far more fun than it ought to be.
Albert Pyun created a movie that is indicative of the action genre in the late 80s/early 90s, yet retains his signature style that elevates Nemesis to cult status. The home video release of Nemesis was also successful enough that Imperial Entertainment worked with Alburt Pyun to create a further three sequels: Nemesis 2: Nebula (1995), Nemesis 3: Time Lapse (1996), and Nemesis 4: Death Angel (1996).
The first decade of Albert Pyun’s career proves that he was a filmmaker willing to take risks. He was an artist that could infuse any concept into his unique directorial style and create something imaginative with the most meagre funding. And whilst many have considered his work to be low-grade b-movie schlock, their influence cannot be denied. Pioneering the cyberpunk subgenre, Albert Pyun become known as a renegade in independent genre cinema, and I’ve only just scratched the surface of his filmography.