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Retro Review: NEMESIS (1993) and ANGEL TOWN (1990)


(US - 1993)

Directed by Albert Pyun. Written by Rebecca Charles (Albert Pyun). Cast: Olivier Gruner, Tim Thomerson, Deborah Shelton, Brion James, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Merle Kennedy, Yuji Okumoto, Marjorie Monaghan, Nicholas Guest, Vince Klyn, Thom Mathews, Marjean Holden, Tom Janes (Thomas Jane), Jackie Earle Haley, Jennifer Gatti, Borovnisa Blervaque, Mabel Falls, Branscombe Richmond. (R, 96 mins)

In the late '80s, Imperial Entertainment was primarily known for acquiring Italian (DEMONS 2, THUNDER WARRIOR 3, SPECTERS) and low-budget American genre fare (BLACK ROSES, THE DEAD PIT). Run by brothers Sundip R. Shah, Sunil R. Shah, and Ash R. Shah, Imperial eventually expanded to film production with the 1988 Sho Kosugi actioner BLACK EAGLE, which co-starred Belgian full-contact karate champ Jean-Claude Van Damme. Van Damme, who played the bad guy in the 1986 camp classic NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER, already had BLOODSPORT in the can when he shot BLACK EAGLE, but they were ultimately released two weeks apart, with BLOODSPORT coming first and becoming an unexpected hit. Though he only had a supporting role in BLACK EAGLE, Van Damme's presence was hyped and it served as a symbolic passing of the torch of action B-listers from ninja icon Kosugi to kickboxing poster boy Van Damme. Van Damme was already commitred to Imperial's WRONG BET, which was ultimately retitled LIONHEART when it was picked up by Universal in early 1991 after Van Damme scored three more B-movie hits with CYBORG, KICKBOXER, and DEATH WARRANT. And with that, the "Muscles from Brussels" moved on to the big leagues and was out of Imperial's price range, though they still had another project intended for him. Enter Olivier Gruner, a French kickboxing champion with a passing resemblance to Van Damme and little else. Imperial plugged Gruner into Van Damme's starring role in 1990's ANGEL TOWN (more on that below) and in 1993, Gruner teamed with Van Damme's CYBORG director Albert Pyun for NEMESIS, which would ultimately be the star's first and last great film.

Pyun's best days came early, directing 1982's surprise hit THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER but never really capitalizing on it. He ended up doing several films for Cannon in the latter half of the '80s (DANGEROUSLY CLOSE, DOWN TWISTED, ALIEN FROM L.A.), which led to CYBORG and, post-Cannon, the troubled CAPTAIN AMERICA for Menaham Golan's doomed 21st Century. Pyun's career after NEMESIS and into the 2000s was incredibly prolific but largely inept (best represented by his trio of Bratislava-shot rapsploitation outings affectionately referred to as his epic "Gangstas Wandering Around An Abandoned Warehouse" trilogy by film critic Nathan Rabin). In recent years, he's been slowed down by multiple sclerosis but maintains a strong presence online while trying to get his latest dream project--a self-referential Pyuniverse tribute titled CYBORG NEMESIS--off the ground. NEMESIS was an idea Pyun had been working on since his Cannon days, though with a teenage girl as the hero. He already had Megan Ward in mind to star, having worked with her on the Full Moon sci-fi film ARCADE (shot before NEMESIS but released after). With Cannon on life support and 21st Century faring even worse, he took the idea to the Shah brothers at Imperial. They liked the script but had one demand: lose the teenage girl and retool the character for Olivier Gruner, and in exchange, you'll be left alone to make the movie you want to make.

In a perfect world, NEMESIS would've catapulted Gruner and Pyun into the big leagues, but it wasn't meant to be. With the possible exception of THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER, it's arguably Pyun's best film. NEMESIS opens in the future Los Angeles of 2027, with cybernetically-enhanced cop--he's still "86.5% human--Alex Rain (Gruner) in a brilliantly-choreographed shootout with freedom fighters from a rebel faction known as the Red Army Hammerheads. Severely injured, Rain undergoes repairs and an upgrade and goes off the grid in New Baja for nearly a year. That's where he tracks down and kills prominent Hammerheads figure Rosaria (Jennifer Gatti), before he's found and reactivated by his old boss Farnsworth (Tim Thomerson) and his two flunkies Maritz (Brion James) and Germaine (Nicholas Guest). The assignment: retrieve stolen, top-secret national security intel needed for a US-Japan summit that's scheduled in three days. The culprit: Jared (Marjorie Monaghan), an android and Rain's former lover, who plans to sell it to current Hammerheads leader Angie-Liv (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), who's based on the Pacific Rim island of Shang-Lu. In true ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK fashion, Rain has until the summit to find Jared and the intel or a bomb implanted in his heart will explode. In addition a surveillance unit implanted in his eyeball will monitor his activities and ensure he doesn't go rogue.

There's more, including a duplicitous android named Sam (Marjean Holden); Rain forming an unholy alliance with Rosaria's vengeful sister Max Impact (Merle Kennedy); and Julian (Deborah Shelton), a cyborg associate of Jared, whose intentions are not what Rain has been told. Little is what it seems to be in the world of NEMESIS, a film that takes elements of cyberpunk and Hong Kong-inspired action and mashes them up into a wholly original film that feels like it was directed in tag-team, relay fashion by John Woo, Ridley Scott, Charles Band, and Cirio H. Santiago, and that's meant as a compliment. Though it may look like a B-grade BLADE RUNNER knockoff on the surface (even borrowing James, memorable as escaped replicant Leon in the 1982 classic), NEMESIS is overflowing with more ideas and imagination that it can handle (note how several of the male characters have female names, and vice versa, and how one major male character is revealed to be a reconfigured female cyborg--is NEMESIS the world's first non-binary existential sci-fi action movie?). In many ways, it's the 1990s equivalent of TRANCERS, Band's 1985 cult classic that starred Thomerson and utilized key elements of BLADE RUNNER and THE TERMINATOR but was more inventive and intelligent than it had any business being. Like TRANCERS, NEMESIS got a limited theatrical release but never went wide, topping out at 86 screens in late January 1993. And like TRANCERS, NEMESIS spawned a series of straight-to-video sequels of precipitously declining quality (two featuring future JOHN WICK director Chad Stahelski), all but one directed by a stumbling Pyun and none starring Gruner.

NEMESIS ended up finding a cult following once it hit video, though its devotees did a good job of keeping it to themselves (it's also of interest today for brief supporting turns by Jackie Earle Haley, over a decade before his comeback, and a then-unknown Thomas Jane, billed as "Tom Janes"). But with Van Damme enjoying significant A-list success at the time, Hollywood studios decided they didn't need another European kickboxer, leaving Gruner vying for video store shelf space with Don "The Dragon" Wilson  (BLOODFIST) and Loren Avedon (THE KING OF THE KICKBOXERS and NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER 2 and 3). He had a busy career throughout the '90s as a C-lister whose films could be regularly found in the one-copy "Hot Singles" section of the new release wall at Blockbuster: 1995's kickboxing western THE FIGHTER was an early effort by DTV action maestro Isaac Florentine and paired Gruner with BEVERLY HILLS 90210 and future SHARKNADO star Ian Ziering; he had the title role in 1997's MERCENARY, opposite an unlikely John Ritter, which led to 1998's MERCENARY 2: THICK AND THIN, teaming him with HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE's Robert Townsend. There were also titles like INTERCEPTOR FORCE, THE CIRCUIT, INTERCEPTOR FORCE 2, and THE CIRCUIT 2: THE FINAL PUNCH, and he capped off another tenuously-connected DTV action trilogy with 2000's CRACKERJACK 3, which was probably a shock to fans of the Thomas Ian Griffith-starring CRACKERJACK as the second installment--where Griffith was replaced by Judge Reinhold (!)--was retitled HOSTAGE TRAIN. Gruner also co-starred in the one-season, 1999 TV series CODE NAME: ETERNITY, a Canadian import that aired on what was then known as the Sci-Fi Channel.

Born in 1960, Gruner isn't headlining these days, but he's occasionally directed himself in titles even the most ardent Redbox devotee probably never heard of, like SECTOR 4: EXTRACTION and EXECUTIVE PROTECTION, and he still turns up in bottom-of-the-barrel fare like Pyun's ABELAR: TALES OF AN ANCIENT EMPIRE, and had cameos in garbage like DIAMOND CARTEL and SHOWDOWN IN MANILA, where he turns up about an hour in with Don "The Dragon" Wilson and Cynthia Rothrock as part of a team of mercenaries that may as well have been called THE AVAILABLES. Early in his career, Olivier Gruner served a purpose as a second-string Jean-Claude Van Damme, at least until Van Damme started going straight-to-DVD, thus negating the need for a Gruner, which is clearly reflected in the declining quality of the gigs he started getting in the 2000s. And unlike Van Damme, Gruner never evolved into a good actor. But for a brief moment, he got to headline a legitimate cult classic with NEMESIS, which has just been released on Blu-ray in an extras-packed edition with two (!) alternate versions, because physical media is dead.

(US - 1990)

Directed by Eric Karson. Written by S.N. Warren. Cast: Olivier Gruner, Theresa Saldana, Frank Aragon, Tony Valentino, Peter Kwong, Mike Moroff, Lupe Amador, Daniel Villarreal, Jim Jaimes, Gregory Cruz, Mark Dacascos, Claudine Penedo, Lorenzo Gaspar, Tom McGreevy, William Bassett, Nick Angotti, Robin Ann Harlan, Julie Rudolph, Linda Kurimoto, Bruce Locke, Stephanie Sholtus, Lilyan Chauvin. (R, 106 mins)

Gruner's career began inauspiciously with ANGEL TOWN, a project initially developed by Imperial Entertainment for Van Damme. Set in the mean streets of East L.A., it's essentially a SHANE scenario that drops a JCVD-like, former Olympic-qualifying kickboxer into the middle of a low-budget COLORS ripoff. Gruner is Jacques Montaigne, who arrives in Los Angeles to pursue a graduate degree in engineering. Unable to find any decent student housing, he ends up in a barrio neighborhood, renting a room at the home of Maria Odones (Theresa Saldana), a widow who lives with her son Martin (Frank Aragon) and her grandmother (Lupe Amador). Maria lost her anti-gang activist husband to a driveby shooting six years earlier, and since then, feared gang leader Angel (Tony Valentino) has persisted in harassing the family and trying to coerce Martin into joining his gang. Maria refuses to leave, finding an ally in embittered, wheelchair-bound Vietnam vet neighbor Frank (Mike Moroff). Jacques is hassled from the start, and quickly makes enemies after beating the shit out of several of Angel's crew, but as the violence escalates and the body count rises (starting with Grandma having a fatal heart attack after a home invasion), Jacques calls in a favor from Henry (Peter Kwong), an old Olympic buddy who now owns an L.A. gym. They work with Martin, teaching him to defend himself and after Maria is gang-raped by Angel's goons, Jacques, Martin, Henry, and Frank prep for the inevitable RIO BRAVO siege at the Odones house.

ANGEL TOWN has the makings of a solidly formulaic martial-arts outing, but until an admittedly lively finale, it's mostly awful. Director Eric Karson had made perfectly competent action movies before with Imperial's BLACK EAGLE and the 1980 Chuck Norris vehicle THE OCTAGON, but he's having an off-day here. Amateurishly-shot flashbacks set in France make little effort to hide that it's still Los Angeles, whether it's a cemetery with visible American names on the headstones or Karson's seemingly spur-of-the-moment solution being to plaster a misspelled decal reading "Parisien" onto a cab and having guys running around in checkered pants and berets in a depiction of Paris that's about as convincing as a Pepe Le Pew cartoon. Gruner being a terrible actor doesn't help, but for the most part, the fight scenes seem stilted and awkward (why is one brawl on a tennis court accompanied by wailing jazz trumpet?) and the dramatic elements sometimes have an almost surreal, Tommy Wiseau-like quality to them. Every scene at the university is mind-bogglingly bad, with a bizarrely misanthropic dean who openly insults the graduate students with no provocation and comes off like a woke doomsday scenario today, telling one young woman "I knew your father...he always wanted a boy...what a disappointment you must've been," and another "How can you be expected to bleed and think at the same time?"

Like a less hysterical companion piece to MIAMI CONNECTION, ANGEL TOWN is the kind of movie that feels like it was made by people who don't get out much, and where the serious drama comes off as unintentionally funny, while the intentional humor falls completely flat, particularly one bit that probably would've seemed cringe-worthy in 1990, let alone today: a Middle-Eastern student calls Jacques "frog," to which Jacques replies by grabbing the kid's tie and informing him "That's Mr. Frog to you, rag-head!" I realize this was a time of escalating Middle East tensions with Saddam Hussein, but even Cannon handled their shameless jingoism with a little more dignity and grace. It's Gruner's debut, so you almost have to cut him a little slack for having no acting experience and with a small-time outfit desperate to find a new Van Damme after he left them for greener pastures, but he's just in over his head here. Not even an experienced pro like RAGING BULL co-star Saldana (right before she enjoyed a bit of a career resurgence as Michael Chiklis' wife on the acclaimed ABC series THE COMMISH the next year) can elevate the C-listers around her, including Valentino, who, for the most part, comes off as the poor man's Trinidad Silva. ANGEL TOWN generated a minor controversy during its limited release in early 1990 when rival gangs caused a riot on its opening night at an L.A. drive-in, but that's really the most noteworthy thing about it. It was a fixture in video stores throughout the '90s, but with Gruner's deer-in-the-headlights thesping and its many moments of MST3K-worthy yuks, perhaps MVD's  recent Blu-ray resurrection can give it a second life on the midnight movie circuit.

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