(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.
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.
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.
CODE NAME: ETERNITY, a Canadian import that aired on what was then known as the Sci-Fi Channel.
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.
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.