Cannon Films was in deep trouble by 1987. Its boom years, between the late ’70s to the mid-80s, were largely thanks to an eclectic and hurriedly-made collection of B-movies: Chuck Norris action pictures, Charles Bronson revenge flicks, and lots of things with the word “ninja” in the title.
Thanks to its outsider status and anything-for-a-buck approach to filmmaking, Cannon Films became a major name in Hollywood, the grinning faces of its brusque founders – producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus – frequently appearing in TV news reports and tinseltown trade papers.
But in the mid-80s, Golan and Globus began to change their strategy. While they would still make Death Wish sequels and Chuck Norris pics, they began to dabble in making more expensive films, such as Lifeforce (its $25 million budget being quite lavish for Cannon) and Sly Stallone arm-wrestling picture Over The Top. Around the same time, Cannon began to acquire potentially lucrative properties derived from comic books and popular toys. With them, Cannon planned to break into the Hollywood A-list.
Unfortunately, Cannon’s fast-and-loose approach to filmmaking didn’t really gel with the requirements of a major summer film. They’d made expensive deals for the rights to make a Superman sequel (purchasing the property from producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind for a multi-million dollar sum), a Spider-Man movie and a big-screen adaptation of Mattel’s best-selling He-Man toy line, Masters of the Universe. But when it came to actually making the movies themselves, Cannon was ill-equipped to commit the kinds of budgets their effects, costumes and sets required.
Cannon’s classic approach to making films was to effectively sell them before they were even made. They’d attach a star and put together a poster, and use that package to attract financial backing. It was a tactic that worked perfectly well for the kinds of low budget films Cannon was previously used to making (around the $1-2 million range), but less so for a something like a Superman sequel.
Around the time Superman IV: The Quest For Peace was announced, Cannon had earmarked a not unreasonable $36 million to get it made. But Cannon’s cash flow problems had already begun following a string of earlier flops (including Lifeforce and Over The Top, mentioned above), and also due to the sheer number of other movies it had in the works at the same time. Superman IV’s budget was slashed to $17 million during production, and all kinds of corners were cut: one of them being the infamous use of the UK’s Milton Keynes as a stand-in for Metropolis. Unsurprisingly, the resulting film, released in 1987, was a critically-derided flop, with effects noticeably worse than the ones that hung round the edges of Richard Donner’s lavish, $55 million original.
Cannon’s He-Man movie, Masters Of The Universe, was being made around the same time as Superman IV, and not unreasonably, the studio expected big things from it. At one time, the toys were flying off shelves all over America, and the tie-in animated series was a hit on television. But the same financial headaches that plagued Superman IV also hampered Masters Of The Universe’s production.
Cuts were made everywhere to save cash, and director Gary Goddard even revealed that, while they were filming the final fight between Dolph Lundgren’s He-Man and Frank Langella’s Skeletor, the producers were literally pulling the plug as the cameras were rolling.
“There were shooting weeks when the crew threatened to stop because money was not in the bank to cover their checks,” Goddard said in this interview. “I would get assurances from the studio that the money would be there by the day’s end, and then I would coax, beg, plead, for the crew to give me the day – and in the end – they money did come through…”
Goddard was forced to go back later and film a far more modest conclusion than the one originally scripted, which might explain why, in the finished Masters Of The Universe, the concluding battle takes place in almost total darkness:
Nevertheless, Cannon pressed on with marketing Masters Of The Universe, and, convinced that this would be the movie to turn the studio’s fortunes around, even began production on a sequel – Menahem Globus went so far as to announce Masters Of The Universe 2 at the Cannes Film Festival in 1987. Even Lundgren’s flat refusal to reprise the role of He-Man (he opted to take the lead in another Cannon film, Red Scorpion, instead) didn’t deter the producers – they simply hired surfer and model Laird Hamilton to take his place.
Masters of The Universe 2 had a director: Albert Pyun, director of such B-movie delights as The Sword And The Sorcerer, Alien From LA,and Dangerously Close, and was the latest filmmaker attached to the pending big-screen Spider-Man adaptation. Production had even begun on both the He-Man sequel and Spider-Man, with sets and costumes all put together ready for filming.
“We built these sets in North Carolina,” Pyun told io9 of his brief experience on the production of Spider-Man. “If he had to go up a wall and onto the ceiling of a room, we had to build the entire room on a centrifuge, so it would rotate. It was so physically hard to shoot, because the crew is moving, the camera is moving, how do you focus…”
The idea was that Pyun would direct both films more-or-less simultaneously, starting with two weeks’ production on Spider-Man, in which time he’d shoot the scenes where Peter Parker receives his fateful spider bite. Then Pyun would shoot six weeks of Masters Of The Universe 2, thus giving the actor playing Peter Parker enough time to bulk up enough to play Spider-Man before filming on that movie resumed.
Anyone wondering whether we’d missed an early comic book movie classic with Cannon’s Spider-Man should rest assured that the world probably dodged a bullet. As Pyun admits himself, producer Menahem Golan didn’t really “understand” Spider-Man as conceived by Marvel; instead, he imagined the character as a literal giant, mutant spider with eight hairy arms. “He didn’t understand the whole teenage angst aspect that made him so popular,” Pyun said.
Then Masters Of The Universe came out, and the box-office returns weren’t encouraging. It didn’t help that, by the time of the film’s release in August 1987, He-Man toys had already dwindled in popularity. Even the fleet-footed Cannon, famed for being able to get a movie made and in cinemas within months, was too slow to catch the He-Man zeitgeist. Plans for a Masters Of The Universe 2 – and its long-in-gestation Spider-Man – were reluctantly abandoned after a couple of bounced checks led to the loss of the Spider-Man and He-Man licenses from Marvel and Mattel.
According to Gary Goddard, He-Man toy manufacturer Mattel may even have withdrawn the rights to make Masters Of The Universe 2 after seeing the low-budget follow-up Cannon was planning to make. “Mattel saw the script, or perhaps the storyboards,” Goddard said, “and pulled the license.”
All told, Cannon had spent approximately $2 million on both Masters Of The Universe 2 and Spider-Man, and had little more to show for it than a collection of sets and costumes. Determined to give this latest black cloud a silver lining, Cannon turned to Pyun, and within the space of a single weekend, a project called Slinger – and later retitled Cyborg – was born.
Pyun wrote a script that could incorporate the various outfits and landscapes from the abandoned Spider-Man and Masters Of The Universe 2 into a dark, post-apocalyptic sci-fi fantasy. He envisioned a future where humanity was on the brink of being wiped out by a deadly virus, and where the only hope for a cure lies inside the head of a female cyborg.
In his haste to get a story on paper, Pyun named all the characters after guitars and amplifiers: his hero was called Gibson Rickenbacker, his villain Fender Tremolo, and so on. At the behest of the formidable Menahem Golan, upcoming martial arts star Jean-Claude Van Damme was cast as Gibson – a canny choice as it turned out, since Van Damme was on the cusp of breaking through in the late ’80s. Cyborg would ultimately be released between two of Van Damme’s breakout hits: 1988’s Bloodsport and 1989’s Kickboxer, both released by Cannon and both sizeable hits.
It should be pointed out, however, that Pyun never really intended to make the straight martial arts flick that Cannon wanted. He envisioned something much darker and full-blooded, a kind of rock opera shot in black-and white and featuring minimal dialogue. Understandably, Cannon pushed for a more straight, crowd-pleasing action movie instead, as we’ll soon see.
Filming took place over 23 days with a budget of just $500,000. The production was far from plain-sailing. Van Damme had to spend up to four hours in makeup as his fake scars were applied. An early scene where Gibson is crucified resulted in Van Damme being strung up in the baking North Carolina sun for seven-and-a-half hours.
Worst of all, actor Jackson “Rock” Pinckney, who played one of the “pirate” henchmen alongside villain Fender Tremolo (Vincent Klyn) was badly injured during a fight scene, and despite surgery, lost the sight in his left eye. Four years later, Pinckney took Van Damme to court, and was awarded $485,000 in damages.
When filming was complete, Pyun assembled a black-and-white rough cut of Cyborg for Cannon’s producers to have a look at. “I fell in love with the [black and white] look and screened a heavy metal temp stereo mix and played back at 90db during the screening,” Pyun later told Forces Of Geek. “As you can imagine the screening did not go well, they thought I was insane.”
Pyun duly went back and made a less outlandish edit, with color and less deafening rock music. This cut passed muster with Cannon, but not with test audiences. By then, Bloodsport had come out, and they were expecting more of the Van Damme they’d seen in that film: oiled-up and high kicking, not, as seen at one point in the film, crucified. “My cut is more pessimistic and internal,” Pyun said. “More gloomy sci-fi noir than the released action adventure…”
The resulting cut – overseen by Cannon and not Pyun – may have been far from the director’s moody intentions, but it ultimately proved to be decent-sized hit. Making a shade over $10 million at the box office, its return on investment was far better than the more expensive, comic book fare that Cannon had dabbled in a few years earlier.
Cyborg became a lasting cult hit, too, thanks in no small part to its solid action, unusual mix of styles (its spaghetti western tone recalling, accidentally perhaps, the mid-80s post-apocalyptic violence of Japan’s Fist of the North Star) and a superbly nasty performance from villain Vincent Klyn.
It says a lot that a 35-year-old, low-budget action film, cobbled together from the ashes of two much bigger productions, is still warmly remembered and enjoyed by B-movie connoisseurs. A pair of direct-to-video sequels emerged in 1993 and 1995, directed by Michael Schroeder – the first sequel now best remembered for starring Angelina Jolie.
Even Albert Pyun, who’s gone on to make a string of post-apocalyptic sci-fi films in the same vein since, hasn’t forgotten about Cyborg. In 2011, a VHS of Pyun’s director’s cut was discovered by his regular composer Tony Riparetti, which Pyun made available to purchase on DVD via his website. Pyun even has a prequel – Cyborg Nemesis: Dark Rift produced several years ago. As was the case with those direct-to-video sequels, Jean-Claude Van Damme is nowhere to be seen.
As well as a cult movie, Cyborg is a snapshot of a unique moment in filmmaking history, and the last throes of an equally unique studio. Cannon fell apart shortly after Cyborg’s release in 1989, brought low by a series of expensive ventures that simply didn’t take off – among them high-profile, low-return movies like Lifeforce and Superman IV.
Ironically, it was when Cannon returned to its off-the-cuff approach to filmmaking, where its producers gave director Albert Pyun a small budget and a few short weeks to make Cyborg, that it garnered one of the most lucrative films of its final years. Had Cannon made more films like Cyborg and fewer films like Superman IV, its future may have been very different.