Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Sincerest Form of Fraudulence :: Dying Hard While The Dudikoff Abides in Robert Lee's Cyberjack (1995)

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“After tonight, God will be lucky if I return his calls!”
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In the not to distant future, Nick James is circling the drain. Several years removed from an incident where a bad decision during a stand-off got himself nearly (and his partner definitely) killed in the line of duty, James (Dudikoff) is now a barely functioning alcoholic, who lost his job as a policemen, is currently in hock to his bookie for an exorbitant sum of cash, money he lost betting on the hometown baseball team, money he doesn't have, which finds him striking a bargain with a friendly security guard to hide out for the night at Quantum Industries, where he works as a janitor -- sorry, as a custodial engineer, in an effort to save his kneecaps from being broken. 

James is fairly friendly with most of the staff at Quantum, recently budding a bond with one of their chief research scientists, Dr. Alex Royce (Kaiser), over a dead car battery and their mutual love and diehard loyalty to the Neptunes, that aforementioned shitty baseball team (OF THE FUTURE!). Royce works in tandem with her father (Fraser) as they try to perfect an "organic computer virus," which is your garden variety bits and bytes contagion they have merged with some *ahem* 'neurological protoplasm' because of SCIENCE!. Well, actually, it was designed to be a Super Anti-Virus but my eyes kinda glazed over during the expository sci-babble, here, so, yeah, moving on... 

Despite pressure from an over-eager CEO, the younger Royce is leery over the project's effectiveness and feels more RnD testing is needed. Dad, however, feels it's almost ready to launch. (Three guesses on whose side the CEO will be on?) Well, turns out someone else thinks it's ready to roll, too; a criminal mastermind named Nassim (James), who, coincidentally enough, was the perp' who killed James' partner; and he plans to steal the virus for his own nefarious purposes. (Purposes you won't believe even when I reveal them later.) Which brings all our characters together and the audience up to speed when Nassim and his band of Class of Nuke 'Em High rejects clandestinely infiltrate the Quantum building, eliminate all the security personnel, and that CEO, with ruthless efficiency, before rounding up all the remaining staff into the Royce's lab, where he makes his demands known. 

Ah, but remember, and unknown to Nassim and his goon squad, there's an extra player lurking in the building. Someone looking for a little redemption, a little revenge, and the score of the Neptune's game. Someone who is handy with a monkey-wrench, and knows just how to use it... 

It's not often a direct to video knock-off opens with a preamble credited to Dr. Stephen Hawking, but here ya go. The 1990s truly were a glorious time of conjecture on where computers would take us. Some place bad or some place good depended on who was doing the screenplay. By 1995 the internet was just starting to stretch its legs, 'virtual reality', 'cyber-crimes' and 'hacking' were new buzzwords, and yet, even some ten years after TRON (1982), no one in the movie-making business seemed to understand how computers actually worked. Still more fiction than science, then, 90% of this kind of cinematic conjecturing was total horseshit; but it was ah-mazing to behold and revel in its horsehittiness. Here, the notion is to merge man and machine. E'yup. Nassim wants to inject the Royce virus into a chip implanted inside his head, which, in theory, will either kill him or turn him into an ersatz Brainiac / MCP program that will allow him to infect everything to satiate his lust to rule the world! [Insert maniacal laughter here.] Like I said: horseshit.

Thus, when The Celluloid Zeroes decided to do Knock-Offs, Rip-Offs and Frommage Homages for this latest roundtable, I immediately knew I wanted to do a Michael Dudikoff movie. The problem was narrowing it down to one choice. I mean, there's his gang-banger version of The Dirty Dozen, Soldier Boyz (1995); or his Platoon clone, Platoon Leader (1988); The Hitcher begat Midnight Ride (1990), with Mark Hamill taking over for Rutger Hauer (-- don't laugh, it's better than you'd think); he's The Most Dangerous Game in Avenging Force (1986); and The Hunter becomes the hunted in Moving Target (1996). However, in the end, the choice was fairly easy: Cyberjack a/k/a Virtual Assassin (1995), which not only apes Die Hard (1988) with a vengeance, and is set in the dystopian future of Paul Verhoeven's Robocop (1987), it also steals several terrible ideas from Johnny Mnemonic (1995) and The Lawnmower Man (1992). Noodle that line of code for a bit, fellow programs. 

Don't get me wrong. I love this movie, and The Dudikoff something fierce. As the legend goes, it was being spotted while working at a restaurant by a fashion editor that launched Dudikoff's career; first as a model, then as an actor. Dudikoff always had the looks of a leading man, and the moves to be an action hero. (He's well-versed in Jiu-Jitsu). Acting wise, he's somewhere on the scale between Lorenzo Llamas and Jan-Michael Vincent, meaning he's just fine when he's cast in his comfort zone as the quiet loner who is called upon to bust some heads. His first big break came playing one of Tom Hank's bosom buddies in the raunch-com, Bachelor Party (1984). This was followed by Radioactive Dreams (1985), Albert Pyun's most-Pyunical hard-boiled post-apocalyptic musical. (Again, not as bad as you'd think.) After that, Dudikoff started working steadily for the Go-Go boys at Cannon Films, teaming up with Steven James in the American Ninja series and plugged into countless other Cannon fodder. Thus, from 1985 thru 1994, the actor took the lead in nearly a dozen films before Golan and Globus called it quits. 

Cast adrift, Cyberjack was Dudikoff's first feature after Cannon went tits up. And I think it's one of his best efforts. Sure, Dudikoff is no Bruce Willis, but then Nick James is no John McClane either. Hiding out in the holographic lab and thoroughly distracted by a hologram set on "Bump 'n' Grind," James is blissfully unaware of Nassim's hostile takeover. And once he does find out, his first notion is to flee the premises as quickly as possible. However, the terrorists and the building's compromised automated defense systems prevents this. 

Thus, once our reluctant and barely sober hero is pressed into service, Cyberjack doesn't stray too far from McTiernan's template; but lets give due credit on some of the tweaking the production and FX team managed to pull-off, rather deftly, to stir up the sediment to obscure the obvious, including several nifty scenes involving more of those holograms and a well-executed go-motion robot drone the (eventually) alerted police send in, who first mistakes James as one of the bad guys, meaning Nassim, the building, and now the cops are all out to get our hero. What's a guy to do? 

I'll tell you what he does: flexing those old cop muscles, mixed with his janitorial know-how, our boy systematically eliminates Nassim's rainbow coalition of goons; highlighted by an outstanding full-body burn when the first goon gets the hell Molotov'd out of him, and surviving two brutal encounters with Meghan (Hasfal-Schou), Nassim's Nubian gladiatrix, decked out in leather shorts and a metal breast-plate. (Grace Jones-lite, my ass. She was awesome and then some.) Meanwhile, after her father sacrifices himself trying to destroy the virus with a self-destruct protocol, Alex has one hour to abort these fail-safe measures and save the virus or Nassim will keep killing off all the other hostages. 

With the clock ticking, as his men are slowly whittled away, Nassim realizes the fly in his ointment is no ordinary janitor and who he really is. James does the same, realizing this is the same man who tried to kill him and ruined his life. But before he can reach the lab, Nassim manages to inject himself with the virus, which, one, doesn't kill him, and two, gives him the ability to shoot green laser-beams out of his eyes, and three, allows him to use his new skills to hack into the cybernetically linked-up S.W.A.T. team that just broke into the building, turning them all into a brand new batch of heavily armed witless minions. But Nassim has no intentions of stopping there. Nope. He's still bent on infecting the world -- and all he needs is a proper uplink with only one half-dead, beaten-to-a-pulp man and a plucky scientist left to stop him. 

Now, as much as I love The Dudikoff, I think I might love Brion James even more. The veteran character actor was always a welcome sight on my screen and was one of those guys who was seemingly in everything before we lost him in 1999. (Just scroll through his IMDB credits and boggle.) Every good hero needs a great villain, and here, with his ever-evolving accent, hilarious asides, and maniacal relish, James is clearly having a ball as the ruthless Nassim. 

The financial success of Die Hard spawned a whole new genre: Die Hard on a [fill in the blank]. You had Die Hard on a boat; Die Hard in an amusement park; Die Hard on a train. Here, we have Die Hard OF THE FUTURE! Still, no matter how hard you try to hide it with all the lasers, holograms and drones, the central premise of Cyberjack has been rock stupid. Then, this plot granite gets even harder for the whackadoodle climax, which ends just like you know it will. But, again, the film manages to go the extra mile to overcompensate for its own predictability. And for that, props to all involved for trying a little harder and squeezing just a little more out of every dollar in the budget. Or, in this case, every loonie. 

Filmed in Canada and financed with Canadian money, this was another film shot expressly for home video. (Admittedly, most of Dudikoff's output for Cannon followed the same pipeline.) However, without the crutch of crappy CGI, DTVs of this era don't quite carry the same stigma of the Asylum or Swhy-Fwhy originals of today. Prism Entertainment was another home video enterprise that briefly got into the production business, netting genre fans not only Cyberjack, but Galaxis, Sleepstalker, and Project: Metalbeast

First time director Robert Lee does an admirable job of managing the film's momentum, which never lags once it gets going. And checking out his credits found him moving up, sort of, as an AD on the likes of Freddy vs. Jason and Shoot 'Em Up. Most of the film's producers broke in providing vehicles for Shannon Tweed and fuel for Cinemax's steamy late night line-ups, which would explain the origin of that stripper-hologram and the prerequisite T'n'A shot. Credit also to production designers Linda Del Rosario and Richard Paris for making something out of nothing and the F/X team of Gitte Axen, Andy Stevens, and Gary Paller for turning nothing into something not only passable but fairly effective. 

On top of all of their endearing efforts, however, it is The Dudikoff and James (and Kaiser and Hasfal-Schou) who push this particular knock-off into the win column for me. (And I cling to a hope that The Dudikoff will find his way into The Expendables franchise.) Will it do the same for you? Maaaaaybe. To find out, Cyberjack is currently out of print on DVD but is dirt cheap used. Last check, there were also couple of versions streaming on YouTube. As always, your bit-rate may vary. 

This post was part of The Celluloid Zeroes' The Sincerest Form of Fraudulence: The Great Rip-Off Roundtable, where the collective head o' knuckle delves into the often hilarious world of cashing in, cinematically speaking. Please follow the linkage below and read on, won't you? Thank you.

Cyberjack (1995) Everest Pictures Inc. :: Prism Entertainment Corporation / EP: Masao Takiyama, Barry L. Collier / P: John A. Curtis, Robert H. Straight / AP: Christian Bruyère, James Thom / D: Robert Lee / W: Eric Poppen / C: Alan M. Trow / E: Derek A Whelan / M: George Blondheim / S: Michael Dudikoff, Suki Kaiser, Brion James, Topaz Hasfal-Schou, Duncan Fraser, Alvin Sanders


Gassyknoll said...

I'm sold.

Another great read. Thank you.

W.B. Kelso said...

Thanks, pally. I have no doubt that we caught this together at some point on MonsterVision on one of those 12-pack and a movie nights on Boyce st.

Ayush Chandra said...

Really nice review, it's not a easy job to describe a classic film.

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