Friday, February 1, 2013

The Guyver (1991)... Noel's Pick for February


"You can't kill me. I've been rejected by death."

The manga series Bio-Booster Armor Guyver first saw print in 1985, and still retains enough popularity that it continues running to this day. In the states, it became this mini cult boom success story in the early 90s as the comics and OVAs finally reached our shores, along with a pair of live-action, American produced films. Surprisingly, these films were produced a year before the first OVA hit video over here, and two years before the first issue of the comic, meaning it had to launch the property to an American audience instead of building on a pre-existing fandom. And it worked, as a following was formed around the kid in an iconically designed suit of alien armor, and I was totally swept up in it, with notebooks filled with doodles of what various other heroes and creatures might look like with the same suit of form-fitting armor.

The boom ended up fading within a few years, with American editions of the comics breaking off after a dozen volumes, leaving much of the run from the late 90s to today unavailable in official translations. The videos also failed to catch on in the era of dvd, and a more recent anime tv series came and went without creating much of a blip. I went back and re-read the first arc of the manga in prep for this piece, and I think I know why it didn't stick...

It's not that good.

It's not. The Guyver itself is impressively drawn and designed, but the rest of the artwork is mediocre and none of the monsters he fights are memorable. The plot is a very basic Kamen Rider knockoff, with him fighting one monster after another while struggling with his own humanity. It looks neat and there's a lot of violence, so I can see why tween boys quickly latched onto it in the peak Rob Liefeld years, but it doesn't have anything beyond that to pull in older readers or keep its followers interested as they grow out of it.

As for the film... well, it's not that good, either.

The central plot is a loose adaptation of the opening manga arc, with the villain side of things being the most faithful. The Cronos Corporation has discovered that humans were bio-engineered by aliens in ancient times, but instead of just being menial slaves, we're actually organic weapons, and small tweaks to our DNA can trigger us into monstrous, super-powered transformations. Zoanoids, as such lycanthropic beings are now know, have largely lurked in the shadows, but Cronos, under the leadership of Fulton Balcus, has started triggering and building a private army. They've also discovered a Guyver unit, a suit of bio-organic armor that the aliens used to keep their creations in line. Before the suit can be activated, a scientist makes off with it.

In the comic, the Guyver falls into the hands of a teenager who has to juggle his involvement in this underground war with his friends and life at school. Here, we get some dude named Sean Barker, who lacks any form of backstory or character arc (there's some weak setup of him needing to control his temper, but it's never explored any further), and who's about as bland and forgettable as a white-painted fence post. Thankfully, he spends half his screen time replaced by a stunt-man in the Guyver suit, but you can tell the producers knew they had a dud of a lead on their hands as he not only doesn't get first billing, but is pushed down to third, beneath supporting player Mark Hamill and love interest/distressed damsel Vivian Wu, both of whom were more recognizable names at the time. Not only that, but Hamill is also featured on the poster as wearing the Guyver armor, despite him never once doing so throughout the story.

The plot is a randomly constructed mess of cliches and coincidence. It hits the manga beats: the unit is stolen, Zoanoids are revealed, the hero gets the suit, someone close to him is kidnapped, he loses a fight where his control sphere is ripped out and he seemingly dies, then he's reborn as we learn the backstory and he fights the final boss. It's all fine, if basic stuff, but they try to pad out the material in weak ways. Mizky (Wu) is suddenly the daughter of the scientist who stole the Guyver. Sean has a run in with the bully (with comical street gang) from his karate class. Instead of the unit falling into Sean's possession during the opening battle (as it does in the comic), they convolute an entire series of coincidences just to get him to the armor, then yet another string just to have him put it on.

And the worst part, I hate to say, is Mark Hamill. I love you Mark, but you're entirely tacked on. This was his "poor man's Michael Biehn" phase, where Hamill donned a moustache and tried to be all gruff and growly, this time as Max Reed, a cop on the edge who's completely dismissed by his own department over his investigation into Cronos and its monsters. Hamill does fine, but there's nothing for his character to really do except be there, hold together the other unnecessary threads the story adds, and then die tragically at the hand of Cronos' experiments in the end. I'll admit, his monster transformation is painful to watch, and props to the puppet department for keeping his anguished eyes on the dying sculpt.

Visually, there is some nice stuff to look at in this film. The directors are Steve Wang and Screaming Mad George, a pair of makeup legends from the 80s. Wang is a slick sculptor, and the Guyver suit is largely his work, with every aspect of its design from the manga brought meticulously to life. The eyes and breathing mask. The elbow blades. The head spike. The extra eyes that give it a rear view. The chest that opens and unleashes a devastating final beam. It looked great then, and still holds up well, especially the amazing transformation bits where they pull off some things with full actor stop motion and in-camera effects that most would deem impossible in the days before CG. Despite being a brick, Sean has the great rousing moment as he says, "I... am... the Guyver!" while his breath is heavy and he glistens with sweat, and the camera whips back as the pieces of the suit explode out of him and start slapping into place. It's an amazing shot.

Sadly, it's one of the few shots that earns that word. Most of the film is very lazily framed, leaving it looking bland and cheap. Wang made a name for himself in subsequent years for his flashy camera and action choreography (Kamen Rider Dragon Knight was a fantastic show that everyone should track down), but very little of it is on display here as even the battles between the Guyver and monsters come off clumsy. As for the monsters, most of them do look pretty nice, but the camera work doesn't hide their shortcomings (visible seams in the back, inarticulate mouths), so they don't really sell. When Balcus turns into a giant monster at the end, the impressive bits are undercut by the fact he's visibly being pushed around on wheels. They created great stuff, but they didn't shoot it right, so it ends up looking cheaper than it is. The only monsters that really work are Max, which I mentioned above, and Lisker, evil second in command, and I see from the credits that he's the only one created in full by Screaming Mad George. Wang and he must have been too busy with their directorial duties as some of the creature work was outsourced, and it shows.

The tone of the movie is also wildly off. The manga is a dark and violent action series, and some of that makes it here, but New Line allegedly wanted to bring it more in line with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film series that had been a big hit for them, so humor was added. Not for the heroes, no, but for the villains, as the goons are suddenly a comical bunch with a biker chick who wants to go shopping in Brazil, a fat Russian wearing a collar who snorts with his nose to indicate his enhanced sense of smell, and Jimmy Walker rapping and wisecracking before turning into a jive talking gremlin with bling and massive lips. So yeah, they try to be funny, but they go all Michael Bay with ethnic humor and nastiness. There is a legitimately funny scene where Walker's monster wanders onto a horror film where he's mistaken for the star creature and is pulled aside for a meeting with the director, but it's completely out of place, and all these antics do is lessen the threat against our hero. Michael Berryman is perfect as Lisker, and the black coat they put him in accentuates his striking and gaunt features, but it's hard to take him serious when even he's shaking his head at his goons and calling them idiots. David Gale does far better as Balcus, but most of that is him just hamming things up in the way he was known for, lacing his dictatorial zeal with a perverse glee.

This film is a mess. The story is barely stitched together from underthought cliches. The tone doesn't know if it wants to be straight or funny, and ultimately succeeds at neither. The creatures are neat but filmed in a way that hurts instead of accentuates them. The hero looks awesome, but has zero personality or character. The direction is clumsy and leaves the film looking like a straight-to-video production instead of something intended for theaters. Oh, and I haven't mentioned the music. The main theme, with synth percussion and guitar, is actually quite catchy despite being a knockoff of the Terminator theme, but the rest of the incidental music is intrusive and feels like someone randomly poking at a keyboard.

It's been about 15 years since I last watched this film or even thought about the world of The Guyver, but I saw this movie so many times during that stretch of a few years that this was like hopping on a bike, as I was quoting along to the wave of memories the film brought forth. I enjoyed watching it, and this did fire up all the cylinders of nostalgia, but it's important for people to know that something being nostalgic doesn't mean it's good. This only works for me on a personal level that not many out there would share, as The Guyver only had a brief, cult boom on our shores. It's not something where I could sit down someone today and win them over. Why? Because it's ultimately not good. I can see why I totally dug it at the age I was when it came out, but I'm no longer that age and the people who are aren't in the same environment I was at the time. This isn't the "totally awesome" era of the early 90s where Rob Liefeld reigned supreme and anime was this slick and dirty new word that mostly promised blood and boobies.

This film is a part of me and a part of my memories, and I'll definitely revisit it again and again over the years, but it's not something I can recommend. It really is crap made by people who had a lackluster property and no clue what to do with it. But maybe this is just me holding too harsh a mirror against my past delights. Tony, Angie, let me know what you think and if I'm being too hard on this childhood favorite of mine.

Note: The DVD is not the cut that appeared on video. A few incidental character bits have been added and the extreme violence which initially caught my eye as a kid has been heavily toned down.


Okay, Exchangers, get out your flannel shirts and Doc Martens and join me in the WABAC machine. We’re heading back to the early-90s!

Cracked Rear View

It’s late at night and I’m surfing through the 30-some odd channels of cable TV at my disposal, when I stumble across an oddity that stops me dead in my tracks. Coming in somewhere near the end of the first act, I watch as a kind of deranged Power Ranger, with help from a puffy looking and unkempt Luke Skywalker, battles a large Gremlin with the voice of J.J. from the 70s sitcom Good Times. Until a few days ago, I chalked that memory up to a nightmare brought on by a bad Chalupa, but Noel insists that what I saw was actually this month’s featured movie, The Guyver.

Hold my hand because I only wanna be with you... back in the present

Here we are back in good old 2013 (BTW, you should’ve seen the look on mid-90s Darius Rucker’s face when I told him that present-day Darius Rucker was a country singer. And yes, I told him not to do that Burger King commercial). Though the slacker-induced taco fog has long since lifted, my memories of that nightmare are vague, at best. Convinced Noel is pulling my tail, I load an oh-so-90s VHS copy of The Guyver into my VCR and push play...

92 minutes later

Man, Noel, you weren’t lying, were you? The Guyver is indeed a film about a deranged Power Ranger who, with the help of a not so puffy looking - yet quite unkempt - Luke Skywalker, battles a giant Gremlin with the voice of J.J. from the 70s sitcom Good Times. That’s the kind of thing you win a bar bet with.

Believe it or not, I actually went into The Guyver with moderately high hopes. After all, how do you screw up a movie about a kid who finds a symbiotic alien super suit that turns him into a kung-fu fighting hero? You don’t need a polished script, high production values or good actors to pull that off - which is good, because The Guyver doesn’t have any of those things. All you need is some catchy music and exciting fight choreography. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have those things, either. This movie should’ve worked on the same level of guilty pleasure as a Power Rangers episode, but it’s undermined by a complete lack of energy. It's a product of the most uninspired direction this side of 1 Night in Paris. Here’s a rule of thumb I like to follow: you hire guys named Screaming Mad George to DJ the noon-to-four block at a classic rock station, but you don’t hire him to co-direct a movie.

There’s some amusement to be had in the camp of it all, though. The actors playing the bad guys clearly relish their chance to ham it up, and whenever they’re on screen, it all kind of works in a B-movie sort of way. I also found their costumes and make-up somewhat impressive by low budget fright flick standards, though seriously, Walker’s Gremlin persona is one of the most overtly racist things I’ve ever seen in a movie. When the focus shifts to our charm-challenged hero, his meek would-be love interest, or the clearly bored and embarrassed Mark “Slumwalker” Hamill, things grind to a halt. Even when Sean dons the suit, as impressive as it is with its moving parts and shooting steam, it doesn’t move the energy needle much. It’s just a signal that we’re in for another boring and clumsily choreographed fight scene.

As Noel mentioned, I have the VHS version thanks to a lucky score at a local thrift store. I honestly can’t imagine why they felt it necessary to tone down the violence for the DVD cut, which is the work of co-director and should-be DJ Screaming Mad George, if my research is correct. The back of the box for my VHS copy lists the rating as PG-13, and that feels about right to me. The fighting is exaggerated and cartoonish, and while some of the creature stuff is gruesome and unpleasant, particularly during the scenes at Cronos corporation near the end, it’s all rather tame by today’s standards.

Ultimately The Guyver is a rather shoddy B-movie that breaks the first commandment of low budget action films: “Thou shalt be fun”. I’m convinced there’s a decent, if unoriginal, “superhero” flick in there somewhere, but along the way, it was lost in the folds of incompetence... along with Jimmy Walker’s dignity, Mark Hamill’s pride, and Screaming Mad George’s career.


This may be a give away for a future post, but I feel partly responsible for us viewing this film. What I mean is that I have the sequel picked for my next film, and Noel volunteered to pick the first movie before it. I'd never actually seen it before, though I had seen one video review that assured me there wasn't much value to it. I was more than willing to try to give it a fair shot, but I have to admit it was painful for me in places. I made the mistake of reclining on the sofa and had to pause the movie at one point because I could feel myself falling asleep. And that was in the middle of an action scene.

There's a moment early on when one of the cops tells Mark Hamill's character that he's wasting his time chasing Ninja Turtles, and it's clear they wanted us to make that comparison. But it doesn't hold up, not by a long shot. Well, I suppose in that they both feature creatures that are really people in suits, but honestly, I was thinking Power Rangers more often than Ninja Turtles, thanks to the cheap look most of them have. But more than anything, the Ninja Turtle films had a plot that was targeted toward children, whereas this film doesn't know who it's targeted toward.

All three leads are dreadfully uninteresting and downright painful to watch. Mark Hamill is just going through the motions, and both Vivian Wu and Jack Armstrong are terrible. The weak dialogue given to them makes it even worse, and the plot doesn't help. For example, Vivian Wu's character shows up at Sean's karate class, dressed like a prim schoolgirl, seemingly just so he can offer to take her home. Mark Hamill shows up to tell her that her father is dead, and he ends up taking her home instead. When Sean comes to her house a little while later, there are visible tears in her eyes, but instead of asking what's wrong, he gets jealous because he sees Hamill there. Sean, wouldn't you at least be concerned that the other man was hurting her? That she might not want him there? But instead, he just turns around and walks away.

When he comes back to her apartment the next day, she's dressed like a Madonna backup dancer from the 80s. I guess the death of her father has made her rebel. As the two of them do finally discuss her father's death, both actors lack any ability to convey emotion to us, so the scene just doesn't work. And Sean Barker is such a jerk that he uses this moment to put the moves on her and is then pissed when his karate instructor shows up and therefore prevents Mizky from kissing him. But we're supposed to like this guy and root for him, and want the two of them to get together in the end.

I would also like to suggest that this script was perhaps written by a six year old. Never mind what the credits say, I have proof. Some of you may know that I'm currently working with my friends on a very small independent film project. We're actually filming two scripts at once, one of which was originally written by the director at the age of six. Nearly every scene in this draft ends with one of the characters saying something to force the scene to end. "Well, let's go get you a room." "Well, we might as well go now, so let's go." This same method happens repeatedly in The Guyver. "I'll just go get us some dinner" "No, it's fine, I'll leave." "Well, we might as well go now."

As Noel mentioned, you can tell they were also trying to make this a comedy, but pretty much every single joke falls flat. The only ones even trying for it are Jimmy Walker and Spice Williams, and as such, they come off as bizarre and completely out of place. Bebop and Rocksteady these henchmen are not. David Gale and Michael Berryman are more competent as the lead villains, but once again, this weakly structured movie doesn't give them much to work with.

The action is also pretty abysmal. Apparently, wearing the Guyver suit makes you throw people a lot. Because most of the time, that's all Sean does. Gang in the alley running towards him? He throws them away, one by one. Zoanoid goons attacking him and his girl? Yup, throws them away! We get a little more of a fight later on in the climactic scene, but the choreography is still pretty uninteresting. I'm sure it's largely related to a lack of movement available when wearing those heavy suits, but it's the kind of thing that a film of this style should consider before designing them, or at least before framing the shots.

There are elements here that I think could have made a better film if handled a lot better. The creature designs have potential, but I agree with Noel in that they aren't animated enough to be taken seriously. Also? We see a few of them mid-transformation, and the middle mess never looks anything like what the final form does. Even Hamill's transformation, while fittingly unsettling, just comes off wrong as we're forced to look at it far too long.

At one point, I started imagining what this would look like as an anime, and began to realize where they went wrong. As we saw with last month's pick, Anime is such a stylized genre that trying to directly translate all the elements just doesn't work quite right here. My memory tells me all of this was treated much better in the sequel, though I guess we'll find out in a couple months if I'm correct. Oh, and don't let that ending scene fool you. Striker is nowhere to be found in that one. Fortunately.


Sorry I threw you both a stinker this month. There's no responsibility for it on your part, Angie, as this was a nostalgia trip I was planning to bring up anyways a little further down the road. So if anything, thank you for forcing us over that hump sooner.

I don't regret featuring this film on the blog, though, as this is a perfect venue for us to revisit things from our past while simultaneously sharing them with someone new. Sometimes they'll hold up (you're two for three on the Ninja films so far, Tony), and sometimes they won't. But they can still be worth sharing in the end. The Guyver is a film worth sharing. For several reasons.

1) To give appreciation for Steve Wang's growth as a filmmaker. Angie has us lined up for The Guyver 2: Dark Hero in a couple months, where he takes the reins solo, and while my memory of the story is fuzzy, the action most certainly stands out in my mind as being leaps and bounds above what we see in this initial outing. At some point down the road, I also promise to bring up Kung Fu Rascals, a transitional film between the Guyver flicks, where he took his paycheck from the first and made an indie action flick in his back yard starring himself and some friends, to both have some fun, and experiment and cut his teeth on stylish choreography and camera work. I don't know if he just hadn't worked out that style in time for The Guyver, or if there were too many production limitations for his ideas to shine, but I promise you all that he does make up for the constant throwing we get here in place of actual martial arts.

2) As a warts and all study of male tween tastes of the early 90s. Remember, Rob Liefeld wasn't just some niche fad. His comics sold huge and he was a pop culture icon who briefly overshadowed even Stan "The Man" Lee. His stuff was ugly and crude, but conveyed everything 90s kids found awesomadical. Bio-Booster Armor Guyver pushed all the same buttons, as a teenage boy they could all identify with was given super armor that allowed him to crush, break, and slice to death massive monstrosities of increasingly grotesque design. It didn't matter if it was stupid or poorly drawn, it tied straight into their id of power fantasties with a dash of nastiness the kids felt they were getting away with just by reading such things.

The movie, at least the version Tony saw, still retained a lot of this, as we see the Guyver literally rip creatures limb from limb, slash their throats under raining geysers of blood, and rip open his own chest for the ultimate final move of a power beam that vaporizes anything in its path. It didn't matter that what we saw was stupid or poorly made, but it was a normal guy suddenly given huge power, and instead of just saving the day, he was slaughtering the opposition! Literally! This sounds gruesome and juvenile, but this was an era where kids getting easy access to violent entertainment was still fresh and new. Cable TV was settling in, with uncensored movie channels kids could explore behind their parents' backs. Video games were heading down the increasingly gory road that was just about to culminate in Doom and Mortal Kombat. Comic books were in the post-Alan Moore and Frank Miller era where everyone was dark and broken and increasingly uncaring if the villains lived to face justice, and the artists at Marvel were just about to break away and form Image.

I'm not saying it was an admirable time in hindsight, but it was a turning point, a cultural loss of childhood innocence, that's still somewhat adorable in how juvenile it's being while pouting in a demand to be seen as mature.

And at the middle of it all was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The original TMNT comic was never meant to be a big thing. It was a brief parody of the stylistic stuff Frank Miller had been doing in his Daredevil run. But it sparked something. It came at just the right time and was one of those parodies that leaves such a strong impression that it elevates into becoming its own glorious thing of beauty (see also, Airplane). So it kept going, yet it never took off until someone looked at this gritty study of teen angst and brutal ninjitsu and said, "Hey, lets clean it up for the children!" And that's what most of us knew as kids, the clean-cut Turtles of the cartoon, where the only villains who were smited were nameless drone robots, and everything was largely played for laughs. The comic book version most of us read was the Archie tie-in to the cartoon, which was every bit as family friendly. Yet accidents would happen, and when parents would buy an issue for their kids, they'd occasionally pick up the actual, original TMNT comic by mistake, and we'd suddenly see these silly characters we loved brooding in despair before using the blades of their bladed weapons to slash foot soldiers to death. And instead of electronics pouring out of the wounds, it was blood and gore because these were actual people instead of robots and, oh, how our young minds would suddenly be blown.

And then came the movie. We all went in expecting the fun and games of the cartoon, but no, the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles went right back to the comics, where Raphael is a violent manic depressive, Casey Jones is a half-crazed vigilante who beats peoples' heads in with a baseball bat, and Shredder lorded over the broken minds of his cult of teenage followers. It was amazing. To this day, I hold it up as one of the best films based on a comic book.

And directly in its wake, both released in 1991, were The Guyver and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Secret of the Ooze. And you can see the same problem fucking up both.

Looking at the first TMNT movie, you can see what The Guyver was initially going for, and what it should have been. Sure, the filmmaking is still shit, but if they'd at least gotten the tone right, that would be one less thing bringing it down. Instead, the studio wanted it to be funny. The first TMNT, while fondly remembered, suffered a bit because audiences found it too serious, too dark, so the edict was made that TMNT 2 would be more in line with the cartoon. It would be sillier, the villains less threatening, with all brooding tucked away and never explored again. Somewhere in all of this, the same edict was made of The Guyver. "It's based on a cartoon, so make it more cartoony!" "It's based on a comic, so make it more comical!" You know, the attitude of people who don't have a clue what they're talking about.

The Guyver was already a broken film, but this is what ultimately killed it, that the filmmakers didn't have the freedom to make the movie they wanted. And who knows, maybe that's why the direction is so flat and the makeup men outsourced most of the makeup instead of doing it themselves. Maybe they just stopped caring. The film certainly feels like a passion project for which the passion was lost.

Anyways, this was supposed to be a point about youth culture of the early 90s, but it veered off a bit. Where was I...

3) This is, officially, the very first live-action American film based on an anime or manga property. It wouldn't be the last, as it was followed by The Guyver 2, Fist of the North Star, Dragon Ball: Evolution, and Speed Racer. That's not exactly the best company to find oneself in (excepting Speed Racer, which is actually pretty amazing and has strengthened its following over the years), and it goes back to Angie's point about how hard it can be to translate imagery that has the freedom of illustrations into the limitations of live-action. Speed Racer showed it can be done, but only if you have tons and tons of money and state-of-the-art, innovative effects work to throw at it. On a low-budget, you're pretty much shit out of luck (unless you still bring an energetic camera to things - see, The Guyver 2 in two months). Fist and Dragon Ball suffer the same problem as The Guyver: it's in the hands of people who don't really get it, and have nowhere near the resources needed to pull off what they do get.

It's not to say anime can't be successfully adapted - I hold out hope for the Robotech and Cowboy Bebop films - but it requires such effort and resources that nobody wants to even try given how badly past attempts have failed. Ignoring that past attempts have failed because of a lack of said resources, but still. It's hard. And it was especially hard in the days of the early 90s, where Stephen Spielberg was still two years away from showing what CG animation could be capable of.

Ultimately, The Guyver is a horrible film that never really had a chance to be anything but horrible. It was a lousy property that had no money to pull off the few things the comic got right, a studio who couldn't figure out who they wanted to target it for, a script proven by Angie to have been written by a child, and a pair of rookie filmmakers who just weren't ready for the situation they were thrown into.

It's made of fail.

But not in the good way.

[Sorry, but the only trailer we can find is a foreign dub where the film was retitled Mutronics. But it still gets the gist of the film across.]

We'll be back on the 1st of March with a pick from Tony: Ninja III: The Domination (1984)