A few months ago, I was biting at the bit to revisit Gunhed, which was one of my favorite films during the 90s. But over the course of those months, I've been burned hard in my revisiting of both Guyver installments, which were stacked right alongside Gunhed in the deep echoes of my nostalgia from that time. Thankfully, this trip down memory lane paid off better than either of those.
Gunhed was initially born Godzilla 2. Toho's 1984 reboot of the franchise, The Return of Godzilla, had been a roaring success (not so much over here, as the heavily re-edited Godzilla 1985), but they found themselves drawing a bit of a blank when it came to cranking out a sequel. So they did something that would be a hell of a lot of fun to see more studios do: they held a contest, accepting open submissions from fandom, with the wining entry being promised a production deal. Jim Bannon was an American in Japan at the time - I can't find any backstory for him, but he's credited as a writer on Macron-1 around then, which is a US dubbed/re-edited version of the anime GoShogun - and submitted a story in which the Big G took on a Skynet style supercomputer who decided to wage war on humanity. I don't know the specifics of this version, if it was set in the present as the computer was rising up, or rather a post-apocalyptic nightmare of Godzilla representing nature fighting back after technology has already won. Either way, it was one of the most popular entries. It lost out to Godzilla vs. Biollante, which set in motion the fantastic Heisei era of complex, epic Godzilla films, but Bannon's story struck such a chord that Toho gave it to writer/director Masato Harada to rework into a standalone property.
In the near future, the discovery of an element named Texmexium (suck on that, Unobtanium!) allows for the dawn of the massive, artificially intelligent computer, Kyron-5. Upon his activation on the day now known as Hour Zero, he launched a cybernetic uprising against humanity. And lost. Yeah, before you start thinking Terminator knock-off, this is set in a world where that fight has already been had and mankind barely managed to come out on top. Earth is largely a lawless shambles, though, with society only just starting to rebuild as the island mountain complex housing Kyron-5 lies abandoned and gathering dust, the computer itself currently lacking the power to function, but its automated security systems keeping everyone away.
But in a day and age where manufacturing infrastructures are still trying to get back on their feet, existing electronics and computer technology (particularly plastics, as I'd imagine the oil industry would take some time to get back up on its feet) are prized trade on the black market, leading to bands of illegal raiders looking to score whatever booting up booty they can find. After a prologue filled with backstory and explosions, we meet one such group, and I'm instantly in love with the level of detail taken to give everyone a personality in outfits of scraps from a world overrun with junk. The captain is Bansho (Mickey Curtis a pop Japanese/Canadian musician going back to the 1950s), a bearded old man in a bomber cap who keeps his kids straight with words of wisdom and the occasional smack upside their head. Second in command is Babe (Aya Enjoji, her character name being pronounced Bah-beh), a badass battle vet with one eye and streaks blazed through her hair. As extra guns, you have the big black guy, Barabbas James (Brewster Thompson, known as the "world's strongest jump roper" - I'm not kidding), and the "Game over, man!" wiseguy who won't shut up, Bombbay (Jay Kabira). On tech, you have the beautiful young Boomerang (Doll Nguyen) and wise old Boxer (Yosuke Saito). And in their midst is Brooklyn (Masahiro Takashima), a long, lean, young stud with a David Hayter level of cool to the glint in his eye, all of which, added to his constant gun fiddling and cigar case full of carrots, is a mask for performance anxieties and bouts of motion sickness.
This is the family we meet up front, the well-oiled pool of scoundrels all bound by names beginning with the letter "B".
Less than 20 minutes in, all but two of them are dead.
As you can guess, the place they were stupid enough to attempt to loot is Kyron-5's massive island complex. They figure enough time has passed that whatever systems were running have bled dry, but nope, automated security is still alive and well, with pinpoint laser beams, blades that suddenly spear out of floors and walls, and hovering mines drawn to sound quickly picking off this team in swift, brutal fashion. My favorite is a bit where everyone is cramped in an elevator and Brooklyn and Bansho have a moment where the old guy pulls out a cigar and the younger a carrot, from matching cases, and just as they share a smile, something smashes in and out of the car so fast it can't be seen, and where Bansho stood, all that's left is a hole, a smear of blood, and his old bomber cap, which Brooklyn will eventually make his own in tribute to his mentor.
The only two left after all this are Brooklyn and Babe (Bombbay also made it this far, only to die minutes later by the plot point I'm just getting to), and they've increased their number by picking up a Texas Ranger, Sergeant Nim (Brenda Bakke). What is a Texas Ranger doing here? Well, it seems the southern state has become the new North American superpower, and a bioroid (androids who survived the war only to be enslaved into menial labor by the humans) working at a nuclear power plant in Dallas went on a rampage, killing dozens of people and stealing a vial of Texmexium, which it's brought back to this island in the hopes of reawakening Kyron-5, the hope for all its kind. The Rangers pursued, but the island defenses took out their choppers and soldiers, and Nim is all that's left. So Brooklyn and Babe tag along, because they have nothing else to do for the moment but survive and hope to find a way back to their ship on the top floor.
We're only about 20 minutes in, and there's still so much more to tell. :)
The bioroid gets the vial to Kyron-5's central control terminal and starts the systems back up again, but the humans are close behind. Babe and the bioroid fall into a vat of chemicals, seemingly to their deaths, and Brooklyn and Nim fight over ownership of the vial, only to set their differences aside when Kyron-5's primary defense measure kicks to life: Aerobot, a massive, multi-limbed tank, unrelentingly gnashing through anything between it any intruders to the system. Our heroes dive down a shaft into the lowest levels of the complex, and black out.
They come to, having been rescued by a pair of semi-feral children, offspring of Kryon-5's human caretakers from before its turn and the massive war (which shows you how short a stretch of time that actually took place in). They're Seven (Yujin Harada), a cynical wisecracker with a heavy limp and cybernetic ticks, and Eleven (Kaori Mizushima), a hyperactive mute who's developed her own sign language of charades. With these two, the adults are able to learn the ins-and-outs of the facility and have access to food and water, but they eventually split up in a disagreement over the best way back to the ship up on the top level. Nim and Eleven decide to slowly start scaling the outter rim of the complex, while Brooklyn and Seven decide to challenge Aerobot directly. To do this, Brooklyn will need to assemble a Gunhed - a massive, robotic tank used in the war - from the dozens of wrecks left behind from the battle of the opening prologue sequence. Both missions take a couple days, but gradually progress. Unfortunately, a new bioroid is formed, a fusion of both the original and Babe, and goes after Nim. It successfully retrieves the Texmexium and begins the countdown to Kyron-5's full awakening (as well as the center of the complex once again igniting into a nuclear reactor, which would be very very bad for our heroes), but every time the bioroid tries to kill, the Babe half of it fights off the urge, and even makes herself known to Brooklyn.
So with Nim's plan foiled by the bioroid and Kyron-5 coming back to life, all bets now hinge on Brooklyn and his Gunhed (voiced by Alexander Adrock sound-alike Randy Reyes), which he's already butting heads with over its deadpan sarcastic attitude which resembles that of Bansho. The unit is assembled, the missiles and massive gatling gun are armed, and fuel tanks (later replaced with kegs of whiskey they find) are filled and strapped to the side as the tank begins its rapid ascent through a complex filled with traps. There's a great bit where Seven buys them some time as he distracts security systems by setting off one bomb after another in a munitions level, but things eventually come to a head with the battle against Aerobot, and a fight with the bioroid as the clock counts down to the next Hour Zero.
I really love this movie, and the main reason is the density and attention to detail. I love how the entire Texas Ranger's backstory with the bioroid is largely buried in suggestions and throwaway lines, largely because it isn't important. We don't need to know the current state of the US, nor where the bioroid trying to wake up this supercomputer came from, but by slipping the little bits in they did, they suggest oodles of world-building that spark my imagination wild. Much like they do with the history of our team of raiders, who all got their "B" nicknames from Bansho. Brooklyn is named Brooklyn simply because the scraps of clothing he was able to find in this new world included a Brooklyn Dodgers jersey, despite him knowing next to nothing about baseball. And then I love that the Gunhed is a baseball fan, having some fun when it sees the jersey by replacing the "B"s and the "D"s in its readouts with the Dodgers font. And there's also great moments where you hear the baseball "Charge!" theme as it appears on screen, at one point quietly echoed by Brooklyn as he's amping himself up for battle and confronting his anxiety at being behind the controls. Why would a tank be a baseball fan? Well, think about it. In a world with artificially intelligent tanks, what would those tanks do to keep their minds occupied in their off time? What would they do for fun? Pouring through computational analyses of sports statistics seems to me like a real possibility.
In terms of performers, Brenda Bakke is the only weak point of the cast. She looks fine, and I love the design of her uniform, but she's a horrible actress lost in whether she's supposed to be Linda Hamilton or a femme fatale, and succeeds at neither. Otherwise, the cast is great. All of the raiders instantly make their presence felt in the opening, which makes their presence feel lost when they're gone. Enjoji's Babe takes an interesting turn as we see her in abstract sequences within the mind of the bioroid, fighting for control of the body and eventually sacrificing herself to take the other half out with her. Seven and Eleven are a fantastic pair of kids, smoothing out the typical rambunctiousness with a world-weary edge as Seven cynically jokes about the world, and Eleven's spastic attempts at communication come with the harriedness of desperation. Even when they have the revelation at the end that Eleven's inability to speak comes from the final key control to Kyron-5 being in her throat - something even she seems to be partially unaware of - she manages to sell it well as her desperation to escape turns into a desperation to fulfill this new longing that's been programmed in her. And again bringing up the suggestive backstory, the cybernetic implants of both her and Seven bring up some very interesting questions about what was actually going on at this Kyron-5 complex, which we know was some form of research facility. Where they truly children of the employees? Or yet more experiments?
Gah, it gets my brain juices flowing even more at the possibilities! :D
Anchoring it all is Masahiro Takashima as Brooklyn. While he's still a dependable character actor in film and tv, there was a stretch there in the early half of the 90s where Takashima was an A-list leading man in Japanese blockbusters, similar to Sam Worthington's boom a few years back, or what Channing Tattum's going through right now. But before he starred in the last two Godzilla films of the Heisei era, or as the titular lead in the fantasy epic Yamato Takeru (a wonderful film poorly released over here as Orochi, the Eight-Headed Dragon), he made his first big splash in the cockpit of a Gunhed. I'm not going to argue Takashima is a magnificent actor, as some bits, especially him nervously playing with his gun, feel a little forced, but he certainly has blockbuster leading man appeal with good looks and a good build, a can-do attitude when the cards come down, and a bit of endearing, self-aware dopiness. It's great seeing him try to be the baddest ass in the room in the opening, but failing because we can all see his anxieties as he's struggling at the controls of the ship and Babe bursts into the cockpit and wants to know who was stupid enough to let him be there. He's kind of a loser who has nowhere else to be and is trying (partially in vain) to make the best of the group he's found himself in. With the Gunhed, he finds a purpose. He finds something he can actually do, with dedication, that will allow him to face his fears, channel his anxiety into getting back at the thing that killed his friends, and a new group of people to protect who know the real him instead of the false bluster he used to wear. And he's a great image in the later half, all sweaty and streaked with oil as he bounces around the cockpit in Basho's old bomber cap.
And as his companion, we get the Gunhed tank itself, which is an interesting design. The model and full-size puppet work is a little unwieldy in action given the limits of the time (especially the "walking" scene), but it's still a neat design that owns its lack of distinction - it's a weird, almost random collection of parts and shapes piled on top of one another, and speaks with a deep, monotone voice - then counters it with little bits of personality, like the aforementioned baseball stuff, the occasional snarky remark, and great moments like how it goes from being an open doubter of Brooklyn's intended mission, to being the one rallying the human when it points out the whiskey tanks after its fuel has been depleted. Gunhed was just a thing in the background, a necessary vehicle to carry our characters from point A to point B, but in the course of doing so, establishes itself as a fully realized character on its own terms. By the time we reach the end, and Gunhed is a mangled wreck torn to pieces by Aerobot (who goes down in a convenient but rousing hero moment when Brooklyn hefts the massive gatling gun onto his own shoulder - which should have shattered his arm and collar bone, but still) when Gunhed further sacrifices himself by driving straight into the central core of Kryon-5 to give the humans a chance to escape, it's made its mark on the story, and showed why it's the one giving title to the film.
The film is not without its problems. The pace is off, especially in the second half where it's just scene after scene of Gunhed smashing through things. There's some impressive stuff in there, but they just didn't have the budget or technology to fully pull those moments off, and so they feel like what they are: stiff models stiffly running into one another. This is at its worst with Aerobot (who's name comes because he was originally supposed to fly), who's just a lump of swinging tails and arms, when they could have gone all out with gnashing claws or buzz saws or something. He's supposed to be this unstoppable wall of death, and he's instead a dump truck with a tail, and his fight with Gunhed is a sloppily staged and edited series of things smashing into other things. So I'll admit the film does get dull for a few stretches, and that people can and have tuned out in the second half as a result. And this, tied to the density of ideas and info being piled up, can make the 90 minute film feel like it's dragging over 2 hours.
And maybe some of their suggested stuff is almost too implied, to the point where it's very easy to miss if you aren't paying attention. Honestly, this was my first time picking up on the whole Texas Rangers/bioroid story. Every time I watched in the 90s, I just thought the bioroid was something that was there and already a part of Kryon-5's systems, and that the Texas Rangers were pursuing the raiders. And Seven and Eleven used to confuse me more than anything, with no explanation for Seven's cybernetics, and the sudden glow from Eleven's mouth boggling me until this time when I saw the screen saying "final key input" just as she approaches the Texmexium port. It all suddenly made sense to me now, but I can see how this is a film that could leave people lost or uninterested their first time through.
I also want to point out that the version I watched here was the Japanese version, which is actually a 50/50 mix of Japanese and English. Pulling a card that wouldn't come back into play until Firefly's use of Chinese, the suggestion here is that America and Japan have formed a merger of some sort, and so people are fluent in both languages. Brooklyn and the kids primarily speak Japanese for the whole film, while Nim and Gunhed speak English, with the suggestion that everyone is still able to understand one another. And in the opening, the raiders are all speaking in lines that slide constantly between English and Japanese - again, just imagine Firefly - showing a fusion between the languages. Writer/director Harada was a fluent speaker of both languages (like Jim Bannon, he got his start writing translations in the film industry), and not only was the international cast an attempt to make a film which could be equally marketed and successful in US theaters, but the fusion of the languages was a bit of stylistic experimentation that he put a lot of thought and effort into. Unfortunately, the distributor who bought the film turned out to be ADV Films, a then fledgling anime distributor who had no ability to get the film in theaters, and all of the dialogue was redubbed in English (both Japanese and English lines). That's why an incensed Harada has his name replaced with Alan Smithee on the fully-dubbed release, and the film has never managed to rise above a niche fandom, despite the likes of James Cameron and William Gibson being open fans who have tried to bolster its audience over the years.
I love this film. I really do. As with the Guyvers, it's probably been 15 years or so since I last saw it, but I'm glad I still enjoyed it far more than I did them. And that enjoyment has even deepened, as not only do I still appreciate the look, and the cast, and the world, and the wonderful music I haven't mentioned until now, but I've found new things to love like the little details I'm only now picking up on which suggest far bigger things in the lands beyond this island and the histories of those involved. And this was my first time seeing the Japanese/English hybrid version, which I found to be a fascinating experiment that in no way distracted from anything. I'm not sure which version you two have, Jak and Angie, but either way, its time for me to step back and hear whether or not you enjoyed this movie, or if I'm once again standing alone in defense of something odd.
Like a lot of people's mothers, mine used to tell me "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all."
The dubbing was very well done.
Welp, sorry mom, I've got a quota to meet here.
Noel, I can understand why the movie gets your imagination running wild, because it certainly leaves plenty of time for the mind to wander. The pacing is slow to the point of near inertia at times. The worst offender is the repair of the Gunhed which takes forever and does nothing to attempt to be remotely interesting or contribute to keeping the story moving. I'm reminded of reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame, wanting to know what happens next and having to pore through endless pages of Hugo's descriptions of architecture.
Between the detail of the sets, the gratuitously extended wireframe animations of unnecessary things like landing simulations, and the weird boxy crossfades between scenes, I got the impression early on that the movie is more an excuse to demo special effects than an effort to tell a lucid story. This is only galvanized by the extremely odd interactions between the people at times, annoying sounds that Seven makes for seemingly no reason at all, and the lackadaisical approach to exposition the movie takes thanks to the bizarre cuts, obfuscating closeups, arcane dialogue, and illogical attempts to visually explain what's happened ("Babe = monster" sequences, I'm looking squarely at you).
Maybe I'm just too stupid to follow this kind of film - if so, I think I can live with that. I have a feeling the story would be so much better if I were to read the script, where these opaque concepts and motivations are spelled out that the director and/or actors completely failed to translate to the audience on screen. It's funny, because at the beginning of the movie, I was faced with these two sheer walls of text detailing the story thus far, and the first note I wrote down was "Show, don't tell. This doesn't mean show words." By the middle of the movie, I wrote "On second thought, don't show. You're terrible at showing."
A great microcosm of my experience of the film as a whole is the battle at its opening. I could tell a lot of money and effort was put into the sets and machines, and there were certainly plenty of sparks and pretty lights to go around. Regardless, I felt like I was watching a car being manufactured through the entire fight. Maybe some music would have helped?
I realize that I spent most of the first half of the movie not knowing what was going on and trying to figure it out. I spent the last half of the movie not knowing what was going on and not caring if I found out or not. By the time Gunhed's low-rent Morgan Freeman voice started showing some interesting personality, the movie had long since lost me through its appallingly awful execution. I know this is only my second contribution here, so I feel I should state that I don't believe that there are many things that are objectively bad. If Gunhed isn't an objectively bad film, it's the closest thing I've seen to one in a very long time.
Generally, with this project, I make it a point to not read the first review until mine is completed because I want to have a fresh opinion on things. But seeing as how I watched this film and barely had any idea what was going on from start to finish, I figured it wouldn't hurt to read Noel's recap before setting out to document my impressions. I had even gone to Wikipedia to read their recap when I finished watching the film, and I was still lost. Jak and I did watch the dubbed version of this film, but from what I could tell, it was a dub that was going for accuracy over matching mouth movements, so I'm assuming this is not a case where the dub left things out. It's just that the movie itself leaves a lot of things out.
It starts off giving us an info dump, both in text and narration, to tell us all about what happened before the film. Then it cuts to two large clunky looking robots fighting each other in the worst version of Robot Wars I've ever seen. The movie doesn't bother explaining to you why this fight is important, but instead just moves on to the group of raiders. I honestly expected most of them to die, simply because Brooklyn is the only one who gets any kind of attention beyond a few wisecracks here and there. I feel like there's potential here - think of the group of marines in Aliens, and how we take some time to get to know them before they're killed off - but this is such a brief moment of the movie that you simply can't care about them. Then there's suddenly this bug eyed thing in the green water, and I honestly didn't know if it was an alien or a robot or what. The characters know what it is, and apparently they don't feel the need to talk about it either. Which is all fine and good in real life, where that probably would happen, but in movies with such complex worlds, it generally helps to have someone around to explain this stuff, too, so the audience will also know. It was also not clear to me that the creature fused with Babe, so much as I just kept thinking "Why are we seeing Babe's reflection in one of its eyes? That makes no sense."
I understood about the Texmexium (this is why writer/directors need a trusted editor to tell them when they have stupid ideas) and how it's an important thing both the good and bad guys want, and the countdown we see clearly means something bad is going to happen when it's over, but in terms of plot, that's about all I knew. Well, that and the fact that Seven is annoying. I suppose that sudden random screeching where he repeats certain words is supposed to be his cybernetic implants malfunctioning, but all I saw was an annoying kid who wouldn't shut up. Ditto to Eleven's glowing mouth. I missed the tiny text Noel mentioned, so I had no earthly idea what was going on there. I thought maybe Seven had shot her with something, and I didn't really understand why she's able to talk once her mouth stops glowing, though I figured it was somehow related.
There's a decent attempt here to build a rapport between Brooklyn and the Gunhed, and at times it works well. Gunhed is given a strong personality through Randy Reyes' voice, and I can see the change that Takashima is showing in Brooklyn. I think if there's anything you can blame on the dub, it's the fact that their relationship doesn't feel quite as strong as it could. Though, of course, I'm not sure if having them speak two different languages would give me that impression, either. It seems like that would be difficult to pull off, anyway, and I'm not sure I could sit through this slow moving confusing mess again just to find out.
The first half is a confusing, not well explained info dump, and the latter half is more of those boring giant sized Robot Wars fights, or even worse, some kind of poor Transformers clone as we slowly watch Gunhed go from mech to tank and back again. There just isn't a single point where the movie grabs me or holds my attention for anything more than a few minutes. It makes sense after Noel explains it, but I shouldn't have to go to outside sources in order to understand the story being presented to me. While the storytelling rule may be "show, don't tell," there are cases where you need to tell at least a little bit, and this is definitely one of them.
As I fully admitted in my review, this film has some significant problems, mostly in terms of pacing and the robot battles being nowhere near as captivating as the filmmakers seem to hope they are. And, yes, the opening prologue sequence handles its infodump in a ridiculously clumsy way. That said, while I'm not entirely surprised the two of you didn't like the movie, I am surprised you disliked it to the degree you did.
You both accuse the film of not making sense or never explaining anything. I'd counter that by arguing neither of you paid attention.
- What the initial bioroid is (a worker in a nuclear power plant who fled from Dallas following a rampage) and what its goal is (to awaken Kyron with the stolen Texmexium) are both related to us by Nim in the scene where we first meet her.
- As to the Babe!Bioroid, I don't get how it's so obtuse. The boiroid dives into the vat. Babe falls into the vat. Later, a new bioroid emerges that has Babe within, wrestling for control of their shared body. This is a clear example of them showing things through cinematic cause and effect.
- The same is true of Eleven's larynx, which lights up the moment the bioroid keys in the final sequence. As she approaches the central terminal, I'll admit "keyword input" was not printed in the largest of text, but it does hold on that shot much longer than the blink of an eye, and just as the countdown clock reaches 0, she leans to the terminal and opens her mouth to speak. Again, this is not the most obtuse of cinematic storytelling.
- As for the other threat of the ticking clock, the fact that the complex the heroes are ascending through is a nuclear reactor that will ignite when Kyron is activated is again information that is clearly related to us by Gunhed, and even has a big "Wha-huh!" reaction from Brooklyn.
That said, I agree it's hard to pay attention to something that you're unable to connect to. Without that spark of interest, these details are easy to lose in the drone of noise that the experience has become. While I like that it plays these elements subtly instead of explaining them repeatedly in great detail with big flashing lights, as is typical of exposition in the typical blockbusters we get Stateside, the sluggish pace of the movie and numbing giant robot sequences mean the film isn't the easiest to hook people with, and if you aren't hooked, the rich depths of the narrative are never reached as it all just floats by.
Still, I had to sit down and give the English dub a watch just to see if that affected the experience at all. The script of the dub isn't bad, and no real information is lost in the translation, but the voice acting itself is really dull, with the stiff British actors failing to imitate American accents (Brooklyn is the worst of them, which is a problem as he's the one we're stuck with the longest). This element on top of the pace definitely can tip the scales even further into making this a dull experience. And Jak, as for the opening sequence lacking music, the English dub completely removes the score from several sequences, including that prologue. The Baseball "Charge!" song is a recurring motif throughout the Japanese track, and something Gunhed would pipe through his own speakers on occasion. I'm guessing they removed it over licensing concerns, but this does further deaden a few scenes, saps Gunhed of just a bit more personality, and removes context from the moment where Brooklyn himself hums the tune.
So, yes, I do insist that the dubbed version is a weaker version of the film... though I will admit it's not by much. This is a film that's already teetering on a ledge, and the dub only tips it a few inches closer to the pits. But while I agree it's a messy, flawed film, I don't think it's a bad one. Objectively or otherwise. It's a complicated film. Not always in a good way, but I still like how there's more there below the surface than most big dumb action movies would even pretend to have. I also like the performances and production design, and still argue that the filmmaking outside of the tiresome robot sequences is actually quite sound. And I think it's a film that does grow in quality with multiple viewings and invite the two of you to give it another try some time down the road.
Though, sadly, I understand why you're unlikely to do so.
We'll be back on the 1st of June with a pick from Jak: Krull (1983)