Director(s): Steve Wang and Screaming Mad George (The Guyver)
Steve Wang (Guyver: Dark Hero)
Screenplay: Jon Purdy (The Guyver)
Nathan Long and Steve Wang (Guyver: Dark Hero)
Based on the manga by Yoshiki Takaya
(The Guyver): Jack Armstrong (as Sean Barker/The Guyver); Vivian Wu (as Mizky Segawa); Mark Hamill (as Max Reed); David Gale (as Fulton Balcus); Michael Berryman (as Lisker); Jimmie Walker (as Striker)
(Guyver: Dark Hero): David Hayter (as Sean Barker); Kathy Christopherson (as Cori); Bruno Patrick (as Crane); Christopher Michael (as Atkins); Stuart Weiss (as Marcus)
Note: The version of The Guyver (1991) I watched was the director's cut. The flashy editing technique added to cut between scenes, involving a lightning bolt symbol and a musical motif, isn't actually that bad and adds to the comic book style. The visibly removed scenes of violence however do detract, and add further emphasis to one of the film's biggest problems I'll talk about in the review.
Yoshiki Takaya's manga The Guyver was at one point one of the first Japanese manga and anime franchises to transition over to the West well, and was exceptionally popular. In fact one of my earliest memories as a child was seeing a small news article about The Guyver (1991), probably the first introduction as a child of the idea of "manga" or "anime" I had, which had the exceptionally deceiving poster of one half of co-star Mark Hamill's face against one-half of the iconic Guyver helmet. In terms of adaptations, there were two anime adaptations straight-to-video, 1986 and 1989, which I still need to see. Between 2005 and 2006, there was an attempt to rejuvenate the franchise by way of a TV series, an admirable attempt but one undermined by sanitising the violence that made the reputations of the previous anime, worse when the late anime distributor ADV Films sold the series off that infamy, and having no actual ending or a second season. Then there were the two live action adaptations, one produced by Brian Yuzna with special effect designers Steve Wang and Screaming Mad George making their directorial debuts, the sequel three years later with Steve Wang on his own in the director's chair and taking a drastically different direction in tone.
Unfortunately The Guyver (1991) is dreadful barring the practical effects. Inexplicably, despite the franchise being an ultraviolent mix of tokusatsu storytelling (like the Power Rangers) with body horror nods, Yuzna's Japan-US co-production decided not to follow his wheelhouse of gore and elaborate special effects in films like Society (1989) or Bride of Re-Animator (1990), but only have the special effects and make the film more family friendly. The result is one of the many bizarre attempts Hollywood and the American film industry attempted to adapt comics and videogames, usually from Japan, throughout the nineties but for every one that's perversely entertaining (Super Mario Bros (1993) for example for the weirdest), The Guyver drags itself along until dying on-screen. The strange alien bio-armour called the Guyver is transposed to American soil, Sean Barker (Jack Armstrong) finding it and becoming the Guyver with the evil Chronos Corporation, led by leader Fulton Balcus (David Gale), wanting it back, sending Zoanoids, humans who can turn into humanoid monsters, after him.
The one success, the only success, is the practical effects. Screaming Mad George is legendary and notorious for his work, from the human cockroach sequence from A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988) to the "Shunting" scene from Society, visceral body horror which even if you can see the seams is so nightmarish and gooey that it borders surrealism. Moments show this in this film, seeing him and everyone in the practical effect department having a field day with the premise, Michael Berryman and various actors turning into various humanoid beasts or the spectacular Guyver armour itself, a warrior with cyberpunk and insect-like traits, which are all applaudable. Tragically these enough cannot redeem the film they're in, even when the effects go full out in detail like a graphic full body melt to weird test tube creations as background props, trying their hardest to create quality work but unable to overcome to mountain of terrible production decisions in their way.
First the cast is incredibly weak. Mark Hamill, playing a cop on the edge trying to get the scope on the Chronos Corporation, at least has a sense of grandeur to his appearance, and the late David Gale steals scenes with his bizarre intonations and wall chewing, even enraged by burning toast as he is by the incompetence of his minion, but Jack Armstrong as the hero is an absolute charisma vacuum even by the standards of a pulp story that emphasises practical effects first. Vivian Wu, as the female love interest, is visibly struggling with her dialogue and not helped in the slightest by a wet, one dimensional female character who's main existence is the exclaim words from other characters' exposition or look distressed; thankfully five years later in Peter Greenaway's The Pillow Book (1996) she'd stand out more in a central role, but here it's like a deer caught in the headlights particularly in a film sandwiched between a Bernardo Bertolucci film and Greenaway.
Despite Steve Wang's later work such as with the Guyver sequel and Drive (1997), with fight choreography from the tokusatsu school and of an incredibly high quality in terms of fighting and stunt work, the fights here look stilted and suffocated by the presentation, lacking what the sequel did in sacrificing some of the practical effects in terms of beast designs in favour of men in rubber monster suits likely injuring themselves in painful stunts but bringing an exhilarating air of chaos to the proceedings. The result before these films is as stiff as in a lot of (if not all) American martial arts films, without the fluidness of Asian productions even when participants are in elaborate costume. More surprising is the lack of scale even by the standards of a small budget genre film, feeling like only a couple of rooms and some exterior shots were used, lacking of interest, and the script as swift in getting to its end without any sense of dramatic conflict being found.
The final issue, ultimately the horrible creative decision which maims the film fatally, is deciding to play most of the film as a comedy. It worked in other Brian Yuzna productions like Re-Animator (1985) which had incredibly grim senses of humour, but this is a broad slapstick that is utterly ghastly to sit through, not taking itself seriously and jarring against the more visceral moments of the film. Famously [Spoiler Warning] this is where Luke Skywalker gets painfully turned, with Hamill submerged in practical effects latex, into a cockroach, a moment that if it had been in another production would've been up there in Yuzna and Screaming Mad George's filmographies as being iconic; here, its suffocate in a film so painfully bad in its humour that it both makes little sense tonally but loses its power in context. It's worse as, with such dumb joke ideas as a multi-ethnic gang of clumsy hoodlums, most of the humour is at the expense of Michael Berryman, a man who should be imposing, only really acceptable and actually funny when its David Gale chewing him out as his leader, but not with comic buffoons as his own sub minions especially Striker (Jimmie Walker), a terrible and obnoxious performance that imagines Flavour Flav from Public Enemy as a politically dubious portrait of a black character who's also like a walking set of nails on a chalk board. Ultimately it's this humour, against the paltry production, which makes The Guyver insufferable; after the first viewing should've been enough for me, but at a risk of wasting money on the Arrow Video release1, I found that on the second viewing I had indeed wasted money on the film.
Guyver: Dark Hero is vast contrast is thankfully a better case, always having the reputation of being the superior film. Having watched it multiple times over the years, long before even seeing the first one as the 1991 adaptation never had a UK DVD release, it's still a step-up in quality on a revisit, and more so after watching the first in a double bill for this review on the same night. It's got a lot of b-movie qualities you can't ignore - wooden acting, an erratic tone - but as a curious attempt to meld an older American monster movie with Japanese tokusatsu action sequences, I can't help but still love it for just ambition.
It's still sadly attached to the prequel, like the other's an evil twin, but baring little nods in exposition and the opening monologue, it completely severs itself from the first film eventually and feels like a drastically different creation. David Hayter (future Solid Snake and scriptwriter) is now the Guyver, finding himself dragged subconsciously through the alien armour into flaying criminal in the introduction before going on a journey to Utah, where an archaeological excavation has found symbols on the wall similar to those found in his notebooks recording his dreams. The result is far more a no-nonsense sci-fi plot, ditching most of the comedy as the archaeologists are working for a deeply suspicious company and something in the woods is killing any locals bumbling near the excavation site.
Baring badly dated computer effects, a compromise for losing Screaming Mad George and the higher practical effects budget, there's however such a bizarre irony to be found in how Dark Hero was probably a lower budget production next to the prequel but has such a drastically improved sense of production value and ambition in its scale. Noticeable Steve Wang's collaboration with Koichi Sakamoto and his Alpha Stunt Team, the Power Rangers reference apt as Sakamoto worked on many of the TV series, ups the scale drastically to the fight scenes to something utterly exhilarating. You can argue the plot's a little flimsy, but seeing a man, even with the padding of a giant rubber monster costume, get propelled into metal scaffolding is still painful and striking to witness, rough but efficient fight scenes that replace the grace of Hong Kong martial arts for a more visceral nature of Japanese combat movies.
The result, mentioning that cross between the American monster movie and a martial arts film, does stand out more from its forest setting and exterior cave sets too, a sense of atmosphere in general the original adaptation of Guyver never had. For every line reading slightly under the mark or the clichéd plotting sticking out, I can't help but admire the clear love put on display to make a great film, more so as the woodlands have a significant positive effect on the mood and that, even if the transformations are cut down and simplified, the production value is actually superior everywhere else in the film against the prequel. It's also a significantly more serious film, even with a few moments of weird humour, the gore there in its nastiest form whilst also having the zeal in its imagination. The plot becomes the back-story of the Guyver's origins, leading to the film going as far as an elaborate, living interior of a spaceship for a set with multiple rooms and even an elaborate flashback to primitive times with stage bound sets, model work and almost psychedelic colours as cavemen dance around a bonfire and turn into monsters.
In the perfect world, the Screaming Mad George effects and David Gale would've been used in a film like Dark Hero rather than the 1991 Guyver film, making one better film, but in the real world it's a case of a sequel far, far superior to the prequel, almost completely suffocating the original until it was recently made available again on Blu-Ray and has been unfairly made more easy to access. Like a lot of the American adaptations of pop culture from the nineties, they're peculiar to their times and in their looseness in adapting the original material. The first film should probably be lost in the early nineties but the sequel was not only great, but should've had the HD transfer instead.
1 Unfortunately even the 2016 Arrow Video release, from a company on the pinnacle of quality physical releases, is just as disappointing from an organisation known for moving the earth in their releases' quality. With only the Director's Cut and a sole ten minute interview with Brian Yuzna on it, one that's a little bias to the film's favour without great depth, honestly without coming off as cruel , it's a lowly release from a company known for stacked discs whose extras could have actually helped me warm over lesser films and even soften my grudges with them. Only the shiny slipcase and the written booklet from the ever reliable anime and manga expert Helen McCarthy stand out, but not enough for shelf space.