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Plot: 10 million dollars, 1000 guns, 100 criminals, 1 winner.

Even the marginally talented occassionally catch lightning in a bottle. Case in point: Albert Pyun and his Mean Guns. In an attempt to imitate Quentin Tarantino he, either by design or by complete accident, stumbled onto a good idea. Pyun somehow managed to bring the plot of Battle Royale (2000) to home video everywhere a full three years before Kinji Fukasaku’s famous adaptation. Additionally there are shades of The Most Dangerous Game (1932), Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, and It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). This being a Pyun joint the plot, minimal as it may be, is mere pretext for what boils down to a 90 minute-long shoot-out. In spite of that Mean Guns remains strangely watchable through out, and every once in a while it actually works, and it's often better than some of the dross he’s known for. That is when Mean Guns stops reveling in its obtuseness and when old Al fires on all cylinders. That the entire thing is played for cheap laughs and comes with a mambo soundtrack is exactly the sort of thing you’d expect from Hawaii’s greatest export (next to Andy Sidaris, probably). Albert Pyun made a living riding the coattails of great directors.

Mean Guns is exactly the sort of thing that Albert Pyun was born to helm. He had earned his reputation with The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982), and experienced his first major success when he gave Jean-Claude Van Damme his breakthrough role in the post-nuke classic Cyborg (1989). He, like no other in Hollywood understood the appeal and style of Hong Kong action, as Nemesis (1992) attested to. Perhaps better than anyone else old Al could stage an exciting action scene on a limited budget. Mean Guns give him plenty of opportunity to do exactly that, but for a great portion of its duration it’s as if Pyun is stuck in second gear. No matter how stylish and beautifully photographed he's never quite able to light the fuse that would elevate Mean Guns from a bog-standard actioner to a cult classic. This is something that old Al could do in his sleep if he applied himself. More than anything else there’s a sense of squandered potential and promise never truly delivered upon. Nemesis (1992) is remembered for a reason. And that’s the thing. Pyun is a decent enough director when the material suits him, and when he actually cares about what he’s shooting. It’s unfortunate that for the brunt of his output he just doesn’t seem to, or isn’t given enough time. As such Mean Guns is, sadly as it is, emblemic of the Pyun canon: decent but unremarkable.

The Syndicate, a powerful criminal empire with international branches, has staged an event that will rid them of all their enemies in a single day. To that end the organization has summoned 100 of its low-ranking employees to the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles. They are told by Vincent Moon (Ice-T), a platinum-toothed crimelord of unexplained importance, that The Syndicate is opening a new prison complex as a way of expanding its business and they are invited to the grand opening. Moon informs the gathered crowd of the loot hidden somewhere in the confines of the complex – and they are to kill each other by whatever means necessary. The last man (or woman) left standing will receive 10 million dollars in prize money. The initial exchange of gunfire has participants scrambling for weapons, ammunition, and cover. Shells fall and so do the first bodies, but amidst the chaos a couple of characters hold their own better than most and seem weirdly acclimated to exactly that sort of thing.

Lou (Christopher Lambert) is a mentally unstable hitman under heavy medication ("Valium, Prozac, and Ritalin - breakfast of champions.”) who volunteered for the event and is the legal guardian to little Lucy (Hunter Doughty, as Hunter Lockwood Doughty) currently waiting for him in the parking lot. Cam (Deborah Van Valkenburgh), Moon’s accountant turned state witness currently bearing incriminating evidence, brought in forcibly by Moon’s personal bodyguard Marcus (Michael Halsey). Stunning leatherclad peroxide blonde D (Kimberly Warren) is a highly trained government assassin experiencing a crisis of faith (“This is wrong. Wrong time, wrong place… wrong life.”) in the entourage of Ricky (James Wellington). Also tagging along is escort Barbie (Tina Cote, as Tina Coté), who seems like an innocent bystander at first but is sly and manipulative. Also participating are Hoss (Yuji Okumoto) and Crow (Thom Mathews), two hormonically-charged adolescent douchebags, who see the event as an opportunity to forward their profile and make a pretty penny. Seen only in passing, and unfortunately never again after that, is the mysterious Mambo Woman (Jill Pierce). As the hours pass fatigue, friction, and animosity start to weigh heavy on the contestants. Old vendettas are rekindled and alliances forged out of necessity crumble and disintegrate as desperation and paranoia start to eat at the soul. There’s but one question that haunts everybody: who will be left standing after the last gunshots have rung out?

In 1997 Christopher Lambert had better stuff to do than appear in a sequel to Mortal Kombat (1995). Lambert, of course, had already made a name for himself with Highlander (1986), Fortress (1992), and had worked with Pyun the year before on Adrenalin: Fear the Rush (1996). Ice-T was the frontman of rap-rock group Body Count and had released his sixth solo album “Ice-T VI: Return of the Real” the year before. The remainder of the cast consisted of the usual Pyun warm bodies. Tina Cote had a small role in the Pamela Anderson actioner Barb Wire (1996), but is mostly remembed for Heatseeker (1995), and Nemesis 2: Nebula (1995). Kimberly Warren and Jill Pierce had no careers to speak of, and both could be seen in the stale Blast (1997). Thom Mathews at one point was a star thanks to Return Of the Living Dead (1985) and Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986), but also was in Bloodmatch (1991). Yuji Okumoto was in his brighter, younger days in The Karate Kid Part II (1986), but also ended up working for Pyun on Nemesis (1992), and Blast (1997). Deborah Van Valkenburgh was the prerequisite elderstateswoman, most notably from The Warriors (1979) and more recently The Devil’s Rejects (2005), in a supporting role.

Nemesis (1992) had the good fortune of being co-written by David S. Goyer, Mean Guns isn’t quite so lucky. To counter the lack of any substance Pyun resorts to did what Quentin Tarantino has elevated to an art form: imitating better movies. In an allusion to Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) a brooding Vincent Moon repeatedly warns a knife-wielding goon that he should throw his knife instead of running his mouth. When his advice falls on deaf ears Moon brutally kills him. In another scene Marcus borrows a line about solidarity from Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969) when Lou threatens to kill Cam. When that doesn’t work he uniformly focuses on his babes: Tina Cote, Kimberly Warren, and Jill Pierce. No money can compete with a good-looking woman in a skimpy black dress. Whenever the plot threatens to implode Pyun has Cote writhe seductively, bend over, hide guns in her stockings, or showcasing her cleavage with whorish aplomb. Of course, when Hoss and Crow lay eyes upon her they immediately agree that Barbie, and thus Cote, has a “nice pair of tits”. Warren’s D wears an amazing leather ensemble, and is given a more than a flew flattering angles. Again, when Hoss and Crow board an elevator in company of D the first thing they exclaim is, “Double D!” Pierce’s Mambo Woman can only be seen for a few fleeting seconds during the introduction and its criminal that she never got her own feature.

Of the three actioners that Pyun filmed that year Mean Guns is definitely the superior. Neither the limp Die Hard (1988) clone Blast (1997) nor the more urban Crazy Six (1997) come so close to lighting the fuse. And for a director who used to pride himself in specializing on explosive low-budget action Mean Guns is notably without any boom or bang. Expect no city-razing shoot-outs or wanton destruction of public property. That was Nemesis (1992) and that was then, this is now. Not that Albert was riding on a high wave, or anything. He made it through the disastrous Adrenalin: Fear the Rush (1996) which not only went through extensive studio-mandated re-writes/re-shoots, but also spawned the rather unfortunate and indefensible Nemesis 4: Cry Of Angels (1996). On top of all that it also single-handedly killed Natasha Henstridge’s career. Which is a really roundabout way of saying that Pyun needed a hit… desperately. Mean Guns is about as nineties as these things come: lethargic, out of breath, and without any bang. Normally old Al can be relied upon to stage an exciting and explosive action scene, but not so here. None of the shoot-outs possess any weight, oomph, or impact (dramatic or otherwise). The entire thing comes across as strangely detached, something which the light-hearted, airy and breezy mambo soundtrack only serves to emphasize. More than anything else, Mean Guns very well misses its target. Battle Royale (2000) would do the same thing astronomically better just three years later. For shame, Albert, for shame.

Plot: behold the new model to fight the cyborg oppressor.

Once upon a time Hawaiian shlockmeister Albert Pyun directed Nemesis (1992), a low budget action movie that placed film noire characters in a dystopian cyberpunk setting with the style, swagger, and gunplay of some of John Woo’s best explosive Hong Kong heroic bloodshed features. It liberally lifted ideas and concepts from James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) and gave them a HK bend. With the arrival of Nemesis 2: Nebula (1995) and the induction of Sue Price the series took a turn for the worse – something from which it never recovered. For those who thunk Nemesis 4: Cry Of Angels (1996) was the ultimate insult and the lowest the series would sink, Nemesis 5: The New Model pulls the once-glorious franchise to previously unimaginable new lows. With Albert Pyun executive producing (more of a symbolic honorary title instead of anything substantial) and Lincoln, Nebraska micro-budget one-man-industry Dustin Ferguson directing Nemesis 5: The New Model (Nemesis 5 hereafter) makes one cardinal mistake. That is considering the Sue Price episodes canonical. If Nemesis 4: Cry Of Angels (1996) effectively buried the franchise for 21 years, then the nostalgia-driven grab-around Nemesis 5 will ensure it remains that way for the next twenty, or so, years.

Nemesis (1992) was an introspective musing on life and what it meant to be human – and when it wasn’t, it was a hyper-stylized explosive HK action movie with a cyberpunk aesthetic and literal acres of skin, both of male and female persuasion, on display. The Nemesis sequels with Sue Price were nowhere near, or at all for that matter, as thoughtful or nuanced as the original. They weren’t written by David S. Goyer after all. The depth and subversive elements that Goyer brought to the original were conspicuous only by their absence. For Nemesis 5 apparently nobody bothered dissecting the original and why it worked as well as it did a quarter century ago. When a franchise doesn’t produce a sequel in over two decades there’s probably a very good reason for it. After Nemesis 4: Cry Of Angels (1996) even Albert Pyun thought it was high time to relegate the franchise to much deserved obscurity. Nemesis 5 is not that long overdue sequel or soft reboot to restore the long-suffering series to its rightful glory. Instead Nemesis 5 is a crushing disappointment. A cruel and sobering reminder that good things not always come to those who wait. If this was meant to be a symbolic passing of the torch, Nemesis 5 is a stark and abject failure on all fronts.

It is the year 2077. Humanity has been enslaved by the cyborg oppressor. The Red Army Hammerheads control all aspects of life, but the arid wastelands are overflowing with dissent and rebel enclaves are omnipresent. In the ruins of civilization once-fearsome bounty hunter Alex Sinclair (Sue Price) continues the grassroots insurgency. After her parents are killed in an attack young Ari Frost (Joelle Reeb) seeks out Sinclair and becomes her student. In the years that follow Sinclair tutors Frost to become her successor thus earning the tag of The New Model. Once she has come of age The Red Army Hammerheads realize that Ari Frost (Schuylar Craig) poses a threat against their power structures once she kills one of their operatives (Daiane Azura) in a hotelroom. Henceforth the Hammerhead strategists/controllers Lt. Telecine (Robert Lankford) and Sgt. Telecine (Jennii Caroline) dispatch the bounty hunter twins (Breana Mitchell and Lia Havlena) as well as Nebula (Zach Muhs) to dispose of her. Ari is ordered to take down a reclusive Red Army Hammerhead leader (Mel Novak), but he won’t be going down without a fight and is constantly guarded by his trusted partner Barbarella (Dawna Lee Heising). Aiding Frost in her seek-and-destroy mission are Eve (Crystal Milani), Dan (Daniel Joseph Stier, as Daniel Stier), and Edwin (Edwin Garcia).

That the above plot summary reads nothing like an Albert Pyun Nemesis movie was expected. That it would get the most established basics wrong is far more damning In the original Nemesis (1992) LAPD cop Alex Rain was a police detective tasked with tracking down Red Army Hammerheads information-terrorist cells. On one such mission he suffered grievous bodily harm and his handler convinced him to defect to the Red Army Hammerheads camp. In changing his alliances Rain drew the ire of his former employers and was hunted by a cybernetic infiltration unit disguised as his direct superior in an attempt to dispose of him. It’s later revealed that the police and government have been mechanized by the cyborg oppressor, and the Red Army Hammerheads are in fact the last bastion of human resistance.

In the sequels, set several decades after the original, genetic descendant Alex Raine (later Sinclair) is transported to 1980s Africa where she’s first chased by Nebula, cybernetic bounty hunters Lock and Ditko, and much later an upgraded Farnsworth. No mention is made of the Impact clan, nor are there any references to Ramie (Ursula Sarcev) and Sinclair’s tribe of half-sisters from Nemesis 3: Time Lapse (1996). Nemesis 2 to 4 never managed to resolve their overarching plotline, and Nemesis 5 does so by glossing over the particulars. There’s a gender-swapped re-enactment of the “goddamn terrorist” scene from Nemesis (1992) but it makes little to no sense even in its present context. The remainder of Nemesis 5 is piss-poor on just about every conceivable level. In short, this is an exercise in tedium and futility that bears little to no semblance to the series it’s continuing.

If anything Nemesis (1992) was not afraid to be sexy. Olivier Gruner was bare chested for at least a quarter of the movie. Deborah Shelton, Merle Kennedy, Marjean Holden, Marjorie Monaghan, Jennifer Gatti, and Borovnisa Blervaque had something for everybody. The only good thing to come from Nemesis 5 on that end are Schuylar Craig and stuntwoman Crystal Milani, both of whom would be right at home with Rene Perez. The only star, nominal though it may be, that Nemesis 5 was able to afford is Dawna Lee Heising who (pre-plastic surgery) famously had an uncredited bit part as a showgirl in Blade Runner (1982), as a priestess in Big Trouble in Little China (1986), and a number of famous TV shows. The obligatory faded American star is martial arts veteran Mel Novak who has several decades of pulp to his credit. In that capacity he appeared in, among many others, in respectable fare as The Ultimate Warrior (1975), Game of Death (1978), and Force: Five (1981), Moonbase (1997), to direct-to-video action/science-fiction fodder as Future War (1997), Samurai Cop 2: Deadly Vengeance (2015), and Dustin Ferguson’s latest attempt at a franchise, RoboWoman (2019).

Nemesis (1992) never let its creativity be restricted by the budget, Nemesis 5 on the other hand is dictated entirely by its budget – or complete lack thereof. To dispense with the obvious, Nemesis 5 is cheap, shot on video cheap. This makes the oeuvre of Rene Perez look like Stanley Kubrick and Neil Johnson like Michael Bay. It was so cheap that it couldn’t afford neither director of photography George Mooradian nor composer Anthony Riparetti (although he’s involved as sound designer). It slavishly follows the template of the Pyun-written sequels with Sue Price, and never quite seems to grasp just what made Olivier Gruner headed original a modest hit on home video.

More often than not Nemesis 5 feels like a very bad piece of fanfiction. And it looks like it too. Nemesis (1992) had some hard-hitting and explosive action that clearly took after Hong Kong heroic bloodshed and bullet ballet. Nemesis 5 has random nobodies, faded once-somebodies, and pseudo-goth chicks standing around in the Nebraska desert holding dollar store props with a red or a green filter for that futuristic look. The action was more explosive and convincing in Ugandan action-comedy Who Killed Captain Alex? (2010) as were the martial arts for that matter. Nemesis 5 is amateurishly shot, badly choreographed, terribly written, and acted even worse. It’s the ultimate insult to anybody who ever followed the Nemesis series in any capacity for the last two decades and counting.

If there’s one thing that Nemesis 5 does right it’s that it, rightly, decries the increasingly totalitarian state of the US government, the increase of the police state, and the rampant militarization and systemic unaccountability of its law enforcement. It’s absolutely the last place where you’d expect to find a leftist, anarchistic agenda. Schuylar Craig couldn’t possibly be expected to carry this thing and the brunt of the blame for this unmitigated fiasco falls squarely on the shoulders of Dustin Ferguson and writer Mike Reeb. They completely dropped the ball on this one. Nemesis 5 not only lacks just about everything that the Albert Pyun original (and the three sequels of increasingly diminishing returns) had – but apparently forgot what this series was about.

The fifth episode of any series is usually where the bolts and nuts come loose, and things are no different here. Nemesis 5 is the malformed offspring of the series, the abomination of which nobody speaks, and the unspeakable atrocity from which there’s no return. In other words, Nemesis 5 stands among universally loathed cinematic abortions as Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985), Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989), Hellraiser: Inferno (2000), and Terminator Genisys (2015). As with many of these ventures, nostalgia can be a dangerous thing. Nemesis 5 is, as the great philosopher James Hetfield once put it, the thing that should not be.