Skip to content

Plot: sculptress and soldier defend themselves from homicidal cyborg.

Richard Stanley’s feature debut arrived with quite a bit of buzz in the advance press. “Ferocious, stylish, and hallucinatory,” wrote Clive Barker. “As terrifying as Alien,” gushed US Magazine and Fangoria boldly claimed it was, “the best science-fiction horror film of the year.Hardware also scored big at the festivals and scooped up several awards, notably it won the 1991 Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival award for best special effects, as well as the Silver Raven award on the Brussels International Festival Of Fantasy 1991, and the Fantasporto 1991 International Fantasy Film Award for Best Director where it was nominated for Best Film as well. None too shabby for a little indie The Terminator (1984) knock-off shot on a modest budget (just a million and a half) by a hungry no-name music video director. While it’s true to an extent that Hardware is all style and little substance, it’s also bursting at the seams with untapped potential of what director Richard Stanley could do on a big budget. Unfortunately the Hollywood machine would mercilessly chew and spit him out at the first sight of trouble.

Stanley was born in Fishhook, South Africa and raised in England. In 1983 he directed his first short and two years later lensed the bleak Incidents in an Expanding Universe (1985). Another two years later, in 1987, he began directing music videos and in that capacity he worked with Fields of the Nephilim, Public Image Limited, and Renegade Soundwave. Hardware forms, together with Dust Devil (1992), a conceptual duo that would launch Stanley into the prestigious big budget directorial gig that was The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996), a production fraught with problems, to say the least. To say that Hardware looks impressive would be an understatement if there ever was one. It absolutely takes no prisoners, is relentless in its pessimism, and hellbent in making something, anything, from what by all accounts was very little. Does it ever succeed. Hardware knows what it is, and it will make sure that the audience knows too…

In the bleak post-apocalyptic past future of 2000 much of the world has been ravaged by rampant radiation, pollution and overpopulation. The Big One, an unspecified event of nuclear annihilation, has vaporized much of the world’s water. This is now known as The Zone - an inhospitable, misty wasteland cloaked by perennial red clouds and holocaustwinds - is used by the government to test military hardware. What little pockets of humanity are left live in high-security automated apartments in fortified, semi-militarized cities under a totalitarian, war-mongering government that controls every aspect of life. Citizens are encouraged to undergo sterilization and legislation forbids them from having more than two children. Mutation and cancer are omnipresent. It is under these circumstances that off-duty grizzled space marine Moses Baxter (Dylan McDermott) arrives at a trading post in New York with his friend Shades (John Lynch) in tow. Baxter hopes to pick up a Christmas present for his unemployed, metalworker artist girlfriend Jill Grakowski (Stacey Travis) to make up for time in between deployments. He buys the remains of a decommissioned cyborg from The Zone dwelling Nomad (Carl McCoy) keeping the head to himself and selling the parts that do not interest him to junkyard dealer Alvy (Mark Northover, with the voice of Marc Smith). When Moses arrives at Jill’s apartment she isn’t exactly overjoyed to see him, but things improve.

Jill has problems of her own. Refugees have taken in every inch of the fortified building and the situation with her creepy voyeuristic neighbor Lincoln Wineberg, Jr. (William Hootkins) is steadily escalating. From every angle cynical W.A.R. Radio Channel DJ Angry Bob (Iggy Pop) pollutes the airwaves with his constant barrage of profanities and obscenities. Jill’s happy enough with Moses’ gift painting an Union Jack on the skull and welding it to her latest installation. A power surge activates the cyborg head and the damaged battle unit starts to reassemble itself from parts of Jill’s metal art pieces and household appliances. What Jill and Moses don’t realize is that the reconstituted cyborg is a dismantled Mark 13 autonomous combat unit prototype that was discarded due to a fault in its programming. However the new and improved Mark 13 line is on the verge of mass production and is scheduled to be deployed as a means of population control once sufficient amounts have come in rotation. By the time Moses comes into that vital bit of information by way of Alvy he’s halfway across town and his friend Shades is too stoned to be of any help. Not only will Jill have to fend off the advances of the squalid Lincoln who has come in response to all the ruckus but also the homicidal infiltration unit that lies waiting in the shadows of her apartment. Meanwhile Moses rushes to her rescue with a ragtag team of gun-toting mercenaries, but can they stop Mark 13?

Early in his career Simon Boswell composed scores for films by Italian horror directors Dario Argento, Lamberto Bava, and Michele Soavi, as well as Mexican avant-gardist Alejandro Jodorowsky. He also worked with Clive Barker, and Danny Boyle, as well as Spanish cult filmmaker Álex de la Iglesia. Our personal exposure to Boswell’s music came with the all but forgotten 1994 CD-i cyberpunk/neo-noir videogame Burn:Cycle. That exactly somone like Boswell would end up composing the score seems only right in hindsight. Whether it’s twangy, bluesy guitars, ambient New Age synthesizers (that in some parts remind of Brad Fiedel), or ‘Stabat Mater’ from Gioachino Rossini in a new arrangement, Boswell’s score fits Hardware perfectly. Also featured are songs from Fields Of The Nephilim (‘Power’), Public Image Ltd. (‘The Order Of Death’), Ministry (‘Stigmata’), Iggy Pop (‘Bad Life’), and Motörhead (‘Ace Of Spades’) with clips from GWAR and Einsturzende Neubauten (‘1/2 Mensch’) seen briefly in passing.

Hardware is a combination of two things. First and foremost the human aspect of the story is a reimagining of Richard Stanley’s earlier Incidents in an Expanding Universe (1985) wherein a grizzled space marine and a sculptress try to maintain a meaningful relationship in a bleak totalitarian society ravaged by radiation, overpopulation, and a war-mongering government. The cyborg element was liberally borrowed from the Fleetway Publications short story “SHOK! Walter's Robo-Tale” written by Steve MacManus (as Ian Rogan) and drawn by Kevin O'Neill that was published in the Judge Dredd Annual 1981, a derivate of the British weekly anthology comic 2000 AD. In the graphic novel a space marine buys his artist girlfriend a Shok cyborg head. The cyborg reactivates, and starts to reassemble itself. It culminates in both the space marine and the girlfriend coming to a gruesome end as the cyborg goes on a killing spree. The comic was reprinted in 2000 AD prog 612 and later in colorised form in issue #35 of the US format Judge Dredd series from Quality Comics. Understandably MacManus and O’Neill sued for their rightful share and a court case was decided in their favor. Legal wrangles aside, Hardware is just a very effective piece of low-budget filmmaking.

And then there are the overwhelming, claustrophobic visuals that seem to draw from any number of influences. The abstract lighting is very much reminiscent of Mario Bava and prime Dario Argento, judging from the angular interiors Stanley probably saw Blade Runner (1982) or The Giant Of Metropolis (1961). The stark minimalism and oppressive industrial feel recall both Eraserhead (1977) and Tetsuo: the Iron Man (1989) in varying degrees while the psychedelia takes a page or two from the acid/LSD flicks following the success of Easy Rider (1969) or the more broadly philosophical (and underappreciated) Altered States (1980). The action scenes breathe Hong Kong although they are not nearly as kinetic or as over-the-top. Hardware packs a lot of punch, and it was evident that Richard Stanley could be the next great action director. Unfortunately he was saddled with a big budget monstrosity that had disaster written all over it from the onset. Not even an experienced director (John Frankenheimer) could salvage the mess that The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) was turning into, so it’s unjust that the blame was cast on Stanley – and even less so was his subsequent exiling from Hollywood. Thankfully he has recently redeemed himself in sight of critics and detractors alike with the H.P. Lovecraft adaptation Color Out of Space (2019). It makes you wonder what Stanley could have done with a Nemesis (1992) sequel and it’s incomprehensible how he was never given the opportunity to direct an action movie in, say, Hong Kong or the Philippines.

Plot: cyborg flees into the desert after ignoring his programming.

Hands Of Steel (released domestically as Vendetta dal Futuro, and in France as Atomic Cyborg) answers the question that nobody asked: what if The Terminator (1984) ignored his programming, fled into the Arizona desert and took up armwrestling in some remote divebar instead? It’s the kind of movie that only the Italians could and would make. Who else could come up with a cross between The Terminator (1984) and Over the Top (1987) on the budget of the average Filipino action movie? Hands Of Steel often feels as if it’s three movies mashed crudely into one. It bounces between a pedestrian sports movie, a dystopian science-fiction thriller low on intelligence and production values, and a brass-knuckles actioner without crunch. It’s emblematic of mid-to-late 1980s Italian action. The concept and ideas are far too ambitious for the meager budget it was alotted. 6 credited screenwriters, a seventh for additional dialog. Not a coherent line anywhere – and Swedish minx Janet Ågren, sadly, keeps her clothes on. Never before were Blade Runner (1982) and The Terminator (1984) pilfered so expertly. At least not until Bruno Mattei’s craptacular Shocking Dark (1989) and the 2010 Mainland China exploitation boom almost twenty years later.

The Italian shlock movie industry took a heavy blow in the eighties when wide theatrical releases for cheap, imported titles in North America, once their biggest market and sure-fire way to turn a profit, became scarce. The nascent home video market became the new home of exploitation and shlock of various stripe. This unfortunately also meant that belts were tightened and producers/directors no longer were able to commandeer the kind of budgets and resources that they once had in prior decades. Hands Of Steel is not 2019 – After the Fall Of New York (1983), it’s barely above Giuseppe Vari’s post-nuke swansong Urban Warriors (1987), where bit players Bruno Bilotta and Alex Vitale would land their own feature, but that is faint praise. Hands Of Steel wishes it was half as good and action-packed as The Raiders Of Atlantis (1983). Unfortunately it is anything but. Not even John Saxon and Janet Ågren can save it from relentless drudgery. Hands Of Steel is painfully glorious and gloriously painful.

Sergio Martino was a director who dabbled in every genre under the sun. Among other things, he launched the career of French model-turned-actress Edwige Fenech through a series of bubbly commedia sexy all’italiana and stylish gialli. Fenech had just completed a string of German comedies, including the bubbly The Sweet Pussycats (1969). Earlier in the year Top Sensation (1969) had launched Edy as the hottest and most in-demand starlet in Italian genre cinema. In his storied four decade career Martino directed offerings as diverse as Arizona Colt, Hired Gun (1970), The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh (1970), All Colors Of the Dark (1972), Torso (1973), Mountain Of the Cannibal God (1978), Cream Puffs (1981), 2019 – After the Fall Of New York (1983), and Beyond Kilimanjaro, Across the River of Blood (1990). Whoever thought it was a good idea to let comedy specialist Martino direct a sci-fi/action romp clearly had no clue what his forté was. It’s probably the same skewed and random decisionmaking that led to Marino Girolami directing Zombie Holocaust (1980). Hands Of Steel isn’t Martino’s finest moment, but it’s more or less on the same level as the action-adventure dross Antonio Margheriti and Enzo G. Castellari were churning out around this time.

In the far-flung future past of 1997 pollution has ravaged the Earth and made it nigh on uninhabitable. Turner Corporation CEO Francis Turner (John Saxon) sees his bottom line threatened by the preachings of blind wheelchair-bound environmentalist guru Reverend Arthur Moseley (Franco Fantasia). He sends out cyborg soldier Paco Queruak (Daniel Greene), the most efficient and reliable in his product line, to quell the rebellion by taking out its leader. Upon reaching his target Queruak is plagued by memories of the past, only wounding the Reverend and fleeing into the nearby Arizona desert. At the local motel he meets Linda (Janet Ågren), who is in need of a handyman. Linda’s abode is the gathering spot for local armwrestlers, truckers and general troublemakers. Linda’s tavern is decorated with pictures from wrestlers Bruno Sammartino, Hillbilly Jim, Magnum TA and Dory Funk, Jr. One day working for Linda, Queruak draws the ire of perrennally sweaty Méxican no-good trucker Raul Morales (Luigi Montefiori, as George Eastman) and Tri-State arm-wrestling champion Anatolo Blanco (Darwyn Swalve). Queruak’s creator Professor Olster (Donald O’Brien) is paid a visit by Turner’s mercenaries Peter Howell (Claudio Cassinelli) and Hunt (Sergio Testori) – and when he fails to stop them, Linda is threatened at gunpoint by cyborg assassins Eddie (Andrea Coppola, as Andrew Louis Coppola) and Susie (Daria Nicolodi). Paco intervenes and things come to a violent, fiery clash. The fate of mankind will not be decided by some apocalyptic nuclear war, but in a fierce close-quarters confrontation.

The main portion of Hands Of Steel concerns itself with Queruak’s travails in and around the desert motel, his conflict with Raul Morales and his relationship with Janet Ågren’s Linda. Janet Ågren had come off Eaten Alive! (1980), City Of the Living Dead (1981) and Red Sonja (1985) and apparently this wasn’t enough to forward her starpower beyond redundant impoverished genre exercises like this. Hands Of Steel also features that other Italian low-budget action star of the 80s, Bruno Bilotta (popularly known as Karl Landgren) as one of the Reverend’s security detail. Other notables include the late, great John Saxon and an uncredited Daria Nicolodi as a rival cyborg assassin. Hands Of Steel is a typical example of the genre were it not that it anticipates Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop (1987), Universal Soldier (1992), and Albert Pyun’s Nemesis (1992) as its conflicted cyborg protagonist struggles with his programming and what is left of his humanity. Likewise does it pre-date the Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling epic Over the Top (1987) by a single year. Martino films the whole with detached bemused disinterest as this is clearly not his wheelhouse. Hands Of Steel would’ve been blissfully forgotten were it not that Claudio Cassinelli was killed in an on-set helicopter crash during filming, necessitating the third-act disposing of his character. In between there’s enough techno-babble and arm-wrestling for everybody.

The nominal star of Hands Of Steel is Daniel Greene. Greene was an American television actor that somehow ended up in Italian exploitation trash as Hammerhead (1987), Soldier of Fortune (1990), and Condor (1990). In the late nineties he had his scenes deleted in the Farrelly brothers comedy There's Something About Mary (1998). Greene later had parts in other Farrelly brothers comedies as Me, Myself & Irene (2000), Shallow Hall (2001), and Stuck On You (2003). Janet Ågren was a Swedish model whose Nordic beauty sparked a quarter-century long career. Ågren debuted in The Two Crusaders (1968) and was a fixture in commedia sexy all’Italiana for several years. Somehow she escaped the fate that befell Christina Lindberg, Solveig Andersson, and Marie Forså. In the eighties Janet found herself in Eaten Alive! (1980), City Of the Living Dead (1980) and the considerably more high-profile Red Sonja (1985), but also in a Filipino The Karate Kid (1984) knockoff called The Boy With the Golden Kimono (1987). Suffice to say Ågren was no Gloria Guida, Barbara Bouchet, Sabrina Siani, Mónica Zanchi, or Cinzia Monreale. No, Ågren was far too classy and much too pretty for grubby exploitation and she never allowed herself to suffer the sordid degradation and assorted indignities that some of her contemporaries subjected themselves to.

The odds were certainly stacked against Hands Of Steel. Elisa Briganti (as Elisabeth Parker Jr.), Dardano Sacchetti, and Ernesto Gastaldi all contributed to the script – but 6 writers do not a decent script make. Production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng had worked on Eaten Alive! (1980), City Of the Living Dead (1981), 2019 - After the Fall Of New York (1983), Hercules (1983) and its sequel The Adventures Of Hercules (1985) as well as The Ark Of the Sun God (1984) and Dellamorte Dellamore (1994). Clearly Geleng couldn’t make more of what little he had been given. Director of photography Giancarlo Ferrando (as John McFerrand) lensed a lot of commedia sexy all’Italiana and he’s clearly out of his element here. Sadly, he would go on to work with Alfonso Brescia on Cross Mission (1988) where the only ray of light was one-time wonder Brigitte Porsche.

Spaghetti western and peplum monument Franco Fantasia is wasted as Reverend Arthur Moseley, a role that gives him nothing to do. He clearly was a long way from Kriminal (1966), Seven Blood-Stained Orchids (1972), Murder Mansion (1972), Mountain Of the Cannibal God (1978), Zombie (1979), and Eaten Alive! (1980). Decades prior he was in big budget Hollywood peplums as Ben-Hur (1959), and Quo Vadis (1951). Donald O’Brien was a regular in Italian schlock and can be seen in Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (1977), the original The Inglorious Bastards (1978), Zombie Holocaust (1980), 2020 Texas Gladiators (1983), and Warriors of the Year 2072 (1984). In short, Hands Of Steel is nobody’s finest hour. Except maybe that of George Eastman, whose excursions seldom ventured beyond trash auteur Joe D’Amato and his assorted ilk. Sadly, it never gets quite as absurd as The Raiders Of Atlantis (1983).

Hands Of Steel is one of those cynical pastiches from the once-flourishing Italian exploitation industry that were becoming a dying breed at that point. Over the course of the same decade were birthed Contamination (1980), Nightmare City (1980), and Alien 2: On Earth (1980) to name some of the most infamous. Hands Of Steel dared answer the question that James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) never asked: what if the Terminator struggled with his programming and instead of protecting his target took up menial work and armwrestling instead?

It’s the sort of question that Mainland China would provide plenty of possible answers for in the 2010s, but Italy got there first. Hands Of Steel might not be Sergio Martino’s best work, or anybody's for that matter, really. The Terminator (1984) spawned exactly one good sequel that did not dilute from its original vision. It did begat a slew of canonical sequels that have done irreparable harm to the brand. It’s difficult to hold a grudge against something innocent as this when the Hollywood machine does so much damage all by itself.