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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 it's 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: retired assassin is targeted for extermination

For the last twenty or so years Nemesis 4: Cry Of Angels (Death Angel in some regions) was the lowest that anybody thunk that Albert Pyun's once-glorious Nemesis franchise could fall. Gone were days of Hong Kong bullet ballet action, of robust desert action, and hell, even the science fiction aspect was becoming negligible or strenuous at best. The law of diminishing returns struck hard and swift on Albert Pyun's once stylish but surprisingly watchable Nemesis series. That Olivier Gruner didn't reprise the role that made him famous for the first sequel should have been plenty indication. Sue Price made the best of what little she was given. The blame for Nemesis taking a turn for the worse lies squarely with director-writer Albert Pyun.

Nemesis 4: Cry Of Angels (Nemesis 4 hereafter) abandons all pretense of even bothering with established continuity and has Pyun indulging some of the worst inclinations typical to trash directors under the double strain of non-existent budgets and compressed production schedules. Nemesis 4 was afforded a grand total of 5 production days while Pyun was engaged in re-shoots for Adrenalin: Fear the Rush (1996). Pyun was never a good writer to begin with, and even his best writing was marred by sketchy, paper-thin plotting and nearly non-existent characterization. Pyun, no cinematic wünderkind by any stretch of the imagination, usually is able to conjure up at least an interesting action set piece or two more than this unsightly monstrosity that supposedly is meant to give closure to the two or three, depending how you count them, Nemesis episodes. Fear not, however, as greater atrocities were yet to be visited upon the unsuspecting franchise.

Six years after the events of Nemesis 3: Time Lapse (1996) a truce has been reached between the warring factions of the humans and cyborgs. With the war ending operatives from each side now work as mercenaries for private contractors. In some unnamed East-European city Alex Sinclair (Sue Price), who has shed her Raine surname and enhanced herself with cybernetic components, works as an assassin and is haunted by visions of a mysterious Woman In Black (Blanka Copikova). Hired to kill Carlos Jr. (Juro Rasla) Sinclair dons the disguise of an escort and completes her contract. When it is revealed that the hit was a setup to have her eliminated by her handler Bernardo (Andrew Divoff) Alex pieces together that her intended target is Earl Typhoon (Nicholas Guest). To get to him, and find those behind the conspiracy to disgrace and sully her name, she sets her sights on Tokuda (Norbert Weisser) and finally Bernardo. Amidst this chaos she also has a run-in with Johnny Impact (Simon Poland), a descendant of Merle Kennedy’s Max Impact in the original, and vastly superior, Nemesis (1992).

That it would come to this should surprise no one as the prior two sequels offered some spectacular devolution in their own right. Nemesis 4 at long last returns the franchise to the bleak urban cityscapes of the original but without an ounce of coherence and style. The pyrotechnics and stuntwork are conspicuous only by their absence and what once passed for low-rent action has been reduced to a softcore skinflick with occasional bouts of action. Nemesis 4 is neither here nor there. Had it starred Melissa Moore, Samantha Phillips, Tina Cote, or Julie K. Smith than it least could have been passed off as a marginally tantalizing affair. Sue Price was an award-winning bodybuilder, and not some sex-crazed femme fatale. Nearly unrecognizable without her cornrows and military garb this is not the Alex Sinclair you remember. Hell, this is not even the Nemesis you might remember with some fondness. Nemesis 4 is reductionist to the point of writing itself out of existence.

It's telling enough that the only big names in much of the promo material are Sue Price and... Blanka Copikova. Copikova was a featured extra in Adrenalin: Fear the Rush (1996) where she played the demanding role of "additional cop". Sue Price, of course, had been the series figurehead in Gruner's sorely felt absence and for her to have to sink this low is beyond forgiving. To have the burnt-out urban hellscapes of Vukovar, Croatia and Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina serve as the locales for something as drab as this begs the question why this was even deemed a good, or feasible, idea. Nemesis (1992) was a modest hit on home video and sequels were both expected and probably demanded, but not even a low-key action series as this deserved to be dragged through the mud quite the way it did. Pyun and his cohorts clearly dropped the ball on this one, and it shows. Does it ever show. For a primarily style-driven director as Albert Pyun this one distinctly lacks in showmanship and, well, basic style and decent cinematography even.

To have Nemesis, once a mildly promising franchise that went off to a surprisingly solid initial outing, reduced to this waste of celluloid is in itself not surprising. The two prior sequels at least hinted at such a devolution, but nothing quite pointed at a regression this dire. That Pyun went from a stylish John Woo heroic bloodshed imitation, through two sequels worth of cheap post-apocalyptic Mad Max (1979) knockoffs, to this unconscionably horrid waste of celluloid is frankly unforgivable. Pyun made better movies, often on the same limited budgets and timetables, than this. Were it not for the technical polish and reasonable cinematography Nemesis 4 could easily be mistaken for any late night skinflick. If it wasn’t for the dystopian science-fiction background, and the insistence of being a sequel to an established franchise, Nemesis 4 has little to differentiate itself from anything you could find on Skinemax or late-night softcore erotic trash.