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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: kickboxer avenges the death of his brother.

At one point in the mid-nineties Albert Pyun was the go-to guy for cheapo kickboxing movies. Sure, he was no Cirio H. Santiago, but who is? Santiago was the master of topless kickboxing with TNT Jackson (1974), the self-proclaimed “first erotic kung fu classicNaked Fist (1981) (with Jillian Kessner), and the relative unknown Angelfist (1993) (with Cat Sassoon and Melissa Moore). Pyun was the man behind the first sequel to the Jean-Claude Van Damme action classic Kickboxer (1989) and if there’s one thing that can be counted upon, it’s that Pyun never will let an opportunity go to waste. Before he made the cyberpunk slogfest Heatseeker (1995) (with Keith Cooke and Tina Cote) there was Bloodmatch. An expert in stretching budgets and resources (as his Nemesis series attests to) Bloodmatch was filmed back-to-back with Kickboxer 2: The Road Back (1991) and shared much of the same production crew and cast. It answers that question that has haunted Sidaris fans for years: what exactly did Hope Marie Carlton do after Savage Beach (1989) and her exit from the Andy-verse?

Well, for a while at least it looked as if hottie Hope was going to carve out a decent career for herself as a supporting actress. Before her last outing with Sidaris she already had a bit part (where she showed quite a bit) in Renny Harlin’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988). She could be seen in the Huey Lewis and the News music video for ‘Give Me the Keys (And I'll Drive You Crazy)’ in 1989 as well as Ghoulies III: Ghoulies Go to College (1990) and the Roger Corman produced Slumber Party Massacre III (1990), more often than not in roles wherein some nudity was required.

To top things off Carlton also made an appearance as Stiletto in the 1994 Electronic Arts point-and-click adventure game Noctropolis. And the other big name (although that is, admittedly, very relative) is Thom Mathews. Mathews had starred in The Return of the Living Dead (1985), and Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986) but by the following decade would become an Albert Pyun regular with roles in, among others, Nemesis (1992), Heatseeker (1995), Blast (1997), and Mean Guns (1997). Michel Qissi played a small role in Bloodsport (1988) and perhaps is best known as the villain Tong Po in Kickboxer (1989). Sadly, Qissi has done little of interest since. He’d feel right at home in Ben Combes’ long-awaited Commando Ninja (2018) sequel.

Brick Bardo (Thom Mathews) plans to exact revenge on everyone involved in the disappearance (and apparent death) of his brother Wood Wilson. After chasing and subsequently torturing Davey O’Brien (Michel Qissi) on a stretch of concrete in the baking sun he learns a few things. First, Wilson was involved in illegal price fighting and this transgression led to his exile from the sport and was key to his apparent suicide.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, O’Brien (whether Davey is related to Chance or China is, unfortunately, never revealed) spills the names of the parties involved in the scheme: current middleweight champion Brent Caldwell (Dale Jacoby), kickboxer turned janitor Billy Muñoz (Benny Urquidez), fighter Mike Johnson (Thunderwolf, as Thunder Wolf), and promoter Connie Angel (Hope Marie Carlton). Bardo and his assistant Max Manduke (Marianne Taylor) travel crosscountry to pick up their targets, and if they don’t cooperate the duo simply drug, coerce (either by having Max bed them, or kidnap their families), or knock them about into doing their bidding. For the occasion the duo have rented the Las Vegas Arena to enact their own Bloodmatch.

The American martial arts movie is a strange beast. On the one hand there are the early Jean-Claude Van Damme classics who do the genre justice, and then there’s everything else. Bloodmatch, obviously, falls into the latter category but acquits itself at least partly with the presence of Benny Urquidez (who also was responsible for all the action choreography) and Dale Jacoby. The arena fights are heavily edited and artificially intensified by making ample use of fast cuts and constant repeats of the same punches and kicks. It’s the oldest trick in the book, and an effective one when used sparingly. Not so here since none (except maybe Urquidez and Jacoby) were actual fighters and preparation for the fights was probably minimal. Of the vintage Sidaris bikini babes Hope Marie Carlton was always the only who could reasonably act. She does so here too, and for once the role doesn’t require of her to get naked. Who does get naked is Marianne Taylor. Taylor bears some resemblance to Nemesis (1992) star Deborah Shelton, and Pyun doesn’t shy away from shooting her from a few very flattering angles. Like Tinto Brass, Pyun too seems to like junk in the trunk. The remainder of the cast are complete nonentities, and not worth discussing as such.

As always director of photography George Mooradian at least makes whatever Pyun shoots look good. The same goes for long-time composer Anthony Riparetti who provides a suitable score for what, for all intents and purposes, is a boring slogfest. Heatseeker (1995) and Mean Guns (1997) (both not Pyun’s finest hour either) were not only marginally more interesting visually, but they actually had a pulse. Bloodmatch was apparently shot on autopilot and none of that keen visual flair and deft action direction that made Nemesis (1992) a minor action hit is accounted for here. The screenplay is functional in its minimalism and was written by Pyun under the nom de plume of K. Hannah (an apparent portmanteau of Kitty Chalmers and Hannah Blue, two pen names old Al frequently used around this time). It’s not often that it happens but Bloodmatch makes Angelfist (1993) and Heatseeker (1995) looks like works of art in comparison. That Bloodmatch would fail as a thriller was all but a given and it makes the critical error of having stilted and slow kickboxing routines. Nobody expects the American martial arts movie to match, let alone surpass, its agile Far East counterparts – but even by lowly American standards Bloodmatch is terminally rote in every sense of the word.