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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 is coerced into partaking in clandestine tournament

It's entirely within the realm of possibly that in 1995 Albert Pyun was spreading himself a bit thin, creatively. Not only did he direct the first Nemesis (1992) sequel Nemesis 2: Nebula, around the same time he shot three films on location in the Philippines. In a bout of creative economics he lensed the Bond imitation Spitfire, the pseudo-realistic thriller Hong Kong ’97 (1994) and the the Christopher Borkgren written cyberpunk martial arts romp Heatseeker. Despite a mildly promising premise, a relative nobody in the starring role, and a swath of Pyun regulars in tow Heatseeker looks exactly as lethargic and turgid as it sounds. It certainly won’t bother explaining why it is called Heatseeker. If the wretched Bloodmatch (1991) had anything going for it, it was Andy Sidaris babe Hope Marie Carlton. Heatseeker has to content itself with sometime Pyun muse Tina Cote.

In the far-flung future present of 2019 Sianon Corporation marketing executive Tsiu Tung (Norbert Weisser), who isn’t Asian despite his name, has devised the ultimate scheme for dominating the fledging international cybernetics market. In a clandestine, globally broadcast, mixed martial arts tournament rival corporations will be able to present their sponsored fighters, and the eventual winner, and its parent company, will monopolize the cybernetics market. In an unexpected turn of events Chance O’Brien (Keith Cooke), the last fully human competitor and one who is vocal in his condemnation of cybernetics, defeats Sianon grand champion Xao (Gary Daniels) in the ring. To ensure victory for the hosting house Sianon decks out their prize fighter with in-house enhancements in a sequence looking like a skid row re-enactment of the assembly scenes in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991).

At the post-match press conference O’Brien and his fiancée/manager Jo (Tina Cote, as Tina Coté) announce their engagement, and they are soon beset by Tung with his price fighter in attendance. Refusing to bend knee to the interests of corporate overlords O’Brien and Jo head off to Paris, France for a short romantic getaway. Jo is abducted by Tung’s goons and implanted with a mind control chip, the workings of which will, of course, never be explained. Under aegis of Tung she is forced to train Sianon prize fighter Xao under the threat of bodily harm. To make matters worse, Jo is forced upon Xao because Tang apparently mistakes physical affection for love, neither of which Jo is prepared or willing to give. Xao himself doesn’t seem comfortable with the arrangement, and will often look dismayed – or that may just be Daniels’ complete inability to emote combined with the cold looking azure contacts he is forced to wear. To get O’Brien to do his bidding Tung threatens to kill Jo if he doesn’t follow his plan. How killing Jo is supposed to be beneficial to Xao’s training regiment is, of course, conveniently glossed over. Neither does Tung seem to have a contingency plan in place in case O’Brien doesn’t want to partake in the clandestine tournament, and is prepared to sacrifice Jo to facilitate his escape.

In tradition of Bloodsport (1988) and Kickboxer (1989) – wherein Jean-Claude van Damme is as oiled up and flexible as Cooke is here - the only way to avenge the killing/taking of one’s sibling or paramour is by partaking in an underground martial arts tournament, or a full-contact kumite. Checking in at his hotel in New Manila a helpful receptionist (Hazel Huelves) points him to the right direction to enroll in the tournament. The tournament is, to avoid all possible confusion, simply called The Tournament. Supposedly because The Arena, Kubate, or Mortal Kombat were already taken. As genre convention dictates upon arriving in the Filipino capital of New Manila, O’Brien has barely left the plane or he is accosted by street thugs, and robbed of both his clothing and whatever possessions he brought along - an old Filipino action movie convention that also could be found in the Cirio H. Santiago topless kung fu classics TNT Jackson (1974), Naked Fist (1981) and Angelfist (1993). It is here at O’Brien runs into Bradford (Thom Mathews), a corporate executive acting as his own sponsor and quite literally defending his firm in the ring. Bradford is supposed to act has a buddy to O’Brien, but nothing substantial is made of it. A subplot wherein Tung coerces Bradford to sell O’Brien down the river is brought up, but has no visible effect on the main plot.

As Chance works his way through the early part of The Tournament he attracts the attention of the Zanac Corporation, who decide to sponsor him. Corporate assistant Liu (Yau Chau-Yuet or Selena Mangharan, as Selena Mangh), who everybody refers to as “Lou”, makes sure O’Brien remains properly motivated. Eventually Chance faces reigning champion Xao, who multiple characters lovingly call “a tin man”, an obvious reference the Wonderful Wizard of Oz novel, who despite being almost completely rebuilt from cybernetic components still doesn’t reach his full potential as a fighter. Xao, like LL Cool J before him, needs love to unlock his true power as a cybernetic combatant. When O’Brien defeats Xao in the ring a second time, supposedly due to the fact that O’Brien is empowered by love, the latter sacrifices himself by taking a bullet meant for Jo. O’Brien, dimwitted as always, walks away from the situation oblivious to Xao’s rather blatant and obvious heroic self-sacrifice.

Unlike the vastly superior Mortal Kombat (1995) or the Jean-Claude van Damme box office bomb Street Fighter (1994), Heatseeker hardly, if ever, manages to deliver on its promise. The mildly interesting premise, the stylized look, and even the fights come across as overly stilted and daft. The cybernetic implants and upgrades are heavily emphasized in the mess of a screenplay but it’s impossible to tell which combatants are enhanced and which are not. Neither do said implants seem to give any of the more enhanced combatants any strategic upperhand or special skills. One of the bigger, and more important, problems for Heatseeker is the unequivocally flat and unenergetic action choreography. The fights universally and uniformly are clunky, slow, and lack in athleticism, rhythm, and grace.

If this had been a Hong Kong production at least the fights would have been good. Not so here. Further complicating matters is that there's a complete absence of interesting camera angles, every scene is shot in soft focus, and the fights are easily the most boring aspect of the production. A great deal is made of Heatseeker being about a full-contact kumite yet it's practically bloodless and the injuries of the cybernetic combatants are shown with small, budget-efficient exposing of wiring and circuitry embedded in human flesh. Each cybernetic combatant hits the canvas with the expected eruption of sparks, vapors of smoke, and light electronic buzzing. It’s a sad day for a budget-deficient martial arts movie when the referee (Mary Courtney) becomes the only aspect of a fight worth paying attention to.

Somewhere in Heatseeker there’s a worthwhile little martial arts movie, or a passable character study of cybernetic enhanced martial artists in search and contemplation of the nature of humanity, and their loss thereof - or a protest against the corporization and mass commercialization of popular sports entertainment. All of which director Albert Pyun, or most likely screenwriter Christopher Borkgren, has no interest in exploring to any degree. It’s interesting that two of Pyun’s more worthy offerings were far more grounded in reality than his usual dystopian cyberpunk vehicles. Hong Kong ’97 benefitted from having two lead stars (Robert Patrick and Ming-Na Wen) that could actually act, and Spitfire was a popcorn spy/adventure flick in the truest sense of the word. That Heatseeker, much more in Pyun’s comfort zone than anything else that year, is so immensely, unforgivingly stale that it might as well signal that Pyun was spreading himself a tad too thin creatively that year. Heatseeker makes one long for the glorious incompetence of Mortal Kombat: Annihilation.