Guilty Pleasures: Nemesis (1992)

“A film by Albert Pyun” is not an opening credit that fills us with confidence. In fact, it usually precedes ninety minutes of unwatchable pap. Pyun has faced much criticism throughout his career. However, what he lacks in storytelling he makes up for with his flair for imaginative action. Nemesis unashamedly clings to Pyun’s best attribute and is all the better for it.

It’s the year 2027. The hidden conflict between man and machine is on a knife edge. Machines have infiltrated the upper echelons of human hierarchy by covertly substituting key enemy figures with their own. Caught in the middle of the war is Los Angeles Police Department agent Alex Raine (Olivier Gruner).

Technology has advanced to such a level that even the most serious of injuries can be repaired with robotics. Replacement surgery for limbs and organs are commonplace. With each passing assignment, Alex Raine puts his body on the line, to the point where he often finds himself in need of this wondrous new surgery. So with Alex gradually becoming more machine than man, which side of the conflict does he belong to? At what point does he cease to be human? Is this replacement surgery taking away his soul? Does humanity have the right to deny life to its greatest creation?

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Admittedly, Alex’s chat-up lines needed a bit of work.

These are all interesting questions which open up possibilities for a fascinating, complex story. However, Albert Pyun is not interested in storytelling. He’s only interested in filling each minute of screen time with as many cool things as possible. The very definition of style over substance. Now, in most cases that would normally be a huge criticism, but the fact is once the action gets underway, you’ll find that you don’t really care. So intense and original are the gunfights, it becomes clear that the story only exists to provide a link between each stunning set piece.

Luckily, it doesn’t take long for Nemesis to shift into a high gear. Within the opening minutes the first gunshots are fired and the unrelenting pace is set, hardly ever losing momentum. There are a number of hugely entertaining, if tactically iffy, gunfights throughout. Overly enthusiastic stunt performers are par for the course for most action movies, but there are some truly innovative stunts here. One scene in particular involves an ingenious escape from a multi-storey building using only an automatic firearm with seemingly infinite ammunition. Similar scenes can be found in later films such as The Matrix. With that in mind, it’s hard to deny the influence that Nemesis has had on the genre, yet it has never received its rightful credit, possibly due to its B movie status.

The most obvious flaws that hold Nemesis back are the acting and the writing. It’s typical B movie fare with an overwhelming sense of the actors just doing a job to pay the bills. In defence of the actors, though, it’s hard to portray characters that are so badly written. It was an unusual casting choice to put Olivier Gruner, a world class kick boxer, in a role so bereft of actual fighting. Certainly, it was a gamble and it nearly paid off. Gruner proves to be excellent at all things action, but appears uncomfortable when delivering more than a few lines of dialogue. The supporting cast include Brion James, Tim Thomerson, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa and Deborah Shelton to name a few. All are capable actors and they all perform adequately with what little they are given, it’s just unfortunate that they are not given enough content to be able to fully flesh out their characters. It’s a shame because the action would have been even more effective if we cared about the characters involved.

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Tim tries not to shoot Brion while he’s “thesping”.

Amongst the explosions, the hammy acting and the unintentionally hilarious dialogue, there are some genuinely intriguing aspects of Nemesis. The depiction of a future where humans rely more and more on machines rings true to a certain extent. A future referred to in the film as “the information age” is eerily reminiscent of today’s online focused society. Perhaps this was remarkable foresight for a film that was released over twenty years ago, but considering the lack of focus on anything but over-the-top entertainment, it seems more likely to be a happy accident than clairvoyance.

Science fiction motion pictures tend to depend heavily on visual effects. Unusually for a B movie, they are of a high quality here. It’s hardly surprising that the visual effects are as impressive as they are, seeing as Gene Warren is responsible for them. Not only was Warren part of the visual effects team that won an Academy award for their ground-breaking work on Terminator 2, he had also won the same award for The Time Machine way back in 1960. So the quality of the visual effects for “Nemesis” were never in doubt, despite the small budget. Granted, they may not look as fresh nowadays, but for the time they were very impressive.

There are exciting ideas aplenty here. Ideas that have, admittedly, been explored deeper and put to better use elsewhere. But Nemesis is all about the spectacle. Not so much “high concept” as it is “high adrenaline”. With a different director at the helm this could have been a slow-burning sci-fi epic of Philip K. Dick proportions, but would it have been as outrageously exciting? Well, that’s for you to decide.

It’s far from perfect. It’s not for everyone. At times it’s nonsensical and downright silly, but if you are prepared to suspend disbelief and if you enjoy mindless entertainment, then you won’t be disappointed.

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