When James Cameron made The Terminator in 1984, he included as a sort of nod to his own reference points in making the film a nightclub named ‘Tech Noir.’ Call it an in-joke or a statement of purpose, but in the years since tech noir became (or perhaps continued to exist as) a real genre with tangible, definable features, as wave after wave of trenchcoated men who may or may not be cyborgs ran along neon-coated streets, talking to themselves just like the hardboiled detectives of another era, or another world, few if any films seem to embody the unwritten ethos of tech noir better than Albert Pyun’s 1992 film Nemesis, which doesn’t just employ these tropes but bottles up their energy and injects it right into the viewer’s veins. To put it in marketing terms, it’s a high-octane, explosive cybershock to the adrenal system that leaves no bullet unfired and no cybernetic body part unrevealed. It would be an action classic even if all it had were its action sequences, a kind of cross between the meditative violence of John Woo with even more acrobatic gunplay and superpowered cyborg battles, like something from a 90s comic book. But as usual, Pyun had more on his mind than excitement or thrills, and Nemesis also contains a, believe it or not, smart political parable for those who don’t get sidetracked by its extremely entertaining genre trappings.
Things get complicated, though, when you remember that some of those genre trappings are themselves hiding something of greater significance within themselves, like a gun tucked away in a cyborg’s face. Pyun’s frame of reference for Nemesis isn’t just The Terminator or Blade Runner but William Gibson, so it only stands to reason that its characters would be grappling with questions of identity, philosophy, and morality in between (and sometimes during) action scenes.
The protagonist of Nemesis is Alex Rain, played by French kickboxer Oliver Gruner, who cuts the perfect figure for this tech noir universe. Rain works as a bounty hunter for the Los Angeles Police Department, hunting down cyborgs and terrorists while attempting to hang on to his own dwindling humanity. The central metaphor of the film is one of machinery vs humanity, but it isn’t necessarily flesh and blood that determines which category you fall into -- as one of Alex’s associates puts it in a line that like a lot of the dialogue in the film seems to carry a surprising depth: “it takes more than flesh and blood to be human.” Rain only has a few cybernetic body parts but he’s working for a machine, one that’s corrupt, violent, and oppressive under the veneer of law and order, and that’s what’s separated him from his humanity far more than any metal replacement part ever could.
Some may chafe at taking a movie like this seriously enough to recognize any such metaphor, but Nemesis continually strives toward serious contemplation of heavy themes within its somewhat impenetrable cyber-espionage plot. As is the case with many of Pyun’s films, his interest goes far beyond the usual audience draws of violence, nudity, and humor, although Nemesis never lets too much time pass between bursts of those, even if sometimes the humor feels like it was beamed from some corner of cyberspace far from human influence.
If you can’t buy into the philosophy, Nemesis does have some of the most beautifully kinetic onscreen action ever filmed. Albert Pyun is famous (possibly infamous) for making movies on as close to nothing as possible, but Nemesis is possibly the only time he had a budget to match the images in his head. Despite the high tech trappings Pyun’s approach to action and violence has a touch of the mystical: watch Alex as he uses one of his trusty handguns to blow open the lock on a metal gate, or (in possibly the film’s most singularly memorable moment) both of them to carve holes in each successive floor of an apartment building as he falls through to escape some menacing bad guys. In both cases, his guns are less the mechanically violent devices they are in real life and more akin to magic wands that can deliver death and destruction, yes, but can also deliver their wielder out of danger with the right incantation. Alex also has a penchant for firing his weapons while flying through the air in increasingly implausible but exciting acrobatic feats, and the film’s visual strategy towards action mirrors this with the kind of explosions, gunfire, and cybernetic prosthetic effects that would soon go extinct as CGI effects became affordable even on low-budget projects. Speaking of which, Nemesis may also be the last time that stop-motion effects were used instead of CGI to animate a character like the robotic skeleton that menaces Alex during the film’s climax.
Nemesis in some ways belies analysis since so much of the plot is delivered in staccato blasts of expository dialogue -- I’ve watched the movie several times and upon each revisit I feel like I’m a little bit closer to figuring out exactly what happens in it. Visually, the film is pure cybernetic chrome, throwing off waves of heat and light, a masterpiece of making a film that can match its poster in terms of mood. But it also means that to even come close to properly experiencing the film you actually have to sit down and watch it. The highest recommendation I can bestow is to put Pyun in a class with not just John Woo but filmmakers like George Miller or Sam Raimi who have such a beautiful knack for conveying physical kinetic action on screen. For this one project at least, Pyun was playing in that league.
Nemesis spawned three sequels directed by Pyun (and a belated Nemesis 5 that came out in 2017), all more characteristic of his low budget guerilla style. But it remains, as most of Pyun’s films have, a cult item that is more or less unknown to a mass audience. For many years it was a difficult film to see at all in the United States, but it’s since made the leap to Blu-ray and streaming which has allowed it to expand its audience.
Cyborg detectives and robotic skeletons have their own inherent appeal, and Nemesis delivers on that while providing much more to reward the repeat viewer (or, at least, this repeat viewer). Pyun’s career, which includes many other cyborg-focused films, including, naturally, 1989’s Cyborg starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, also a treasure trove of surprises, even as Nemesis stands alone in his oeuvre. And for fans of the “tech noir” genre, it is absolutely essential viewing.