Retro Isn’t New: NEMESIS (1-4)
MVD Rewind is ruining my life. I was totally comfortable in my snobbery, relaxing into a lifetime of “subtitled films only”, but now I’m caught in an undertow. An ever increasing trove of cinematic casualties salvaged from the chasm of the digital / physical media transition, Rewind rides the resurgent wave of collectors who relish what they can hold. One of Pottstown PA-based MVD Entertainment’s three labels (MVD Classics, MVD Marquee), Rewind taps into the bloodstream on a slow drip with unexpected titles released each month. We’re not talking masterpieces here. MVD’s doesn’t dabble in the world of “foregone conclusions of greatness”. That’s why we have the Criterion Collection. MVD Rewind endeavors for something less obvious, and in a sense more difficult, which is to give fringe, overlooked or forgotten titles a second lease on life within a context of genuine appreciation and nostalgic warmth. In effect, it is an antidote to the Criterion Collection in its assertion that “the film itself” is not necessarily the ideal, but as my peer Alex Rudolph pointed out in his review of Rewind’s Double Dragon Special Edition, it is the feeling generated by their specific treatment of the films and our contact with that artifact. To posit these movies disowned by time as objects worth saving, worth reevaluation, worth the effort of restoration and contextualization is the good work. Flicks you never thought you’d see in 1080p, perhaps films you’ve never even heard of, or caught once by happenstance on TV when you only had 10 channels, are vindicated by enjoyable new supplements, transfers, interviews, and the occasional making-of documentary that is longer than the film itself. This family of misfit films is now 16 titles deep and growing, and I can’t wait to see what’s next (Incidentally it is Boogie Boy ).
If there is one thing I’ve learned from the ever-increasing swath of MVD Rewind discs that now line my shelves, I’m a sucker for slip covers. Rewind has a delightful visual identity, and it speaks to their MO whoelsale. Their distressed and aged slip covers, replete with torn rental store stickers and sun bleached colors makes for an immediate pupil-shrinking dose of nostalgic serotonin whether you’ve seen the damn movie before or not. As their namesake suggests, they harken back to a time when my tastes were less “refined” less “exclusive”, a time when I relished whatever Segal, Van Damme or Schwartzeneger flick was playing on a Saturday afternoon, or would readily consume the Kung Fu movie of the week on WGTW TV 48. That slumbering beast has been awakened and it cannot get enough. Now, for every finely calibrated and subtle Abbas Kiarostami, I need a go-for-broke Albert Pyun clusterf#ck.
Although Rewind makes a hard lean toward brawler films like Lionheart, Black Eagle, Showdown, and Angel Town, they aren’t a genre label. Rewind has a broader more spontaneous approach to acquisitions, and in that way it replicates the wanderlust of searching for titles at the rental store with each new release. As such, Double Dragon, Nemesis, Windrider, Shadow Builder, Return of Swamp Thing, Savannah Smiles, Bright Lights Big City and more all carry the same moniker. What they share is perhaps purely idiosyncratic to the curators of the label (and a timespan from 82’-’06), but that peculiar passion for less obvious titles translates into the resultant editions.
NEMESIS (1992) was the first Rewind disc to land on my doorstep and is thus the gold standard of the collection in my mind. The effort that went into a discarded practical effects-driven gem like this is evident all the way through. An alluring design, a bevy of strong features,(including three cuts of the film), interviews, introductions by director Albert Pyun (Cyborg) and star Olivier Gruner, and much much more, make for a sleek and venerable edition for what should be a more salient cult classic. Made the same year as Terminator 2, NEMESIS which enjoys none of that watershed sci-fi moment, is a cyberpunk neo-noir that I wish I’d had in my life sooner. That said, it hasn’t received a truly respectable release until MVD Rewind’s 1080p facelift, so perhaps I waited for just the right time to envisage Los Angeles, 2027 where “Troubled cyborg cop Alex (Olivier Gruner, Angel Town) is ordered by police commissioner Farnsworth (Tim Thomerson, Near Dark) to apprehend his former partner and lover Jared (Marjorie Monaghan,Regarding Henry), accused of smuggling data to information terrorists plotting to kill government officials. Systems cowboys, bio enhanced gangsters and cyborg outlaws all play a part in this battle of man vs. machine.” (MVD) For my money, Tim Thomerson's Farnsworth steals the show. His tones and rhythms bizarre and a head above the rest. He carries the larger insidious threat of the film on his shoulders, counterpointed by Gruner’s somewhat reluctant and apathetic Alex.
The nothing-if-not-resourceful Pyun, whose prolific below-the-radar contribution to the sci-fi thriller genre should garner respect, accomplishes some truly enjoyable world-building here, seeding an impression of a much larger antagonism between humans and cyborgs, as well as exploring the existential struggle - albeit in slightly shallow depth - of a man becoming machine piece by piece. “86.5% is still human” he says. While real-world Kickboxing champion Gruner never really became the megastar that his fellow European cohort Van Damme did, he started off with a bang in 1990’s Angel Town, followed by NEMESIS. NEMESIS has an intentional coolness to it, a brooding mood and a sense of texture, thanks to its practical effects which include a Harryhausen style stop motion fight sequence inside the cargo hold of an aircraft. George Mooradian’s camera makes for a sleek look and some truly inventive shots that lend fluidity and scale to a film that needs both to succeed. For whatever it may lack in terms of pacing, tonal or spatial cogency NEMESIS would have rocked my world as a child. “State of the fucking art, Alex!” would have been a quotable mainstay. Then again, if theorists are correct, the past and present are simultaneous and I am indeed watching this as both child and adult, which Rewind seems to understand intrinsically.
The three subsequent Pyun-directed NEMESIS Sequels made between ’95-’96, have just received their own separate Triple-Feature edition, marking the Rewind’s first multi-picture release (Available march 26th!) and the films’ bluray debut. There is a NEMESIS 5 produced by Pyun but directed by Dustin Ferguson, which is for several reasons is not a rewind candidate (largely because it was made in 2017). As a completist in the throws of my honeymoon phase with NEMESIS (1992), I HAD to have these. Made on comparatively shoestring budgets with much tighter shooting schedules and less pre-production staging (case and point, NEMESIS 2 and 3 were shot at the same time, and NEMESIS 4 was shot in 5 days in between while Pyun was doing reshoots for Adrenaline: Fear The Rush), these three feel more like a compilation of visual experiments, stunts and mythology building, stitched together with evident haste and only a tenuous kind of coherency. For some reason Pyun thought that the camera should behave itself when it really needed to be roaming and gliding as it did in the first installment of the series, and that stylistic link would have gone a long way to positing these new narratives as part of the same world. So much panache can result from a well executed steadicam shot.
Having seen all three sequels in rapid succession, I think Pyun was perhaps premature in cutting any of them into a film before all three production schedules were complete. A decent, possibly even exciting film could be cobbled together from all three, the third offering material and space to recall elements of the previous two. That said, NEMESIS 2: Nebula stands out for its purity as a “chase film“, wherein the landscape, its warring factions, and the pursuant threat make for a perfect environment for its protagonists instincts and power to awaken. Professional bodybuilder Sue Price did the best she could with what she was given as Alex, a woman born from genetic experiments in an effort to create a warrior for the fight against the cyborgs. She is sent back in time as an infant to protect her life, but her mother is killed in the process and she is raised by a tribe who would also perish in the cross-hairs of her pursuers, in a tumultuous 1980’s East Africa embroiled by armed conflict between political powers, foreign prospectors and rebels. Nebula, the titular assassin hails from the future as a Predator-like steampunk-inflected cyborg that spares no one in its pursuit of Alex, punctuating the film abrasively but also rhythmically. Between NEMESIS 2 and 3 Alex is relentlessly pursued in the industrial mining environs of her former childhood lands by time hopping cyborg assassins, piecing together her origins and purpose in a cuthroat world of self-interested deceitful people. NEMESIS 4 finds her a double (if not triple) crossed for-hire Assassin in a post Cyborg-war world where she is decidedly more of the Femme Fatale and less the desert roaming survivalist. As a body builder her capacities are somewhat under used or misused. Save for a handful of notable stunt sequences, Pyun seems to have expected Price to be more agile and athletic when she is more stoic and rigid, thus the approach to her physicality is misfired and makes her appear less adept or clumsier than she is. Her capacities as a warrior intended to win a war are shy of convincing, and sadly that deflates the drama, despite their percolating potential in NEMESIS 2. Frustrated as I might have been with many of Pyun’s decisions, disturbed as I was by the sometimes radical shifts in photographic quality shot to shot, I also found a twisted excitement about that critiquing reflex. I haven’t had reactions like this to anything I’ve watched in a long time because I haven’t surprised myself by watching anything uncharacteristic in ages. By and large I am slim and selective about what I watch… but now I have these three bonkers films - each mercifully short but containing strange rhythms and potent visuals - burning a hole in my head and I want to watch them again… now. Pyun’s self-critical commentaries give light to the fact that these three pictures missed the mark of his intentions and serve more as thematic and visual experiments. It is from the relief of that admission that one can decide to relish them as train wrecks or troves of brash and dislocated ideas. I’m somewhere in the middle and happily so.
The triple feature disc is inexpensive and necessary for completists…. but perhaps only completists? That said, it ranked as the #1 Sci-fi title on Amazon when it went up for pre-order, so what the hell do I know. The original NEMESIS is a slightly pricier item but a magnificent production, a strong picture in its own right, and a wonderful artifact to hold. How NEMESIS isn’t a midnight movie staple, I’ll never know, but consider this my formal petition!
Check back with Cinema 76 as we look at more titles from MVD Rewind!