A quick look at one of the best action filmmakers you may never have heard of
The Archivist — Welcome to the Archive. As home video formats have evolved over the years, a multitude of films have found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Manufacture-On-Demand DVD operation devoted to thousands of idiosyncratic and ephemeral works of cinema. The Archive has expanded to include a streaming service, revivals of out-of-print DVDs, and factory pressed Blu-ray discs. Join us as we explore this treasure trove of cinematic discovery!
John Woo, George Miller, James Cameron… Steve Wang?
At first glance, one of these things may not feel like the others, but I’m here to declare filmmaker Steve Wang an underappreciated action filmmaking genius who has had a brilliant and varied Hollywood career but nonetheless deserves reappraisal and further renown than he’s yet achieved with the general public. I myself wasn’t particularly familiar with the man until recently, though it turns out his fingerprints have been all over movies I’ve loved for decades. Perhaps kept most busy throughout his career by his special effects work, Wang has had a hand in creature design and practical effects work dating back to such classics as Predator, Monster Squad, Hell Comes To Frogtown, and Gremlins 2, then all the way up to Bill & Ted Face The Music. You’ve probably also experienced some of his handiwork without necessarily knowing it. But it’s his directorial work on 3 films I’ve seen recently that I’d love to highlight.
The Guyver (1991)
Co-Directed with Screaming Mad George (himself a special effects artist who deserves more acclaim), The Guyver is an absolutely unhinged manga adaptation with perhaps one of the best and strangest “opening crawls” in cinematic history — dropping us into a world where creatures called “Zoanoids” created mankind as a biological weapon, exist among us as shapeshifting monsters, and created the powerful Guyver tech which, when tapped, can turn a human into the ultimate killing machine. The Guyver exists at the crossroads of body horror, slapstick comedy, and martial arts action. And it’s every ounce as weird and wonderful as that sounds. With a game turn from the legendary Mark Hamill as a cop who stumbles into this bizarre scenario and ultimately ends up in a, shall we say, extensive and impressive transformation sequence, Hamill appears to be having a blast throughout, even if he’s not the titular Guyver character as much of the film’s marketing indicated. Our lead, Sean Barker (Jack Armstrong) also stumbles into this whole world quite accidentally, tapping into the power of the Guyver by chance and becoming wrapped up in an intergalactic struggle beyond his comprehension when he becomes the martial arts “man in suit” Guyver. One part Power Rangers, all parts awesome, The Guyver is weird, wild, and wonderful, featuring incredible creature designs and make up effects, fantastic martial arts action, and an impossibly weird and indelible world all on what must have been a shoestring budget.
I watched The Guyver via Arrow’s UK Blu-ray release.
Guyver: Dark Hero (1994)
Sean Barker (now played by David Hayter who curiously went on to voice Solid Snake in the Metal Gear Solid video games, and also wrote X-Men & X2) thought he had beaten the Kronos Corporation and saved the planet from the Zoanoid threat, but it turns out his fight has only just begun, and the world he’s been swept up into is bigger than he ever imagined. Wang here assumes full directorial control and it seems Guyver: Dark Hero contains more of his unfiltered vision. This time featuring some early computer generated effects work, Guyver: Dark Hero is an ambitious if maybe a tad long sci-fi/action epic that is legendary in the circles I run in as an action cinema fan for an iconic kick frequently dubbed “the Guyver kick”.
It’s at this point that I should mention Koichi Sakamoto and his Alpha Stunts team. Unknown to me by name until I came in contact with the remarkable action cinema historian and podcaster Mike Scott from the Adkins Undisputed podcast, Sakamoto and his team are L.A. based action designers and choreographers, many of whom hail from Japan. Sakamoto is deep in the world of Japanese inspired “man in suit” properties such as Power Rangers, Ultraman, Kamen Rider, and the like. I’ve always been aware of this kind of stuff, but have never personally been a big follower. What’s neat, however, is seeing how much these kinds of shows and movies have been proving grounds for some of our greatest action filmmakers today like Sakamoto and Isaac Florentine.
What Guyver: Dark Hero trades in to great success is brilliantly captured, agile, hard-hitting martial arts choreography which makes these silly insect creatures and practical monster suits somehow look awesome, allowing for “man in suit” martial arts that are pretty much unrivaled. That Guyver kick alone is a feat of agility and timing even if you aren’t wearing an armored mech suit. Dark Hero does indeed go darker and grander in scale than the first Guyver film, with double agents, an archeological dig for a UFO, and countless monster mash ups. It looks exactly like a movie that didn’t have an enormous budget but put ALL of its limited resources up on the screen to entertain and delight viewers.
I watched Guyver: Dark Hero via Warner Archive’s DVD release of the film, which I believe is the only way for a US customer to own a physical copy of the film.
(not a Warner Archive title, but included in this article as relevant to the discussion)
(*not a Warner Archive title, but included in this article as relevant to the discussion)
With Drive, Steve Wang tackled a classic American genre in the “buddy action” picture, but infused it with Hong Kong style martial arts and gun battles that are just about unrivaled in terms of US-made action films. Starring the frankly legendary Mark Dacascos doing some of the most effortless looking martial arts you’ll ever see in an English language film, Drive partners our lead superhuman martial arts machine Toby Wong with Kadeem Hardison’s down and out sidekick Malik. An evil corporation will stop at nothing to get the performance enhancing tech that powers Toby’s heart, but only if Toby can’t get himself to a lab where he can expose them for the group of assassins they are first. So Malik is kind of Toby’s hostage as they begrudgingly bond over various life and death action set pieces as they race across the country to take down the bad guys. At some point a scenery chewing Brittany Murphy shows up, and the whole effort is simply excellent work all around.
Wang’s experience on the film was compromised, however, when distributors at HBO chose to take final edit, chop the movie down, alter the music, and generally alter the original tone of the movie. So while the film is somewhat of an under the radar cult classic, the version that many saw over the years really was a compromised final product. Today Wang’s original vision of Drive is available in a Director’s Cut thanks to MVD’s latest Blu-ray release. But this knowledge perhaps offers a clue as to why Steve Wang hasn’t gone on and directed dozens more projects since this martial arts classic. It seems his creative vision was stifled in a painful process, so even though the final film is now available and absolutely vindicates Wang as an “ahead of his time” visionary, he hasn’t opted to direct all that many films since this experience.
I watched Drive via MVD’s recently released, bonus-feature-rich Blu-ray release.
And so, while Steve Wang may not be the household name that a James Cameron really is, Wang (similarly to Cameron) has cut his teeth and kept them sharp on amazing special effects work and parlayed that into opportunities to direct. Wang hasn’t had as many “at-bats” as many far more famous directors, but with these three films being his signature features, he’s created some all-time good times at the movies. And his confidence, vision, and capability to deliver deserve respect to be put on his name.
And I’m Out.