Director: Albert Pyun
Writers: Albert Pyun, Christopher Borkgen
Cast: Keith Cooke, Gary Daniels, Thom Matthews, Tina Cote, Norbert Weisser, Tim Thomerson
It’s been nearly a year of Western martial arts b-movie reviews on Fist of B-List, and we’ve somehow overlooked the work of Albert Pyun entirely. I feel like I should have my niche film genre Internet criticism card revoked. Thankfully, no such identification exists so I’ll try to make up for my sins by covering his 1995 movie Heatseeker. This is one of several Pyun-helmed cyborg kickboxer movies set in the future, which should probably make him the undisputed king of “spin-kicks-and-science” films. So is Heatseeker a classic of the sub-genre that I completely made up?
In the year 2019, Chance O’Brien (Cooke) is the most dominant kickboxer in the sport. After vanquishing an opponent named Xao (played by Gary Daniels), and a more recent challenger during a match in Rome, O’Brien is on top of the world. His girlfriend and trainer Jo (Cote) agrees to marry him and their future appears to be nothing but sunshine and roses with some occasional spin kicks and elbows to the face.
However, during a post-match press conference, Jo and Chance are confronted by Mr. Tung, the douchey director of marketing for the Sianon Corporation. Behind the scenes, Sianon has rebuilt Xao as a cybernetically enhanced kickboxing machine and Tung believes that the best way to market the company’s technology to the masses is to hold a fighting tournament. By putting Xao up against other cyborgs from various corporations in a Pepsi Challenge of sorts, Sianon will be positioned to dominate the market for … I don’t know what. Without the participation of the biggest kickboxing draw on the planet, their contest won’t be nearly as successful. Tung does what he can to goad Chance into competing, but the champ thinks that fighting robots is a waste of time... i.e. his girlfriend thinks it’s a waste of time.
So what do the Sianon cretins do? They kidnap the girlfriend to give Chance an incentive. Rather than take the opportunity to play the field, he gives chase to New Manila, where the tournament is being held. New Manila is just like Old Manila, but with relaxed public nudity laws. Seriously, Cooke shows so much bare ass in this stretch of the film, you’d assume it was contractual. He eventually finds clothes, goes to tournament orientation, and makes friends with a fellow fighter played by Thom Matthews. Jo, meanwhile, is under mind control that could probably be put to more nefarious use to assassinate a world leader or rob a bank, but is instead used to train Gary Daniels. Can Chance beat the baddies and break the cybernetic spell on his main squeeze?
The film’s tournament fight scenes are not much different from most below-average American martial arts movies from this era, but there are a couple of components that make them visually interesting. First, look at the size of that fighting ring. It’s a goddamn football field. The dimensions and openness don’t exactly force the action between competitors. It was a notable touch if only for the strange lack of logic, but more important than the fighting space is the actual roster of fighters.
To counteract the sameness of his fighters’ muscular physiques, even tans, and scorched-earth policy toward body waxing, Pyun spruces things up in the wardrobe department. In the year 2019, the American Apparel brand is alive and well as evidenced by the fighters’ multicolored legging ensembles. Reimagining the combatants as Alphabet City hipsters beating each other to cyborgy pulps made the fights slightly more palatable, so I’m glad Pyun included the flourish.
There are three things that I’ve found Pyun often does well as a director: he frames landscapes beautifully, he makes Vincent Klyn look bad-ass, and he builds unique cinematic worlds. In Heatseeker, the first strength is a moot point because the locations and the emphasis on interior shots aren’t conducive to the type of sprawling compositions endemic to films like 1993’s Knights. Vincent Klyn sat this one out so there’s another missed opportunity. The cinematic universe of enhanced human-cyborg hybrids battling it out in a tournament sponsored by villainous corporate overlords is a fun action genre idea and to have a lone human as a serious contender is an added bonus. However, this component of the film is never fully realized.
The nameless and faceless in-match commentary really sinks this film. It's a risky device regardless, but the first misfire is not having a two-man team play the parts of color commentator and play-by-play man; as a result, the commentary lacks variety and any real drama. The second issue is that the commentator spends too much time describing the effect of the fight outcomes on corporate stock prices, the various technologies of the cybernetic enhancements made to the fighters, and the backgrounds and records of each fighter.
All of this information is pretty much superfluous because the fights are thoroughly average and we don’t see any techniques that might be the result of cybernetic skill-sets. Sure, give me fighters getting kicked into the upper deck of the arena. Give me gymnastic dudes flipping and twisting around the mat. Hell, crank the camera and give me an E. Honda-style Hundred Hand Slap. The film relied too heavily upon the commentary as the primary device to put over the superhuman skills of the fighters, and the only visual indications the audience receives that these guys are even cyborgs are some post-match close-ups of metallic make-up effects. How are we supposed to buy into Chance’s underdog status if his competition is so thoroughly human?
The cast of Heatseeker is pretty solid, though not everyone is maximized to the full extent of their talents. Pyun mainstays Tim Thomerson and Norbert Weisser are terrific as the corporate Sianon baddies. Weisser actually gets the majority of screen-time and is provided plenty of scenery upon which to chew. As one of Sianon’s “elders,” Thomerson doesn’t have quite as much in the way of dialogue, but his look is unforgettable: a shock of red hair and what appears to be a single, conspicuous cocaine finger nail on his index finger. Bloodmatch veteran Thom Matthews also deserves special mention; he’s pretty good on both the dramatic and action fronts as the cocky and conflicted fighting CEO Bradford.
The film gets into trouble with its principals, however. Daniels is decent as the main fighting villain but he only fights twice during the actual tournament and neither of the scenes are particularly well-constructed. His training scenes with Jo have a glimmer of tension to them but you never really get the sense that Jo is teaching him anything of substantive value. As Chance O’Brien, Cooke does pretty much everything asked of him and his kick-heavy offense looks great when the editing and shot selection stay out of the way. Despite his charisma, I never quite felt that this was Cooke’s movie though.
For a hero-driven conflict of this length to work, the primary focus needed to be on the central character and his journey. Pyun generates plenty of sympathy for his protagonist with the early plot points, but the film then gets bogged down with Weisser hamming it up in the board room and flaky training sessions with Xao and Jo. I’m not sure if there were more scenes of the hero left on the cutting room floor due to studio interference, but despite his lead status, Cooke isn’t quite afforded the opportunity to carry the film.
This review probably read like I hated this movie, but I ended up digging Heatseeker a bit more than I’d expected. It’s a lesser Pyun film, but it still has a number of campy and enjoyable Pyun imprints. The main problems -- the staleness of the fights, the lack of narrative focus, and the commentary annoyance factor -- were big roadblocks to a true trash gem and it checks in at just below average. It’s unfortunate that this role remains Keith Cooke’s only leading performance. The guy is a terrific screen fighter and has genuine charisma … when he keeps his clothes on.
Currently streaming on Netflix Instant in the U.S. VHS hard copies available via Amazon and EBay.