Film Review: Cyborg 2

A look back at Angelina Jolie’s feature film debut, including interviews with the actress and director Michael Schroeder

This 1993 “sequel” is only marginally related to its 1989 namesake (which starred kickboxer Jean-Claude Van Damme). Filmed under the cryptic title “Glass Shadows,” CYBORG 2 tells another tale of a human being teaming up with a cyborg in a post-apcalyptic wasteland. The film’s other two claims to fame are that it represents the feature film debut of Angelina Jolie (who went on to win an Oscar years later), and it was the first project in which veteran character actor Jack Palance appeared after winning his Oscar in 1992 for CITY SLICKERS. CYBORG 2 is also one of the last gasps of low-budget genre filmmaking intended for theatres: shot in widescreen, the movie was clearly intended for theatrical release, yet wound up going direct-to-video, at a time when independent distributors were realizing it was easer and faster to get a return on their investment in video stores, rather than trying to compete with major Hollywood movies in theatres.

Which is a little bit unfair, because CYBORG 2 is not a bad example of genre filmmaking; in fact, it’s reasonably entertaining, using its modest budget to good effect. The set-up is that the cyborg body of “Cash” (Jolie) contains a liquid explosive that the Pinwheel Corporation wants to use against their rivals. Her martial arts instructor “Colt” (Koteas) falls in love with her and helps her escape from her corporate creators, aided and abetted by the mysterious Mercy (Palance), who has hacked into the Pinwheel security system, messaging the couple through the Pinwheel security monitors. The story then takes the form of a chase (a la LOGAN’S RUN) as Cash and Colt try to outrun the bounty hunters sent to retrieve the beautiful cyborg for her intended assassination mission.

The script is competent, and the actors do a fine job with it. Jolie shows plenty of promise, making it little surprise that she would go on to become a major star. Koteas (previously seen in TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES) handles the leading-man heroics well, and character actors Tracey Walter and Bill Drago (the poor man’s Richard Lynch) show up to lend their usual stable support. Real-life martial artist Karen Sheperd acquits herself quite nicely as one of the villains (her climactic fight with Jolie is probably worth the price of a rental). Palance is great in what amounts to an extended cameo (he is really only on screen for a minute or two, but the film suggests his presence throughout, thanks to the device of having him appear on the security monitors). The makeup and special effects are all impressive, especially considering the limited resources available, and director Michael Schroeder puts the whole package together in a stylish fashion. The result may not be a masterpiece, but it does deliver the promised thrills.

CYBORG 2 was one in the seemingly endless line of sequels that upstart film production company Trimark made to films they did not originally produce. (The list also includes RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD III, WARLOCK: THE ARMAGEDDON, and THE PHILADELPHIA EXPERIMENT II.) CYBORG 2 is an exception among the list, in that the above-average piece of low-budget filmmaking actual exceeds the original. But that should come as little surprise to those who have seen the previous genre films of director and co-writer Michael Schroeder. After all, he managed to redeem the slasher formula in OUT OF THE DARK, and even the low-brow MORTUARY ACADEMY was at least fitfully funny.

In this case, Schroeder was given the unenviable task of making a sequel to a film that was not very well received in the first place. Fortunately, Trimark preferred to avoid direct continuity in their sequels (even when, as in the case of LEPRECHAUN 1 and 2, they did initiate the franchise). This allowed Schroeder the opportunity to fashion a largely original work; in fact, during production, the press releases gave nary a hint that this was a sequel to anything at all.

Schroeder inherited the script, about a cyborg who realizes her makers have created her to be a tool of assassination. “I liked the whole idea of the [Pinwheel] company trying to play God and trying to create people,” recalls Schroeder. “I liked the idea that love is stronger than man or machine.”

Still, the director had a hand in reshaping the material. “It had some nice scenes, but it was very technical, very impersonal. It read like a repair manual for a VCR; it also read like a $40-million film. We knew we didn’t have that kind of budget. The one thing I knew we did have was a good story, and I thought that, if we enhanced the relationship between Colt and Cash and told that story instead of trying to do an effects film, we’d come out with a pretty nice picture. So we do have some effects and stunts, but they were hand-picked, not wall-to-wall. I think I had a lot to do with sharpening the dramatic story, combining some characters and creating some new ones, writing a lot of the relationship scenes, and taking out very expensive effects scenes in order to propel the story along.”

When working at this level of filmmaking, Schroeder explains, trying to overcome script deficiencies is more the rule than the exception. “This was my fifth feature in six years as director, and every one was kind of marginal at the screenplay level, at best. We tried to beef that up, and when you saw the movies, they were definitely better than the screenplays. This is my best script so far, and obviously working on the rewrite myself helped me ‘see’ the picture when it came time to direct.”

Trimark kept out of the development process except for offering a few suggestions. Once the script was ready, Schroeder was able to land veteran actor Jack Palance, fresh off his Oscar win, in the rather unusual role of Mercy, a human being who has been rebuilt as a cyborg. Sympathetic to man-made cyborgs attempting to escape their creators, Mercy has infiltrated the Pinwheel security systems, to offer helpful suggestions to Cash and Colt regarding their escape.

“There are a lot of video effects with Mercy the Mouth,” Schroeder jokes. “Through 80% of the picture, what you see of him is just his lips or his eyes on the TV screen, and we shot those all in one day. I took that video and solarized it to make it mysterious looking.”

Making an impressive debut was Jolie, though she did present one potential problem to her director. The non-union picture had to shoot around the clock in order to keep on schedule, but child labor laws would have kept the underage actress from working more than a regular shift. “She’s a real talent,” Schroeder enthuses. “It’s her first movie, but I read probably fifty actresses and model types, and it was really difficult to find somebody who had the cyborg quality but still has some kind of presence, and when this girl came in, I knew she had what it takes. Then I found out she’s only seventeen, and we can’t mess around with labor laws and welfare workers and school teachers. I just didn’t have that luxury; I had to shoot, shoot, shoot. She had just finished high school; she had done her junior and senior year in five months – a I wish I could have done that! Then I found out later that her father is Jon Voight, so the acting’s definitely in her genes. He knew a judge and made some calls, and we got her emancipated, because she had been living on her own for quite awhile. She just needed to file and get a judge to agree to it, so then we could just work, and we didnt have to give her special treatment. And she’s a tough girl; she hangs in there until the last shot of the day. She was the most mature seventeen year old I’ve ever met.”

“I was very surprised,” Jolie admits of landing the lead in a post-apocalyptic martial arts love story. “I have a very aggressive side to me, but I never considered myself for this type of action film. I knew I could do it, but it shocked me that other people believed it as well. I’ve always been thin and very petite, so I had to work out really hard.”

Before auditioning, Jolie had only recently begun taking kickboxing lessons. “That’s why they set me up for the film, so once I started I was glad I had gotten into it. I couldn’t have hoped for a better first film, because it involved special effects and getting very physical, learning martial arts and shooting a gun, so it kept me busy. I like drama because I have a theatre background, but I guessed this set would be very focused. It’s nice to have everybody real happy on set, real loose, so you can enjoy it.”

One of the highlights is the catfight between Cash and and a rival corporation’s cyborg assassin, played by Karen Shepherd. “I think it’s fun to see two women fighting,” says Jolie. “She’s a real fighter; she’s been trained, and she did the Conan fight for Universal studios. She knows so much it’s easy to work with her. She could be careful with me. If I stepped too far or too close, she was ready to move back; it’s not like two amateurs. Over the weekend we called each other and worked together with the stunt coordinator.”

The actress was intrigued by her part “because she has to seize the world. She’s almost child-like and naive. She experiences almost all of her emotions for the first time like love and hate and fear, and it’s all very new to her. I also liked that she has strength, but she’s not invincible – she has weakness. I was happy when I read the script, and then I saw the casting – it’s a great group of characters.”

Jolie was also concerned about displaying the slightly inhuman quality of a character who had not lived long enough to develop many personal idiosyncrasies. “She is very direct and to-the-point; she doesn’t have a lot of little quirks. For her expressions, I studied different things like animals. I have an iguana at home – they are very slow and very alert.”

Planned for a theatrical release, the film was shot in an anamorphic widescreen format; unfortunately, when Trimark instead opted to hand the finished film over to their direct-to-video division, Vidmark, this extra effort went to waste. “When you’re shooting anamorphic, the lighting is much more involved,” explains the director. “I like to move the camera – keep the visuals flowing – and that takes time. I’ve got a certain style, and I don’t like to compromise. I don’t like to just go from master shot to medium shot to close-up and then save it in the editing. It just doesn’t work for me. I count on my vision to be correct, and we shoot it one certain way and with certain movements. If I feel I might be in trouble – the move might be too long – I will shoot a cut-away or two. But I pretty much bank on the shot list that I put together for the sequence.”

According to Schroeder, “The biggest challenge is just to get someone to back you and give you the autonomy to make your movie and not to get locked into the committee. There’s so many different opinions. They say that a camel is a horse designed by committee, and I really believe that. On the other hand, they say that ‘art is the sum of one man’s madness,’ and that’s why I never do TV, commercials, or rock videos. I don’t like account directors telling me where to put the camera. I’d rather not work than have that, so I stay in features, which is definitely a director’s medium. As long as people support me and love my dailies, I can just about do what I want. I’d like to continue doing that but on a larger level. I know I have to prove myself. Once you’ve directed a couple of good movies, it all boils down to the box office. The more box office you make, the more power you have in Hollywood. I’m just trying to keep the integrity of my work at a high standard, because I know the rest of it will come in time.”

Although CYBORG 2 went straight to video, it was successful enough to generate a second sequel, CYBORG 3, starring Zach Galligan (GREMLINS), Richard Lynch (THE NINTH CONFIGURATION), and Malcolm McDowell (A CLOCKWORK ORANGE). Schroeder directed this film, too, although he wanted to avoid being tagged as a genre specialist. “I consider myself a complete filmmaker – I could take a story and visually make it an interesting experience. Quite frankly, I’m bored with explosions and stuff. I’m much more interested in story and dramatics, and I love to use the effects and stunts to propel the story along.” .

This article original appeared, in slightly altered form, in Imagi-Movies 2:1 (Fall 1994).

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.