And so to the final entry of live-action anime month – The Guyver or Mutronics as it was titled in some territories. Usually I completely object to retitling movies but I can kind of see why they did it in this case. Firstly, The Guyver doesn't give you much of a clue as to what the movie is about and secondly, it's too easy to confuse with the similarly titled Richard Dean Anderson TV show McGyver. Mutronics, though, does give you more of a clue because really it's about a bunch of guys who can mutate in to enormous monsters.
But there's a bit more to the plot than that. Here goes! Jack Armstrong plays Sean Barker, an average weedy young guy. When his girlfriend's father, Dr Sewaga, is murdered Sean goes to investigate the crime scene and discovers a mysterious alien device called The Guyver Unit. When activated the unit fuses with his body and allows him to turn into a bio-mechanically suited super hero. However the doctor stole the device from an evil company called the Chronos Corporation and now they've sent several henchmen to retrieve it. But these guys aren't your garden variety henchmen, they're Zoanoids, humans who can mutant into giant monsters. Should Sean run or stay and fight?
The film was co-directed by Screaming Mad George and Steve Wang. At first it might seem quite weird to have two directors but I guess it meant that George, a special effect expert who had worked on films like Re-Animator 2 and Nightmare on Elm Street 4, could focus on the effects shots while Wang, who directed the Mark Dacascos classic Drive, could make sure the martial arts fights were up to scratch.
One thing that I do object to is the fact that the DVD copy I got had Mark Hamill's face on the cover alongside a shot of the Guyver mask suggesting he's the hero. He's not. He plays a supporting character called Max Reed, a CIA agent on the trail of the Zoanoids. Another thing to watch out for is that fact that the only available DVD version is the “Director's Cut” which cuts a lot of the fun gore and cussing, which is a bit of shame. Anyway shouldn't it be plural - “Directors's Cut”?
Despite all the cuts, Screaming Mad George's effects work still shines through when it comes on screen. Sure, it looks a little cheap and fake in places but it really adds to the go-for-broke feel of the film. Whereas a lot of films would concentrate on one or two monsters, The Guyver unleashes a whole gang of them and this is clearly where most of the budget went. In fact George re-creates the famous cockroach death from Nightmare on Elm Street 4 here to lesser effect.
In a lot of ways, the film feels a little conflicted. Too gory for kids and too goofy for adults. On the one hand, the film is reminiscent of the Power Rangers TV show or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with a suited hero beating up oversized cartoonish monsters. But on the other hand the film is produced by Brian Yuzna who directed splatter-fests like Society, Re-Animator 2 & 3 and Return of the Living Dead 3. I can't be that surprised that the film flopped at the box office on release, but I hope that the kids who did manage to trick their parents into taking them got a kick out seeing it.
The acting is pretty cheesy but it doesn't really spoil the film. Jack Armstrong is pretty lacklustre as the lead but the supporting cast goes a long way to helping out. Former Luke Skywalker Mark Hamill does a good job as the gruff CIA agent, it's just a shame his subplot melts away, quite literally. Michael Berryman also makes a great villain as Lisker and the Re-Animator himself Jeffrey Combs also pops up towards the end – humorously named Dr East.
The film really doesn't take itself very seriously which no doubt enraged fans of the anime. Scene transitions are done with a cheesy fanfare and lightning bolt. And one pretty oddball moment comes midway through the film when, in a bit of meta-ness, one of the monsters accidentally stumbles into a horror movie set and the film crew treat him like he's their own costumed creature.
Overall, The Guyver isn't too bad an attempt to make a live-action anime. It's maybe skewed a little too much toward a kiddy audience and I wouldn't be surprised if that was a studio mandate. Still it's well worth watching for the costumes and fights just expect it all to be covered in a thick layer of cheese.
So it seems even though the first film flopped it did enough rental business to justify a direct to video sequel. Returning to the directing chair is Steve Wang but this time Screaming Mad George bows out. I can kind of see why, the film is much more skewed towards fights and I guess the budget just couldn't stretch to two directors.
Guyver: Dark Hero picks up the story of Sean Barker some time after the original film. He's ditched his girlfriend and is a full-on vigilante super hero taking down criminals in abandoned warehouses. When a group of archaeologists uncover a hidden cave full of mystical symbols Barker goes to investigate, believing that the markings explain what the Guyver unit really is. When he gets there, he teams up with a female archaeologist. But before long the Chronos Corporation sends out another group of muscle bound mutants to kill Sean and take back the Guyver unit.
“Goodbye goofiness, hello violence” – is probably the best way of summarising this sequel. No more cheesy transitions or self-aware humour. The violence is really brutal, monsters get decapitated, hands gets snapped off and the fight scenes go on and on. You've got to hand it to the performers in these bulky suits, the fact that they can still pull off high energy martial arts is amazing.
The budget on Dark Hero is very, very low budget – according to the director it was about $900,000 – which is very noticeable when placed alongside the original, which had around $10 million. Still Wang does a good job for the budget. The picture is very washed out but the care involved in the fight choreography is still very visible. They've clearly saved a lot of money by having a lot of the film set in caves or forest areas too.
Instead of Jack Armstrong we get David Hayter as Sean Barker/The Guyver. Hayter is famously the voice of Solid Snake in the popular Metal Gear series and is also credited as co-writing the script for Zack Snyder's Watchmen. He does a good job as Barker and is far more like your classical action movie hero. Sadly, we don't get much of a decent supporting cast like the original film had. It really needed someone like Michael Berryman to make the bad guys more memorable.
Interestingly, despite the change in tone the film does make a few references to the previous entry. It's surprising because most of the time with these sort of DTV sequels, particularly when they change actors, they tend to treat themselves as stand alone entries. I think someone diving straight into this film will be a bit confused with all the backstory but someone who's watched the anime will easily be able to keep up.
One negative point about the film is that the version I watched had a patience-testing running time of 115 minutes when really it needed to be more like 90. I mean after the opening warehouse scenes it's exclusively set in or around the archaeological dig site, and it's not like there's a massively complex plot.
Overall Guyver: Dark Hero is still a pretty good film though. It's hard to pick which is better, the original had a very glossy feel whereas this is very rough around the edges. But then this has more of the crazy violence levels I wanted from the original. One thing that really knocked off points is that most of the action in Dark Hero is shot during daylight which gives the film little style and makes the costumes look even more campy and unthreatening than they should.
In the end, none of the films I've reviewed can really be called a successful anime adaptation. Too often it seems that American studios have bought popular Japanese properties then neutered their violence levels and failed to give them enough budget to successfully translate the property from animation to live-action. Of all the films, The Guyver movies probably come closest so check these out first.
So that's it for live-action anime month. It's been a lot of fun but I've really only just started scratching the surface with this particularly sub-genre, so maybe I'll do some more in the future.