"Italian Rip-off Cinema" is a fascinating and weird little sub-genre that I've only recently discovered. Essentially throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s a small group of Italian filmmakers made a handful of films that shamelessly borrowed from big budget Hollywood features. They borrowed their plots, their looks, their action beats and sometimes even big chunks of dialogue. Science fiction and horror films were the most popular though they also copied a lot of action films too. Escape from New York was reworked as 2019: After the Fall of New York. Dawn of the Dead (marketed in Italy as Zombi) was followed by the 'unofficial sequel' Zombi 2. Even Stallone's First Blood was reworked as Thunder Warrior about a disenfranchised native American instead of a Vietnam vet. Some were even so cheeky they got sued. Shocking Dark, a rip off of Aliens set in Venice, had the balls to originally called itself Terminator II. And Universal actually did sue the makers of Great White, a shark film that borrowed the entire plot from Jaws. These films were usually made on tiny budgets, hiring only one American actor and filling out the rest of the cast with overdubbed Italians. I guess a lot of people would say "why watch these when you can watch the originals" but half the fun is seeing your favourite movies rehashed on a fraction of the budget.
Hands of Steel has actually got quite an original plot though it is still clearly inspired somewhat by James Cameron's Terminator. The film is set in a dystopian future America. Daniel Greene plays Paco, a cyborg assassin who has been programmed by evil industrialist Francis Turner (John Saxon) to kill a prominent environmentalist. However, before Paco can complete the hit he is struck with a crisis of conscience and instead he goes rogue and flees the scene. He ends up hiding out at a diner in the middle of the desert where he meets, and later falls in love with, a waitress called Linda. In order to make some money he participates in arm-wrestling contests and ends up getting on the wrong side of most of the clientele. However that's the least of his worries, before long Turner manages to track him down to the diner and the scene is set for Paco to stop running and make his final stand.
It's quite amusing to see how they remixed Terminator here. Paco is essentially Kyle Reese and the T-800 combined into one character. And like Arnie's iconic character he's programmed to assassinate an important figure (only there's no time travel involved in this flick). Also, Paco falls in love with a simple waitress not unlike Reese did with Sarah Connor. They even have Paco slicing open his wrist to re-adjust his robotic skeleton just like Arnie did. There's also a little influence from Mad Max with the desert setting and Paco's sleeveless jacket. And it might be a stretch but I thought the production design (which is a pretty generous description) was trying to emulate Blade Runner. The reason I'm calling it generous is that the makers of this film mainly suggest that it's the future by putting up flexi-piping everywhere. And I mean everywhere.
Whereas James Cameron's Terminator was about our growing obsession with technology and where it could potentially lead, Hands of Steel is actually more concerned with the environment of all things. In one stand out scene the acid rain is so bad that it starts to eat through the car Paco's driving in! The film has a heavy background plot about how polluted the world has become in the future. The scientist who Paco is sent to kill at the beginning of the film is keeping track of the world's pollution levels and obviously Turner (representing all big businesses) wants him bumped off so that he won't tell people about how much pollution his company has produced. They also make the scientist both blind and wheelchair-bound to suggest how support for such concerns are poorly-represented. It's quite a bitter, obviously European, view of America.
The film was directed by Martin Dolman (aka Sergio Martino) who also did 2019: After the Fall of New York. He does a decent job directing the action and chase scenes but struggles to inject much life into the dialogue scenes. Daniel Greene, who plays the bizarrely named cyborg Paco Queruak has probably the easiest job of the whole cast. His stilted delivery is perfectly in keeping with his semi-robotic nature. And John Saxon makes a great weaselly-looking bad guy. He's not in the film for much but it's nice to have a recognisable face. The "best" actor of the whole film has to be George Eastman who plays a hirsute Mexican arm wrestler called Raoul who quickly develops a vendetta against Paco. I've put best in commas because his performance so crazy and over the top it can't be called good but it is a lot of fun to watch.
The story is quite small scale. I think I was expecting it to branch out a bit further and develop into more of chase movie (like Terminator) but it doesn't. I've got to say of all the subplots they could have filled the middle portion of the movie with I'm not sure why they went with arm wrestling. It's kind of a leftfield activity to stick in the middle of your movie. Why couldn't they have gone with straight forward fist fights? Anyway, that's beside the point as the arm wrestling scenes are pretty awesomely staged. As an extra bit of danger the participants arm wrestle next to poisonous snakes! There's also a pretty silly subplot about two cops trying to figure out who and what attacked the scientist. I'm not sure why they put this in. We know it was Paco and we find out he is a cyborg from pretty early on.
Overall Hands of Steel can't be called an important film but there's a fair bit of fun to be had with it. There's lots of hilarious dialogue, over and under-acting, a couple of good gore effects and an awesome pounding synth score by Claudio Simonetti (from Goblin). The film is mostly fun for just how nuts it all is. You should see it for the sheer fact that's there's no other environmentally conscious cyborg arm wrestling flicks out there. Well none that I can think of.