Gunhed (1989)

In the future, we’ll still have carrots, tanks will be able to talk to us about baseball, and humanity will have collectively run out of good ideas for element names. Gunhed is a weird, messy movie, but it’s one I highly enjoyed for all its quirks and bizarre problems.

I should give some personal background though. In the 1990s, I became aware of the hot underground trend of “anime,” animated films and series coming out of Japan. A small circle of friends quickly developed in school around the phenomenon, passing around bootleg VHS tapes of poorly dubbed films in brown paper bags like we were Chicago gangsters shoving off hooch during the Prohibition era. One person might get hold of Akira or a copy of Ghost in the Shell, and then it was shared like there was no tomorrow. As my tastes developed, I soon began yearning to see what else Japanese cinema had to offer, and this led me to discover the likes of Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Gosha, Takashi Miike, Shintaro Katsu, Shinya Tsukamoto, and many more. Of course, cult tastes tend to prevail, and I soon found myself looking into the weirder and wilder side of Japanese cinema. And that’s when I stumbled across it: Gunhed. A cyberpunk setting, a mech, a weird plot, and explosive action. I had to have it.

After nearly twenty years of searching, perusing major chains and independent video rental places, monitoring YouTube for bootlegs or streaming services like Amazon Prime, and checking home market prices for crappy DVD transfers, I finally managed to get my hands on a copy. And now here I am, post-Gunhed, and yes, my quest was worth it.

In the future, an AI named Kyron-5 running a robot production facility on a tiny island in the Pacific known only as Island 8JO goes rogue. Military forces move in with their Gunhed tanks to stop the AI and are seemingly successful. Years later, a team of scavengers arrive to try and loot chips and components from the island, only to learn that Kyron-5 has simply been biding its time, waiting for anticipated developments in technology so that it can launch its true plan to take over. It’s up to a mechanic nicknamed Brooklyn, as well as a Texas Air Ranger, Nim, and a couple of kids, 7 and 11, to stop Kyron-5 and save the world. And to do this, Brooklyn has to rebuild a damaged super tank, the Gunhed.

That’s the general idea, anyway. The scavengers show up, and the early parts come off a lot like Aliens: a heavily-armed team gets taken out by an unseen force, they end up finding a weird couple of child survivors, all under a similar industrial color palette but with a better soundtrack involving bongos. One of the mercenaries also gets mutated in a weird turn of events and transformed into some kind of robo-mutant called the Bio-Droid to fight on Kyron-5’s behalf, only the original character can fight back from some kind of Max Headroom cyberspace from time to time. That is undoubtedly the strangest part of the film, but whatever, it also taps a little into the body horror element often found in Japanese cyberpunk films.

Yeah, let’s talk Japanese cyberpunk, or more specifically, Extreme Japanese Cyberpunk. It’s a subset of the cyberpunk subgenre of Science Fiction, and while it tends to follow the same high tech slum makeup and anti-establishment messaging of cyberpunk, it also incorporates a lot of elements of body horror and sexuality along with polluted industrialization and narratives that can be indecipherable, especially when compared to the intense imagery. Movies such as Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Rubber’s Lover, or Electric Dragon 80.000 V are the kinds of things you should expect, films that are just as much about technology as they are about twisted people, mutation, interlinked sex and violence, and a punk-influenced deconstruction of even the basics of cinematic plot portrayal.

For it’s part, Gunhed offers up the Bio-Droid, a human mutated into a creepy cyborg with a head reminiscent of a fly and unknown or unexplained powers, though this is as far as it goes; it doesn’t fit so much into the Extreme subset, though it does adhere to the dirty industrial setting and tough plot. There is dirt and grime in just about every shot, from people caked in filthy streaks and sweat to ratty clothing to exposed pipes and wires to dust flying off of something that was just touched. About the only thing with real color in the movie is green radioactive goop and the orange carrots Brooklyn munches on. But this is as far as it goes. There is no blatant sexuality beyond Nim’s tight pants, and while there is violence, blood, and mutation, it’s nowhere near the likes of flesh walls and drill penises you’ll find in the Extreme stuff. While Gunhed is still very much a cyberpunk movie involving fringe people fighting dehumanizing tech, it isn’t really something that can be compared to its numerous cousins.

It does also have its silly side too. The new technology that Kyron-5 was waiting for? It’s an element called Texmexium, which I assume sits somewhere on the periodic table between Taco Bell-ium and BM, both a description of the Big Mac and what happens when you eat at McDonalds. Also, this film has an obsession with Brooklyn pulling out carrots. He keeps them in a cigarette case, which is part of a ploy to compare him to Captain Bansho, the father-like leader of the scavenger crew. Over time, Brooklyn ends up spouting many of Bansho’s earlier lines and always has a carrot ready when he needs it, much like Bansho always pulling out a cigarette from his own cigarette case. Hey look, we’re getting personal growth!

All this aside, some of you are probably here for the mech porn. It takes a while for the super tank Gunhed to get built, but once it is, you’re gonna see it blowing through walls and talking about the Brooklyn Dodgers for most of the rest of the movie. Brooklyn and the tank have a lot of banter, particularly once Brooklyn learns the tank can metabolize whiskey into fuel. If ever you wondered if you’d end up watching a film where someone worries about whether a tank can get drunk, well, you’re in luck.

Look, Gunhed isn’t some kind of science fiction masterpiece the way that something like Blade Runner is. It’s also not going the route of many of its contemporaries in the world of Japanese cyberpunk, but then it was also a Toho production, thus meaning it had access to many more resources than those same indie contemporaries as well as a corporate mainline. For what it is, it’s entertaining, and it still manages to create a dirty world of perpetual night in an unending factory setting, which is something I’ve always loved in cyberpunk media. If you’re looking to try and wade into the more extreme side of Japanese cyberpunk, Gunhed is the kiddie pool. Yet as a result (and despite my 20 year search for access) it is a much more accessible title for those curious but wary of what the depths have to offer. I liked it, and the more I think on it, the more I like it.

Besides, what better thing could I have spent 20 years searching for?

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