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Hipster Holy Grail: Cyber Bandits (1995)

The Hipster Holy Grail is my ongoing quest to review an obscure movie before it becomes cool to talk about it. Good, bad, doesn't matter.  It just has to be at least 10 years old and have less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Cyber Bandits is extremely stupid and keeps tripping over its own feet as it tries to run from one plot point to the next.  That said, I enjoyed the spectacle and the sci-fi cheese, so I'd sorta-kinda recommend it for that.

My Rating: 3 / 5 (Junior Varsity Bad Movie)

The Plot Summary

We open in the not-too-distant future in Pacifica, a bustling southeast Asian metropolis. Dr. Knutsen (Henry Gibson), an ambiguous techie type / scientist, is talking to some kind of cyberpunk thug inside a techno club. The cyberpunk thug is apparently either selling some kind of ambiguous technology to Dr. Knutsen, or he’s offering to smuggle something ambiguous. Either way, Dr. Knutsen kills him and steals some important shit. Great! Cue opening credits.

Cut to a ship at sea. Our hero, Jack (Martin Kemp), is a working class schmo who informs us, via voiceover narration that never comes back, that he’s been excited to be a sailor ever since he was a kid. He’s dedicated his life to sailing and has worked his way up to the head navigator of a mega-billionaire’s private yacht.

Said billionaire, Morgan (Robert Hays), runs an ambiguous technology-related business. One thing is clear: he’s obviously evil. Laughably so.  I mean, look, I like to take shots at the noble class all the time on this blog, and even I thought the “evil rich guy” schtick was overblown here. Anyway, Morgan’s up to something nefarious, but all we really get to see of it right now is a CD-ROM. Morgan takes some calls and prattles on about the future or whatever and keeps waving that CD around like the plot bait it surely is.

Then his trophy girlfriend, Rebecca (Alexandra Paul), decides she’s bored. She asks Jack to come over to rub some lotion on her back.  Jack immediately agrees, and there’s a lot of forced chemistry between the two.  The movie plays it up as though there are immediate sparks between the two, and that’s about all you need to know.  Even later when Rebecca and Jack actually are falling in love and screwing all over the place, they never have a simple conversation.  Like, “Where’d you grow up? Do you enjoy pie? Okay, well, now that I’m out of talking points, here’s my penis.” You know, that kinda thing.

Anyway, Morgan walks in on the completely innocent lotion-rubbing and dismisses Jack, then slaps Rebecca in the face. Jack’s pretty upset by that, but his sailor friend, Manny (Adam Ant), tells him to let it go – Manny’s been under Morgan’s employ for a long time and has seen some of the nasty things that happen to people who get in Morgan’s way.

The ship docks in Pacifica and Morgan returns to his Business Tower of Doom while Jack and Manny go looking for some fun. They head to a techno bar – possibly the same one from the opening – and order some drinks. Then Jack fucks around a bit with a VR stripper station. Basically, you choose your preferred model from a list of options, customize her, and then put on some sunglasses that transport you to a VR world where you can watch your program dance and/or have sex with her. It’s impressive technology, but Jack is immediately bored – he’s interested in a real woman, not software.

Which is all well and good, I guess, but they never really come back to the concept of VR women again. So… why bother? I guess it’s the movie’s clumsy way of introducing VR in the first place, since it will eventually play into the movie’s conflict later. Still, I feel like there’s a lot of time wasted early on with this kind of thing. (A lot of gratuitous nudity, too, which I suppose was probably the point after all.)

Jack unplugs from the VR station and sees that Rebecca is in the club. They have a brief chat and within the span of about four minutes Jack a) learns that Rebecca is running away from Morgan, b) decides she’s the woman he’s always wanted to be with, and c) commits to escorting her through the city to keep her safe from Morgan’s goons. So, Jack and Rebecca skip the club.

There’s a cutaway scene somewhere around here where Morgan finds out that before Rebecca ran away, she stole that important looking CD. He’s pissed off, so he sends his goons out to find her and retrieve his property. Here’s a good time to mention that he almost always finds a way to shoe-horn in a reference to “his property” when talking about Rebecca. The first time, it’s like, “Oh man, what a sleazeball.” The next time it happens, it’s like, “Uh, alright, yeah. He’s still a sexist creep.” But every time after that, I felt like, “Alright, now you’re just trying too hard. Quit Trumping all over yourself, man, those stains don’t come out easy.”

So, back to Jack and Rebecca. They check into a run-down hotel to spend the night. Then they start making out and possibly have sex for the first time, or maybe I just made that up because they’re constantly trying to have sex for the rest of the movie. Regardless, Morgan’s goons show up and try to abduct Rebecca. Fortunately, Jack is quick thinking and is able to help her escape to the beach, where they run all night long for freedom.

Along the way, Jack tries to initiate more sex. Rebecca stops him and says she needs to confess something. And at this point, you’re thinking, “Okay, time for the movie to give us its hook. What’s the crazy scheme that Jack got himself mixed up in?” But all she tells him is that she stole a CD from Morgan. She doesn’t even know what’s on it – just that it seems important, so she wanted it.

I wish I was joking. Really, that’s the best you could do? It should have been something like, “I know a guy who can get me a new identity, but he wants something valuable in exchange, so I stole this CD because I’m pretty sure it’s worth something.” Not just, “I’ve got mild and selective kleptomania.”

But alright, whatever, they’ve got a CD and Jack’s in on it now. Actually, wait, scratch that – they don't have the CD, because Rebecca hid it at the club. So now they backtrack to the club to get the disc, and while there they run into Manny, who’s been there all night making out with a lady he met. Jack reveals that he’s trying to help Rebecca smuggle the CD outside of Pacifica, but they’re stuck because there’s apparently going to be checkpoints and other garbage where people will confiscate the disc if they find it. So they brainstorm a bit and Manny suggests that Jack get the information from the CD encrypted onto him in the form of a tattoo.  Everyone agrees that this is genius, so Jack and Rebecca run off to find a tattoo artist that Manny has recommended.

Unfortunately, mere minutes later, Morgan’s goons show up in the club and demand to know where Rebecca went. Manny tells them he doesn’t know anything, so they shoot his new lady friend, and then they shoot him. Bye, Manny. You came up with the single coolest idea in the movie, thanks for that.

Somewhere around here we have another cutaway back to Morgan’s office, where he meets up with Dr. Knutsen. Knutsen is checking on the whereabouts of that CD; apparently, the movie didn’t want its contents to be a secret for too long, so they brought him in here to give us the exposition we’ve been waiting for. It seems Dr. Knutsen has invented a new VR-based weapon. It’s basically a silver pipe that you put up to your mouth and talk into. Whatever you say is then turned into a VR program that beams out from the other side of the pipe and goes into somebody else’s brain, trapping them inside a fictional world for all eternity while their physical body is rendered catatonic.

It’s not a bad idea – just a bad prop. Oh, and also, it doesn’t work yet, because all the important voice recognition programming or VR modules or whatever are on that CD that Rebecca stole.

Cut back to Jack. He shows up at Tojo Yokohama’s (James Hong) tattoo parlor, where Tojo acts eccentric for a bit to give us all a good laugh. Then he gets to work. He puts the CD into a machine that converts it into a plan for a tattoo, which is made up of microscopic 1s and 0s to represent the full code of the disc. Then he straps Jack down to a table so the machine can burn the tattoo into his back. Since it’ll hurt unless he’s distracted, Tojo puts VR goggles on both him and Rebecca so they can have virtual sex. Naturally.

That’s all well and good, but when the machine is done and Jack wakes up from the procedure, he finds that Morgan’s goons have tracked them down – again. The goons kill Tojo, knock Morgan out, and abduct Rebecca. Then there’s another fade, and Jack wakes up for the second time in as many minutes to see the aftermath of the attack. He starts panicking, but then a mysterious stranger shows up: Masako Yokohama (Grace Jones), Tojo’s daughter. Masako tries to get some answers out of Jack, but since he’s been doing nothing but sleeping and trying in vain to wake up for the last couple hours, he doesn’t know anything. Masako helps him off the table and they leave.

Then there’s a really strange series of scenes where Masako and Jack talk about how much they hate Morgan and can’t wait to get back at him. There’s basically a lot of filler and unnecessary cutaways here before the action resumes.  The long story short is that Masako is leading some kind of guerrilla team that has bugged Morgan’s Business Tower of Doom and they’ve been spying on him for years, waiting to gain the right kind of intel so they can kill him.   And… take over his company, apparently? Is that how it works in Pacifica?  Weird.  Anyway, Masako doesn’t just come out and say this for some reason, she makes Jack and the audience work for the exposition.

Cut back to Morgan’s office. Although they’ve recovered the CD, it turns out it's empty. Somehow, by reading the data, the machine rendered the disc useless. The movie glosses over this by throwing out the term “fail safe,” as though this was an intentional thing the disc was supposed to do. I don’t totally buy it, but fine, I’ll play along.

So, Morgan gives Rebecca some truth serum eyedrops (yup, those are a thing) and interrogates her. He finds out about the tattoo and tells his goons to go back to the parlor.

Cut back to Masako and Jack. They are coincidentally also going to the parlor, because Masako says that’s where they can decode Jack’s tattoo and figure out how to use it against Morgan. Only, there’s a hitch: Masako is totally tricking Jack! Oh no! After he’s strapped to the table, she reveals that they can’t scan the tattoo unless it’s flat, so they have to cut his skin off. Turns out she’s just as merciless and evil as Morgan. Sort of.

But wouldn’t you know, that’s when Morgan’s goons show up. They force Masako to unstrap Jack, and then take him back to the Business Tower of Doom.  Morgan uses fancy 3D scanning technology to decode Jack’s tattoo, and then his workers feed it into that VR tube weapon, and finally Morgan has his new invention. Dr. Knutsen tries to extort more money out of Morgan at this point, so Morgan kills him. And then Masako and her goons show up suddenly and start shooting up the place.

In the ensuing chaos, Jack and Rebecca quietly escape. Pretty much everybody else kills each other except for Morgan and Masako, on whom Morgan tests out his new weapon. In the meantime, Jack and Rebecca steal Morgan’s yacht, and they congratulate each other on the seamlessness of their plan so far.

While contemplating their future, Jack wonders why Morgan has been able to track Rebecca down so quickly the whole movie.  They figure out that she has a tracking unit implanted in her earrings, and as soon as that's revealed, Morgan dramatically shows up behind the two of them with his VR device.  (Which means that he somehow was close enough behind them to board the ship even though they were supposed to be stealing it.)

Before Morgan can use the device, his butler – to whom he’s been acting like a jerk the whole movie – smacks Morgan with a silver platter. Morgan drops the device and Jack takes it.  Then Jack basically kills Morgan by accident when he says “Go to hell!” and the device turns on.

Morgan gets trapped in a VR world of CGI fire, and Jack and Rebecca go off to have sex. And apparently inherit the company.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

There's something about Cyber Bandits that's just off.  It doesn't have the kind of pacing issues I normally complain about, nor is the dialogue notably stilted or anything like that.  It's just plain strange.  Maybe it's the editing, maybe it's the acting, but the way people interact with each other never feels genuine.  The mood always feels one or two steps removed from actual human behavior.

In a better movie, I'd chalk that up to directorial design since so much of the movie involves virtual reality.  Like, maybe you could point to that and say, "It's meant to play with your expectations about who and what are real."  But the movie never attempts to subvert reality.  VR is purely a plot device, never a theme.

Here's a good example of what I mean.  Look at the two leads and their love story.  Jack and Rebecca are a terrible couple.  Their affection is never believable and the way they rush haphazardly into what is basically a blood oath to protect each other is just plain preposterous.

So, from the very beginning, I was waiting for the movie to give us a grand reveal to explain why this over-the-top, throw-caution-to-the-wind, nonsense love story would actually make sense.  Like, maybe at some point the movie would smash cut to Jack sitting in a sterile white office with a VR helmet on, and he'd take it off and go, "Wow, that was fantastic!  I liked how realistic the Rebecca program was!"

Or, even better: I was waiting for the reveal that Rebecca was a VR program that had been Virtuosityed into physical existence.  I kept thinking, "Gee, the movie is really calling attention to the way Morgan keeps calling her his 'property,' and she seems pretty superficial, and she's hellbent on getting that CD from him, and the movie is making a big deal about VR... I'm assuming all this shit is connected and probably Rebecca needs the disc so she can hack her programming and make herself independent."  And maybe that would introduce like, I don’t know, some tension for the plot or something.

But, no.  None of that happens.  The movie's never clever enough to tie all those thematic threads together and play with its world.

Alternately - maybe it's too clever.  I do actually like how the movie's full of random little moments where you see advanced (or what the ‘90s thought would be advanced) technology on display. Some of these moments are pretty entertaining, like when Jack and Rebecca are in that noisy club and she says “Silence” to a little pedestal in the center of a table, and then all the lighting turns green and they're suddenly in a sound-bubble where they can talk to each other.  Other moments are just plain silly, like when Morgan eats food capsules - but I still dug the whole, "Welcome to the FUTURE!" vibe of it.

It's clear somebody behind the scenes had fun coming up with the universe for this movie.  A lot of it is culled from other science-fiction movies and books, sure, but I bet it was still fun.  There's a plethora of good, workable ideas here: Masako's anarchist camp, a VR-based weapon, VR addicts who've turned to zombies, etc.

The downside to having all those good premises crammed into one movie is that not enough time is spent building any of them up.  The worst consequence of this would be Jack's tattoo, which I thought was the most brilliant idea the movie had.  It's the perfect way to simultaneously a) keep the protagonist involved in the action regardless of his motives, and b) introduce mystery and motive for everybody else.

But what do they do with the tattoo?  Practically nothing.  Jack doesn't even get it until like maybe 45 minutes in, and then he's barely on the run with it before they figure out what it is, and then a scant 20 minutes later, the data has been recoded onto a disc again.  So... why bother?  What could have been a great hook for an action movie ends up becoming nothing more than padding for the run time.

It's such a good idea, I wish they could just redo the movie completely and keep only that idea.  Imagine if the movie starts with Jack and Manny getting off the ship and getting drunk in a club.  And while that's happening, you see some random cyberpunk type steal some data from Morgan.  There's an action scene as the punk escapes from his tower with the data, and she hides it in a tattoo parlor's computer, then destroys the disc.  The goons kill her quietly, and then a drunk Jack and Manny bumble into the parlor to get tattoos because they're young and life has no consequences.

Then Jack unknowingly gets the data tattooed on him, and when he sobers up the next day, he suddenly finds that all kinds of angry, hostile people are chasing him and he has no idea why.  Gradually he comes to learn what's on his back and what it could mean for the city and the world if he talks to the wrong people.  Wouldn't that be so much more interesting of a movie than, "Bored girlfriend casually takes business plans and falls in love capriciously?"

But now that I've been shitting all over this movie for like 12 paragraphs, I should admit that I still kinda had fun watching it.  Cyber Bandits is definitely bad, but it's short, it moves quick, and it throws enough silly things at you to keep you entertained.  I think I'll put it in the Junior Varsity Bad Movie camp.  If you're specifically looking for a bad movie, this one should serve you nicely.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

It'll get 40 points for obscurity since it only has just over 100 IMDb ratings right now.  I'm tempted to give it a pedigree bonus for members of its cast and crew, but I don't know that I can justify that.  Sure, many of them have starred in other B movies - Robert Hayes and Henry Gibson, I'm looking at you - but nobody here is much of a hipster icon.

Oh, wait, what's that?  One of the writers co-wrote League of Extraordinary Gentlemen?  Hell, that's worth 10 points.

I'll give it 15 points for its hipster retro-tech.  Usually this bonus is smaller and is reserved for cases where the characters rely on obsolete technology to advance the plot, but in this case, the plot relies on a now-obsolete idea of what futuristic tech would be, which makes it even more hipster.

The title is pretty hipstery, so that gets 5 points.  And finally, I think I'll give it an overall bonus of 10 points as a combined recommendation / general hipster content bonus.  That all adds up to a total of 80 hipster cred out of a possible 100.  Aesthetically, Cyber Bandits is pretty much exactly what you're thinking of when you think "hipster movie."  If it had a more obscure cast or if it was more enjoyably bad, it would have a perfect score.

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