In 2038, thirteen years after the Great Robot War nearly decimated mankind, a group of treasure hunters enter a high-tech fortress run by the renegade supercomputer Kyron-5, in search of a precious element called Texmexium. Led by crusty old-timer Bancho (Mickey Curtis) and ballsy Babe (Aya Enyoji), the scavengers are killed one after another by the island’s robot defences, until only jittery mechanic Brooklyn (Masahiro Takashima) remains. Brooklyn meets Sergeant Nim (Brenda Bakke), a sexy Texas Air Ranger stranded on the island after a failed mission, and two children living amidst the ruins named Seven (Yujin Harada) and Eleven (Kaori Mizushima). Together they discover GUNHED (Gun Unit Heavy Elimination Device), a huge combat transformer-robot that may be their last hope for survival.
Back in the mid-eighties, Japan’s Toho Studios held a story contest to find ideas for their next Godzilla movie. The winner was Shinichiro Kobayashi, a dentist by trade, whose script was turned into Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989). However, Toho were sufficiently intrigued by a script written by American James Bannon, which pitted Godzilla against a giant super-computer, that they employed Masato Harada to develop it into a separate project. A former Los Angeles resident and Golden Globe film critic, Harada hadn’t made a movie since his sweetly nostalgic debut, Goodbye Movie Fans: Indian Summer (1979). Frustrated with the Japanese film industry and itching to launch a Hollywood career, he reworked Bannon’s script, eliminating Godzilla and sundry other elements, and turned it into a love letter to the sci-fi action movies of James Cameron and Ridley Scott.
That much is apparent from the dark and gloomy, industrialised visuals (very trendy in ’89) and a back-story heavily indebted to Aliens (1986), The Terminator (1984) and Blade Runner (1982). One nice touch is Harada’s concept of a bilingual future, wherein the American, Hispanic, Vietnamese and Japanese characters each communicate in their native tongue; although the tin-eared English dub flubs this innovation. Irritatingly gung-ho and hipper than thou, these soldier boys (and girls) are very much in the Cameron mould, but barely make an impression before they start dropping like flies. Bancho’s exit is so abrupt it’s hilarious. Especially strange given he is played by sixties rock icon Mickey Curtis, the Japanese Elvis, who starred in Kon Ichikawa’s classic Fires on the Plain (1959).
Structured like a computer game, with characters who progress from one level to the next, Gunhed offers little to engage our emotions, while Harada’s haphazard storytelling renders what few twists there are, hard to follow. However, carrot-chomping Brooklyn is an interesting lead. Written as a clumsy oaf, but played with swaggering panache by handsome Masahiro Takashima, who was impossible to avoid in Japanese genre flicks at the time, also headlining Godzilla vs. Biollante and Zipang (1990). He’s been missing in action since Toho’s spectacular mythological epic, Yamato Takeru (1994), but brought a welcome charisma to his genre roles.
Also great is Brenda Bakke, star of Hot Shots Part Deux (1993), Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight (1995) and the underrated American Gothic, as sultry Sergeant Nim. A tough-talking, yet flirtatious heroine in the Howard Hawks mould, the character deserves a better movie than this, even though Bakke (the only actor who retains her voice in the English version) interacts well with her Japanese co-stars. Far less engaging is Seven (played by the director’s son), a deeply annoying youngster who does inexplicable things throughout the movie. He starts nonsensical arguments at inopportune moments, plays with a live bomb (!) and, at his lowest, accidentally shoots poor Eleven. She’s a mute and can’t call out in the dark, but the little twerp whines: “It serves you right, Eleven because you frightened me.”
It’s up to special effects supervisor Koichi Kawakita to save the day. His set-pieces are very impressive, making use of excellent miniature models, sets, toy missiles and flashy pyrotechnics as Gunhed ascends the fortress and charges through tunnels before his all-guns-blazing duel with Kyron-5. Nonetheless, it is somewhat disappointing that most of the action is confined to the final sequence. The robot was designed by Shoji Kawamori, the celebrated anime director/scriptwriter, whose own projects demonstrate considerably more vim and vigour than this live-action attempt.
Gunhed was not a box office success, but upon release in the UK drew favourable notices from critics who probably hadn’t seen a lot of Japanese science fiction. Masato Harada produced another deliberate calling card, the multilingual science fiction/gangster/western Painted Desert (1993), yet neither that nor his gangster movie Kamikaze Taxi (1995), Bounce Ko-Gals (1997), a sex comedy that satirises people who like sex comedies, or horror film Inugami (2001) (his most accomplished work to date) brought him the Hollywood career he so craved. Ironically, he remains best known for acting in a Hollywood movie, having played the portly Japanese prime minister opposite Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai (2003).