Cult Cinema: Guyver (2): Dark Hero – Reviewed

In late-September I reviewed the 1991 cult superhero flick The Guyver to commemorate its upcoming blu-ray release from Arrow Video. That film remains a nostalgic guilty-pleasure of mine: a not-very-good but very entertaining movie that combines excellent creature effects, terribly ill-advised comedy, and the most extremely kitschy form of '90s-ness into a package that is as fun as it is really bizarre. However, as a lifelong fan of the anime and manga series on which the film was based, I am also well aware of just what a wasted opportunity The Guyver was. Yoshiki Takaya's Bio-Booster Armour Guyver was one of the best animated and comic series to make the jump from Japan to the U.S. in the late-'80s and early-'90s. It should have easily made for an equally excellent big-screen adaptation... if producer Brian Yuzna had any idea what to do with the material. But not unlike its main character, the franchise somehow survived what should have been certain death, and rose from the ashes of Yuzna's not-exactly-successful adaptation to get another chance. When the first film became a surprise cult hit on cable and VHS, New Line commissioned a sequel; and this time they gave the creative reigns to the original's co-director and special effects maestro, Steve Wang, who actually understood what to do with the story. Wang used the opportunity to repair the previous film's mistakes, and create the really good, darker and more serious Guyver movie that should have been made in the first place. In doing so he not only managed to create that rarest thing, a sequel that is better than the original, but something even rarer: a sequel to a very mediocre film that is genuinely pretty great.

In a then-unprecedented move, Wang's movie was essentially a soft reboot, much along the same lines as the Edward Norton Incredible Hulk. The leads were recast, events from the previous film were alluded to, but more as recaps than integral parts to the story, and the whole thing was very much meant to stand on its own as a superior alternative to its predecessor. He didn't even call the film Guyver 2; that title only appears on the American box art. Instead, everywhere else in the world (including the actual opening credits) the film is simply Guyver: Dark Hero – as in, “please excuse the behavior of my idiot older brother, I like to pretend I'm not related to him.” Wang's half-sequel/half-reboot was a success: Guyver: Dark Hero is not only a vast improvement over the original, but also one of the coolest (and most underrated) superhero films of the 1990s.

"You! I wanna take you to a gay bar!"

This time it is David Hayter (the voice of Solid Snake, and the screenwriter of X-Men 1 and 2) who plays Sean, the college student whose body has become host to the living suit of armor called the Guyver. With his mental state slipping as the Guyver forces him to feed its bloodlust, Sean searches for the armor's origins in hopes of finding a way to escape it; a search that leads him to an archaeological dig investigating possible alien artifacts. Of course, this also leads him back into battle with the shapeshifting monsters of the Chronos corporation (interestingly spelled Kronos this time around; another sign that this is a rebooted universe). From the very first scene, in which the Guyver brutally deals with a gang of drug smugglers, it is immediately clear that this is a very different movie. It is dark, it is violent (the film earns its R rating in the first five minutes), and it is not messing around. While the first film sometimes felt like a harder-edged knockoff of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, the grim and gritty opening sequence of Dark Hero feels more like Darkman, or the Spawn comics. It also introduces a fascinating concept: that the armor is alive, and has a sadistic will of its own that is very much at odds with the well-intentioned Sean. The rest of the film follows up on this change of direction excellently, never shying away from the darker and bloodier side of the anime, and really digging into the more intriguing aspects of the story.

"Please, alien device, enlighten me with the
secrets of how to adapt Watchmen into a movie..."
Sean's existential crisis of whether the armor has fundamentally changed who he is - and if so, what it has changed him into - is the emotional backbone of the film. It does a good job of showing how someone's life would be totally upended if circumstances suddenly turned them into a superhero, and even uses some pretty effective body-horror imagery to look at how scary it would be to undergo that transformation because of an external force with unknowable side-effects. The whole script is far more concerned with sci-fi concepts like this than simple action. Of course, there is still lots of action to be found in Dark Hero - actually, more and generally better action set-pieces than the previous film - but the movie uses the luxury of its longer running time (just over two hours - avoid the cut-down UK theatrical version) to develop a very strong story, and dive deeply into the series' mythology and history. Despite being a good half-hour longer than the typical straight-to-video film, it never feels overlong, and certainly never padded. Instead, it has ambitions that go beyond plenty of theatrical films in the genre, and really does justice to the concepts and style of the long-running comic (and the shorter but just as narratively ambitious anime) in exactly the way the 1991 film failed to do.

Of course, this isn't to say that Dark Hero is without flaws. While it is unusually well-made for a straight-to-video film, and while it is almost of high enough production quality that it could have just as easily been released in theaters instead, there are aspects of the production that occasionally show off its straight-to-video limitations. Its lower budget is evident in aspects of its production design: the heavy use of outdoor locations rather than constructed sets, the cinematography which is occasionally rough around the edges, and the reuse of some of the creature suits from the first film for (different) minor background monsters. The acting is also uneven, with a couple wooden performances standing out. However, the performances are probably better than in the first film overall, aside from that movie's bigger names like Mark Hamill and David Gale; certainly on the better end of the '90s-low-budget spectrum. In general the film is able to make up for its budgetary shortcomings with its ambitious ideas, and by using its strengths very effectively.

"I have come here to find The Funk.
I hear you have it in a box?"
One of these strengths is its very good central performance from prolific voice actor David Hayter. In the first Guyver, Jack Armstrong had been decent but unspectacular as Sean. Hayter is a major step up, bringing emotional complexity, charisma, and genuine pathos to the role. This more complex take on the character presents Sean as someone torn between conflicting desires to be a hero and just a normal guy, and dark impulses from the armor to be a more ruthless antihero. Hayter plays all three sides of Sean very effectively, and his performance would absolutely be at home in a theatrical film. His voice work for the Metal Gear Solid games and the 1990s animated Spider-Man series (in which he voiced Captain America) has made him a fan favorite in that world, but this film makes a strong case that he should get more chances to act in front of the camera.

The most prominent strength of the film, as with its predecessor, is the excellent practical effects work. While Steve Wang may have saved some money by reusing a few monster suits, it was clearly worth it, because it allowed him to put the budget where it really counted: in making the new creatures (and the more otherworldly aspects of their new environment) truly spectacular. The two main Zoanoid villains look awesome – even better than the best creatures from the 1991 film, which were already quite impressive. Their features and animatronic facial movements are extremely lifelike and realistic, and their design strikes a perfect balance between sci-fi and horror archetypes. The suits are worn by some pretty fantastic stunt people too, and the fight scenes between these creatures and the Guyver are more impressive and intricately choreographed than those in the original, with some genuine Hong Kong-style martial arts action and wire work. The film's climactic battle is particularly fantastic, with its hybrid of great action choreography and really badass creature design. Just as impressive as the creatures themselves are the film's handful of sets, which likewise value quality over quantity. While I cannot say much about what the sets actually are, I can say that they do a wonderful job of creating on a grand scale the organic-machinery aesthetic of the Guyver armor itself. Between these sets and the creatures that inhabit them, you would never guess that this film was made for only a third of the budget of the original: under a million dollars. By knowing where to put that money to the best use, Steve Wang created a film that, while clearly not mega-budgeted, looks significantly more expensive than it is.

"I know what you're thinkin. You're thinkin,
There's Old Gregg - he's just a scaly man-fish!"
Guyver: Dark Hero is a perfect illustration of how imagination is so much more important than money when it comes to making a good genre film. This is low-budget filmmaking done right, with a great vision of what the story should be, and the knowledge of effects and design necessary to stretch limited funds to achieve some memorable visuals. It may be rough around the edges in some aspects of its production quality and acting, but it more than makes up for it with the things that it really gets right, like its principle creature and set design, David Hayter's strong central performance, and very good story. This is the movie that 1991's The Guyver should have been. If the original film was this good, or even if it had this tone and understanding of the material, it would have been far more successful, and probably would have spawned a franchise that went beyond just one straight-to-video sequel. As it is, this half-sequel/half-reboot deserves to be more widely-seen than it is, and deserves better than to have the flaws of its predecessor held against it. Even if you've never seen The Guyver, this film is definitely recommended; seeing the original isn't even a prerequisite. If you have seen the original and enjoyed it, you'll find much more to like here, and even if you saw the 1991 film and hated it, this far superior take on the source material may win you over.

The 1990s were famously not a great decade for superhero movies, with only a small handful like Batman Returns, The Crow, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Darkman being particularly memorable. Even with significantly fewer resources than any of those films, Guyver: Dark Hero is absolutely good enough to make the short list of that decade's most memorable entries in the genre. While it can't touch the excellence of Batman Returns or The Crow, I would say it is at least as good as Darkman, and easily better than plenty of the decade's other attempts at comic book movies, like the big-budget mediocrity of the Joel Schumacher Batman films or Spawn. Now that Arrow Video has given a blu-ray upgrade to the 1991 The Guyver, hopefully in the near future they will likewise give new life to this far-superior follow-up. Check it out – it is definitely recommended.


- Christopher S. Jordan