Albert Pyun, the Hawaii-born director of genre films The Sword and the Sorcerer, Cyborg, Nemesis, and an early version of Captain America, died on Saturday in Las Vegas, according to reports. His work, some of which remains only available on bootlegs or poorly-duplicated uploads unless you still have the first VHS pressings, is beloved by many enthusiasts, and recognized by some as existing outside typical classification of “good” or “bad.” Over the years, he worked with Kris Kristofferson, Burt Reynolds, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Ice-T, Snoop Dogg, Rutger Hauer, and women’s kickboxing champion Kathy Long. He was 69 years old.
Born in Hawaii when it was still a U.S. territory, Pyun’s family traveled to military bases across the globe. In his youth, he made short films on 8 and 16mm, one of which eventually impressed the legendary Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune. He invited Pyun to intern on his next film (originally, this was going to be Akira Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala, but the actor ended up doing a television series instead.) Returning to the United States, Pyun began a career in television commercials.
His first feature was to be his only bonafide box office smash, The Sword and the Sorcerer, released in 1982, the same year as John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian and Don Coscarelli’s The Beastmaster. (What a time for muscle-bound men rampaging through mythical realms!) It starred Lee Horsley as the young hero, Kathleen Beller as the Princess, and Richard Lynch as the baddie, with Richard Moll (Bull from Night Court!) as Xusia of Delos, a resurrected sorcerer. While the film lacked a coherent plot and had few positive reviews, it more than made up for it with its design. The posters were illustrated by Peter Andrew Jones, and translated well to VHS covers. The movie ended up making a substantial amount of money (just a smidge less than Conan, which led Arnold Schwarzenegger to worldwide renown) and more than many fondly-remembered titles like Tootsie, Reds, Tron, and Blade Runner. I mean, it did feature a sword that shot out other swords!
However, the success of his first picture did not work as an on-ramp to mainstream Hollywood. (He was attached to a version of Total Recall for producer Dino De Laurentiis with William Hurt in the lede, which eventually fell through.) Instead, he found his true métier—low-budget schlock with cyberpunk or dystopian themes, oftentimes starring cyborgs, and open to sequences of outrageous action.
Highlights from the rest of the 1980s include Radioactive Dreams, a post-apocalyptic film noir with a mix of new wave pop and swing music on the soundtrack, Alien from L.A., which starred Kathy Ireland (later the focus of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode), and the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Cyborg. Most of these movies were produced by Cannon Films, the legendary genre shingle run by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. This reporter can confirm that Cyborg definitely entertained 14-year-olds dumped off at the movies for the afternoon upon its initial release.