Automatic (1995)

Let’s see…

A cyborg kickboxer movie starring some guy with a French accent?

Never saw that one before.

Only Automatic isn’t your typical kickboxing cyborg movie, even if Olivier Gruner does have a French accent — although, to be fair, he’s actually French, not Belgian.

If that makes a difference.

Robgen Industries has made a long line of robot servants over the years, but their last product — the J series Automatic — was the best yet: a true android, part machine, part tube grown human.  And it isn’t just a perfect servant, but an obedient home defense system, capable of protecting his owners from any attackers.

But their sales are now falling off as copies have finally hit the market, and the bank is impatient with all the delays in releasing their next, secret product.

And then it all gets even more complicated when one of the Automatics, J269, accidentally kills one of the company executives as he tries to rape a young employee, Nora Rochester.

So the company owner, Goddard Marx, sends in a team of mercenaries to kill J269 and Norah.

The only problem is that J269 isn’t going to let anyone harm Norah — and he is far more capable than anyone realizes…

Automatic is one of the best films in the subgenre of Kickboxing Cyborg movies — and believe me, there are a lot of them.  It’s easy to say that it is basically Die Hard with robots, but there’s more to Automatic than that.  After all, instead of the usual unstoppable cyborg villain, we have a lone, outnumbered android, who has to out-maneuver or out-fight an army of attackers.  Like John McClane, J269 does not mow them all down unscathed, but is hurt again and again and keeps coming back to the fight no matter how badly he’s injured.

I suppose it helps that J269 starts out as a fairly blank and naive character, but Gruner seems to do quite well in the role, even after he starts developing a personality.  I suppose it helps that for once his haircut looks nearly normal.  Of course, he also plays every other Automatic in the film, including a couple of security guards at the corporate building that is the main setting of the film and one they find in its lab, but they don’t get enough screen time to emerge as separate characters.

The other J series androids lead to one of the more interesting questions the film asks, as every time J269 and Norah encounter another Automatic, we have to wonder whether they will follow orders or start acting outside their programming.

Mind you, the film does put a bit of effort into some of these classic Cyberpunk questions, about free will, programming, and what it means to be human.

But never so much that it distracts you from all the fights and action.  After all, that’s what a direct to video Cyberpunk kickboxing robot film is supposed to be about.

The film offers a near-term future, with enough interesting technology casually scattered about to make it seem lived in.  Admittedly, some of it might not be quite as useful as it looks, like all those “smart guns” with the little screens which tell you how many rounds you have left.  I’m not sure what else the gun is supposed to do, but that screen seems an awkward addition.  It’s also true that phone technology and the internet have both developed faster than this film predicted.  But that happens.

John Glover, whom you might remember as Lex Luthor in Smallville, plays Goddard Marx with a sort of genial Tony Robbins-style smug superficial charm which just covers his his ruthlessness.  However, Daphne Ashbrook, whom some of you may remember as Paul McGann’s companion in the American Doctor Who movie, is mostly unmemorable as Norah in what must have been a very difficult role.

It all ends with an unexpected twist, which actually makes Marx’s actions earlier in the film make more sense (not that they were ever unbelievable).  It is a refreshing surprise, actually, when the huge twist we expect in this sort of film makes the character motivations stronger and adds to the story.

As I pointed out before, this isn’t your average Kickboxing cyborg movie, instead it is far more eccentric and original, with a lot of quirky little bits thrown in along the way.  I suspect that this has a lot to do with Avi Nesher who provided the story.  He’s a writer and occasional director, who worked on a number of often strange and quirky genre films in the Nineties (even if he seems to have moved into straightforward drama since) including such films as LegionTimebomb, Mars, the mind-bogglingly weird She, and the nearly inexplicable guilty pleasure, Savage, most of which I’ve enjoyed.  Or found memorable.

That’s probably the kindest thing you can say about She.

Look, when you put a Nineties kickboxing cyborg film in your VCR, you know what to expect: a fun, if cheesy action film with plenty of fights, a few effects and a cool villain, which never stops to get a breath or explain things more than it has to.  This is an exceptional member of that wave of films, with a light touch, a lot of clever ideas, and a surprisingly different plot.

As usual, for any Direct to Video B movie, you need to accept it for what it is, look past its limitations and just sit back and enjoy it.

Yes, popcorn will help.

Even if you don’t have a J series Automatic to pop it for you…

Buy from Amazon (on VHS — paid link)



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