Gunhed (1989) poster

Gunhed (1989)



Japan. 1989.


Director – Masato Harada, Screenplay – Masato Harada & James Bannon, Producers – Yoshishige Shimatani & Tetsuhisa Yamada, Photography – Jinichi Fujisawa, Music – Takayuki Baba & Toshiyuki Honda, Visual Effects Supervisor – Koichi Kawakita, Production Design – Sunrise Inc, Mechanical Design – Masaharu Kawamori, Weapons Design – Masahisa Suzuki. Production Company – Toho/Sunrise Inc/Bandai Co Ltd/Kadokawa Shoten Publishing Co Ltd/Imagica Corp


Masahiro Takashima (Brooklyn), Brenda Bakke (Sergeant Nim), Yujin Harada (Seven), Kaori Mizushima (Eleven), Randy Reyes (Voice of Gunhed), Aya Enyoji (Babe)


It is the year 2038. Sixteen years earlier on the island 8J0, the super-computer Kyron 5, which had been built to manufacture robots, went crazy and declared war on humanity. A group of scavengers now land on the island, searching for valuable computer chips to sell. However, Kyron’s defensive forces eliminate all of the party except the mechanic Brooklyn. He teams up with Sergeant Nim, a female Texas Air Ranger also trapped there, as well as Seven and Eleven, the two abandoned children of the computer’s designer. As Kyron mounts its plans to obtain the powerful fuel resource Texmexium so that it can take over the world, Brooklyn realises the only way to stop it and get off the island is for him to reactivate an abandoned Gunhed robot and shoot his way out through the complex.

Gunhed is a film that has developed a modest cult reputation among Asian fantasy cinema aficionados. It is a mecha (giant human-piloted robots) film – a genre that Japan was responsible for inventing, creating the animated giant robot genre with the tv series Gigantor (1963-6).

Gunhed had the novelty of being the first ever mecha film conducted in live-action. [The only other live-action mecha film we ever had was Stuart Gordon’s Robot Jox (1990), although more recent years have seen the huge success of the live-action Pacific Rim (2013)]. Gunhed is also a mecha fantasy that has jettisoned the anthropomorphised superheroic look of the cartoons in favour of a dark, grittily detailed Cyberpunk design. Unlike the animated mecha series, the entire film looks like it is taking place inside a huge rundown factory where dirty, grittily detailed machinery fills the screen and we actually see the oil, grime and grease of the machines in action.

The special effects are excellent. The scenes of the Gunhed transforming from a vaguely anthropoid shape into a tank form are stunning. There is a dazzling sequence with the Gunhed running up and down a cavernous shaft on a winch and firing attack missiles while a kid hangs onto the outside. The climactic battle with the Gunhed up against the Aerobot, with both slamming each other through walls and smashing each other up with claw arms, is enthrallingly good. For the effects alone, the film is a must see.

The Gunhead robot moves through the complex in Gunhed (1989)
The Gunhead robot moves through the complex

Alas, beyond the effects sequences, Gunhed is uneven. It almost feels like the live-action equivalent of a game like Doom. The film seems construed like a series of rooms, hallways and traps that must be ventured into and the menaces there shot up – all that seems missing is the Gunhed robot collecting points as it goes along. Outside of the action, there’s not a whole lot of plot. It is never particularly clear what is going on, what the Kyron 5 computer is trying to do and who it is that is shooting at people.

For that matter, the people are not particularly important to the film. Brenda Bakke is a fine actress – see tv’s American Gothic (1995) – who has never gained the exposure that she deserves. However, Gunhed fails to use Bakke – despite casting her as a tough Texas Ranger who is the only one who appears to know how to fight, the film for no clear reason put her aside for two-thirds of the running time.

It is a shame with the clear budget that has been lavished on the film that such a shabby dubbing job has been done on the English-language translation, which comes with the flat, indifferent voices that we usually get in the 1960s Godzilla movies. The most wince-inducing line is when one scavenger goes into battle with a cry of “Come on, you sushi slopper.”

Trailer here

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