What we have here today is a post-apocalyptic action movie from famed schlock director Albert Pyun, an offering fairly typical of the trashy exploitation direct-to-video genre he is known for. Pyun had an infamous directorial resume well before Knights, including the Van Damme career-killer Cyborg and the sci-fi stinker Nemesis, but still managed to find people to fund his movies and pay his catering staff, so he couldn't have been all bad. Myself, I found Knights pretty entertaining, if uneven, and it kept my interest up almost to the end. And the end was the problem, as I'll note later.
Knights is both filmed and set in the American southwest, in the Arizona/New Mexico area. I've always loved this region, I lived in Arizona in the early 2000s and spent many a summer of my youth in the 1980s hiking in the Rocky Mountains of New Mexico and Colorado. It's a land of unbelievable beauty and stark harshness, of towering desert rocks and verdant pinon forests, a place where you could drive for hours and not see any sign of human habitation. Now that I live in the flat boring-as-hell cornfields of Indiana, I find myself missing the southwest more and more.
Desert landscape (and yes, these screen caps suck ass, but it's the best I could do with this lousy-ass VHS transfer).
Monument Valley, where many a PA movie has been filmed.
A nuclear war has knocked society back a thousand years to a near Stone Age existence. The survivors are further menaced by the "cyborgs", ultra-powerful robots that have come to rule over the shattered remnants of civilization in these parts.
The cyborgs look just like normal humans, only they are machines. Yes, pretty much a rip-off of The Terminator, but with a tenth of the budget. There are only 20 of them left, survivors of a pre-war batch of "assassin robots" that the Government created. At some point after WWIII, someone, I think the guy they call the "Creator" or maybe the "Master Builder", not sure which, "modified" them so that they could "live forever". The catch is that to do so they have to "feed" on fresh human blood! This may be a sign that the original script was a traditional vampire movie and subsequent rewrites and script conferences morphed it into a PA cyborg movie. I hope that's the case because that plot point is ridiculous.
A typical cyborg, all of whom have Biblical names like Daniel and Simon and Matthew, ride horses and yell a lot.
A cyborg's finger bloodsucker pokey thingie, used to drain victims.
The leader of the cyborgs is named "Job", and he's got some serious mental problems (for a robot). Job is played by 53-year old Lance Henriksen, an awesome actor with an equally awesome face, though in our movie he's under so much make-up and goofy headwear as to be almost unrecognizable. The last thing I saw Henriksen in was Alien vs. Predator, but I won't hold that against him. Job the head cyborg is an imposing figure, and the only one of the cyborgs with obvious external metal parts, his right arm is a bigass cannon/sword/snake hand/scary bloodsucker thing that really looks stupid from any angle. Not even the geekiest Shadowrun dork would roll that up.
Job purrs deliciously as he kills victims, intimidates the other cyborgs and generally walks around all big and bad. Henriksen chews scenery here like he's actually enjoying himself and not just cashing a paycheck, and the movie is better for that. It's clear, as well, that he fully understands the campy nature of the film, as he injects a number of humorous quirks into his character. Kudos to the director for letting Henriksen "go his own way", so to speak, with the role.
Since the cyborgs only number 20, they need a human army to do their bidding. They have about 1,000 men under their command at the moment, plus a large number of slaves and servants, all forming what I'll call the "Cyborg Army". Why do the humans stay with the cyborgs? Well, they are restive and hateful of the cyborgs as much as anyone, but they would rather serve as soldiers than as meals. Their tech level is about the 3rd century AD with nothing more sophisticated than swords and the occasional bow and arrow to be seen. Now that I think of it, we don't see a single firearm in this entire movie, not even anything crude like a blackpowder musket or Kirk's anti-Gorn mortar. Even the cyborgs themselves use only blades and spears, which really surprised me. It's not often you don't see guns in a movie like this.
Anyway, the human soldiers have a uniform of sorts, green pants and white blousy shirts and vests (they look like Gypsies). It's really weird that they would have such a codified uniform, where would they get the matching clothes for a thousand people and why would they anyway? The cyborgs treat them all shabbily, as little more than cannon fodder and blood snacks, so why take the time and effort to dress them alike?
The cyborgs need a lot of blood, remember, and the largest collection of involuntary blood donors would be the "10,000 souls" living in the faraway survivor enclave of Taos, New Mexico. Now, I've been to Taos and, despite the fact housing is so expensive only the filthy rich can live there, it's one of the most scenically beautiful places on the planet. Very similar to Sedona, Arizona or Breckenridge, Colorado, other wealthy artsy playgrounds of the rich and wannabe rich. Met this girl in Taos once...
Anyway, the Cyborg Army mounts up and heads towards Taos, which is said to be "five weeks travel away". Once there, they will storm the place and have all the blood they need for their "master plan", whatever that is. Well, I'm sure it involves enslaving the world or something, but I wasn't paying attention.
The Cyborg Army on the move.
Now there is rumored to be a "cyborg killer" out there in the wilderness, and several cyborgs have been lost to this mysterious hunter. Job isn't too worried about this turn of events, which is quite noteworthy as so far no human has ever killed a cyborg, and is more concerned with his plans for Taos.
We go now to a small village out in the badlands. Here lives a young woman named Nia, a tough-minded and hard-bodied survivor in an age where if you are weak and soft you are not going to live very long. Nia is played by 29-year old Kathy Long, five-time world kickboxing champion and a cutie to boot. Nia's backstory came to us in a flashback earlier, where she was orphaned by a cyborg attack ten years ago. Since then she has grown up to despise the robots and condition her mind and body to fight them.
The village is now raided by a single cyborg (named Simon) and some human soldiers, a scouting party for main Cyborg Army looking for blood and slaves. The attack is swift and bloody, though Simon is pissed that only one person is left alive for him to "feed on". This survivor, of course, is Nia, and she's not ready to become lunch just yet. She gets a lick in on the cyborg, but can't stand up to his superior skill and strength and ends up brutalized.
Nia squirms in anguish as the cyborg twists an arrow stuck in her arm. Ouch!
Seconds before Nia is about to be drained of her blood, a lone man arrives to save her. Well, not really a man, persay, but another cyborg named Gabriel. Gabriel is the oft-rumored cyborg killer, a robot designed by the same builder but programmed to track down and kill off the rogue cyborgs. The backstory is stupid, but just understand that Gabriel is the good robot and the others are bad robots. Gabriel is played by 57-year old Kris Kristofferson, a grizzled, lined, expressive actor with a long resume in both mainstream films and bad gotta-pay-the-rent b-movies. Gabriel is a tough fighter as well as compassionate and caring, traits programmed into his system by his benevolent creator (whoever that was, it's never very clear who exactly made these robots and it really doesn't matter to the story anyway).
Gabriel and the cyborg Simon have a truly awesome fight now. The setting is spectacular, a wide mesa overlooking a river valley, the brilliant blue sky and the blazing sun nearly hurting the eyes. Both fighters are skilled and the fight lasts a long few minutes before Gabriel can set him on fire and end it. The best thing about this scene is the dialogue, as both talk to each other endlessly while they fight, and there are a number of very funny exchanges. I was really surprised by the cracking good dialogue in this movie, much better than I expected from the budget.
Gabriel and Simon fight on the mesa.
The end of Simon, immolated and not pleased.
That over, Gabriel is off to Taos to intercept and kill the rest of the cyborgs. Nia knows a shortcut but she wants to be trained in fighting in return. She wants to learn what it takes to kill a cyborg and she realizes that Gabriel is the only one who can teach her. Gabriel reluctantly agrees, showing a softer side to his programming, and off they go across the scrubby desert floor.
Along the way he teaches her to fight, though she was already pretty good before. Cyborgs can be killed by a knife to forehead, he tells her, and shows her the best ways to get in close enough to deliver the kill-stroke. In particular, he teaches her the "Mont Blanc offensive technique" and the "Crimean attack method", which I guess are fancy kung fu styles, but are repeated so often as to make them sound lame. Their trip takes a month, remember, so they have ample time to train and Nia is a quick learner.
For her part, Nia teaches Gabriel to be human. Nia seems to have fallen in love with Gabriel's kind and gentle manner and she's willing to overlook the fact that his insides are made of wire bundles and ceramic alloys. There are several extremely good conversations between these two characters in this section of the movie. We all knew that Kris Kristofferson was a good actor, he's been doing it for five decades, but I was really impressed by Kathy Long's ability to come across convincingly as a real woman in a real situation. I wonder why her acting resume was so short.
"Hehehe, the scruffy robot said I was beautiful...".
They eventually come up out of the desert and into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. The scenery changes dramatically here, with fast-flowing mountain streams and evergreen forests. Again, this area of the nation is gorgeous and I strongly suggest that everyone visit the Rockies at least once in their lives. One of these days I'll move back there...
But all is not well here. They are being pursued by four cyborgs, detached from main Cyborg Army, along with some human soldiers. These hunters have been tracking them all the way from where Gabriel destroyed Simon and they are determined to end the career of this cyborg killer.
The cyborgs catch up to them in the deep forest by a cold water creek. A well-staged fight explodes in the shallow water and the rocky shore, with both Gabriel and Nia putting up quite a show. Gabriel kills one cyborg, Nia kills another and injures one more, but they are outnumbered. Gabriel is half blown-up and Nia is knocked out cold, leaving the last two cyborgs standing.
The fight in the creek bed.
The two cyborgs ride ahead with the "remains of Gabriel", leaving Nia's fate to a couple of human soldiers. This, of course, is a very bad mistake, as Nia quickly mangles the two soldiers, frees a couple of slaves that were with them, and then jumps on her horse and rides off. Oddly, the music for this escape scene is ripped off from, of all things, Chariots of Fire.
Nia escapes, she's a cute one.
She's off after Gabriel, who she figures is being taken to the Cyborg Army camp near Taos. And we go to that camp now, as the cyborgs bring in Gabriel's remains and present them to a gloating, purring Job. The Cyborg Army camp is in a wide valley, just a day's ride from Taos, with a lot of tents and shanties set up. The Army is resting up for the expected attack on Taos, scheduled for sundown.
Nia sneaks into the Cyborg Army camp, thumping a sentry and taking his clothes. The Army is amping up for coming battle, the cyborgs are "feeding" on hapless humans, and the tension is high.
Nia eliminates one sentry.
Ok, let's stop here. At this point the wheels come off. What follows, really all the way to the end credits, is the weakest part of the movie by far. And it's a shame that the last quarter sucks so much as it cheapens what has actually been a rather brisk and entertaining movie so far. The world is full of things that started out so promising and then ended with a whimper (such as Slipstream, or the last season of Seinfeld, or England's relevancy in world affairs, or my first marriage), but I was really truly disappointed in Knights' weak ending.
It's not that it's not full of action from here on out, as it is. In fact, the last quarter is nothing but one long running fight between Nia and virtually everyone else in the movie. It's just that all this frenetic non-stop action means that no one has time to stop and talk to each other, and the dialogue and the interplay between the characters has strangely been the best thing so far.
Kathy Long was a world-class kick boxer, remember, and this last bit does indeed showcase her legitimate and impressive array of martial arts skills. For such a small woman, she packs a furious punch, exploding at her opponents with Sonny Chiba-like speed and economy of motion. No energy is wasted with her, every move, every swing, every step is towards her opponent, delivering a telling blow each time. She uses an attacker's momentum against him better than anyone, male or female, that I've seen in years, frequently spinning away from attempted strikes, grabbing the arm and pulling the attacker with her until she's in position to slam an elbow into his throat or a knee into his groin.
Nia kicks ass.
Nia wades through the entire Army camp, punching, kicking, stabbing and killing anyone dumb enough to challenge her. She also takes down at least a dozen cyborgs (!) with knife stabs to their foreheads, after knocking them down with a variety of kung fu moves that would make Jet Li proud. No one can defeat her, and most have zero chance of even laying a hand on her.
Job watches with concern as Nia kicks that ass.
Along the way she reunites with her little brother (separated for the last eight years), saves the not-quite-dead Gabriel (who manages to "rebuild" himself with spare parts on the battlefield), free a gaggle of enslaved women, thwack three arrows into Job's torso and fling him off a cliff, and all the while manage to look simply ravishing doing it. She's a very attractive woman under normal circumstances, but she's doubly sexy when snapping some guy's arm in half or leg-whipping a cyborg.
To further ruin the movie's karma for us all, the "Master Builder" now shows up to kidnap Nia's little brother and escape on a hang glider! The Master Builder yells to Nia as he flies off, "Your brother and I will be waiting for you in Cyborg City". What the hell does that mean? In the end, Nia and Gabriel leave on horseback to find her brother, setting us up for a sequel that blessedly never happened. The movie ends here, with a gasping whimper. I am not amused.
Nia and Gabriel ride off into the sunset. Hey, why did they title this movie Knights?
Written in February 2008 by Nathan Decker.
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