Hands of Steel (1986)

Hey, how's it going? Nate here. Today I thought I'd dip into my stash of trashy VHS-burned-to-DVR 1980's Italian crapfests, I need to work through all these bombs so I can toss them (I have to at least watch them, especially those I paid real dollars/lira for). So here is Hands of Steel, aka Atomic Cyborg, aka Vendetta from the Future, sadly, the later two titles makes this sound like it's a much better movie than it really is.

As our show opens, it's the late 1990s and the world is in an ecological freefall due to over-pollution and rampant government corruption (yawn, legendary Italian b-movie director Enzo Castellari's to blame for this beat-to-death genre, as is his co-partner Serio Martino, our film's director). Toxic smog and deadly acid raid are killing people and no one seems to be able to stop it, cities are crumbling and regularly scheduled trash and recyclables pick-up service has been discontinued until further notice. Our opening scene is all about a wrinkly old and blind ecologist/scientist in some nameless West Coast American city who is preaching a low-tech, back-to-basics path to environmental salvation. His ideals and dreams run up against the vaunted Military Industrial Complex, however, and some rogue elements within that complex vow to kill off the old professor to preserve their own super-polluting businesses. This calls for an overly-convoluted plot to send a half-man/half-machine killer to do the job.

Nice tape recorder.

Enter Paco, a hunky, sleepy-eyed beefcake in tight Levi jeans and an artfully ripped denim vest, a stoic, virtually emotionless killer who happens to be 80% cyborg. Paco, however, has retained some latent childhood memories of eating ice cream in the park and nekking with girls that have kept a sliver of his humanity alive inside his metal and plastic soul. This makes him pull his punches when the time comes to kill the old professor, and off he runs to hide out and reconnect with his human side.


The whole cyborg-that-looks-like-a-regular-dude thing is, of course, a total rip-off of James Cameron's The Terminator from a couple years before, but there's nothing wrong with piggybacking on such a masterpiece in the name of profits (cinema's a business). The Terminator was such a seminal and influential movie that it "inspired" a whole generation of cheapass, half-drunk filmmakers (mostly from Southern Europe...) to make "respectful homages" with a quarter of Cameron's budget and a tenth of his directorial talent. I've reviewed at least one of them already (here, beware of cheese) and there are hundreds more out there lurking on the bottom shelves of rental store clearance sections.

Paco's cyborg stats from a bit later. Note the lack of capitalization consistency, these things bug me.

So there's 15 minutes of filler scenes here in the beginning, with forgettable FBI agents investigating the attempted murder, sneaky businessmen doing nefarious things that I can't remember anything about, even some disgruntled former cybernetics smartyhead in a white labcoat who gets killed for knowing too much, all sorts of stuff. But somewhere early in production, after all these muddled establishing shots were in the can, they decided to switch from a typical Italian studio sci-fi/Gallo-style gritty urban thriller to more of an updated American Western type of movie and all those plotlines evaporate in the blink of a screenwipe.

Wait, why are these two guys in my movie?

Paco needs to get out of the decaying city and into the wilderness, so to speak, and nothing says "wilderness" like Arizona. Arizona is quite visually stunning, especially out in the hinterlands away from the bluehairs and the casinos, and it lends itself well to pseudo post-apoc themes. It also helps that in the 1980s, Arizona was aggressively courting film makers with generous tax incentives, trying to draw some dollars away from neighboring California (Canada is doing the same thing these days, to much success). So the cast and crew was flown over to America for some location shoots in the Southwest, and you might as well have started the movie right here. The first 20 minutes are so different from the rest of the film in both content and tone that it's essentially a completely different movie (watch and you'll agree).

It's quite pretty there.

Much of the middle third of this movie takes place at an isolated, rundown shantytown hotel along some desolate stretch of backwoods highway in the boiling Arizona high desert. Because this is THE FUTURE (!) they dressed up the joint with a few bundles of electrical cables and some clothes dryer ducts spray-painted silver. Most amazingly, this dive in literally the middle of nowhere takes credit cards thanks to a bwoopy-beepy machine thingie that seems not to be connected to anything. The sole person here is a youngish woman named Linda, the owner/proprietor. Linda, who is played by an actress who (no surprise) looks sortakinda just like Linda Hamilton from The Terminator, is given about one sentence worth of backstory and about three seconds of nuanced character development before she gets down to the important business of falling in love with the handsome stranger who comes looking for a room one night (Paco, on foot after his dryer vent-equipped Firebird breaks down). To say that this "relationship" is "forced" is an understatement, but they've already blown a third of the movie's run time on some pointless (and forgotten) subplots about smog machines and blind tree-huggers so there's nary a minute to waste.


Speaking of wasted time, too much time is spent back at the ominously ill-lit HQ of the Eeee-vile corporation that built/dressed/unleashed Paco the cyborg. Here guys sit around desks and argue over who is to blame for Paco going off the reservation and who is going to go and track him down. There's reason to believe that the FBI is connecting the dots and they have to tie up the Paco-shaped loose end real quick like. Off they all go to Arizona in various helicopters and armed with assorted guns and bombs. Hurry up, guys.

Bad guys never turn the lights on.

While Paco's hunters are all Armani-wearing corporate robber-barons, his local, real-time nemesis is epic scenery-chewer George Eastman, playing a sweaty, grimy, furry-faced, violently alcoholic, redneck truckdriver. The ultimate villain character actor, we've already seen Eastman fighting/preening/dying in Blastfighter, 2020: Texas Gladiators, Endgame, and The New Barbarians, plus probably others I've already forgotten I've seen. His English is horrible, incomprehensibly mushy most of the time, but they cleaned a lot of that up in post. Eastman's character doesn't like strangers in his neck of the woods and Paco gets under his skin early.

He looks best when sweaty.

If it seems like I'm gushing more over the film's bad guy than our lead good guy, that's because Daniel Greene (as Paco) is quite possibly the worst actor to ever cash an exchange rate-adjusted paycheck in the history of film. Well, that's probably a bit harsh, I did just watch Shovelface Pattinson in Twilight the other day, but Daniel Greene is clearly not trying very hard here to do more than read his lines and stay in frame. Of course, he is a cyborg, so maybe he's trying to "act" all robotic and Schwartzenagger-y, even if it means he has to hold the exact same bland mash potato expression for 90 minutes.

But his pecs are impressive.

Anyway, I digress. So George Eastman and his trucker buddies are big into arm wrestling. Like really big, like it's their entire social life (pre-Facebook era, of course). When you are watching this movie (and please don't) you can't help but feel like this entire arm wrestling thing was shoehorned in mid-production to take advantage of the buzz that was building over Sly Stallone's Over the Top, which was also about arm wresting truckers in the Southwest. A quick Google peek or two tells me, surprise surprise, that very same autumn that Hands of Steel was filming, not fifty miles away in Flagstaff, Arizona, Over the Top was shooting (with a budget a hundred times bigger, of course). One wonders if someone from the Italian crew was visiting/spying on the Over the Top set one day and brought back the idea of arm wresting, and the hack director sat down on the spot and wrote three new pages of dialogue and scenes on the back of the old script. I'm over-thinking this, aren't I?

Eastman loses to Paco and he's not happy.

There's also a boring chunk of time wasted with Paco learning to love and stuff (with Linda) and being constantly forced to beat up drunken hillbilly goatfuckers who want to mess with his (now completely forgotten) quest to rediscover his humanity. The only memorable scene in all this sleepy mess is when Paco fixes his cut-open forearm, poking at exposed wires and cables that make his fingers twitch (yes, exactly like at the end of The Empire Strikes Back with Luke's new arm, like seriously, the exact same scene, same lighting, same camera angle, same everything).

Paco fixes his broken arm. There's also a similar scene in The Terminator.

I have to stop here and mention Paco's glorious hairdo, which is a classic Reagan-era moussed-up Guido helmet, standing tall and proud above his stubby ears and beady eyes. If there was ever a cultural signpost for the 1980s, it would have to be this semi-permed, blow-dried ladykiller, seen throughout the decade atop many a spray-tanned and Drakkor Noir'd-up Lower East Side dance club-dwelling douche bag. By the more civilized year of 2013, of course, such a hairdo is only seen on middle-aged lesbians and on Esteban, that Honduran guy who delivered my take-out order from El Pollo Loco the other day.

It's big.

So, to recap because I know you weren't paying attention, the shadowy, ruthless, quasi-secret company that turned Paco into a cyborg needs to eliminate him now to keep the Feds from asking too many questions. So they call in a Eurotrash Hitman with a trench coat and a horrendous Italian accent and pair him up with a Sunglasses Guy. The two of them hop in a helicopter and track Paco to the hotel where he's staying (with some help from George Eastman, who is still sore at Paco beating his ass cherry red earlier at that thar arm wrasslin').

Eastman takes his payment.

While the Eurotrash Hitman and Sunglasses Guy are waiting outside the hotel, however, two other assassins show up to try their luck with Paco first (the head bad guy is taking no chances). One of them is a bandana-wearing Easy Rider wannabe with an M-16 carbine and a knife, but he gets mangled early by Paco. His partner is a bleached blonde hot chick in a clear plastic skirt over a white leotard who turns out to be a blood-thirsty killer cyborg dressed up like a hooker (yes, just like Pris in Blade Runner, steal from the best, I always say). She talks too much and Paco has to rip her head off to quiet her down (literally).

She also has iron claw fingernail thingies like Lady Deathstrike.

Eurotrash Hitman and Sunglasses Guy then bust in and start blowing shit up with grenades and guns, but they didn't count on Paco having an A-Team modified M-16 with the deepest magazine in history (like, Marianas Trench deep, he shoots it nonstop for ten minutes without reloading). In all this rugamaroo, caught-in-the-crossfire Linda gets stabbed in the thigh with a knife. Other than a bit of an on-again/off-again limp, it doesn't seem to affect her much, but she does get to grunt and it thankfully doesn't stop her from jumping out of a travel trailer seconds before it gets exploded up.

Paco must save Linda, out of love!

The action now moves to a nearby bridge over a dry gorge. A stuntman posing as George Eastman drives his semi into Paco's car because Eastman hates Paco so much for beating him at arm wrestling he's willing to destroy his own truck and ruin his own livelihood just to get back at him (sure). Paco punches through the windshield and crushes his head, because that's how it's done when your hands are made...of steel! Paco then sends Linda off while he runs around the desert for a bit, while being chased by more bad guys in helicopters (seriously, helicopter rentals don't come cheap, that's half the budget right there).

A helo actually crashed during shooting, killing an actor, true story.

And finally we have a closing set-piece action scene at what looks like an abandoned glass factory in some dinky artsy Sedona-esque town. The greedy arms merchant who is to blame for all this mess, played by a slumming John Saxon, now shows up in his chopper to deal with Paco once and for all. Saxon must have been in some severe financial distress to have agreed to appear in this mangy, barking dog of a movie, but he does go whole-hog into his role as a greasy weapons dealer gone rogue.

He's been in much better movies than this.

Paco first takes care of a couple of motorcycle helmet-wearing flunkies (the helmet thing might just have been there so they could have a shot of Paco punching right through the visor into the dude's face). And then it's just down to Paco versus Saxon, leather vest versus suitcoat, whiteman's afro versus bad comb-over, hands of steel versus this comically huge laser gun thingie. The laser gun prop is ridiculously unwieldy and might have originally been one of those light-up candle Christmas decorations towns put up along Main Street, it looks that bad. And it's tactially useless as Paco is quick enough to dodge light (apparently).

No visible power source, must be some heavy duty batteries.

In the end Paco kills Saxon with his hands (of steel!) and then the cops show up to surround the place. Linda is allowed to come in alone to talk to Paco (what?) and she says all the gushy love stuff that's supposed to make a difference. Since this is an Italian movie from the 1980s, it ends weirdly, with Paco just saying a few sage words about the loss of humanity and the end of innocence or something, and then the credits roll. A thoroughly unsatisfying and anti-climactic ending to be sure, I think that we need to see Paco die in the end, as it's been set up all movie long how he's the Man Without a Country and he can never be a Real Boy again. But I didn't write the script, obviously, because if I did there would be more cats in it.

Paco's future is bleak, but it must be so.

And that's that. All in all a pretty watchable-ish movie with a few neat twists. The cyborg-on-cyborg fight is particularly well done, and of course anytime George Eastman is on screen it's worth the time, if you don't mind vacuuming his scenery crumbs off your rug afterwards.

The End.

Written in January 2013 by Nathan Decker.

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