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The Vindicator

(AKA Frankenstein '88) 1986, Starring David McIlwraith, Teri Austin, Richard Cox, Pam Grier, Maury Chaykin. Directed by Jean-Claude Lord.

Half man, half machine, but all Canadian sci-fi cheese--the Vindicator is a heady hybrid of sci-fi, action and horror produced by Cinépix founders John Dunning and André Link. Less interested in heavy dramatic statements about humanity versus technology, The Vindicator is a fun technological thriller that cranks up the B-movie theatrics, including acid-shooting guns, mangled faces, bloody car-crushing action, and, of course, robot fistfights.

Scientist Carl Lehman (David McIlwraith) is having a bad day. He loses his lab funding, is apparently killed in a horrific explosion engineered by his megalomaniacal boss Alex Whyte (Richard Cox) and then has his still-functioning brain dropped into an experimental cyborg unit clad in a gold lamé space suit. Only this is no ordinary super strong, invincible robot body— whenever anyone gets too close, the suit’s self-preservation circuitry triggers a violent rage in Carl that only stops when the threat is destroyed. When RoboCarl wakes up and discovers he’s become the cruel victim of his colleagues’ little experiment, he escapes and stalks the corrupt, crime-ridden streets of Montreal, enacting revenge on those that turned him into a walking pop can with anger management issues—and any other street punks foolish enough to get in his way.

One of Dunning and Link's few excursions into the sci-fi genre, following 1983's 3D-craze cash-in Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, The Vindicator shares some of Robocop’s themes and trashy comic book aesthetic, even though it predates Paul Verhoeven’s classic by several years. There are the expected scenes of a confused Carl trying to regain his humanity, but these appear more like window dressing than anything--the meat of the story clearly lies in the scenes of violent revenge at the hands of the Vindicator--apparently named as such after the success of The Terminator, as he's not called that name by any of the characters.

Director Jean-Claude Lord—fresh from his duties on the nerve-racking hospital slasher Visiting Hours—offers The Vindicator as a clever, computerized update of Frankenstein, a classic cinema monster referenced several times over the course of the story. But as with his later film, the thinly disguised CIA electroshock thriller Mindfield, Lord is mining familiar Canadian fears here, having a corrupt authority figure perform unauthorized medical testing on a helpless citizen--in this case, purely for a profit motive. Cronenberg may have explored the uncomfortable extremes of government-run health care first and probably better, but The Vindicator is a fun, populist take on some of Cronenberg's more complex themes, putting exploitation fun before the big ideas that characterize films like The Brood and Shivers.

The cast is not only impressive, but also game for Lord's cheapjack sci-fi shenanigans. Canadian lead McIlwraith does a fine job as the imposing titular cyborg and character actor Richard Cox, who had previously appeared in Oliver Stone's Canadian co-production Seizure is appropriately evil as Whyte, his unscrupulous boss. Exploitation icon Pam Grier gets a nice extended cameo role in the film as Hunter, a no-nonsense gun-for-hire who Whyte pays off to bring the uncontrollable Carl back under his control. But it's stalwart Canadian character actor Maury Chaykin who steals the show as Carl’s sleazy co-worker who may be feeling just a little too protective over his ex-lab partner’s pregnant wife—especially when he punches her in the face and tries to rape her in one of the film’s nastiest and most unexpected scenes.

Also worth noting is the film's low-tech, battle-worn cyborg design, created by the legendary Stan Winston Studios. After the gold lamé suit is burned up in an explosion early on, Lord reveals the suit's true apocalyptic design, a blackened mass of wires, dirty plastic casings and translucent tubes that leaves only Carl's eyes visible. He looks like a soldier outfitted in junkyard parts, a far cry from the polished and orderly Robocop suit or the minimal, steely power of the Terminator, the big screen robots to which he often draws comparisons.

But comparing The Vindicator to big-budgeted Hollywood sci-fi films would be missing the point. Lord's film may be a certified knock-off of bigger and better American efforts, but it's fast pace and grisly action help this B-film rise above its meager budget and stand as one of the best Canadian science-fiction efforts of the 1980s, an engaging, explosion-filled tale that could have only come from the deepest recesses of the tax shelter era.

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