**Spoilers for folks who haven’t seen this or the first Guyver film.**
The history of American anime adaptations is one fraught with infinitely more misses than hits. They can range from big-budget disasters like Dragonball Evolution, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Ghost in the Shell, to lesser known indie flops like Kite and Fist of the Northstar. Many will cite whitewashing as a major failing in most if not all of these films, and it’s a fair criticism to make of course. This was a major controversy for the aforementioned Ghost in the Shell, as well as the Netflix original film Death Note, although I’ll be in the minority of folks who found the latter to be surprisingly enjoyable. Even with the relatively modest success of Alita Battle Angel, I’m more than happy to be on the side of folks who feel that most American adaptations of Japanese anime miss the mark, if they even aimed for it to begin with.
Still, if there is one adaptation that I’ve made a space for on my trophy display of guilty pleasures, it has to be Guyver 2: Dark Hero, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. I will never say that this film is objectively good, but it is a film that manages to be immensely enjoyable for a variety of reasons. First, let’s go back to 1991, when the first Guyver film was released. The film was produced by direct-to-video horror icon Brian Yuzna, and directed by makeup and creature effects duo, Screaming Mad George and Steve Wang. Taking place in Los Angeles, and turning anime/manga teen protagonist Sho Fukamachi into Sean Barker, the film follows this “vaguely-defined in age” college student/manchild, as he stumbles upon an alien weapon known as the Guyver unit, which bonds with him and forms a highly-advanced bio-mechanical suit with extraordinary powers. With the villainous Chronos corporation on the hunt to get the weapon back, Sean will have to fight their army of monstrous bio-enhanced enforcers known as Zoanoids.
Now, for anyone familiar with the original manga and/or anime, one of The Guyver’s most defining qualities is that . . . it’s violent as all hell. Look up “ultraviolence” in the dictionary, and there will be a picture of The Guyver . . . right next to Robocop. So imagine the dismay of fans who watched this “film” and found very little in the way of graphic violence or gore. It also didn’t help that the marketing team tried to capitalize on Mark Hamill being in the cast, and created a poster that transparently suggests that his character is the one taken over by the Guyver unit, thus making him the hero of the film to anyone who may have been interested in renting it from their local Blockbuster. . . or Hollywood Video, whichever was your preference back in the dark ages. No, Luke Skywalker was merely playing the worst CIA agent of all time, who’s taken it upon himself to investigate the murder of a Chronos scientist who stole the Guyver unit to keep it out of their nefarious hands. This was a little over a year before Batman The Animated Series would once again make Hamill a god among geekdom, for lending his voice to the Joker, and the man’s career was still in that “take what you could get” sweet spot. Imagine reading the script for this, and getting to the third act where your character dies from prematurely transforming into a ten-foot cockroach. . . . Yeah. . . .THAT happened.
While there was some decent creature effects work on display in the film, as well as the intricately detailed Guyver armor suit, the first film’s biggest enemy was its tone. From its campy musical cues to the slapstick mannerisms of Chronos’ cronies whenever they turn into giant monsters, one of them being played by Good Times star Jimmy Walker (ask me if the film shoehorns him saying his catchphrase “Dy-No-Mite!” . . . it does . . . ), the film plays virtually everything for laughs without making any real effort to properly balance the humor with the more horror/sci-fi elements. The studio backing the film actually demanded cuts to mitigate this, but more than enough still ended up making it on-screen.
Which brings us to Guyver 2: Dark Hero. Working with about a fifth of the original’s budget, filmmakers struggled to make a film that was ostensibly better than the first Guyver, but arguably succeeded in making a more satisfying film overall. Brian Yuzna was no longer involved, thus eliminating the camp factor that plagued the first film. The sequel also replaced Jack Armstrong, who played Sean in the first film, with David Hayter. Hayter’s career actually started in English voiceover work for anime, with credits including The Castle of Cagliostro, Gundam 0080, and Yu Yu Hakusho. However, most video game fans will recognize him as the voice of Solid Snake from the Metal Gear Solid series. He’s also gone on to have a number of screenwriting credits including X-Men, Watchmen, and the creature effects-heavy werewolf film which he also directed, Wolves. Needless to say, this man has been stocking up geek cred for most of life.
As for Guvyer 2: Dark Hero’s premise, after a night of vigilante justice in which the Guyver murders and/or maims a whole stable of cholos, who appear to be every race but Latino (which, I guess subverts the stereotype . . . ?), Sean fears that the Guvyer unit is turning him into a cold-blooded killer. . . . it totally already has, tho. . . Dreaming of alien ships at the dawn of creation, and seeing reports about “werewolf sightings” in Utah, Sean travels to an archeological dig, hoping to find answers about the Guyver unit and who created them. Unfortunately, the dig is secretly being subsidized by Chronos, leaving Sean no choice but to use the power of the Guyver to fight off a new army of Zoanoids.
One of the things that makes Guyver 2: Dark Hero work so well is how it actually leans into some of its weaknesses. Fans will notice the difference in film stock between this film and the original. The film has a grainier, no-budget look to it that actually makes it feel a bit more authentic. Remember, the mid-to-late 90s was a period of time when independent films were becoming the toast of Hollywood. A lot of films could get away with not looking particularly polished, and the line between budgetary necessity and stylistic choice became rather blurry.
Guyver 2 manages to not only take advantage of this cinematic trend of the time, it also seems to be heavily drawing influence from Japanese sentai shows of late 70s and early 80s. Between the film’s look and the expansive wilderness as locations, the film seems to be deliberately trying to emulate shows that ultimately became the basis for what Americans would come to know as the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers (Incidentally, Guyver 2’s director, Steve Wang, would go on to direct episodes for both Power Rangers and Masked Rider.). The influences and aesthetics of these shows, in addition to manga and anime, informed the direction and tone of Guyver 2: Dark Hero, and was a stark contrast to the original film, which felt bound and determined to shoehorn the property to fit producer Brian Yuzna’s sensibilities more so than adhere to the source material of the character.
There’s a more dynamic quality to the action of the sequel, and even the choppiness of the effects work to create one shot where Sean leaps off a cliff while transforming into the Guyver is overshadowed by the earnest effort to emulate such a heroic visual. The idea that there’s a measurable dispersal of energy from Sean transforming into the Guyver is visualized brilliantly, as two smoking footprints are left behind after he lands. The fight scenes are appropriately violent, and by “appropriately”, I mean profoundly excessive. Decapitations, throat-slittings, lasers blasting out Zoanoids’ eyes, blood vomit; if violence were a buffet, Guyver 2:Dark Hero would be Sizzler. All this culminates in a final battle with the film’s main villain Crane, who uses a damaged Guyver unit found at the dig site, and becomes the Guyver Zoanoid. This is where Wang’s love of sentai and rider shows from Japan truly shines, with a kinetic battle between two bio-enhanced individuals that’s flashy, sometimes silly, but also surprisingly visceral. There is no doubt that these two want to end each other in the goriest way possible.
Even with its noticeable budget deficit, Guyver 2: Dark Hero can still be applauded for its effort. The consistency of its tone is a welcome change from the first film, and the action and gore are a step in the right direction. It knows what kind of film it wants to be, and doesn’t try try to sell you a bill of goods by casting any major genre stars to pique fans’ interest. Of course with the passage of time and the evolution of fandom, I wouldn’t be surprised of the film’s rights holders ever got around to re-issuing it on blu-ray and emblazoning the cover with David Hayter’s name, face, and notable credits. And if nothing else. . . the film features 100% less Jimmie Walker. That’s got to count for something!