ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sean Collier is a writer and movie critic. Listen to his podcast, The Number One Movie in America, on all major podcast apps. Follow him on Twitter for more reviews: @seancollierpgh
It’s an Italian/American ’80s cyborgsploitation arm-wrestling action western. You know, just another one of those.
After The Terminator hit, the overarching mode of genre cinema lurched into the near future as studios and directors around the world began developing stories featuring fancy gadgets and lots of action in mild dystopias. Sergio Martino, who had already flashed forward with 1983’s 2019: After the Fall of New York, likely had little trouble conceiving this story of a cyborg with a conscience on the run from everyone.
Paco Queruak (Daniel Greene) is tasked with assassinating a cult-of-personality environmental leader — “You Have No Future,” says his on-the-nose posters — but hesitates at the last moment, merely maiming him. Drawn to the Arizona desert, he evades law enforcement until he washes up at an out-of-the-way bar and motel run by Janet Agren (Linda), who will gradually become Paco’s love interest.
It takes an awful long time to get to the reveal, but you’ll have it figured out early — Paco is a cyborg, mostly mechanical but assembled using the spare parts of a mortally wounded man. (Yes, Martino quite cleanly conceived the “Robocop” plot a couple years early.) Now he’s being pursued by three different groups — the FBI agents investigating the attack, his creators and the local arm-wrestling goon and his minions.
Oh, right — the arm wrestling.
Soon after Paco arrives in Arizona, Linda explains that her bar is a hotspot on the underground arm-wrestling scene. Paco quickly defeats the house tough, Raul (George Eastman), making himself a demented enemy; by the next day, Raul has arranged for a high-stakes match where the loser will be immediately bitten by a rattlesnake.
It goes without saying that the arm-wrestling scenes are the absolute highlight of the film. (And yes, Martino also conceived the Over the Top plot a couple years early.)
While much of the acting is wooden — Greene can’t match the level of scenery-chewing rivals such as Eastman, even if he does look good knocking a guy out with a dual backhand chop — “Hands of Steel” more than stays afloat on its style and low-budget creativity, as Martino works overtime to create memorable action sequences on a shoestring. He’s helped considerably by the Claudio Simonetti score, which marries the composer’s synth instincts with elements of ’80s smooth rock.
Unfortunately, Hands of Steel is better known (as far as it’s known at all) for tragedy, rather than its merits. While filming a tricky helicopter scene, an on-set crash killed Claudio Cassinelli, who plays a mid-level bigwig in the organization that built Paco. The excellent Italian actor — memorable for roles in The Suspicious Death of a Minor, several Hercules films and dozens of others — died instantly. (Rumor holds that John Saxon, the film’s big bad, would’ve been on the same helicopter, but insisted on filming his scenes in Italy since it was a non-union shoot in the U.S.)
Like The Twilight Zone: The Movie, it’s hard to sit back and enjoy the movie, knowing the circumstances. If you can manage it, there’s a fun blend of science fiction, western and pure style; no judgment, however, if you’d rather not approach Hands of Steel.