Directed by Brett Leonard (Virtuosity, Hideaway) the movie told the story of a simple lawnmower man named Jobe (Jeff Fahey), who had the IQ of a 6-year old and came to the attention of a neighbouring scientist, Dr Lawrence Angelo (a post Remington Steel and pre Goldeneye Pierce Brosnan). Using Jobe as a lab rat Angelo experimented with a combination of drugs and state-of-the-art virtual reality to alter Jobe's intelligence, and as this is not a review for that film, I will cut to the chase by saying that he was turned into an evil mastermind who roamed cyber space in search of world domination. The film performed moderately on home entertainment but was mostly known for its association with Stephen King, who successfully sued the producers to have his name removed from the poster (his story of the same name bore no similarity).
Four years later, from out of nowhere, Lawnmower Man 2 arrived in cinemas with the subtitle “Beyond Cyberspace” and tanked heavily. Its theatrical run was limited and it found its way to home video with little to no fanfare. The subtitle was changed to “Jobe's War” and the VHS art featured images from the previous film. Critical and viewer reactions were savage and the movie fell into obscurity.
What a travesty, because in retrospect Lawnmower Man 2 is superior to Lawnmower Man in almost every way, and while the significance of the first movie's depiction of virtual reality is irrefutable, the sequel's narrative is arguably better, as well as its projection of a future society being somewhat accurate.
The only return player was Austin O'Brien who made his debut in the original movie and went on to star in a string of hits including Last Action Hero, Prehysteria, My Girl 2 and Apollo 13. Veteran character actor Matt Frewer (Honey I Shrunk the Kids, The Stand) replaced Fahey as Jobe, while Brosnan's character was written out entirely and substituted with Dr Benjamin Trace (Patrick Bergin), the inventor of virtual reality himself.
When watching the movie 23-years after its release, the first peculiarity about Lawnmower Man 2 is the all-new futuristic cyber-punk setting. With a delicious production design best likened to the Mars-scape of Total Recall, we are expected to believe that the world has evolved in a very short space of time, and with O'Brien's character looking only a few years older, viewers are forced to suspend that disbelief, which is fine given that the new setting is a lot more appealing.
Following the conclusion of the first movie Jobe is now under the control of a multinational corporation and is the mastermind of a new virtual reality called Virtual Light. VL is a highly ambitious online universe, which – with the power of the Kyron Chip – will supersede the real world entirely. Jobe intends to access every cyber port in the world, triggering an armageddon and forcing mankind to retreat into his new world. The only thing in Jobe's way is one single encryption, which only Dr Trace can unlock, and with the help of Peter (O'Brien) and his computer geek friends, Trace enters Virtual Light and goes head to head with Jobe.
Lawnmower Man 2 was a simpler, more palatable story than the previous, and boasted a stronger visceral appeal with a production design that's bigger than such a sequel deserves. Director Farhad Mann (Return to Two Moon Junction) stepped in and took control with a clear mind of how to expand Leonard's universe. Despite being locked out of the editing process due to the studio's insistence on appealing to a specific teenage audience, Farhad relished the genre with a gleeful eye and a comic-book sensibility. His cyber-punk cityscape was wonderfully conceived, using the studio sound stage to his advantage, and the online components of the story were told with minimal digital animation in comparison to the first movie. The obvious budget restrains meant that the virtual world resembled the real world, which was sold to us as being a VR so real that we cannot distinguish the difference. This budgetary concession, in turn, played to the story's advantage and made the narrative palpable.
The casting of Matt Frewer was a small stroke of genius given his role as Max Headroom, the iconic digital TV host who dominated 1980s pop culture. He took over from Fahey and delivered a different performance that was tailored towards his own style and comical sensibilities. And while Fahey's original turn was more malevolent and sinister, Frewer's delivery was a lot more fun. Bergin was also good and he, seemingly, understood the nature of the material. Embracing the tropes and offering a lighter performance than Bronson's, he gave Lawnmower Man 2 a warranted, albeit notoriously direct-to-video, calibre of star power.
How the hell is a release like Lawnmower Man 2 better than its predecessor, and why the hell hasn't it garnered a cult following after all these years? With its predictions of future technology including cell-phones and face-time, as well as a device that's incredibly called an Eye-Phone, it is a movie begging for a loyal fanbase. Do yourself a favour and track this one down. Give it your reconsideration and watch it with or without the first movie. It's one hell of a good time.