Sometime in the near future, America has become a cesspool overrun with corrupt corporations cranking out record levels of pollution. Crippled politician Arthur Mosely runs for office on a pro-environmental ticket that earns him enemies in high places, notably evil industrialist Francis Turner (John Saxon). On Turner's orders, karate-slapping cyborg Paco Queruak (Daniel Greene) attempts to assassinate Mosely but at the last second has a change of heart. Tormented by memories of the man he used to be, Paco flees into the desert pursued both by the FBI and Turner's army of hi-tech assassins. But never mind all that. The annual arm-wrestling championship is back on at Linda's (Janet Agren) roadside diner. Will bloated Blanco (Darwyn Swalve) defend his title? You bet. Oh, and there's a cyborg in town with laser-wielding goons on his tail, yadda-yadda-yadda...
As fans know Italian exploitation films specialized in ripping off Hollywood hits. Which was fine and well back when westerns, spy thrillers or zombie flicks were in vogue. Things got a lot harder when audiences started flocking to effects laden blockbusters and cash-strapped Italian schlock merchants struggled to compete. Which brings us to Hands of Steel, genre-hopping cult filmmaker Sergio Martino's thinly-veiled take-off on The Terminator (1984). James Cameron's seminal sci-fi opus spawned a small handful of Italian imitations including the infamously awful Shocking Dark (1989), which was actually marketed as Terminator II in some countries, while a killer android was among the many mad moments in Top Line (1988) a.k.a. Alien Terminator. With a heroine named after Linda Hamilton and a scene recreating Arnold Schwarzenegger's famous DIY surgery, Hands of Steel was by far the most brazen imitation.
However, the central conceit of a conscience stricken robot man rebelling against his corporate creators marks the film as an intriguing precursor to Robocop (1987). Not that the screenplay, co-written by Martino himself along with six other writers including Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979) scribes Elsa Briganti and Dardano Sacchetti as well as the ubiquitous Ernesto Gastaldi, does anything especially profound with this theme. Sporting a near-permanent grimace Paco Queruak proves a rather smug, colourless hero with cyborg powers that are inconsistent to say the least. Bullets bounce off his chest yet he reels in pain when someone whacks him with a metal pipe. Lead actor Daniel Greene, who remains active to this day as a regular in films by the Farrelly Brothers from Kingpin (1996) right up to Hall Pass (2011), switches at random from cold, robotic non-emoting to inexplicably animated, running around swearing his head off. Undercut by a silly name and equally comical slap-happy style of combat, Paco makes it hard for viewers to sympathize with his plight.
This was one of the last instances where Martino had a decent budget to back up his ideas. He assembles a slick exploitation package with lively action sequences and notable stunts though sadly the film remains best known for the helicopter accident that claimed the life of genre stalwart and Martino regular Claudio Cassinelli. His tragic death meant Martino had to go to elaborate lengths to skirt around some awkward continuity lapses and plot holes. Despite a decent supporting turn from fan favourite Janet Agren as Paco's love interest, the plot grinds to a halt around the half hour mark once Paco takes a job as her handyman. It suddenly turns into Over the Top (1987) as he is drawn into extensive arm-wrestling bouts against greasy truckers including George Eastman, yet another familiar face in Italian exploitation (“When I get through with you, you're going to have to wipe your ass with your nose”). As things play out the plot ultimately runs closer to one of the numerous Rambo rip-offs Italy produced throughout the Eighties with the lone wolf hero victimized by rednecks till he explodes into a vengeful fury.
Hands of Steel eventually recovers some momentum with an action packed third act that includes a ridiculous riff on the Daryl Hannah character from Blade Runner (1982) with a pneumatic blonde robot girl who keeps jabbering even as a severed head. The punchline proves amusing and ends things on an intriguingly ambiguous note though without a solid storyline for the most part this remains a mindless bullet-fest.