Warfare and global warming have poisoned the Earth's atmosphere. The dregs of humanity have taken shelter in underground cities where they live, eat, sleep, pray, sin and continue to play out their religious conflicts: a tense three-way stand-off between the Jihadists, the evangelical church led by hypocritical preacher Miles, and priestess Sophia's sisterhood of Amazons* and killer robots.
Dakota (C. Thomas Howell) is a Shepherd, a hitman in the service of Miles and his militia leader Lyndon (Mackenzie Gray.) He has killed thousands of dissidents or threats to the flock on their orders, but when he is called in to perform a last hit he discovers his target Lilith (likeable actress Heidi von Palleske) is the mother of a young boy. This triggers something within his own unhappy memories so instead he goes on the run with the pair.
The dimly lit, poverty stricken underground city full of churches and religious cults reminded me of Franklyn's Meanwhile City - and Franklyn also revolves around a religious hitman. The Shepherd is a simpler film though, with none of the metaphysical genius that makes up Franklyn's multi-reality. There's also a distinct lack of Eva Green and stovepipe-wearing gothic policemen. In their place though is the relationship between Dakota and Lyndon, who were cop buddies together in the pre-apocalyptic world but are set against each other by Dakota's choice.
This film was released in 1999 but the production values suggest a much earlier time, and a particular approach to sci-fi filmmaking with too much emphasis on coloured backlighting. There's no CGI, the sets are dimly lit and massively over-used - the same alleyways and coridoors appear over and over again with different coloured lighting. And what is it about fires in barrels? There are rather a lot of these. Sophia's robot preachers are Johnny Five with some extra guns and are a bit wobbly. And apart from Sophia's security chief Magdeline (Nicole Xidlas) who looks pretty cool on her motorbike, the rest of the characters ride unimpressive, dinky little sci-fi cars.
C. Thomas Howell is an underrated actor who has given a lot to the sci-fi and horror genres over the years, from his supporting role in E.T. to the present - he is currently filming Gulf War horror Camel Spiders. There's nothing wrong with Howell's performance here, or for that matter the other major cast members - and, also typical of this school of sci-fi, The Future(TM) is populated by eccentric minor characters headed by David Carradine as a mad ventriloquist. The script veers all over the place - the exchanges between Miles, who talks the faith talk, and Lyndon, who always calls his bluff, are lively and hilarious, but Howell has to make do with second-class script material and at times the writing is cliched and vacant.
In conclusion there's stuff to enjoy here but also stuff to endure, including two scenes that approach soft-porn but are neither erotic nor of any dramatic value. This film should be filed under G for Guilty Pleasure rather than remembered as any kind of classic.
In what seems like a desperate move to make it sound relevant, this film has been broadcast under the alternative name Cybercity and the tagline "Before The Matrix there was..." This is true but only in a strictly chronological sense. The rebranding exercise resolves one issue though - the Shepherd poster shows some kind of hovering aircraft which disappointingly never appears in the film. There is a sequel, Cybermaster: Shepherd II.