First things first: You’re going to have to forgive my lateness here. Like every other member of my generation, and especially every member of the Paste staff who is remotely connected to TV writing in any way, I have a queue of “shows I should really watch” that stretches far off into the distant horizon, around the curvature of the Earth. Will I ever catch up with everything that seemingly everyone I know is watching? No, I’ve come to peace with the fact that I never will. But I’ll give it a shot anyway.
Most recently, that series I’ve been devouring from the beginning is HBO’s Barry—don’t worry, I’ll get to Fleabag eventually. But Barry has struck a chord with both my fiancée and me. Its tone is utterly unique, being one of the only series I can remember watching that regularly delivers both big laughs and nail-biting suspense within the course of the same 30-second stretch of TV. A character like NoHo Hank can show up at Barry’s domicile, shoot at him through the window, and be dancing merrily with him 60 seconds later. Truly, to watch Barry is to ride a rollercoaster of gut reactions. Halfway through Season Two, we’re beside ourselves with enthusiasm for the show, Bill Hader’s writing, and the stellar direction of each episode.
And then came Season Two, Episode 5, “ronny/lily.” Holding the #1 spot of Paste’s just-released 16 best TV episodes of the year so far list, it’s the most remarkable episode of Barry yet, and watching it with my fiancée last night, I marveled at both its technical brilliance and its weapons-grade weirdness. To say that it’s unlike previous Barry episodes is an understatement—“ronny/lily” is like the series shifting into an entirely new gear.
Halfway through watching, though, my brain proceeded to melt down, as I made the most unexpected of connections: The title character of “Ronny” looked oddly familiar. And it’s because he was the protagonist of one of the dumbest films in the history of movie-riffing series Mystery Science Theater 3000.
If you’ve been reading Paste for years, then you know we’re among the biggest MST3K geeks on the web. We’ve ranked all 197 episodes, for God’s sake, in a post that is probably 60,000 words in length after the addition of the two Netflix reboot seasons. Our depth of MST3K reference knowledge runs toward the maddeningly obscure, but the Barry connection to MST3K is less a deep pull and more a surface-level one. It’s because of the movie where “Ronny” appeared: 1997’s Future War, which we’ve ranked as the #9 best MST3K episode of all time. He’s not just some guy from a random episode of the series, he’s the hero of one of the best episodes.
The actor in question is Swiss-born Daniel Bernhardt, a now 53-year-old martial artist, stuntman, action choreographer and model. The early portion of his career was marked by similarity and comparison, as the tall, European, good-looking actor possessed a similar kickboxing background (and nebulous, “foreign” accent) to Jean-Claude Van Damme, who had made himself into an international action star with the films Kickboxer and Bloodsport. Bernhardt had the good fortune of meeting producer Marc Di Salle after arriving in New York to start his acting career—the very same man who had discovered Van Damme. Very obviously attempting to catch lightning in a bottle a second time, Di Salle cast Bernhardt as the lead in the direct-to-video sequel Bloodsport II (1996), making the Van Damme comparisons impossible to avoid.
Future War, meanwhile, arrived a year later, with Bernhardt again playing a kickboxer—albeit, one from another world, who uses his martial arts abilities to fight cyborgs who are hunting him with the help of dinosaur trackers. Yes, dinosaurs! This is an MST3K movie, let’s not forget. There’s also a nun in training who is a former prostitute, if you were wondering. This sequence of Bernardt fighting what appears to be a cybernetic Randy Johnson, while harnessing the awesome power of cardboard boxes, gives you an idea of Future War’s relative quality.
Suffice to say, despite our “movie pain meter” for Future War appearing as merely “medium” in our ranking of every episode, the film is amazingly, incredibly bad—but it happens to be bad in EXACTLY THE RIGHT WAY for an episode of MST3K. Its inherent absurdity, hilariously wooden acting, terrible special effects and bonkers plot make for one of the funniest episodes in the series; one that every MST3K fan should see. Host Mike Nelson may have made the observation about a different film (Deathstalker and the Warriors From Hell), but it would have been equally apropos if used here: “This is one of the most ambitiously bad movies we’ve ever done.”
Imagine my surprise, then, to see the guy the MST3K riffers dubbed “Jean-Claude Gosh Darn” show up as the star of the Barry episode I’m watching last night, 22 years later. And here’s the funny thing: Bernhardt really is spectacular in this limited role, although his performance didn’t get quite as much attention from reviewers when compared to the young, feral Jessie Giacomazzi, who plays Ronny’s scene-stealing daughter Lily. Bernhardt plays the role with understated grace, being the first person on screen in the episode’s cold open, slowly padding through his house in search of his pot stash. The early moments give us an impression of Ronny as tired, older and past his prime—something that is hilariously refuted minutes later when we’re exposed to his entire room full of taekwondo trophies and medals. Barry’s mounting anxiety, realizing the kind of person he’s probably about to be picking a fight with, makes the scene simultaneously drip with both humor and tension. And the resulting fight? Well, plenty of comparisons to the legendary comic brawl in John Carpenter’s They Live have already been made, and they were well earned. It’s one of the most riveting TV sequences of the year, largely thanks to one Daniel Bernhardt, who once blew up Robert Z’dar with an explosive collar in a Catholic church in the riveting conclusion to Future War.
Ultimately, though, what became increasingly clear as I did a little research on Bernhardt’s acting career, is that this Barry appearance was no fluke—this guy has carved himself out a very impressive career in action cinema, while existing on the periphery of international stardom. In 2003, he was the black suit-clad “Agent Johnson” who assured Neo he was still “only human” in The Matrix Reloaded, before battling Morpheus on top of a speeding 18-wheeler. Some 11 years later, he got his revenge on Keanu Reeves by hurling him off the balcony of a Russian EDM club to a painful landing on the dance floor below, portraying top henchman “Kirill” in John Wick. Everywhere you look in the action genre, in fact, there’s Bernhardt, playing some kind of tertiary badass. He’s never been a household name, but he’s appeared in quite a few films that every action movie junkie has seen. From Logan to Atomic Blonde, his appearances have only been more high profile as of late.
So I guess what we’re saying is: Good for you, Daniel Bernhardt. Despite starting out in the likes of Future War, strangling inarticulated dinosaur puppets to death, you now find yourself as one of Hollywood’s go-to faces for action roles. You’ve appeared in a number of my own favorite films, without me ever realizing I was looking at the guy who was hurling cardboard boxes at cyborgs in 1997. And now you’re one of the key stars of what might end up being the best TV episode of 2019.
Maybe I should look up the star of Deathstalker next, to see if his career also turned out to be an unqualified success?
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.