RIPD Rutger Hauer Case File #146/My Year of Flops II #43 Blind Fury (1990)
When Rutger Hauer died recently at 75 he was mourned, and mourned deeply and widely, as a great actor. He was fondly remember all over the world as a legendary badass, a terrific character actor who made everything he was in better, from his career-defining turn in Blade Runner to whatever direct-to-video garbage he made late in life.
But he was not mourned as a movie star despite being Paul Verhoeven’s leading man of choice back when he was Dutch cinema’s reigning Enfant terrible and despite his lead role in cult movies like Ladyhwake and The Hitcher. Hauer certainly had the charisma and magnetism to headline major motion pictures. He stole Blade Runner and that Harrison Ford fellow certainly has done pretty well for himself as a singularly bankable leading man folks sure don’t seem to mind paying money to go see.
I can think of at least two Hauer movies that would lead to lucrative franchises in a perfect world: the deliriously fun 1990 Blind Fury, an Americanized take on the Zatoichi series about a blind swordsman as unassuming-seeming as he is deadly. How successful is Zatoichi? Its success didn’t just lead to a sequel, or a few sequels. It was so successful that it led to dozens of additional films.
When I worked at the A.V Club it seemed like half my mail consisted of Criterion releases of Zatoichi movies. So it’s perfectly understandable as to why American producers would want to harness some of that enduring popularity with an American remake. Alas, Blind Fury made less than three million dollars domestically and the much hoped for franchise never happened.
Blind Fury is a very international conception of an American remake. It is, after all, a re-imagining of a legendary Japanese film series directed by Australian Phillip Noyce, who made it his American debut after releasing his international breakthrough movie, the masterful Knife in the Water riff Dead Calm a year earlier, starring a Dutch actor and set not just in the United States, but in such extremely, even excessively American places as Florida and Reno, Nevada.
An American b-movie goof on Zatoichi is a terrific idea. Casting Hauer in the lead is an even better one. From a purely physical standpoint, this is a virtuoso performance. A lot of movies would slap a pair of sunglasses on a blind lead character to really drive home their sightlessness but Blind Fury isn’t about to hide an asset as potent and valuable as Rutger Hauer’s gorgeous eyes, which have seen things, things you couldn’t imagine, attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion, C-beams glittering in the dark near the Tanhauser gate, that kind of thing.
In Blind Fury, Hauer’s eyes don’t see what’s in front of him. He’s not just playing a much bigger game; he’s absolutely dominating it. He’s the prototypical fifth-dimensional Chess player, always ten steps ahead of his opponent. He doesn’t react; he always acts preemptively, trusting impulses that are never wrong, that are downright superhuman to compensate for his inability to see.
I was tempted to give Blind Fury a spin after We Hate Movies, one of my favorite podcasts, devoted a very entertaining episode to it. We Hate Movies turned into We Love Movies as the fellas gushed about a movie that checked off all of my boxes. Rutger Hauer vehicle? Check. Fascinating cross-cultural attempt to recreate something fundamentally Japanese for an American audience? Check. Amazing cast full of terrific character actors like Terry O’Quinn (billed as Terrance O’Quinn), Noble Willingham, Randall “Tex” Cobb, who is so tough and so mean that he seems to have gasoline for blood and an angry rattlesnake where his heart should be, Nick Cassavettes (everyone’s favorite Cassavettes), Rick Overton and Sho Kosugi. It was filmed in the 1980s, if released stateside in 1990, and clocks in at well under ninety minutes.
It seemed like a real Secret Success in the making so after Hauer died, reminding the world how much they loved him, and continue to love him in the process, I decided to give it a whirl. I’m pleased to report it was everything I had hoped for and more.
Blind Fury begins in Vietnam, where protagonist Nick Parker (Hauer) is blinded in an accident. Through careful training, Nick’s other senses evolve to the point that he has ninja-like reflexes and fighting skills, making him a singular cross between Mr. Magoo and Bruce Lee.
Today’s action stars look less like ordinary human beings than brick walls with fists. So it’s fascinating seeing Haeur wryly underplay a man who doesn’t just seem unassuming, he seems vulnerable, even weak with his red hat, bright yellow walkman and average build.
Nick Parker seemingly has a “Please fuck with me” sign on his back that everyone can see but him. Bad guys and small children alike can’t resist fucking with Nick. They all pay a price; when you fuck with Nick Parker, “helpless” blind man, he fucks with you right back. Little do they know that Parker’s cane is actually a sword.
Needless to say, the dudes who make the mistake of messing with Parker don’t feel quite so smug after he chops their heads off. That’ll teach them to underestimate the disabled! In Florida decades later Nick goes to visit Vietnam buddy Frank Deveraux (O’Quinn) and arrives just in time to save Billy (Brandon Call), Frank’s son, from getting kidnapped by a pair of corrupt cops and Slag (Cobb), a very bad man employed by Claude MacCready (Willingham) the crime kingpin Frank works for.
He’s not successful, however, in saving the life of Billy’s mother and Frank’s ex-wife, an ethereal beauty played by Meg Foster. Nick tracks down Billy after he runs away and becomes the boy’s protector and promises to take him to see his father, a trek complicated by the many people dispatched to kill the blind man and kidnap the boy, including, but not limited to, a bad motherfucker named Slab Cobb makes an antagonist worthy of a nifty hero like Parker.
By the time Blind Fury comes to an end, I was genuinely choked up at the prospect of Nick Parker, righteous wanderer and guardian of the innocent, never seeing the little boy whose life he saved repeatedly ever again after he wanders away after his mission has been successfully completed.
I was feeling all the feels but to its credit, Blind Fury smartly undercuts and subverts the sticky sentimentality of the “Good hearted loner befriends a child and the bond they share changes both their lives” movie by initially making Billy an obnoxious little shit who begins the film messing mercilessly with a man he underestimates along with the rest of the world, and Nick giving as good as he gets.
Billy begins the film an obnoxious little creep but undergoes a redemptive arc once he realizes that not only is Nick more formidable than he appears to be; he may be the single most impressive person in the history of the universe.
Yes, Claude the kingpin dispatches a not so small army of heavily armed goons to take down one blind man and a small child. He has no idea that all of the assault rifles in the world are no match for Nick’s righteous sword of vengeance. Claude eventually decides that it takes a bad man with a sword to take down a good man with a sword so he dispenses a shadowy figure credited only as “The Assassin” (played by special guest Sho Kosugi, who also helped Hauer with his sword work) to sword-fight Nick with predictable results.
The box-office of the films that Hauer starred in after he made the big leap from European leading man to Hollywood player suggests that Hauer simply did not have what it takes to be an American movie star, that he was missing that ineffable “X factor” that separates movie stars from wannabes. Blind Fury says otherwise. It doesn’t just say otherwise, it screams otherwise. The ruggedly handsome, boldly blonde Hauer delivers a movie star turn here—funny, vibrant, winningly self-deprecating despite the many things he has to be self-aggrandizing about and unforgettable. It’s not easy playing a character this iconic and enduring but Hauer really makes it his own.
Hauer absolutely OOZES charisma here. It’s a star turn to be sure but also the work of a consummate character actor willing to do whatever it takes to serve the film, whether that also serves his actorly ego or not.
At 86 lean, filler-free minutes, Blind Fury doesn’t give audiences time to get bored. It leaves them wanting more but after the movie died at the box-office plans for a sequel were scotched. That’s too bad. Hauer nails the character; it would be fun to see him strut his stuff in subsequent entries and god knows the Japanese Zatoichi series gives them plenty of material to build on.
There are injustices in the world worse than Blind Fury never becoming the lucrative franchise it deserved to be but it seems like a shame that Hauer did all that training, and became the master of blind swordsmanship, for the sake of but a single over-achieving b-movie.
The second Hauer movie that deserved to be a franchise is the wonderful Death Wish 3 parody/homage/pastiche Hobo With a Handgun, which brilliantly cast the elderly but still fierce film icon as the dead-eyed, emotionally broken, shotgun-toting savior of a skid row ruled by nefarious bad guys.
Hauer commits to his character’s psychological brokenness to an almost scary degree. Hauer’s shotgun-toting hobo isn’t just a little bit off, or eccentric: there is something deeply, deeply wrong with him; he’s not a hero, or even an anti-hero, but rather something much darker and stranger.
Blind Fury made me miss Hauer even more. Why not give Blind Fury a try? Watching it is a wonderfully silly, weirdly perfect way to celebrate Hauer’s life and art in the aftermath of his unfortunate death.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success
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