With Rutger Hauer’s recent passing, many reflected on a long and varied career that included memorable bad guys (The Hitcher, Nighthawks), heroic warriors (Ladyhawke) bizarre adverts (Guinness, Lurpak) and post-apocalyptic sports dudes (Salute of the Jugger a.k.a. The Blood of Heroes). It goes without saying that his iconic role as replicant Roy Batty, in Ridley Scott’s tech-noir potboiler, Blade Runner (1982), is the one he’ll be best remembered for.
But another of Hauer’s films that is well worth revisiting, is an action comedy directed by Phillip Noyce (Rabbit Proof Fence, Patriot Games, Dead Calm), with mediocre critical scores and tucked away in the middle of his filmography. Loosely based around the classic Japanese swordplay serial character Zatoichi, but transposed to modern day U.S.A., Blind Fury’s (1989) gloriously simple plot sees Hauer’s blind swordsman, and that kid from Baywatch, facing off against some drug dealers. So, while we’re not debating the quality of Blade Runner, forget all that ‘tears in the rain’ stuff for a moment, because what we really want to see is Rutger Hauer mistake an alligator for a pet dog, ‘accidentally’ thrash a barroom full of tough guys and slice some geezers up with a hidden sword.
Hauer is Nick Parker, blinded and left for dead in Vietnam at the end of his tour of duty. He is taken in by villagers where he is taught to master sword fighting. Parker returns home to the U.S. after twenty years, intent on looking up his old army buddy Frank (Terry O’Quinn). However Frank, a chemist by trade, has fallen in debt to some mobsters who are forcing him to manufacture drugs for them (a blue crystalline substance that bears a strong similarity to Walter White’s infamous methamphetamine in Breaking Bad). In order to strongarm Frank even further, the mobsters try to kidnap his son Billy (Brandon Call). However, Nick foils the attempt and takes Billy on the road with him to track down and rescue Frank.
Blind Fury is loosely based on Zatoichi Challenged (1967), the 17th movie in the popular chanbara (sword fighting) series. But there’s also an element of Marvel’s “Daredevil” to Nick Parker as we see how he uses his other senses to compensate for his loss of vision. Strangely, both the iconic vision impaired heroes made their debuts around the same time. The first Zatoichi movie was released in 1962, while Daredevil took his Marvel comics bow in 1964.
I miss the days when a normal looking bloke like Rutger Hauer could forge a successful career as an action hero. He was not alone either, with the likes of Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis, Patrick Swayze and even Treat Williams all making themselves a name in ’80s and ’90s action cinema. Nowadays, you have to look like a wrestler or possess super-human martial arts abilities to get anywhere close to action stardom (I am, of course, aware that the existence of Gerard Butler disproves this theory slightly, but I shall deftly move on because I don’t want to end up watching Geostorm (2017) again). The point is that for the most part, the days of average-bloke-action might well be behind us. Which is even more reason for us to examine just why Blind Fury works so well.
A big asset is the cast. Rutger Hauer nails the comedy / drama balance that the movie rests on and is highly convincing as a blind man. He also plays it pretty straight and accessible. Hauer was interviewing members of the Los Angeles Braille Institute, in preparation for the role, when he met blind judo expert Lyn Manning. Manning ended up as a technical advisor on Blind Fury, coaching Hauer to react to non-visual stimuli – unfocusing his eyes and responding to smells and sounds – in order to more authentically present the unsighted experience.
The film also benefitted from the likes of Terry O’Quinn (Lost), Meg Foster (They Live) and Lisa Blount (Prince of Darkness) in the supporting roles and the cast is further rounded out with a couple more excellent supporting players. Hulking ex-boxer Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb — perhaps best known for his appearance as the menacing biker in the Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona (1987) — plays the superbly named henchman Slag who chews on both cigars and scenery as he murders his way around Reno. He meets a fitting and enjoyably grisly demise that one can’t help but wonder if George Lucas had been watching when he was writing Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999).
There’s also a special appearance by Cannon Films favourite and martial arts legend, Sho Kosugi as The Assassin. Kosugi made his name in the trilogy of ninja films Enter the Ninja (1981), Revenge of The Ninja (1983) and Ninja III: The Domination (1984). In Blind Fury he is drafted in at the end to provide Nick Parker with a worthy sword fighting adversary, once all the background mobsters are reduced to chopped liver. In Simone de Vries documentary, Blond, Blue Eyes (2007), Hauer reminisces with some amusement over rehearsal footage of the fight. He recalls that it took a week to work out and he thought it would be impossible since he was so bad it. After which Hauer humbly credits Kosugi for making them both look good. Amusingly, the DVD cover art features Sho Kosugi in full ninja regalia, despite the fact he does not appear dressed as a ninja in the film.
Blind Fury filmed on location in the Midwest and there is in an intriguing report in the Colorado Springs Gazette from July 23, 1988 just after the completion of principal production. In the article, producer Tim Matheson revealed they were already planning a sequel, with Rutger Hauer signed up and a script written. Since Blind Fury itself did not get released for nearly two years after this story was reported, and the fact that it took producers Matheson and Dan Grodnik seven years to get the original made, it’s probably safe to assume they ran in to an obstacle or two. Not least because in December 1988 the Chicago Tribune reported that reshoots were required. Hauer was recalled from a Canadian ski tournament to film them and is quoted saying, “Tri-Star decided we had some holes in the story.”
With the plot holes fixed up, Blind Fury’s release was met with a critical consensus that the cast was good, but the material was beneath them. The L.A. Times lamented Hauer, Noyce and O’Quinn’s involvement in a movie they deemed a “numskull (sic), cornball action comedy.” While Entertainment Weekly decided that big money was the only reason Hauer would want to turn from “a gifted, world-class movie star into a grade-Z action hero.”
But the critics missed the point. It’s not what Blind Fury does, it’s how it does it. Rescue-a-kid-from-bad-guys is a well-trodden path, and no one’s going to argue the story is Shakespeare. At its bare bones Blind Fury has basically the same plot elements as any number of action movies, but it remains supremely enjoyable because of its sense of fun, a charismatic lead and a healthy suspension of disbelief.
Furthermore, the film never mocks Nick for his lack of sight. Of course, there are a few gags of Dad-joke quality, but it’s never cruel. Nick always has the upper hand, although he happily lets people think otherwise. Underestimating Nick because of his blindness always proves to be a mistake and part of the fun comes from seeing people get their comeuppance – be it a bunch of thugs, or Billy and his juvenile pranks. So, the audience never thinks of Nick in terms of having a disability, but rather the opposite: he is a man of exceptional abilities.
There’s also a lot of enjoyable silliness, courtesy of Noyce and screenwriter Charles Robert Carner. Carner is otherwise best known for cult martial arts / gymnastics crossover Gymkata (1985). So, we see Nick driving a car against traffic, even though the characters’ rationalization of a blind man driving, instead of a person without their glasses, is a hard one to get behind. Also, for the nitpicky amongst you, close inspection and a deft bit of freeze framing during the scene in which Nick slices off a cop’s hand, will reveal the actor trying to hide his definitely-not-severed real arm from the shot.
The dialogue is also choice. Starting with the recruitment of The Assassin:
Get me Bruce Lee.
Bruce Lee is dead.
Then get his brother.”
And ending with hired guns Lyle and Tector (is that even a real name?) who deserve a Lifetime Achievement Award for Services to Profanity, with their response to being trapped in an elevator: “Shit. Fuck. Shitfuck.”
The cover art for the U.S. one-sheet poster is an excellent illustration of Hauer slicing up miscellaneous firearms, accompanied by the moderately amusing tagline: “he may be blind, but he don’t need no dog.” Conversely, the UK video release has less interesting artwork but a much finer tagline: “Master of the sword, avenger of the truth… and blind as a bat.” The home video release also saw 22 seconds of sword fighting action reinstated to the theatrical cut and an upgrade from a 15 certification to an 18. Even though Blind Fury is a relatively bloodless movie, especially by our desensitized 2019 standards, the 18 rating remains. The UK releases also clipped four seconds of bomb making instructions, as a precaution against that Venn diagram where international terrorism intersects with martial arts movie enthusiasm.
Which brings us to one of the most bizarrely interesting things about Blind Fury. The alternate, television version. Not only did the bad guys get sliced and diced, but so did the movie. Now, as everyone knows, editing the language and content of films for TV broadcast is common practice. During the 1980s and 1990s especially, television stations in the U.K. and the U.S. were snipping out and overdubbing swearing and blasphemy from movies, in order to protect our sensitive minds from the language of the snooker hall. Showing scant regard for the integrity of the film, nor the artistic vision of the director’s final presentation.
Less common, yet still not without precedent, is the practice of putting footage back in to movies in order to better fill programme slots and schedule gaps. The most famous examples of this adding and subtracting, at least in terms of the amount of reinstated footage, are probably David Lynch’s Dune (1984) and the Kevin Costner Mad-Max-at-Sea epic Waterworld (1995). John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) was also famously on the receiving end of this editorial give-and-take, most noticeably adding a voiceover that not only bookends the movie, but also introduces the principal characters.
The extended cut of Dune, shown over two nights in 1988, was compiled by David Lynch, under protest. He was so opposed to it that he gave credit to infamous nom de plume, Alan Smithee – the fictional blame-taker of choice for directors and writers who want to remove their name from a film. Similarly, Waterworld displacement occurred and an extended cut was also screened over two consecutive nights by the American broadcaster ABC in 1997. Nevertheless, extended versions inevitably pique the curiosity of fans, meaning that both Dune and Waterworld’s longer editions have found home entertainment releases and a keen audience.
Most recently, Netflix turned The Hateful Eight (2015) into a four-part mini-series for selected regions, with Quentin Tarantino happily re-editing his movie into an extended cut that bears differences to both the theatrical and roadshow edits that played in cinemas.
The television edit of Blind Fury prunes the violence and tones down the language, but it also adds different takes and extends several scenes. There are reinstated scenes from the bus station, cornfield, road trip and freeway chase. There is also a longer goodbye between Nick and Billy at the finale, where Nick promises to visit him again. In total, there are 24 differences between the theatrical cut and the TV version, and they have been exhaustively documented in the “alternative versions” section of Blind Fury’s IMDb entry.
The TV edit is a hard one to track down, but the simple discovery that an alternative version even exists feels revelatory. Given Blind Fury’s rudimentary home entertainment status which includes some bog-standard, movie-only and multi-pack releases, the time seems right for a rerelease of one of Rutger Hauer’s finest efforts. Until then we’ll just have to hope there’s an obsessive VHS hoarder out there, so that one day the TV cut might be available to all of us.
It is slightly strange how Rutger Hauer’s lower budget fare remains slightly elusive, evading regular mention in lists of action classics. However, all are readily available and quite obviously well loved. But while you can look almost anywhere in Rutger Hauer’s filmography to turn up a gem, Blind Fury is the one I return to often, for no better reason than it’s great fun. Blind Fury has never really gotten the credit it deserves, and lesser movies hold greater acclaim, but in my book it’s always been one of the best.