Sunday 29 January 2012

Blind Fury (1989)

Director: Phillip Noyce
Star: Rutger Hauer

'I can't see anything,' whispers Rutger Hauer at the beginning of this film. Well, that's not too surprising, given that this is a loose American remake of Zatoichi Challenged, the seventeenth film in the long running Zatoichi film series, and Hauer is taking Shintaro Katsu's role as Ichi, the blind swordsman. In this version he's called Nick Parker, a Vietnam vet blinded during wartime but befriended by the locals and taught how to deal with his blindness to the degree of being able to slice a watermelon into quarters as it's being thrown at him. Now, Zatoichi Challenged was released in 1967 and was a period piece to boot. This version is firmly brought into our time, emphasised by Parker's red baseball cap and yellow walkman. He's a colourful character for a blind man, but then he's somehow found his way from the jungles of Vietnam to Miami during the twenty year jump that comes after the opening credits.

He's here to find an old war buddy, Frank Devereaux, but he only finds Frank's ex-wife and son. Frank is being held upside down off a tall building in Reno by the henchmen of a crook called MacCready, who has garnered leverage over him so as to make use of his talents. Fortunately Parker is with Lynn and Billy Devereaux when MacCready's thugs arrive to boost that leverage. Unfortunately Lynn is killed in the battle that follows. That explains why I didn't remember that Meg Foster was in this movie: she gets a very small part indeed, though she does make the most of her death scene. She's a lot better than the corrupt cops that die in the same battle, but she's still gone from the picture. Her last wish is for Nick to take Billy to his father, which of course is enough to set up the rest of the story: part road movie, part thriller, part martial arts flick as Nick bonds with Billy while taking him to his dad and fending off kidnap attempts right and left.

Beyond Parker's subtle sword cane, which is reminiscent of Ichi's in the original films, there's much of what you might expect from a Zatoichi movie. Parker has a dry, unassuming sense of humour, though Hauer's character is a little more overt than Shintaro Katsu's. People make fun of him and he plays along. When they get serious, so does he but in a deceptively simple way, playing up his moves as accidents. Most of the time he looks inwards, as if as an alternative to being able to look anywhere else, but we see a lot more of Nick's eyeballs than we ever did of Ichi's. Hauer focuses while Katsu squints, though to be fair he did have 26 movies and 100 TV episodes to build up the nuances of his character. With that much screen time to work with, he must have found it difficult to find himself, but he was somewhat different in other films, like the bizarre Hanzo the Razor movies.
It's obvious that actor Tim Matheson, here producing his first and last feature film, had to be a fan of the Zatoichi films. It isn't that he chose such an obscure story, at least to western eyes, to adapt, but that he obviously understood how they worked. For instance, there's a gambling scene in Reno which is a quintessential Zatoichi scene, expertly adapted to the contemporary setting. Yet while this is present in many of the Zatoichi films, surprisingly it isn't in the one that was directly adapted here. It's taken from the source world rather than the source script. There's also another obvious inspiration here, at least to my eyes, namely Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest. This is most obvious in the use of setpiece locations, not least the cornfield halfway and the ski lodge at the end. Everything at these points seems constructed from a completely western mindset, a traditional western suspense model, rather than anything eastern merely translated.

I enjoyed Blind Fury years ago and I enjoyed it again with fresh, more experienced eyes, but it did feel very much like a lesser version of the original, with most of the fun but not too much of the substance. I'd suggest that it's simply a much more Hollywood version, but I don't mean it to quite be the insult that that sounds. Attention is given to the story, not just the regular flow but the background to Parker's blindness and the connection between him and Devereaux, which is the underpinning of the story as well as an introduction to a character that could easily have run on into further scripts. In Japan, everyone knew who Ichi the blind swordsman was by the time the 17th film came around. In America, nobody had that luxury because this was the first movie. I'm a big Rutger Hauer fan of long standing and firmly believe that his acting talents are severely underrated because of his frequent choice of genres. He could have grown this into a series.

The characters are fun, if cut from relatively broad cloth. Noble Willingham is a solid villain who gets suitably upset about everyone talking about the blind man. 'Get me Bruce Lee,' he orders his minion. 'Bruce Lee is dead,' comes the quiet reply. 'Then get his brother!' Terry O'Quinn is a decent enough Frank Devereaux, though he's deliberately average and so doesn't stand out in a crowd of overplayed thugs and henchmen. Tex Cobb was born to play Slag and he does a fine job but it doesn't help that he's played this character a lot, even when it was called other names in other movies. Nick Cassavetes and Rick Overton are a goofy pair of dumb hillbilly sidekicks and you can take that as a recommendation or a warning, depending on your preference. Sho Kosugi has a fine time as a ninja assassin but really doesn't get a heck of a lot to do. On the side of the good guys, Lisa Blount is nerdily sexy as Annie but her part fades away into nothing.
That just leaves the central unlikely pair of buddies Nick Parker and young Billy Devereaux, and the core story relies on the chemistry between these two. It does grow substantially as the movie runs on, but Brandon Call plays Billy as a bit too annoying for my tastes and that never seems to entirely vanish, even as he grows and develops along his journey. I cared about the hero but not particularly about little Billy, which didn't help my attachment to the picture. The frequent veers into complete lunacy didn't help either, such as the bizarre car chase with the blind man behind the wheel. It's frankly stupid and unnecessary, though the stunts are agreeably well done. There is a lot of stupid here: plot conveniences, obvious jokes and Hollywood logic. At least it's fun, so I can somewhat forgive how many huge bodyguards get knocked senseless with a single tap from Nick's sword cane, which is incredibly sharp except when it's as blunt as its handle.

With such wild inconsistencies firmly in tow, the plot progresses precisely as you'd expect. Nick gets Frank but MacCready gets Billy and Annie and we're set for a showdown. Surprise, surprise. It's the finalé that probably disappointed me most. The film hints at an intriguing attempt to play with senses, but doesn't quite deliver. There's a solid explanation but it's let go too quickly. The fight choreography is capable but hardly inspired. And there's surprisingly little blood, especially given that this was 1989. The Japanese had switched to freely spouting gore in the early '70s but here we don't get spurting even when one character is cut entirely in half. Perhaps it's deliberate tribute to the tone of the originals but it still feels cheap. So Blind Fury is a fun film with obvious flaws, but still capable enough to have become a series with high and low points to come. It was certainly planned and I'd love to have seen Hauer reach those high points in better sequels.

1 comment:

Stoney Huff said...

Perhaps it is my appropriately old tv, but Meg Foster had the darkest blood of any gunshot victim, not counting zombies and vampires of course.

I say it's a better movie starting with Rutger along the highway, straight into the gag with the punks in the bar.
"Nice purse" and the first battle starts.