The Film: Eye of the Tiger (1986)
The Principals: Gary Busey, Yaphet Kotto, Seymour Cassel, William Smith, Bert Remsen, Denise Galik, Kimberlin Brown, Judith Barsi. Directed by Richard C. Sarafian.
The Premise: Fresh off a prison stint for a self-defense murder, Vietnam vet Buck Matthews (Busey) just wants to return to being a loving father and husband in Middle of Absolutely Fucking Nowhere, Texas. Unfortunately, a Good Samaritan act saving a nurse from being raped incurs the wrath of a local crack-dealing biker gang. When Buck’s wife is murdered, he swears vengeance on them and the corrupt sheriff (Cassel) they bought out…and who just happens to hate our hero’s guts. Enlisting one of the sheriff’s reluctant deputies (Kotto) to help him, he sets out to settle the score once and for all.
Eye of the Tiger is one of the more overbearingly brutal entries of the pages-long 80’s action catalog, stripped of the exploitation elements of a Cannon film and the slickness of a Joel Silver production. Directed by Richard C. Sarafian, who a decade and a half earlier had given us the countercultural car chase picture Vanishing Point, Eye of the Tiger feels cut from the same iconoclastic cloth as the earlier film. Sure, this all plays out as a typical, right-wing revenge fantasy—the Everyman is broken by violent tragedy, retaliates in the same way as his enemies—but there are more questions that Sarafian poses.
Would you fight violence with violence? Do the police truly protect and serve? Is the War on Drugs worth fighting? Throughout the film, there’s a palpable sense of all of these questions answered in some way or another, and the result is not neo-fascism but that of burnout from the Reagan Administration’s legacy—a strong moral backbone and economic recovery corrupted by lies, deceit, and their own share of vigilantism in communist nations. Am I crazy? Am I right? I don’t care what I am—this is my interpretation through and through, and I’m perfectly fine with you thinking it’s just another Death Wish ripoff. My analysis aside, Eye of the Tiger is loaded with so many entertaining moments, bewildering plot points, and insane characters that the experience of watching this will have you cheering your TV or laptop from how awesome it gets.
Let’s start with Gary Busey—before Lethal Weapon, before the accident, rugged, fit, and toothy—ACTION HERO. Buck Matthews’ character development is threadbare. Other characters remind us he hauled ass in ‘Nam and killed a man in self-defense. He loves his wife (but not for long) and his daughter, and he’s probably one of many people who think “Born in the USA” is the jingoistic anthem Bruce Springsteen insists it is not. When he gets pissed off, he doesn’t just shoot people, he plants bombs in trucks and, in one hilarious scene, ties a razor wire in the middle of the street and gets one of the crazy bikers decapitated to hilarious, prosthetic lengths. Perhaps the simplest way of saying it is that Buck Matthews is a true-blue All-American, striving for justice and freedom by any means necessary—a point that he crashes a town bingo game to convey when he’s had it up to his Chiclets with the injustices of Seymour Cassel’s hateful sheriff and those pesky bikers. Sure, Busey’s about as Aryan as they get in terms of looks, but Malcolm X would have loved the motherfucker for his efforts.
From there, we get to what may be the most outright bugfuck aspect of Eye of the Tiger—the bikers. Legendary character actor William Smith plays Blade, a proudly bald (except for the horrible Mohawk thing on the back of his head that could very well be a hair Manitou) motorcycle warlord who looks like G. Gordon Liddy fell into a time vortex trap and was duly appointed King of Australia after the apocalypse. He and his disciples—who all look like they spend all their money on Photon or Lazer Tag gear and play it in the desert—have supposedly become successful from a crack empire, yet we have no way of knowing where the drug is constructed because all the bikers live on a Mad Max theme park in the desert, and there’s never one person lighting up a pipe throughout. Blade’s brother is this dude who looks like Donald Gibb, and the moment where the TV news informs him about Buck’s hero act at the beginning was one I found myself rewatching more than once. This man, mind you, also gets a stick of dynamite shoved up his ass by Busey, and the terror of sodomy gives him a fatal heart attack. There’s no iconic villain here, but just in appearance and concept, these guys bring the laughs.
Eye of the Tiger overwhelms me. It’s as crazed as its lead would become notorious for being, but the film comes together with a neo-Peckinpah grit that sets itself apart from the popular, high-gloss genre ideology of the time. Still, I’m not exactly sure how Busey’s wife died. I marvel at how a biker gang can live so lavishly in a desert swarming with heat. I think Seymour Cassel is an “ah say” away from being an evil, human counterpart of Foghorn Leghorn. Survivor’s song appearing in the film, I have no idea why the movie is called Eye of the Tiger, as there is no use of the phrase and not one mention nor appearance of a tiger. But I still love it to pieces.
Is It Worth a Look? Yes, yes, goddammit yes. It’s on Instant, too. You can watch it as soon as you finish reading this.
Random Anecdotes: Diddley-squat. I wish I had some.
Cinematic Soulmates: Death Wish (any of ‘em), First Blood, Commando, Rolling Thunder, Extreme Prejudice, Bulletproof (1988)