Tom Jolliffe takes in a Rutger Hauer double bill of The Hitcher and Blind Fury...
Rutger Hauer’s career has seen him star in an eclectic mix of both films and roles. He’s done art house, independent, blockbusters, and low grade b(z)movies. He’s plied his trade in Hollywood, and European cinema and filmed all over the world. He’s done just about every genre. He’s the leading man, he’s the villain. He’s the hero, the anti-hero and he’s played a vampire more times than most people have had hot dinners. There is always one consistent, which is that Rutger Hauer is cool. He can steal a good movie from under the nose of established stars, most infamously in Blade Runner, and also out shining Sylvester Stallone in Nighthawks. He can also elevate a lot of the B-grade material he’s appeared in. More recently the cult Grindhouse flick Hobo with a Shotgun enjoyed a good deal of exposure, and plenty of appreciation for the gravitas that Hauer lent to the leading role.
Here I take on a double whammy including one of Hauer’s most iconic roles and one of his most under-appreciated. Here is The Hitcher and Blind Fury:
Some films are truly unique. There’s a sense that there is little else like it. Occasionally such cult movies will spawn inferior sequels and/or remakes. In the case of The Hitcher, this is true. On the surface this could be your standard chase movie. There is however a lot of elements in play here that make this really stand above most in the genre.
The Hitcher is unconventional. It’s almost like a really strange nightmarish fairy tale, that looks as if it’s been shot by the Coen brothers, with Roger Deakins on director of photography duties. There’s some great visual imagery in this film. Some may watch it just the once, find it a bit daft but miss out on some really great moments. Don’t let logic (like the villains ability to pop up and find the hero at any time, from seemingly nowhere) deter you. The world of the film and the character of John Ryder (Hauer) is such that logic doesn’t exist. It’s not a simple nutter chasing a kid film. It can be if you wish to view it as such, but there also can be more to it than that. Ryder appears from the dust like a demon, something beyond human, with a strange fascination with Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) who he sees as a game, as well as his chosen implement of release.
Visually the film is breath-taking. Largely what Harmon and cinematographer John Seale do is let the desolate Californian desert setting speak for itself. It’s wonderfully captured in scope. The vastness and mostly emptiness of the film almost seems like purgatory for the young protagonist. Again, a lot of the imagery is striking and suggestive; disappearing into a fog of dust, or going from a stretch of bright, clear night sky into an eerie dark landscape covered with ominous black cloud. The opening ten minutes or so, as Halsey travels in torrential rain along lonely, dark highways and makes the mistake of picking Ryder up is glorious. Again, this all seems very Coen-esque. A film so brilliantly shot, which gets so much from its central cast makes Robert Harmon’s immediate career decline afterwards seem so sad, and disappointing.
The cast are fantastic. I’ve seen this film countless times. Every time I re-watch it, I appreciate C. Thomas Howell’s performance all the more. I mean Rutger walks away with the movie. He owns it, but Howell has to take some credit for how he reacts to Hauer’s intensity. Howell was young at the time and it’s a role requiring a great level of maturity, which he delivers. He digs deep here. He puts his all into it and you can tell. Jennifer Jason Leigh appears in what could have been a throwaway role, but she makes it interesting. Hauer is unpredictable, intense, playful and just brilliant. It’s one of the most interesting villains committed to film, up there with Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men, or Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. You can see it in his eyes, he’s lost in this role. Hauer’s tendency to ad-lib on set makes for some great moments, and great reactions from his co-stars, whilst the dynamic between Hauer and Howell is always interesting.
The film has plenty of standout moments. The opening is of course great. There’s the memorable finger in the fries moment, and the gruesome ending for Jennifer Jason Leigh. This thriller has some horror staples, but also some very strong action too. The car chase is great with some dynamic shots, whilst the finale is also impressively staged. Another of the films major strengths is the great score from Mark Isham. It’s low key, but atmospheric and adds a nice layer underneath the great visuals and performances.
A dire straight to video sequel and an achingly dull and thoroughly conventionalised re-make prove that this was a one off and unique action/thriller/horror. Its cult status and popularity amongst film buffs is testament to the films impeccable delivery of a basic premise.
The Hitcher gets plenty of love and fan following, without perhaps getting quite enough for its artistic merits. However, Blind Fury is a film in Hauer’s lengthy CV that should have had more of an impact than it did. This film goes by largely unnoticed, except by Hauer and/or action aficionados, which is a real shame.
Having been blinded in Vietnam, Nick Parker (Hauer) is found by a local tribe and then taught the art of swordplay and to train his remaining senses. He heads back to the states to find an old army buddy, only to get caught up in his problems. Parker must take his friend’s son to Nevada to re-unite father and son, and rescue said father from a drug dealing casino boss. A remake of Japanese TV show/movie, Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman, this is a really well made action flick that’s well worth seeking out.
What makes this a cut above a lot of action films is a really good mixture of funny humour, and a good deal of poignancy. In a time when Arnold and Sylvester ruled the action roost, and the likes of Dolph and Jean Claude were breaking through, Hauer injects a great deal of humanity and likeability into a role that none of the action guys could have played. He’s funny, he’s soulful, and badass at the same time. Brandon Call plays the bratty kid that Hauer must transport across country whilst hoods track them. Call is very good and he and Hauer share some great moments. Elsewhere, Rick Overtan and Nick Cassevetes play a pair of bumbling brothers to humorous effect, Noble Willingham is a typically reliable villain, and Ninja movie legend Sho Kosugi pops up at the film's finale to take on Hauer.
Director Phillip Noyce balances humour, drama and action well. The action is really well done. Hauer convincingly plays the blind Parker, and just makes his ability seem believable, aided by the clarity of Noyce’s shot choice and cutting. Hauer also gets in on the action without calling on the double too often which really aids the actions intensity. The mountain top, ski-lodge finale is fantastically done, whilst the showdown between Hauer and Kosugi doesn’t disappoint. The film also looks very good thanks to Noyce and cinematographer Don Burgess.
Whilst by no means a masterpiece, this is still a thoroughly enjoyable, and criminally underrated action film. On action it delivers with aplomb, and with plenty of good humour and a very strong central performance by Rutger Hauer. The film still holds up well today and if I’m being totally honest, the ending always seems to result in dust getting in my eyes.