Saturday, May 2, 2015

Eye of the Tiger (1986) review


Gary Busey (Buck Matthews), Yaphet Kotto (J.B. Deveraux), William Smith (Blade), Seymour Cassel (Sheriff Copeland), Bert Remsen (Father Healey), Denis Galik (Christie), Jorge Gil (Jamie)

Directed by Richard C. Sarafian

The Short Version: EYE OF THE TIGER is a gritty 70s exploitation plot trapped in a 1980s action hero body. Lead Tough Guy Gary Busey doesn't exactly dredge up imagery of masculinity, but his working class hero fits perfectly within the time period. Busey's everyman style makes for a believable Nam vet pushed to the limits of all your finer revenge flicks; and with William Smith as the nasty biker leader bad guy, it's like a homecoming for the 70s icon and motorcycle king even if the bikes of choice are of the dirt racing variety and not the chopped up sort of the biker movie era. With such a promising pedigree, it's never as good as it could be. The EYE has it, but often loses sight of its purpose in this mid level machismo movie from the director of MAN IN THE WILDERNESS and VANISHING POINT.

After spending time in prison, former Nam vet Buck Matthews returns home on parole to find his town overrun by a sadistic drug-running biker gang. When Buck shows the gang he isn't one easily walked over, they return fire by murdering his wife before repeated attempts to take him out, too. With a corrupt sheriff useless in stopping the oppressive killers, Buck and his cop friend J.B. decide to take the law into their own hands to see that justice is done.

Coming ten years too late, this 70s throwback pits an ex-con Vietnam vet against sadistic drug dealers who have taken over his hometown in his absence. The fantastic premise is a bumper crop of exploitation gold, only director Sarafian misses the mother lode entirely. As fun as it occasionally is, it's a mostly vapid affair that never seems comfortable with itself. Just when you think it will cross the line, the reigns are pulled in. Possibly jaded from the vicious nature of similar films from the previous decade, EYE OF THE TIGER is an entertaining homage, if only an empty shell of grittier fare like WALKING TALL (1973) and THE NO MERCY MAN (1973).

Gary Busey was off to what seemed like a good start playing Tough Guy lead roles in this. By the following year in 1987, he was playing one of the main villains in box office smash LETHAL WEAPON. Despite playing a man pushed too far in TIGER, Busey never quite goes totally of the deep end considering he's been through hell in the jungle and at home. He's surprisingly reserved, letting subtle emotion shine through on a few occasions. As an ill-treated everyman, he's believable enough, yet the script never brings him into John Rambo territory. However, his magnum opus as a screen Tough Guy came as the man called BULLETPROOF in 1988; a jaw-droppingly over the top film that also featured William Smith as one of the Russian villains. Which brings us to....

The participation of William Smith is a welcome addition to any movie he graces with his presence; but unfortunately, much like Sarafian wastes the sleazy potential in the script, he wastes Smith in the role of Blade, too. The vicious leader of the drug gang, we barely see him at all, nor is he given much to say. He has one major dialog sequence and is likewise underused during the explosive climax. The fight between Blade and Buck is a major letdown considering how brutal the bad guys have been up to this point. It's just not a satisfying revenge. Smith and Busey worked on Lamont Johnson's THE LAST AMERICAN HERO thirteen years prior in 1973.

The drug-running bikers under Blade's command are a brutal bunch. It's one of the few things in Michael Thomas Montgomery's script that's suitably elaborated on. Their itinerary consists of drive-by shooting in broad daylight, raping, and violating graves. Technically these guys aren't a biker gang, they just happen to ride them. These guys ride dirt bikes, so don't expect the chopped up sort of the classic biker movie period of the late 60s and early 70s.

The following year, Montgomery would pen another piece of throwback cinema with ROLLING VENGEANCE (1987); which was basically WALKING TALL (1973) with a modified monster truck.

William Smith is famous for many things, one of which is his association with the biker film genre. Busey had a brief fling with them in Joe Viola's ANGELS HARD AS THEY COME back in 1971. In that picture, he played a hippie. Two years after EYE OF THE TIGER's release, Busey would have a near fatal motorcycle accident resulting in a fractured skull and purportedly permanent brain damage. 

Aside from the sanitized sleaze, there's some inspired moments such as a wire decapitation, a rallying speech from Busey (in a Bingo Hall with a bunch of old folks!); and the highlight, a weapons laden pickup truck with bulletproof glass, guns and grenades that comes courtesy of Buck's devoted prison friend, the friendlier, seemingly benevolent drug dealer, Jamie. Speaking of which.....

EYE OF THE TIGER isn't the type of movie to make statements, yet it does open with a fantastic bit of visual subtext. Buck is on his way out of prison along with a cellmate, an Hispanic Candyman named Jamie. Looking a bit like Al Pacino, he puts on his white suit and Rolex while Buck does the same with his blue jeans, checkered shirt, and old pocket watch. Jamie has a fancy ride and chauffeur awaiting him while the only thing waiting for Buck is the open road. The two men struck up a friendship after Buck saved Jamie somehow or other so we're told. Wishing to return the favor, Buck isn't interested, but the man persists. Buck isn't the type of guy that expects favors, but his unlikely friend, having ample streams of revenue, decides to repay him with a unique gift in the form of the heavily armed pickup truck mentioned above.

We never see the Jamie character again, but it's safe to say the reason he was so willing to help Buck get rid of Blade and his motor-psychos is to close down the competition.

Yaphet Kotto adds some additional star power as Buck's cop friend on his way to retirement; and torn between losing his pension or helping his friend. Like William Smith, Kotto's character could have done with a bit more screen time. 

Never quite going the distance, EYE OF THE TIGER is an average revenge movie that has a damn good build up, but a vacuous finale with little emotional payoff. Probably saddest is that it's a nice start for Busey as a big screen Tough Guy that fizzled out too quickly. Fans of Sarafian's VANISHING POINT (1971) should definitely see it for comparative purposes; or if it's a more nature based instance of macho cinema you seek, check out Sarafian's MAN IN THE WILDERNESS (1971). Those with a fondness for the earlier pictures EYE OF THE TIGER emulates will likely wish to revisit those better times. And those movies.

This review is representative of the Shout! Factory 2 disc set paired with EXTERMINATOR 2 (1984). ALIENATOR and CYCLONE (both 1987) are on the other disc. Extras and Specs: 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen  (for EYE OF THE TIGER). All other titles are anamorphic. Audio commentary on EXTERMINATOR 2.

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