Best friends since bootcamp, American soldiers Nick Parker and Frank Deveraux survived their tour of duty in Vietnam and were only one day away from being mustered out when the firebase they were stationed at comes under another attack. Sent out to destroy the enemy mortar position, Parker and Deveraux are suckered into a trap, are quickly overwhelmed, and, in what is portrayed as an act of cowardice, Deveraux runs away under heavy fire, ignoring his wounded friend’s desperate calls for help, which ends when a phosphorus shell detonates right in front of him.
Listed as M.I.A. and later presumed dead, Parker (Hauer) actually survived the blast but lost his eyesight. He was saved and eventually adopted by a village of friendlies, who nursed him back to health. And while his blindness proved permanent, a village elder spends the next twenty years training Parker to acutely hone his other senses to overcompensate for this handicap, turning him into a formidable martial arts expert and master swordsman.
But Lynn barely has time to get Parker up to speed on her current family situation before another visitor shows up: MacReady’s chief henchman, Slag (Cobb), posing as a detective with two corrupt local cops, saying they need to take Billy into "protective" custody; all part of a ruse to use the kid as leverage to get Deveraux to cooperate. Parker easily smells through this deception, and then all hell breaks loose when Slag decides to stop being subtle and starts shooting.
But in a startling display of efficiency and prowess, Parker dispatches the two cops with the sword hidden in his walking stick and wounds Slag, who promises next time this would-be-hero won’t see him coming (-- well, duh), warning no sword ever stopped a bullet (-- hard to fire that bullet with your hand cut off, just ask one of those cops), before tossing himself out the window and escaping. Alas, Lynn was mortally wounded during this melee. But with her dying words, she gets a promise from Parker to protect Billy until he’s safely returned to his father. And so, our blind swordsman, with his reluctant, pain-in-the-ass charge in tow, begins a harrowing cross-country journey to save both the man who left him for dead all those years ago and his son, with Slag and a rotating band of comically location-specific and very disposable goon squads right on their ass the whole way...
Kan Shimozawa first published The Tale of Zatoichi in 1948. It’s been called a frustratingly slight story for such a cultural milestone in its native Japan. As one online reviewer of the novella recalled, the tale has "lots of subtext and context but not much actual text" and the character of Zatoichi is, himself, basically a footnote in his own origin story. He’s barely sketched out, but the essential nuts and bolts were there: he’s blind; he's a master swordsman, which he keeps hidden inside his walking stick; and he's an extremely skilled fighter given his handicap. He’s an unassuming wanderer, a masseuse by trade, with no real allegiances; he’s also an inveterate gambler and a ladies man, but adheres to his own personal code of honor, which leans him toward chaotic good.
But this was apparently enough for Daiei Studios, who decided to adapt the story into a movie in 1962, where Shimozawa's vagueness was a boon as it allowed them a lot of freedom to flesh out this template considerably with the help of lead actor, Shintaro Katsu, who brought humor -- bordering on slapstick in some cases, and a sense of sentimentality to the character, wandering from town to town, defending the helpless and righting wrongs through a series of incredibly staged fight scenes. And there were subtle shifts in the character from movie to movie, too, with Katsu always providing an anchor.
The Tale of Zatoichi (1962) was such a huge hit it garnered an immediate sequel, The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (1962), and then went on to spawn 24 more sequels between 1963 and 1973, transitioning to color about five films in, two to three installments released a year every year, all of them starring Katsu, who is so ah-mazing in the baker’s dozen I’ve managed to see. And Katsu nor Daiei were through with the character yet, as Zatoichi made the leap to television in 1974 after the release of Zatoichi’s Conspiracy (1973), lasting for exactly 100 episodes before it was cancelled in 1979.
Now, I haven’t seen any of the TV episodes but I absolutely loved the films with nary a dud in the bunch that I encountered. And I probably would’ve gotten them all watched, too, if Criterion hadn’t made the ill-advised jump from Hulu to Filmstruck, but that’s another rant for another day. And I wasn’t alone in those feelings for this series and the character either as the character developed quite the cult following all over the world in the passing decades since its debut, including actor Tim Matheson.
Matheson began as a child actor in the 1960s -- Divorce American Style (1967), Yours, Mine, and Ours (1968), who also lent his distinctive voice to several Hanna-Barbera cartoons -- Jonny Quest (1964-1965) and Space Ghost (1966). In the 1970s, Matheson successfully transitioned to adult roles both on TV and in the movies -- most notably as Eric "Otter" Stratton in National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978). When the 1980s rolled around, Matheson decided to expand his horizons a bit and take a shot at producing a picture. Around 1982, he was introduced to producer Daniel Grodnik -- Without Warning (1980), Terror Train (1980), by mutual friend, screenwriter Charles Robert Carner -- of Gymkata (1985) infamy. The two hit it off and Grodnik promised to take the actor under his wing and show him the plumbing of producing if he had a property that was worth their time.
Seizing the opportunity, with a desire to do an American remake of Zatoichi, maybe even start a franchise, Matheson screened Zatoichi Challenged (1967) for Grodnik, the 17th installment, written by Ryozo Kasahara and directed by Kenji Misumi, who directed three other Zatoichi features and would later go on to helm the equally impressive Lone Wolf and Cub film adaptations, starting with Sword of Vengeance (1972). In Zatoichi Challenged, our blind hero comes across a terminally ill woman and her young son, who requests Zatoichi take the boy to his father in a nearby town. Things get complicated from there, and the film ends in a dazzling sword fight in the clean white snow, which makes for a nice contrast with all the spilled blood. (The literal translation of the Japanese title is "Blood-spurting road.")
Loving the idea, Grodnik and Matheson then embarked on a seven year odyssey to get Blind Fury (1989) made, which went through two directors, three studios, and at least eleven drafts of the screenplay before Carner finally found the temperature and Phillip Noyce settled into the director’s chair, which allowed the co-producers to strike a deal with Tri-Star Pictures. The film scored a major coup by landing Rutger Hauer for the Zatoichi surrogate, Nick Parker, who brings a spider-like physicality to the role and a sparkling sense of humor. Hauer also had good chemistry with his young co-star, which makes the character of Billy, as played by Brandon Call, who scores about a 6.5 on the annoying child actor Richter Scale, a lot more palpable as they hop on a bus and his own hero’s journey begins.
At a rest stop somewhere in backwater Kansas is where Parker finally breaks it to Billy about his mother’s death. (He had been mercifully unconscious during the whole ordeal.) Angry and distraught over this, Billy runs away and hides in a cornfield, where he runs right into Slag. But after taking out a group of bumbling bumpkins that Slag hired to kill him, rather ruthlessly, Parker engineers a rescue that is only marred by the villain escaping again.
Upon reaching Reno, they find Deveraux’s new girlfriend, Annie Winchester (Blount), whose allegiance is in question when she baits a trap that gets Parker and Billy captured by two more of Slag’s goons, Lyle and Tector (Cassavetes, Overton), only to later help them escape in a fairly hilarious car chase that finds Parker behind the wheel. And with Annie’s help, Parker successfully raids MacCready’s casino and liberates his old friend rather deftly.
Alas, while this was going on, MacReady and Slag pulled an end run on Parker and they now have Billy and Annie as hostages, but promises not to harm them if Deveraux brings the drugs he absconded with to a secluded mountain-top ski-resort for an exchange.
On the lonely trolley ride up the mountain, Parker and Deveraux make peace over what happened back in Vietnam as the purpose to Parker’s whole trip was to let his old friend know all was forgiven, and if he felt any guilt over this to just let it go like he has. But this admission might’ve come too late as MacReady has no intention of turning over the hostages. In fact, he has a massive ambush waiting for the two men when they arrive. And if that doesn’t work -- and it hasn’t really worked yet, tired of all the trouble Parker has been causing him lately, this vile villain has a special surprise in store for the blind swordsman.
Hauer would later note that Blind Fury was one of the most difficult roles of his career due to the two-punch combo of playing a blind man and the extensive swordplay and fight choreography demands. He trained for a month on how to move and react with Lynn Manning, who lost his sight in a gun accident in the late 1970s but went on to become a judo master, telling the actor “I don’t get confused by what I see.” For the sword training, they brought in Shô Kosugi -- Enter the Ninja (1981), Nine Deaths of the Ninja (1985), who shows up in the film as that promised surprise hired by the bad guy. And every morning for the seven week shoot, Hauer was up at 4:30am for training before the cameras rolled.
And this training pays off well in the movie as Parker blitzes through wave after wave of bad guys for the climax; with a little help from Deveraux after it appeared he’d turned chicken again. Which, of course, leads to the ultimate showdown, where Parker must fight the hired ninja assassin, Slag, and an electrified hot tub. As to who wins, well, on top of the audience being the real winner, I will add that The Phantom Menace (1999) so ripped off Slag's demise from this thing.
All told, Katsu did it better, and did it better for almost twenty years, taking a brief hiatus to tackle the Hanzo the Razor trilogy, which is equally amazing. But there's nothing wrong with second place in that derby, which is why Blind Fury is my all-time favorite Rutger Hauer movie -- beating out Split Second (1992) by the length of Parker’s cane sword. Favorite, mind you. Not his best. Blade Runner (1982) might’ve been in the running but I’ve seen so many damned versions of that dad-blasted thing I can’t remember which one was the good one.
Aided and abetted by an outstanding supporting cast with the always welcome Terry O'Quinn, Noble Willingham, Lisa Blount, and Randall Cobb, it’s Hauer who really makes this movie go. You buy Parker’s blindness. And you believe it when he’s tuning in his other senses. And you definitely buy into his preternatural fighting ability. And I also love his gallows and deadpan sense of humor about his handicap and the dire situations he always finds himself in. (“I hope he’s nice. Seems like everybody is trying to kill me today.”) His introductory fight with a couple of bar hooligans is straight out of a Three Stooges short, and I love the little quirk when he skips over all the pet poop he encounters, or the time he mistook an alligator for a dog.
And the film ends with him walking away from the Deverauxs, mission accomplished, off to find more wrongs to right like Richard Kimble in The Fugitive (1963-1967) or David Banner in the old Incredible Hulk (1978-1982) TV series. And, yes, Zatoichi. I would’ve loved to have seen Hauer in a few more Nick Parker adventures, and a sequel was planned but never materialized due to middling box office returns. And that makes me both mad and sad. I remember seeing Blind Fury at least a half-dozen times at the old Imperial 3 back in 1989. So, I did my part, dammit. And where the hell were you guys?!
Blind Fury (1989) Interscope Communications :: TriStar Pictures / EP: Robert W. Cort, David Madden / P: Daniel Grodnik, Tim Matheson / AP: Charles Robert Carner, Dennis Stuart Murphy / D: Phillip Noyce / W: Charles Robert Carner, Ryôzô Kasahara (movie) / C: Don Burgess / E: David A. Simmons / M: J. Peter Robinson / S: Rutger Hauer, Terry O'Quinn, Brandon Call, Lisa Blount, Noble Willingham, Randall 'Tex' Cobb, Nick Cassavetes, Rick Overton, Shô Kosugi, Meg Foster