Junkfood Cinema: Eye of the Tiger

By  · Published on December 4th, 2009

Editor’s Note: We hope you enjoy this new Friday afternoon column, Junkfood Cinema, by Brian Salisbury. It celebrates movies that are so bad, even though they are also sometimes so good. For more (coming each and every Friday), stay tuned to the Junkfood Cinema Archive. Also, please feel free to let us know what you think of this new weekly feature in the comment section below.

Uh oh! Hide the carrot sticks and fruit wedges of Hollywood, because it’s once again time to gorge ourselves on Junkfood Cinema. If you’re the kind of person that demands the highest level of quality from your films, then I can happily direct you to any number of our other columns. For me, there is nothing like the empty cinematic calories of a deliciously bad movie. And this week’s entry is a caramel-covered, chocolate-filled schlock burger…wrapped in a Chicago-style deep-dish pizza. Run, don’t walk to your local video store and search the dusty back shelves for Eye of the Tiger.

Eye of the Tiger is about a local yokel, Buck, who finds himself in the wrong bar at the wrong time. He gets sent to prison for what was ultimately self-defense and, while inside, saves the life of a powerful, less-than-scrupulous inmate. Upon his release, he returns to his wife and daughter. Though he is happy to have his family back, he finds himself in a town much less friendly than the one he left. Now under the thumb of a ruthless biker gang, aided by a lawman on the take, the once quiet community is now a cesspool of violence and drug-running. And the townspeople are too afraid to take a stand. One night his wife is attacked, and nearly raped, by the gang only to be thwarted by our hero. In retaliation for the beating he gives them, the gang rampages through his home, killing his wife and sending his daughter into a shock-induced catatonia. That turns out to be the last straw, the gloves come off, and Buck unleashes a hellstorm of vengeance.

I love Death Wish, who doesn’t? In fact, I love all revenge films. There is something undeniably raw and unbound about the revenge films of the 1970’s, but I am not one to be finicky and will happily feast on the stale titles as well. Like for example, if someone was to make an imitation Death Wish wherein they replace the remarkable Charles Bronson with the…also carbon-based Gary Busey. What a world we would live in if someone made such a celluloid disaster, right? Holy spit-take, somebody already did! Enter Eye of the Tiger. This movie has little of what you loved about Death Wish but everything you ever loved about the band Survivor.

What Makes It Bad?

Let’s start with the fact that they made a freaking movie around a song by Survivor. You gotta love creative writing like that, don’t you? Somebody obviously heard that song on the radio and thought to themselves, “Jesus, I have to hash out a movie we can use this song in. Don’t even need a title, it writes itself!” And if you have a notion that the song won’t be used in the film, that maybe they couldn’t actually obtain the rights, prepare to be Tiger-eyed! Yes, thank God somebody finally used this song in a film. I can’t think of a single other film that could have possibly used it better. Rocky who? At least the iconic song cheesilyovershadows the after school special score that accompanies most of the events of the film.

How about our star? Seriously 1986, Gary Busey as the regular Joe? The guy’s as crazy as a shithouse rat (don’t get to use that expression often, I like it). He barrels gums-first into every scene with an expression on his face that demands mockery. His interactions with the other characters, even the people he likes, are a startling portent of the crazybomb he would eventually become. That guy swings an overbite like no other and many of his reactions are totally inexplicable. And they even try to wedge in a romantic element when he falls for the nurse caring for his daughter. Yuck! I honestly didn’t know, as they sat on that porch together, whether he was going to kiss her or unhinge his jaw and swallow her whole. Busey should never be anything but a wackjob supporting character.

Also, consider if you will, the biker gang. We’ve all seen biker gangs on film in the past; an archetype definitely exists for that character. Typically we find denim vests, bandannas, chains, and boots as the attire of choice. Conspicuously absent from that list…giant, astronaut-like helmets. But fear not, Eye of the Tiger has you covered. These have to be the most safety-conscious badasses ever captured on screen. I’m sure the thinking behind this was that the gang was striving for anonymity so they could continue their nefarious pursuits. Which is fine except they beat it into our heads that the sheriff lets them get away with anything anyway. The end result is that we get hordes of what appear to be pee-wee football players trying to cause havoc. It’s adorably ridiculous. Also the leader of the gang appears to be bald, an acceptable biker trait, but looks can be deceiving and just wait until he turns around. The pattern of remaining hair on the back of his head can only be described as a furry trilobite. How can you not be scared of a man with prehistoric marine life shaped into his skull?

The plot makes very little sense, but again I’m pretty sure it was all window dressing for the opportunity to put that song in another film so it’s not that surprising. The minute Busey is out of jail, everything in creation screams at him to get the hell out of the jerkwater town in which he lives. He is demoted at work, the local sheriff hates him and vows to run him off, and his only family are his wife and daughter who both want to leave. Factor into that the biker gang who do whatever they want under the corrupt sheriff and you start to get the impression that there is nothing keeping this guy here but at all. Yet he refuses to move with his family to a much, much better place and start a new life because he needs a sense of “home”? Lame!

Why I Love It!

While I don’t at all buy Busey as a regular Joe (or a regular human being for that matter), I can’t deny that I love the hell out of Bloodlust Busey. I think it may have something to do with his actual personality, but watching him gleefully commit acts of unspeakable violence is strangely believable. As I said, I love revenge films. They often involve a sort of one-versus-the-mob framework that represents a model for unquestioned bravery and principal. Even in this stinkburger, that concept shines. He may be a goober, but Busey can open a can of whoopass as good as anybody with or without help from the community. I loved the scene where he strings a high tensile wire across the road and causes the decapitation of the biker who tried to rape his wife. And the final fist-fight between he and the supreme biker is sufficiently cool.

There is a scene in this film, and I cannot stress to you how much this really happens, where Busey shoves a stick of dynamite up a dude’s ass! First he lassos the guy off his motorcycle, crushing his larynx. Then, when he needs info from the now hospitalized thug, he coerces him by administering an explosive thermometer. Points to Busey for first slathering it in petroleum jelly. It’s one of those WTF moments that really grabbed my attention…as well as the thug’s I should think. The movie reached a whole new plane of crazy with this one uncomfortable moment.

Now every revenge film hero or anti-hero needs a signature weapon; something to brandish as a symbol of his rage. For most 70’s era characters, it was an enormous .44 caliber hand cannon. In the Japanese pinky revenge films, it is typically a razor-sharp katana. But for Gary Busey, it’s a pickup truck. Yup, Busey tools around in a fully-equipped, absurdly weaponized Dodge that is something out of James Bond (if James Bond had a lovechild with the A-Team). This monstrosity, which turns out to be a gift from that inmate he conveniently saved, comes replete with rocket-launchers, bullet-proof windows, machine guns, and a police scanner. It’s like Kip’s meaner, older brother.

There is a strange, and very hackneyed morality tale at work in Eye of the Tiger. While the unwillingness of society at large to act is a theme revisited in a multitude of revenge films, this one decides it’s a good idea to throw Busey on the ol’ pulpit and let him stir the masses. The problem is, aside from one or two shots of locals seeming wholly disinterested in the gang when they are clearly supposed to be afraid, the film doesn’t really establish the cowardice of the townsfolk much at all. So when Busey comes storming into a Bingo hall and chastises nearly the entire population (“What in God’s sakes’ wrong with you people?!) it seems hilariously non-sequitor. He then gives a rousing speech about standing up against corruption that seems ripped from Walking Tall or Billy Jack. You know, if those films starred Gary Busey and were awful.

I know I’ve made a lot of jokes about it, but I love the song on which this movie is based. Sure it’s cheesy and very, very 80’s, but I’ll be good god-damned if I don’t get pumped each and every time it blasts forth from the speakers. I have to admit I got very excited when Busey jumps into his truck for the final showdown and this song starts up. It didn’t hurt that Yaphet Kotto, who’s a great actor and over-the-top awesome in this film, was already waiting in the truck ready to help with the ass-kicking and name-taking. And when the dust settles and evil has been thoroughly kicked in the face, Busey stands bloodied and victorious as Survivor belts out his triumph. I’m a sucker for raucous machismo like that!

Junkfood Pairing:

Tiger Tails. When I was a kid, I used to eat these twisted donuts by the case. I think you should grab a bag of these, a gaggle of friends, and scarf them as your eyeballs get drop-kicked by the events on screen. And this particular snack isn’t only appropriate because of the tie-in to the song, but because eating enough of them will give you a sugar rush that will empower you with all the acting prowess of Gary Busey. You’ll wander aimlessly around the room and not be able to sit in stillness for more than a nanosecond. Yum!

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.