Rutger Hauer: The Gentle Badass of 'Blind Fury'

Hauer made his mark in numerous iconic performances, but his spin on Zatoichi should not be ignored.

Blind Fury
TriStar Pictures

In the days following Rutger Hauer‘s passing, the usual array of classics fluttered through the mourning conversation: Blade Runner, The Hitcher, Hobo With A Shotgun, and maybe Nighthawks or Sin City. The actor exhibited an intoxicating antagonism on screen, causing many of his more nefarious roles to stand apart from the Ladyhawks and Wedlocks of his filmography. He made an evil you were all too happy to guzzle down.

I love those bouts of artful wretchedness. There was always a point of view, and usually, at some moment in the narrative, Hauer could pull his audience over to his side of twisted thinking. “Roy Batty Was Right!” Strap that slogan on a t-shirt, and I will wear it. No doubt.

Yet, the first film to flash in my mind when I heard of Hauer’s demise was not a classic but an action cheapie barely noticed during its 1989 theatrical run. Blind Fury is an atypical action flick that provides plenty of severed limbs and rampant shootouts without ever falling into a mean nature. The film has no need for Hauer’s anxious energy, requesting a serene and mellow mood instead. As Nick Parker, a veteran who lost his sight while protecting a comrade from explosive harm, Hauer exudes an inviting and gentle demeanor. The character makes no request for violence, but it appears when loyalty and honor are challenged.

Vietnam took the valor out of warfare. With cameras on the ground, approximating the realities of combat for the nightly news, the public perception warped drastically from those To Hell and Back glory days of World War II cinema. Soldiers no longer strode with righteous swagger, trading square jaws for furrowed brows and sunken sockets. John Wayne was out, Jon Voight and Martin Sheen were in. Anger took the place of altruism.

Hollywood of the 1970s explored the trauma of the battlefield and the wounds it ruptured across the homefront. Politics muddied everything, and there was no going back even when the 1980s desperately saught black and white morality in the red terror of Rambo sequels. Through the moral confusion of Vietnam, Sylvester Stallone introduced an acceptable vulnerability to the trigger-happy avenger and an added layer of empathy began to surround our action war heroes. I feel, therefore I kill.

From Stallone came the Missing in Action knockoffs starring Chuck Norris, Deadly PreyStrike Command, and a half dozen others. In this violent context, actor Tim Matheson desired to enter the realm of producing. His heart, however, belonged to a completely different reluctant-yet-justified warrior: Zatoichi, the blind masseur with his walking stick/samurai sword surprise. The character appears in 26 features, a hundred episodes of television, and one remake. Any number of plots could have been used to transplant the character’s zen cool into a western context, but Matheson zeroed in Zatoichi Challenged.

Originally released in 1967 in Japan (three years later in the US), the 17th feature in the series has Zatoichi sharing a room at an inn with an ill woman and her son. Before she dies, the woman begs Zatoichi to deliver the boy to his father. The blind swordsman agrees reluctantly and in accomplishing the task comes to discover the boy’s father to be bankrupt of decency. Blades are crossed many times, and Zatoichi remains unscathed for the next feature.

In Blind Fury, Nick Parker makes a similar promise to the wife (Meg Foster) of his old war buddy. She dies in his arms after a gang of henchmen attempts to kidnap her son as a bargaining chip against the chemist father (Terry O’Quinn) financially trapped into producing a lucrative batch of narcotics for a Reno mob boss. Most of the film is a road trip adventure in which every rest stop is marked by the bisected corpse of some foolish goon. Hauer swings each killing stroke with an apologetic grimace, and the joy comes in anticipating the next dead man to underestimate his skill.

Hauer cited on his website that Blind Fury was one of his most difficult performances. The swordsmanship took weeks of study but fell in line with his philosophy of finding the character through physicality. He took up fencing at a young age as an homage to the French swashbuckling adventure Fanfan la Tulipe, and gravitated to the notion that acting is merely an extension of dancing; to control the body is to control the mind. A preparation of sorts began earlier in the decade when Paul Verhoeven asked him to wield the broad sword in the 1985 Medieval drama Flesh + Blood. If he could swing that brute around his head, surely he could figure out Zatoichi’s trick Kitana.

So, while the swordplay might be mastered, or at least effectively displayed through prowess and editing, the larger hurdle presented itself in Nick Parker’s blindness. Inhabiting the impairment was achievable, but the blind swordsman concept was an imaginative leap too far. Yes, he happily enjoyed the Zatoichi films as entertainments, but he was unable to justify the reality and struggled to discover a logical in for the character. That changed during a chance encounter with martial artist Lynn Manning while visiting the Los Angeles Braille Institute.

Manning lost his sight in 1978 as the result of a barroom challenge that escalated into a bullet being fired directly into one eye only for it to lodge behind the other. Refusing to fall into despair, Manning joined a judo program where he learned to compete on the same level as the sighted. Since matches begin mid-grip, Judo suggests that anticipating movement is predominantly achieved through feeling rather than vision. Manning moved himself up the ranks of multiple tournaments and earned a position on the 1988 US Paralympics team.

Hauer told People magazine in 1990, “Lynn taught me how to unfocus my eyes, to react to smells and sounds.” The actor found his real-life Zatoichi, and in doing so, discovered a connection to the B movie plot he once thought impossible. Hauer was in awe of the athlete, “He could pick up the patters of your breathing if you were upset.” Their friendly, brief conversation quickly transformed into a gig as Manning joined the crew as a technical advisor for Hauer. The actor wanted to return the favor by teaching Manning to ski and uncovered another impossible skill. “Once outside our hotel, Lynn called out my name, and I answered. He hit me with a snowball from 50 feet away, just from the sound of my voice.”

Now, imagine that level of commitment extended out to every one of the 173 roles listed on Hauer’s MDb page? The man was not a point-and-shoot performer. No matter how silly or fantastical the plots might have been, for Hauer to take on your movie, he needed to comprehend the person he was living. We obviously appreciated that devotion, but it was a dedication not meant for us, and instead, for that little kid he once was; the one that saw dance in the performance. Hauer always needed to know the moves before he could ever get out on that dance floor.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.