The Eye of the Tiger (Richard C. Safarian, 1986)
In Rocky III (1982), the eye of the tiger was the competitive edge, the hunger to conquer every obstacle in fulfilling your dream. This isn’t really the theme of Eye of the Tiger, a revenge movie produced by record biz veterans Tony and Ben Scotti under their Scotti Brothers Pictures banner. But since Survivor’s hit "Eye of the Tiger" was released on Scotti Brothers Records (as was Weird Al Yankovic’s parody, "Theme from Rocky XIII (The Rye or the Kaiser"), the rights must have been readily available. The tune is here in all its fist-pumping, power-chording glory, which is a bit surreal since the action hero we readily associate with it isn’t Gary Busey.
The movie follows the lyrics, at least in the opening scenes. Busey plays Vietnam vet Buck Matthews, freshly released from prison after serving time on a trumped-up murder rap. He’s rising up, back on the streets, did his time, and took his chances. Buck is beloved by everyone in his small town except the corrupt Sheriff (Seymour Cassell...George Manning from DeathGame, 1977). In the opening, we follow Buck as he reconnects with loyal wife Christie (Denise Galik), toddler daughter Jennifer (Judith Barsi), and his best pal J.B. (Yaphet Kotto), one of the Sherriff’s reluctant deputies.
These quiet early scenes may lead you to think that Eye of the Tiger is going to be a character-driven, slow burn action movie along the lines of Rolling Thunder (1977). But this idea is quickly put to rest after Buck rescues a nurse being raped by a gang of bikers. The gang is led by a mohawked goon named Blade (tough guy specialist William Smith) and they took over the town while Buck was in prison. Holed up in a Road Warrior (1981) -style post-apocalyptic desert compound that they share with assorted floozies, the gang has been raking in a fortune manufacturing drugs with the Sherriff’s protection. "The cheap stuff: crack," JB explains. No one has ever stood up to them before Buck, and an example must be made.
The gang attack Buck’s home, crashing their hogs through the window, killing Christie, beating the hell out of Buck, and putting little Jennifer into a wide-eyed comatose state. As Buck recovers in the hospital, he seeks spiritual guidance from kindly old priest Father Healey (Burt Remsen):
Father Healey: We are praying for the soul of your wife.
Buck: No, father.
Father Healey: What for, then?
Buck: I’m praying for vengeance.
At Christie’s funeral the bikers cannot resist rubbing it in, roaring their bikes through the cemetery and drowning out Father Healey’s service, to the Sherriff’s delight. But once an old prison buddy provides Buck with a souped-up four-wheel-drive and assorted built-in weaponry, he launches his crusade of vengeance. Buck starts out by decapitating a biker with a steel wire stretched across a darkened street. The biker is Blade’s beloved brother Ray, so Blade’s next move is even more personal. The gang digs up Christie’s coffin from the cemetery and drags it into Buck’s front yard.
The feud between Buck and Blade escalates until Blade at last unleashes the ultimate outrage: kidnapping Jennifer from the hospital and imprisoning the tot in a cage in the center of the gang’s compound. Buck must launch a climactic commando raid then go one-on-one against Blade while J.B. provides aerial support by dropping grenades and dynamite from his biplane to the musical accompaniment of James Brown (The Godfather of Soul was also signed to Scotti Brothers Records at this time).
Busey, Cassell and Kotto are of course great, but special note must be made of William Smith as Blade, a truly intimidating villain, even with his foppish scarf. His reaction to staring down the barrel of Buck’s gun is pretty bad ass. "Better be here (points to his head) or here (points to his chest). Anyplace else, asshole, I kill you slow."
Director Richard C. Safarian is best known for the counterculture car crash epic Vanishing Point (1971), and while there’s nothing here as unforgettable as Vanishing Point’s naked hippie chick on a motorcycle (sadly) he does work in some eccentric moments. After Christie’s coffin is dumped at Buck’s house, a deputy pays Buck a visit to try and talk sense to him, while Buck busies himself with digging Christie a new grave at the side of the road. "Sure am sorry about Christie," the deputy says, her coffin sitting just a few feet away. And if you only remember one moment from Eye of the Tiger, it will probably be when Buck shoves a lit stick of dynamite up a biker’s ass (thoughtfully lubed with Vaseline beforehand).
Eye of the Tiger is available on DVD from Shout Factory on their four movie budget set Action Packed Movie Marathon, along with Cyclone (1987), Alienator (1990) and Exterminator 2 (1984): "4X the action, 4X the excitement!"