Eye of the Tiger is a quiet blue-collar drama about a man trying to put his life back together after serving a prison term for killing a man in self-defense. It stars a pre-crazy Gary Busey (in that brief period in the mid-eighties when he wasn’t automatically cast as the villain) as a working-class dude who just wants to reunite with his wife and daughter and get on with his life. You can tell he’s a tough guy, though, because as he walks home from prison, one of his fellow parolees, a fast-talking Cuban gangster, offers him a ride home as partial repayment for saving him from getting shivved in the neck. Gary doesn’t require repayment, though, since he was just doing what any decent man would’ve done in his place. So the gangster gives him a note with his phone number written on it underneath the words “Anytime, Anywhere.” So it’s nice to know that Gary has backup in case anything goes wrong. Not that anything will. Certainly nothing concerning the bands of bikers ominously roaming the streets on their Kawasakis, wearing paramilitary garb and black stormtrooper helmets. They’re just there for local color, probably more of a motorcycle club than a quote unquote “biker gang.”
When he gets back to his hometown, though, his welcome is less than warm. The sheriff is a real prick who promises to send him back to the slammer first chance he gets, and Gary’s wife is upset because he used to be the foreman at his construction job, but now he’s got to start back at the bottom because he’s an ex-con. Gary doesn’t mind, though. He doesn’t speak much, but you can tell that he’s perfectly willing to put in the time to regain the trust of his fellow townspeople through hard work and humility. He’s got plans, you see, and there’s nothing that can stop him from achieving them. It’s the American goddamn Dream.
Then the raping and the murdering and the exploding start.
Turns out Eye of the Tiger isn’t really a working-class drama. It’s a badass revenge picture where bikers get decapitated by a cable stretched across the road and a man’s wife isn’t even safe when she’s dead. But that beginning part is all important. For a movie like this to really work, you can’t just be sitting around waiting for the violence to start. You have to get so sucked into the drama that you almost forget that it’s all gonna end in bloodshed and tears. That way, when you realize that the shit’s about to hit the fan, you actually feel bad about it, which in turn makes the revenge all the sweeter.
So, yeah, there’s nothing original about Eye of the Tiger. Not even its recycled-from-Rocky III theme song, which gets played three times. It’s basically just Walking Tall, but with an armored pickup truck kitted out with grenade launchers and machine guns instead of a two-by-four. Kind of an upgrade, if you ask me.
That’s what’s so awesome about Eye of the Tiger. It starts out very down-to-earth and believable, then gradually yet inexorably ascends to the heights of ludicrousness. By the end, we’re dealing with the kind of movie where it makes perfect sense that Yaphet Koto, complete with goggles and a white scarf, can fly around in a bright red biplane, chucking grenades out of the cockpit while listening to late-period James Brown.
The trouble starts for Busey when he rescues a nurse who’s about to get a train run on her by the biker gang, which is led by this guy who has a Freddy Mercury mustache and a head that’s shaved everywhere except for a four-inch-wide strip of mullet in the back. Busey busts up their party by knocking them all over with his pickup truck, so the local media makes him a hero. Then his buddy Yaphet Koto, the only cop in town who hasn’t been turned against him by the corrupt chief (Seymour Cassel, who’s surprisingly good at being a Grade A cocksucker) tells him that the bikers run a huge post-apocalyptic cocaine-processing compound out in the desert and that they’re definitely gonna want payback.
So Busey starts cleaning his shotgun, telling his wife he’s got that feeling he used to get right before the VC attacked back in Nam. (Back in the eighties, being a Vietnam vet was shorthand for “can handle himself in a fight.”) So she’s like, “Gary, I love you despite your frightening overbite, but can we please just get the fuck out of this shitty town like I wanted to do at the beginning of the movie?” He thinks it over for a second before saying sure, but then the bikers drive their bikes right through his picture windows and start throwing bowls of salsa on the walls. That really pisses Gary off. (They also kill his wife and put his kid on a catatonic state, which also probably upsets him a little bit.)
After Gary gets out of the hospital, he wants some closure on the salsa incident, so he dials in his IOU to the Cuban gangster, who sends him that armored pickup I was talking about. (In a touch typical of Busey’s surprisingly low-key take on the character, he chuckles nervously after saying, “I’m in bad shape, partner. I could use a little help.”) Then he goes to his wife’s funeral, and the bikers show up and start kicking up dust everywhere while the sheriff just stands there smirking. These guys are fucking dicks.
Gary’s vengeance gets off to a great start when he pulls that Wile E. Coyote-style stunt with the cable stretched across the road, but then the gang retaliates by digging up his wife’s corpse and dragging her coffin around behind their bikes. Once that happens, you’re pretty much okay with anything Gary does to these pukes. He could invent a time machine, go back in time, kill their fathers, and marry their mothers so that he can become their stepfather and sexually abuse them throughout their childhood, and you’d be like, “Nah, that’s fair. Fuckers had it coming.”
So then he gets into a few more scrapes involving lassos and exploding mannequins, until the bikers finally get around to kidnapping his daughter. So he puts one of them in the hospital, then visits him in the emergency room and shoves a stick of dynamite up his ass and tells him to write down the coordinates of their home base. (Don’t worry, he lubes it up first. He’s not a monster.) So then he drives his murderwagon out there and uses a F-14 joystick to activate the mortar launcher in the truckbed and the machine guns in the grill. Meanwhile, Yaphet provides air support from his Sopwith Camel. This scene goes into full-on Rambonian overkill, with dozens of stuntmen (well, probably the same six or seven, since their faces are covered by their helmets) getting catapulted out of fireballs all over the place. I would have preferred if Yaphet had been listening to some vintage James Brown (“For Goodness Sake, Look At Those Cakes,” perhaps) rather than his compromised eighties material, but other than that, it’s damn-near perfect.
Then Gary rescues his daughter and gets into a fistfight with the head biker while the surviving goons watch. This part could have been more creative, but it’s pretty cool when Gary slams the fucker’s face into a mountain of coke and knocks him the fuck out. I also like that these bikers seem to have some sort of warrior code, because when Gary defeats their leader, they all wordlessly get on their bikes and drive away, probably hoping to find work in a neighboring Chuck Norris movie.
Eye of the Tiger is my kind of flick. Every single time I go to a video store or restock my Netflix queue, this is exactly what I’m looking for: a forgotten gem from the eighties, the golden age of the action film. Every now and then I think I’ve seen them all. I lament that there are no more surprises for me, that it’s all reruns from here on out. Then a movie like Eye of the Tiger comes around and proves that those who think they’re seen it all simply haven’t been looking hard enough. The sun never shines on a closed eye, after all.