Blind Fury

(Phillip Noyce, USA, 1990)


At the height of Blind Fury’s denouement, there is an especially good moment. In a patently artificial, almost dreamlike process shot, the arch villain of the piece, Slag (Randall ‘Tex’ Cob), having been dispatched by the blind swordsman hero, Nick (Rutger Hauer), goes plunging down a snowy ravine. Just at the split second when the shot seems to have conveyed its information and is about to become redundant, something else is added: Slag separates cleanly into two halves at his waist. To quote an apposite line from Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not To Be (1944): "It’ll get a terrific laugh."

A lot comes together (as well as apart) in this moment. It is a typically saturated event in an action movie – the kind of film that people tend to call, whether admiringly or dismissively, a genre movie. The shot puts together all at once: the finale to the big show-down the audience has been primed for; a gag topper to this finale; and a breathtaking vista of the film’s exotic location (it often goes unremarked that an element of tourist spectacle is almost mandatory for commercial films these days). The gag itself is the culmination of a line of jokes throughout the film based on a familiar trope of samurai humour: three lightning swishes of the blade; a pause as the audience tries to fathom exactly who or what has been cut; then the breathtaking and/or hilarious revelation of the results. And let one not forget to note the wonderfully inventive character name given to the Villain, Slag, and the fact that he brings to this film the intertextual or generic association of many a role, but perhaps particularly that of the ‘Lone Bilker of the Apocalypse’ from the Coens’ Raising Arizona (1987).

There are two things to be argued for on behalf of Blind Fury and a torrent of other fine, neglected movies: the virtues of ‘genre’ movies, and then more particularly of action movies. Phillip Noyce’s film, assuredly, claims to be nothing more or less than an action movie, and it is particularly inappropriate in this case to ‘lament’ (as some reviewers, predictably, are compelled to do) that this director once made such serious, socially relevant works. Phooey to that: Blind Fury (1978) is a good action movie, in an entirely different cultural universe to Newsfront or Heatwave (1983) and it has to be taken on it own terms. In a great deal of film reviewing and criticism, however, those ‘terms’ have hardly begun to be recognized. Indeed, the standard critical response to action movies, even in praise, tends to be one of apologetic defensiveness: "It’s no great work of art, but it’s two hours of thrills and fun, and at least it doesn’t take itself seriously." One writer revealingly referred to Blind Fury as a "nuisance of a film", and so it is – a nuisance for serious criticism.

It is probably common knowledge that contemporary commercial cinema long ago learnt to defile what Peter Wollen called "the doctrine of the purity of genres". (1) Today genre movies are, routinely, multi– or mutant-genre creations, rigorously calculated. They have to be this way in order to achieve the desired high number of narrative twists, spectacular effects and cultural ‘markers’ or recognition points for different demographic or subcultural audiences. Almost every commercial film nowadays – and certainly every one that proudly thinks of itself as a ‘genre movie’ – is a more-or-less-familiar, more-or-less-novel reworking of a multitude of different of currently ‘available’ (i.e., saleable) plot lines, stars, character actors, hit songs, stylistic ambiences, topical references and so on. The key point is not that movies merely quote other movies (as Blind Fury, for instance, reworks both a Japanese Zatoichi movie, as well as CassavetesGloria, 1980) – in popular culture territory, this is surely a banal observation by now – but how they quote, how they materially combine, energise and animate their chosen elements.

The heart of a genre action movie like Blind Fury, like with so much popular culture, is not in its meanings (the Vietnam pretext to this film, for instance, is purely that – a pretext, a plot device) but in its movement, its achieved energy, what Lawrence Grossberg calls its affective economy. Blind Fury is a model of pure textual movement: a circulation of plot devices and bits of spectacular events into highs and lows, clinches and toppers. This goes not only for the obviously action-oriented sequences, but also the character-based emotional ones. The point, ultimately, of all the interplay between Nick and the difficult child, Bill (Brandon Call), he must mind until returning to the redeemed dad, Fran (Terry O’Quinn from The Stepfather [1987]), is not especially ideological (although it’s that, too, in a routine sort of way). Rather, these character relationships are functional, mechanical even, allowing some crisp feel-good dynamics to play themselves out. As so often in action movies, the very attributes of the here – in this case, his lack of sight, his supersensitive hearing – are scarcely psychological traits; instead, they provide a way for the machine of the film to materially emphasise and extend its own games with the cinematic parameters of vision, sound and space (Predator [1987] provides another good example of this).

Every genre movie, through its selection and repositioning of available elements, brings upon itself unique problems of structure, tone and effect to be solved, hopefully inventively. With Blind Fury, that means for Noyce getting two essential things right. The first is being able to turn the merry implausibility of the plot premise (a blind swordsman?) not into a self-defeating, uneasy running gag, but the very wellspring of the film’s energy and its performative solicitation of the viewer. Scenes such as Slag’s hair-raising van drive seem to me to succeed admirably in his level. The second problem is how to pitch scenes that intend to be comically violent so that the laugh doesn’t die as the audience starts wondering about real blood, real death. The initial choice of a samurai premise is wise in this regard, for swordfight, like old Hollywood gunfights in pre-Peckinpah days, can easily be rendered as rather bloodless affairs, all flash and pantomime.

Blind Fury pushes the interesting problems of comic violence even further, however, with its running-gag rednecks, Tector (Nick Cassavetes) and Lyle Pike (Rick Overton), who are rather mean and foul at times (brilliant stroke: they end up killing each other!), and its complement of outrageously severe slicings and dicings of bodily parts. This is, of course, the classic edge on which genre movies work – courting the kind of artificiality which winks to its audience, ‘it’s only a movie, dummy’. While I suspect that some reviewers, and indeed some filmgoers may never "get a terrific laugh" from that sight of Slag’s splitting in two, it’s nice to be able to note that some of us still do – and that genre filmmakers will have to keep coming up with new ways of impressing us.

MORE Noyce: Echoes of Paradise, Rabbit-Proof Fence, The Saint, Sliver

© Adrian Martin 1990


1. Peter Wollen, "Thinking Theory", Film Comment (July-August 1988), p. 51. back

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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