EYE OF THE TIGER: Adios Rocky, Hello Busey

Making a film based on or inspired by a hit song is a double-edged sword: the film will have instant name recognition with the viewing public but such films are usually novelty items that have a limited chance of clicking with the viewing public (for every Yellow Submarine, you get two or three Convoys).  However, the song-to-film process can produce some fun oddities.

A favorite around Schlockmania headquarters is Eye Of The Tiger, a low-budget action flick that utilizes Survivor’s hit theme song from Rocky III.  It was a little strange to make a movie out of a song that was actually written for another film but the film’s production entity – Scotti Brothers Films – was the film arm of the record label that owned the hit song’s original recording.

Thankfully, the filmmakers involved didn’t try to make some sort of ersatz, Rocky-esque boxing movie out of the song.  Instead, they assembled a fun, sometimes quirky action film that fuses motifs from the revenge movie, the biker flick and Walking Tall-esque rural action melodramas. Gary Busey toplines as Buck, a con who finishes a prison stint as the movie begins and returns home to his family.

Unfortunately, Buck has two problems:  the crooked sheriff (Seymour Cassel) who railroaded him into prison wants him out of the way and there’s also a group of drug-dealer, militaristic bikers led by Blade (William Smith) who ride roughshod over the town.  When Buck stops the bikers from assaulting a woman, they strike back – and Buck finds himself forced into a fight against the corruption in his town.  With the help of an ex-con buddy (Jorge Gil), he gets an armed truck and uses bullets, rockets and his fists to bring back justice.

In short, Eye Of The Tiger is the ’80s action flick at the edge of its comic-book extremes – and the results are way better than you might expect.  Michael Montgomery’s script has  a quirky sense of humor and a knack for bizarre variations on the expected action, like a scene where the bikers attack Buck and his family by riding through their home on their bikes.

Eye Of The Tiger is also skillfully directed by Richard Sarafian, best known to cult movie buffs for the car-chase classic Vanishing Point.  Sarafian brings a skillful eye to his work here, using desert town locations to achieve a western-style effect and pouring on the action with kinetic flair (the finale includes bombings, shootouts, car stunts and a mano-a-mano fistfight).  He strikes the right balance of rolling with the story’s quirky sensibilities while playing it straight enough to make the dramatic beats stick.

Better yet, Sarafian gets his well-chosen cast to give performances that are rich in personality: Busey shows the kind of off-the-cuff charm he was capable of before becoming a reality t.v. regular, Cassel hams it up in an agreeable way and Smith gives a suitably intense and eccentric performance as the macho biker villain.  The support cast also features strong turns from Yaphet Kotto as a deputy buddy of Buck’s and the always reliable Bert Remsen as a priest with the courage of his convictions.

Simply put, Eye Of The Tiger is a crowd-pleaser for anyone into ’80s action fare – and it manages to beat the potential curse of the song-derived film by following its own eccentric path to action-flick nirvana.

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