See It Instead: Rutger Hauer Edition.
We celebrate the excellent and eclectic library of famed Dutch actor, Rutger Hauer.
Over a career spanning 50 years, Rutger Hauer did it all. On television or in films, he brought his piercing stare to almost every character imaginable. He played Bruce Wayne’s antagonist in Batman Begins. He played a campy vampire lord…and Dracula’s nemesis Van Helsing. A survivor of German occupation during WW2, he played characters from both sides of the conflict. He could play a hardened criminal or a principled detective; a chivalrous knight or a shotgun wielding vigilante hobo. That’s some breadth.
No genre seemed able to contain him. He’s most famous for the science fiction opus, Blade Runner, and occasionally returned to that genre – recently in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. His first work was as a knight in the Dutch TV series Floris, and he would star in many such films, sometimes with fantasy elements, sometimes more historically centered. He could deliver chills as a big screen villain, but also play heroes or anti-heroes. He once hunted Ice-T for sport, so that’s got to count for something!
We gather four of our favorite roles from the late, great Rutger Hauer. Yup. Rutger gets a bonus pick on account of his five decades of bringing us truly unexpected characters in his wonderful filmography.
Rutger Hauer (1944 – 2019).
Hauer was born in the Netherlands during the Nazi occupation. Surviving that harrowing time created a strong aversion to violence, which he carried into his service with the Royal Netherlands Army, serving as a medic before resigning due his philosophical opposition to killing. He returned to Amsterdam to study theater and acting, which ultimately led him to be cast as the chivalrous knight Floris in a well-received TV series.
From there, he captured attention at home and abroad, ultimately scoring a break-out role in Paul Verhoeven’s Turkish Delight in the early 70’s. His star really reached the heights when he played the iconic villain in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and he was off and running in Hollywood from then on.
Privately, Hauer was an active environmentalist and humanitarian, helping to found a charitable organization to further AIDS awareness as the epidemic was reaching its deadly peak. His autobiography in 2007 helped fund his charity work. He passed away in his home in the Netherlands this week due to illness.
The Serious Pick: Blade Runner (1982).
In the near future, bio-engineered replicas of humans are sent all over the solar system to do jobs too dangerous for regular people. When a quartet of those superhuman replicants escape to Earth, it is up to “blade runner” Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) to hunt them down. As he begins his hunt, he realizes that the replicas are also hunting. Specifically, they are looking to extract information and vengeance from the people behind the replicant program.
Of course we’re going to talk about Blade Runner. Based on Philip K Dick’s science fiction, Ridley Scott’s film is full of big ideas, drama, and gorgeous visuals. Nearly 40 years later people are still copying this movie’s style. While everything about this film is fantastic, from the sets to the dialogue to the heady philosophical themes, one of the big standouts is the film’s villain. Hauer plays the leader of the replicant escapees, a man who has seen horror and cruelty and inhumanity in his short life. As we learn more about the workings of this post-modern dystopia, Hauer’s villain becomes more of a misunderstood hero, a replicant Spartacus. His final monologue, largely improvised, is haunting in its grim beauty and damning insight into human nature. A pure classic.
The Lighthearted Pick: Blind Fury (1989).
A blind Vietnam veteran named Nick returns to the States decades later, after having learned to hone his other senses via martial arts training. He goes to see a former friend and fellow soldier, Frank, but finds out that he has disappeared and dangerous men are after his family. Nick intervenes, but Frank’s ex-wife is killed defending her son. She tells Nick where Frank may be, and has him promise to protect Billy before she dies. It turns out Frank is being blackmailed into manufacturing drugs, and rival organizations want to use Billy as leverage to get Frank’s recipe.
While the concept is absurd and often played for laughs, Hauer makes Nick into an intriguing character. Based on the serial adventures of the blind Japanese swordsman Zatoichi, there’s a lot of material and themes to work with. While the importation of feudal Japanese dynamics to 1980’s America can be clunky, it also draws some interesting parallels. The enduring charm of Zatoichi was of his humility and intelligence; as nobody saw a blind man as a full person, he was nearly invisible to others. He would play the simple beggar then suddenly mete out furious justice for others who were in the underclasses, toppling the powerful and prideful. Hauer captures most of this, adding in a Zen spirituality to his protagonist as well.
The film may not be a classic – or quite as good as the best Zatoichi films – but it had fun with its material and featured some really cool action sequences. Give it a view if you missed this wandering swordsman.
The Unconventional Pick: Hobo with a Shotgun (2011).
Rutger Hauer plays a hobo. With a shotgun. He fights crime, from drug dealers and pimps all the way up to dirty cops and a pedophile Santa Claus. Sounds legit.
Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’ gonzo anthology Grindhouse is the (questionable) gift that never stops giving. Not only was it a thoroughly entertaining throw-back to exploitation films, but it featured a pair of fake movie trailers that went on to become actual movies. The first was Danny Trejo as the Mexican vigilante Machete in 2010. The second was Hobo with a Shotgun, starring Rutger Hauer, which managed to be even more bonkers than Machete.
Hobo with a Shotgun is grindhouse exploitation fare, dystopian dark satire, and 1980’s renegade cop films chopped up and thrown into a blender. It is over the top in dialogue, violence, gore, and characters. The glue that holds the whole thing together is Rutger Hauer. If you thought playing a blind sword-fighting veteran was a lift, Rutger shows you he wasn’t even breaking a sweat in Blind Fury. He completely buys in for the film. His soliloquies are practically Shakespearean, and he treats his role like a completely fleshed out character instead of a joke that implausibly got stretched into a full length film. First time director Jason Eisener seems to lob every crazy idea he can at Rutger, and the man doesn’t even blink. If he could make Hobo with a Shotgun work, he could make anything work…and frequently did.
Bonus Pick: Ladyhawke (1985).
A jealous bishop curses a gallant knight (Hauer) and his noble lady-love (Michelle Pfieffer) when he cannot take her for himself. During the day, she takes the form of a hawk that watches over the knight. During the night, he becomes a wolf that is constantly by her side. Only at twilight are they both briefly human together. A young thief (Matthew Broderick) with a penchant for sneaking in and out of impregnable locations is rescued by the pair, and agrees to help them overthrow the bishop and break their curse.
If Ladyhawke wasn’t the first sword and sorcery movie I saw, it was in a close foot-race with The Beastmaster for that honor. I was utterly captivated by the story. It is a tragic love story, like you blended Ivanhoe and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Hauer was ruggedly handsome and gallant, and Pfieffer was enigmatic and lovely. I even enjoyed Matthew Broderick, not something I usually accomplish. I remember breathlessly watching the sequences where Broderick squeezes into harrowing tunnels and drainpipes as he cleverly escapes the bishop’s fortress.
Decades later, a few bare patches in the pacing are apparent, as the middle segment lacks the battles and escapes of the beginning and finish. I never minded because the middle is where you get the fascinating story of the curse and the shape-shifting lovers which stirred my imagination like few movies had managed to that point. I can name a bevy of fantasy novels that inspired that level of engagement in my adolescent imagination, all of them classics. That Ladyhawke captured that same level of fascination made it a classic in my opinion, and I still love to watch this movie when it comes around on late night TV.