Death Becomes ‘Hauer’

Ironically, for an actor most famous for playing a replicant, Rutger Hauer was actually a very unique and versatile performer. Although his role as the relentless Roy Batty in Blade Runner (Scott, 1982) was career-defining, his range was much wider than most European-born actors with long-lasting Hollywood status. With his death last month following a short illness, here’s a look at two of his lesser-known films, in roles where his wild-eyed charisma was allowed to run loose, whether it fitted with the intended atmosphere or not.

Released in 1997, two years after Die Hard With A Vengeance (McTiernan), Blast is set during the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games and is very much in the same one-man-against-the-terrorists Die Hard mould of storytelling. The opening titles allege that this is a hypothetical reconstruction of a real FBI-foiled terrorist plot planned for the Summer Games. Into this reputedly true story are thrown several clearly unreal characters that veer from the sublimely boring to the simply ridiculous.

Linden Ashby is gloriously wooden and breathtakingly dull as Jack Bryant, a former taekwondo Olympic bronze medallist, reduced to lowly janitor status by his injuries and the precipitant alcoholism that takes hold when he can’t kick people anymore. Andrew Divoff plays the distinctly Hans Gruber-esque Russian terrorist Omodo, who takes the female US Olympic swimming team hostage to distract from his real plan to blow up the President. Bill Clinton is never referred to by name, presumably because the factual content of this “true story” is dubious at best, and there might be some ethical concerns about pretending that the actual President would have been in any real danger in 1996.

And then there’s Rutger Hauer. He plays a wheelchair-bound Interpol agent who appears to be dressed as a Native American, although this is never discussed on-screen, leaving the viewer to wonder why he has two red fabric-bound plaits on either side of his head and talks in a weird, American-tinged accent. Despite the fact that his rivalry with Omodo (who caused his debilitating injuries) is swept over very briefly in the narrative, and how he spends the majority of his minimal screen time cooped up in a tiny office barking instructions to the FBI that are largely ignored, he somehow manages to make the film mostly about him. Even with his half-written back story and those pigtails, Hauer is able to make Leo slightly more believable than the paper-thin main characters, and his final confrontation with Omodo manages to have some pathos to it, in spite of its absurdity.

In its detail-driven approach to storytelling, Blast could be 10 years ahead of its time, but unfortunately its commitment to authenticity makes it quite tedious, rather than creating interest in the minutiae of the terrorists’ strategic approach. The poster claims that “Terror Has No Limits”, but the film itself suggests that terror has very clear restrictions and could be pretty easily prevented by a lone caretaker fresh from the 12-step programme. It seems pretty pointless that the FBI bothered to stop the plot at all.

Surprisingly for Albert Pyun, a well-worn genre director famous for the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Cyborg and a couple of Kickboxer sequels (including an upcoming and entirely unnecessary Algerian entry to the series), the action isn’t particularly dynamic or well-orchestrated either. Bryant is never afflicted by either his injuries or his love of the bottle, and knocks off most of the gang with a few perfunctory strikes and boots. Despite its explosive title, only one of the terrorists’ bombs actually goes off, and when you pick through the debris of this film, you’re left with the poorly-paced story of a charisma-less everyman getting his life back on track by high-kicking some Russians.

Split Second (Maylam, 1992) on the other hand, is a wildly different experience and Hauer is given even more freedom to be as preposterous and extravagant as possible in every aspect of his performance. In this steampunk-ish sci-fi, he plays Harley Stone, a homicide detective who is such a maverick he calls a dog a “dickhead” twice and doesn’t seem to do any paperwork at all. Set in a flooded London devastated by climate change in not-too-distant future of 2008, he’s on the hunt for the serial killer who killed his partner, and is forced to partner up with the fresh-faced detective Dick Durbin, straight out of Oxford with a measured, scientific approach to crime-fighting. Unbelievably, they have ideological differences, until Durbin eventually realises that the all-guns-blazing approach is obviously better and the only way to solve the murders.

They spend the majority of the film running through puddles and driving to crime scenes where they’ve just missing their quarry, potentially by a split second, although the film’s title is never really explained. Hauer strides down long corridors in his proto-Neo leather coat and post-John Lennon round sunglasses, shouting at people and shooting things with a comically large hand cannon. It’s a manic, overblown performance that, unlike in Blast, completely fits with the film’s world and aesthetics.

The supporting cast feature as bizarre a group of people as you would expect to find in an ecologically devastated future London. Kim Cattrall turns up, looking very confused, as Michelle McLaine, the dead partner’s wife who Stone had an affair with and then abandoned. Alun Armstrong plays, amusingly, almost exactly the same character as he does in the new Matt Berry sitcom Year Of The Rabbit, a highly-strung police commissioner at the end of his tether with all Stone’s maverick behaviour. Pete Postlethwaite endows Stone’s fellow officer Paulsen with far more character than he was written with, while Michael J. Pollard and Ian Dury (of Blockheads’ fame) appear as a dirty ratcatcher and his filthy assistant. Even amid this group of character actors, Hauer outshines them all.

In both Blast and Split Second, Hauer took the raw materials he was given, whether it was a shoddy script or ludicrous characterisation, and turned them into, if not gold, then at least something far more structurally sound than it would have been in a lesser actor’s hands. With a selection of posthumous releases scheduled over the next few months, including a role as The Ghost of Christmas Future in an upcoming TV version of A Christmas Carol with Guy Pearce as Scrooge, we’ll have a few more additions to Hauer’s filmography. And we’ll always have the “tears in the rain” monologue, of course. He rewrote most of that himself the night before, so who knows what he’ll do with Dickens.