Vietnam vet Buck Matthews (Gary Busey) has just been released from prison, after serving a sentence for killing a man in a fight: he knows it was self-defence, but the corrupt Sheriff (Seymour Cassel) saw to it that he spent time behind bars, so there is already a grudge. In spite of this, Buck returns to the smalltown he calls home, though this time he gets a lift from the Hispanic gangster whose life he saved inside; he is determined to repay the favour, but Buck is not interested in his charity, and tells him the lift was enough, though the gangster gives him a number to call should he ever need his help. What he wants to do is get back to his wife and daughter - but bikers may get in the way.
Those darn bikers, the eighties action flick equivalent of the outlaw gang in a Western of yore, since one genre had replaced another in the hearts of the mainstream moviegoer by this point. There was a distinct cowboy picture tone to Eye of the Tiger, and director Richard C. Sarafian had proved his love of desert locations in his most popular movie Vanishing Point, but there were variations on Busey's hero role which you would never have seen John Wayne or Gary Cooper getting up to in a million years. However, perhaps what this was best known for was its lifting of the most memorable song from one of its contemporaries, Rocky III, for its opening titles, and indeed its own title.
Eye of the Tiger, the rock song, has become one of the most overplayed known to humanity, but even back in '86 it was near-ubiquitous at sporting events and on television whenever any "tough" and competitive music was needed, and not simply boxing related either. The Survivor tune had been a hit all over the world, but using it in another context, that was another movie, seemed like an almighty cheek, especially when they didn't play it once, they played it a few times, and it felt rather a cynical try at catching some reflected glory. It's not as if the film would have been any different under an alternative name and carrying a theme song of its own, but it had the rights and there you go.
Back at the plot, Sarafian had assembled a collection of familiar faces, not just Busey, to act out this revenge drama, which effectively turned into a tit for tat within about fifteen minutes. Yet the manner in which both sides - Buck and his best friend J.B. Deveraux (Yaphet Kotto) versus the bikers - got their digs in and made with the one-upmanship were tending towards the eccentric in many cases. This was the film where Busey gets information out of the villain he has hospitalised by sticking a Vaseline-covered stick of dynamite up the miscreant's bottom and lighting the fuse until he writes down the location of the bad guys' lair - you wouldn't see the decade's bigger action stars reverting to that sort of behaviour. Even before that, he has sliced off one of the biker's heads with a wire pulled taut across a street one night.
But he has some justification in feeling aggrieved, as the bikers, led by a shaven headed, moustachioed William Smith sporting a Paddington-level hard stare, have murdered his wife (Denise Galick) in a home invasion stunt, and left his daughter comatose. The daughter was played by moppet Judith Barsi, who in a tragic turn was murdered by her father along with her mother a couple of years later; I don't suppose a movie like this is much of a monument to remember her by, but it's better than Jaws: The Revenge. It all played out as you would expect, and presumably if you liked this genre you wouldn't have that any other way, with Buck gifted a formidable pick-up truck by the gangster for which to demolish the evildoers (Kotto gets a biplane to drop bombs out of, while listening to eighties James Brown tracks). And naturally, it climaxed in a fistfight between Busey and Smith with no doubt who would emerge the victor. Distinctive in parts, but probably not so much that it stood out from a crowded field. Other music by Don Preston.