Anticipation continues to grow for Blade Runner 2049, the long-awaited sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece Blade Runner. As we’re slowly teased new footage, outcries that the update will somehow tarnish the brilliance of the original seem to be residing. However, as promising as the new film appears, there’s one key element from its predecessor that will be sorely missed, and that’s the presence of the iconic Dutch star Rutger Hauer, the focus of this Cult Icons entry.
An actor of enormous presence and strength, Rutger Hauer flirted with becoming a major Hollywood star throughout the 1980s before seemingly finding his niche in smaller, often eccentric films that fans of cult cinema eat up. Hauer is still probably best known for his role in Blade Runner and it’s impossible to write about the man without it being front and centre. Still, it’s often overlooked that Hauer was a star in his own right in Europe before making the move to America. He forged an incredibly fruitful partnership with his fellow countryman, the wonderfully bonkers Paul Verhoeven, beginning in television in the early 1970s with popular Robin Hood style adventure series, Floris. In 1973, they made waves with their feature Turkish Delight. This sexually explicit and still quite shocking work was a hit in the Netherlands and garnered international attention, winning an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. The filmmaker and his star combined again on the romance Keetje TIppel (1975), and to great acclaim in Solder of Orange (1977), a gripping drama (the most expensive film made in Holland at the time) that details the plight of several Dutch college students drawn in different directions upon the break-out of WWII. Hauer delivers a stellar performance in the lead that caught the eye of many in Hollywood.
He made his American debut opposite Sylvester Stallone in the underrated action thriller Nighthawks (1981). Hauer is excellent as an international terrorist in hiding in New York City, being hunted by Stallone’s no-nonsense cop. The film experienced a turbulent shoot (Hauer and Stallone notoriously did not get on) and was not a major hit. If his first foray into American cinema had been challenging, his next would prove to be his most timeless.
Blade Runner is one of the most stunningly designed films ever made, although it was not a box office success upon its original release, nor was it particularly understood by critics. Over the years, the film’s reputation grew and by the time Ridley Scott released his director’s cut in 1992, critical perception had been reassessed and the film rightly championed as a modern masterwork. Hauer’s performance, as replicant Roy Batty, is one for the ages. In what could easily have been a cliched science fiction villain, Batty becomes, if not quite our protagonist, certainly a most sympathetic nemesis to Harrison Ford’s Deckard. Never has Hauer’s otherworldly presence, his unique oddness, been put to better use.
Despite the box office failure of Nighthawks and Blade Runner, Hauer’s impressive performances did not go unnoticed. Working on his American accent to avoid typecasting as villains, he convinced legendary filmmaker Sam Peckinpah to cast him as the hero in Peckinpah’s final film, The Osterman Weekend (1983). Along with Nicolas Roeg’s ambitious Eureka (1983), it performed poorly at the box office and received mixed reviews. In 1985 he turned to medieval times for two vastly different films, reteaming with Verhoeven on his brutal English language debut, Flesh + Blood and starring opposite Michelle Pfeiffer and Matthew Broderick in Richard Donner’s magical adventure Ladyhawke. Again, box office success eluded Hauer, however both films hold up well. Ladyhawke in particular is stunningly photographed, with Hauer and Pfeiffer cast as lovers cursed by a jealous bishop so that they can never be together in human form. It’s a tragically romantic story and one of the finest examples of the ’80s obsession with swords and sorcery.
If Blade Runner remains Hauer’s most iconic performance, then surely Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher (1986) is the clear runner-up. Returning to a villainous role, Hauer is mesmerising, frightening and completely memorable as a mysterious hitchhiker stalking the desert highways. The film has gone on to become another cult favourite. Hauer closed out the ‘80s with a stint as an action hero (Wanted Dead or Alive, Blind Fury, Salute of the Jugger) and starring in highbrow European fare, including The Legend of the Holy Drinker (1988), which many rank as Hauer’s finest hour, playing an alcoholic living on the streets of Paris. It’s a moving performance of great subtlety. Sadly, the film was barely seen outside Europe. Television proved more successful, with Hauer winning a Golden Globe for playing a Russian POW in the ratings hit, Escape from Sobibor (1987). It was around this time that he reportedly turned down the lead in Verhoeven’s Robocop, and to date, the two have not worked together again.
Opening the ‘90s with a number of films that would go on to earn cult status including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Split Second (both 1992) and Surviving the Game (1994), Hauer’s role selections became more eclectic and would often land straight to video. Effectively, it seems Hollywood never quite knew what to do with the Dutchman, and it’s likely Hauer wasn’t particularly interested in playing studio games. Despite a few notable roles of interest, again mostly on Television (HBO’s Fatherland, mini-series Merlin), it wasn’t until 2003 that we saw Hauer re-enter the multiplexes when George Clooney, making his directorial debut, cast him as an aging hitman in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. In 2005, he co-starred in two massive successes based on comic books, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s Sin City. The mammoth success of both introduced Hauer to a new audience, however he returned to his usual milieu, alternating between art-house (The Mill and the Cross), cult (Hobo with a Shotgun), his homeland (The Heineken Kidnapping), TV (True Blood), schlock (Dario Argento’s Dracula 3D) and the mainstream (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets), to varying quality. Hauer has always seemed happiest in roles where he can play, working with filmmakers who share his collaborative approach and desire to surprise audiences. With several new films in the pipeline, one hopes he’s not done surprising us yet.
Essential Rutger Hauer:
The Legend of the Holy Drinker
Soldier of Orange