Thursday, July 16, 2015

Series Minded: The Mad Max Quartet

[Series Minded is an irregular feature here at G&DSD, wherein we tackle the entire run of a film, TV, or videogame series in one fell swoop]

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, d. George Miller) - in theatre, twice
Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985, d. George Miller & George Ogilvie) - dvd
The Road Warrior (aka Mad Max 2) (1981, d. George Miller) - dvd
Mad Max (1979, d. George Miller) - on demand

Mad Max as a franchise was never my thing.  I was a child of the 80's but that whole trilogy never registered with me.  I remember watching (or trying to watch) Beyond Thunderdome on more than one occasion at a friend's house and finding it weird and lacking in suitable wonder and adventure.  It seemed to me (at the time it was out on video, age 10) to be a cross between The Goonies and Steel Dawn (fully acknowledging that the Patrick Swayze-starring vehicle was an obvious riff off The Road Warrior, and that Goonies came out around the same time as Thunderdome) but I wasn't terribly into either of those films either.  Even three or four years after Return of the Jedi I was still pretty much all about Star Wars, and anything that wasn't on that level (and really, what was?) was kind of garbage, or disappointing at least.  I knew the theme song, Tina Turner's title track replete with its blaring 80's sax solo, intimately from repeated radio play (I may have even had the soundtrack, or a dub thereof),  and I legitimately have fond memories of it and the music video.  But that's more Tina Turner nostalgia than film nostalgia.

Even as I grew older, I never visited/revisited the Mad Max series (I'm still hazy as to whether I've even watched Thunderdome in full), the series held no sway.  I've never been much of a Mel Gibson fan either... his status as a sex symbol for moms throughout most of my formative years certainly didn't help, and his more recent nut-job antics even less so.

So when a new Mad Max movie was first announced more than a few years ago, with Tom Hardy taking over the lead, I was with the rest of society-at-large in uttering a dismissive groan of "meh".  It was an announcement that really meant nothing.  Yet another reboot announcement amidst a myriad of other reboot announcements.  It wasn't until the first Fury Road trailer hit that I, as did so many others, sat up and took notice.  George Miller, the creator of the original series -- the guy who went on to make the Babe talking pig movies and spawn that barely  tolerable Happy Feet  series of animated features -- was back at the helm and, apparently, given unfettered control to do whatever bat-shit insane thing he wanted to do.  It's easily top ten of all time for trailers effectively selling a movie.  It made a legion of cinephiles, action movie aficionados, and even the common movie goer rub the sand out of their eyes and believe that something really special was coming to a cinema near them.

It's a trailer's job to lie, to misrepresent, to sell you on a film that's not truly there.  They tease you with information and hint at big action set pieces or really funny moments or grand costumes but so often they're only showing the briefest, best parts and the remainder (or the reality) of the film turns out to be something else altogether.  We get it at this point, we've come to expect deceit.  So when a film not only delivers exactly what the trailer promises, but delivers it in excess, that's a modern cinema miracle.

Mad Max: Fury Road is a modern cinema miracle.

As all that preamble establishes,  Fury Road had such a difficult path set before it.  From general apathy to utmost excitement in the shortest span of time because of that trailer, it started with lowered expectations and then pushed them to the highest.  I have to wonder if the studio was at all nervous that the film wouldn't meet such grand expectations that the trailer set? (Of course they weren't nervous, they must have seen the film and known just how great it was.)

I've seen Fury Road twice now, neither in optimal theatrical settings (for the first I was seated way too close to the screen, it literally consumed my entire peripheral vision, the second was marred by digital projector quirks -- pixellation, red bars on the screen, distortion) but the film was more than powerful enough to overcome those obstacles with relative ease.  A second viewing allowed me to settle into Mad Max's post-apocalyptic future much more than the first viewing did.  Much of the nuances and details of Immortan Joe's cult-like society were missed the first time around as I tried to take in all the visual stimulation.  The meaning behind the War Boy's flavourful dialogue ("Shiny and chrome", "witness me", "I live, I die, I live again") was lost on me, as was much of their actions that first time around, as the high-octane, highly insane car crashes, explosions, and stuntwork, largely practical, kicked in before the first 20 mintues were through.  Getting over the fact that the titular Max himself was practically a background participant until well into the film was part of the challenge, as that first viewing I was completely unaware about how ridiculously great Nicholas Hoult's Nux or Charlize Theron's Furiosa (or even Immortan Joe) were or how important a part of the story they would be (Furiosa is truly the film's focus, while Nux's personal journey is perhaps the greatest in the film).

It's a fairly relentless movie from the onset, but it's particularly once Furiosa hits the road in her War Rig -- a customized tanker truck with all sorts of additional body parts, spikes and accoutrements welded to it -- with her band of War Boy escorts, that it really kicks in.  She silently deviates from her path, her status as Imperitor has the War Boys following suit, but when Immortan Joe discovers her treachery, and his missing wives/breeders (a quintet of unfettered by nuclear fallout, model-caliber women whom he's held captive) he calls upon not just his own legion of Citadel warriors but also those from Bullet Town and Gas Town as well.  It's one rig (a War Rig, mind you) against hundreds, but Furiosa's mission, to get these imprisoned, dehumanized woman to freedom, seems like the most important thing going on in this world, a last grasp at civility and humanity which has been long forgotton under Immortan Joe's rule.

That there's a heavy excaping domestic abuse allegory at play here, and that it's in no way eploitative but also compliments the events of the film, really providing it with a genuine narrative drive, is just one of its many miracles.  While Max, and eventually Nux, help with the escape and survival, that Furiosa and the breeders are all capable on their own level (and in very short swatches of screen time are given distinctive personality attributes, rather than just being a cowering whole as some other films might portray them) is one of the most rewarding aspects of the movie.  Likewise, their discovery of the denizens of The Green Place, a small legion of motorcycle-riding, aging survivalists, all women who are no less kick-ass than Joe's War Boys is such a wonderful touch.

I know that bait-and-switch -- the supplanting of the masculine hero/protector the film's named after with a no-less-tough and yet tangibly feminine/feminist warrior -- has some peoples' undies in a bunch, but fuck 'em.  They're sexist prigs and they don't deserve to have a voice.  I shouldn't even bother to bring them up, except to point out that they're so inherently, utterly wrong, and yet another element that makes the film work so well is the audacity of George Miller to push his franchise hero down to being the third or fourth most important character in the film.  It's unexpected and it works.

Beyond that, Hardy's performance is as challenging, perhaps moreso, than his role as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, speaking largely in grunts, scowly nods, and hand gestures.  He's like a man who's been alone too long, too inside his own head to socialize properly.  One element of the film I'm still trying to understand is who is the psychic girl who keeps jarringly appearing before him, helping him survive (was she one of the children from Thunderdome?).  In a film that largely stands alone, and gloriously so, there are petite nods to the previous films and Max's history, stating decidedly that this is a continuation, not a reboot.

Aggressive, vulnerable, clumsy some ways and yet competent others, Hoult's Nux becomes the unexpected soul of the film.  Thanks to Capable (one of the escaped wives played by Riley Keough) who shows him compassion, mercy and tenderness, qualities it seems he's never known.  He was to be witnessed by Immortan Joe himself, escorted to the gates of Valhalla, but came up wanting, his entire belief system crashing down.  It wasn't hard for Capable to show him a new, more fulfilling path.

Meanwhile, Furiosa's quest merges well with Max's.  They both seek redemption.  At the same time, Furiosa also seeks out her past, searching to bring her childhood memories back to life.  But memories fade and time passes.  You can never go back, and yet, as Max advises, sometimes going back is your only way forward.  Furiosa, with her stark buzz cut, her grease mask, and her steampunk-like robotic arm, is one of the most amazingly visual characters in a film full of them, but her unmatched toughness and equally unmatched capability shoot her right near the top of the greatest all-time action heroes (she's easily top of the female action heroes list and very close there for all genders and species of action hero).

The visuals of the film are never not stunning.  Gorgeous desert scapes with a grand sense of scale and scope along with a few varieties of environments that make the journey that much more adventurous (a sand storme, a muddy wasteland of trees and crows hued in blue).  Miller didn't just bring his A-game, he reinvented the game.  There are more than a handful of downright masterful shots, all unique to this picture because, where else are you going to have characters swooping on a pole from one edge of the frame across to the other?  Most movies don't ever track your eyes clear across the screen, but Miller does it on more than one occasion.

This film is thoroughly genius.  I love it madly, and I yearn for the blu-ray so it can be mine for always and ever, shiny and chrome (the kid-who-never-grew-up in me yearns for action figures, vehicles and playsets).

Now, I do actually own a copy of Beyond Thunderdome, which I purchased alongside a copy of The Road Warrior in preparation for seeing Fury Road for the first time.  Bits of Thunderdome remained familiar, but others, if I ever truly did watch the film in full, my brain had long abandoned.

Beyond Thunderdome is not a great film.  It's almost like two decent, distinct stories smushed together to form a muddled whole.  The first half finds Max, after having his camel-drawn wagon bombed out from a small, single-person plane, entering Bartertown looking for a vehicle and supplies.  After checking his many, many, many, many guns and weapons at the door, he proves his toughness to the city's ruler, Auntie Entity (Tina Turner).  She offers him everything he desires if he can help usurp the Master who controls the power generation beneath the city.  Power is power in Bartertown, and Auntie is quickly losing hers.

A convoluted plan is hatched and Max is forced to square off against the dumb but brutal Blaster in the no-holds-barred Thunderdome (a dome-shaped fighting arena that sounds more awe inspiring in name than it actually turns out to be... I was probably thinking something more massive and awe-inspiring akin to the Cobra Terrordrome maybe).  I don't know if the Thunderdome fight sequence is supposed to be so funny, however  I presume Miller is a skilled enough storyteller that he could showcase it as either a brutal or comedic sequence.  Given that two grown men are bouncing around the arena fairly helplessly on bungee cords, I believe he knew that embracing it's silliness while still drawing some excitement out of it was the best possible outcome.  It's a preposterous fight, and yet, it is enjoyable.  Following the fight, Max is unceremoniously exiled in the desert, and the conflict between Auntie and the Master below appears to be left as a dangling plot thread.

Max, on the brink of death, is found by a teenage girl, Savannah who believes him to be the Captain.  She brings him back to a cave society existing solely of children and teens, survivors of a passenger plane crash years and years before.  They have built up a faith around the story of the Captain's failed attempt to bring them to Never Never Land...sorry I mean Tomorrow-morrow Land, and the promise of his return to finish the job.  Max, being an adult and the ultimate realist, tries to shatter their bubble at every turn, encouraging them to remain put, in what is as close to an idyllic setting as one can get in this post-apocalyptic future.

Their faith shaken, some of the kids take off in search of Tomorrow-morrow Land and Max is guilted into assisting in getting them back.  The journey takes him back to Bartertown, once again into the middle of the Master and Auntie's power struggle.  Following a daring, wall-smashing escape-by-locomotive, Max befriends the pilot who messed up his wagon at the start and he agrees to help the children, taking them all to a bombed out Sydney in the end, leaving Max in Auntie's clutches where they inexplicably share a good laugh.

It's a very clean movie, I have to say, with a lot of rich details that set up two very distinct cultures.  Its well-shot and precisely executed sequences hold up somewhat, seeming quite more advanced than it's 1985 release date would imply (I figured originally 1988 at least).  As Miller (and co-director George Ogilvie whom Miller brought on to help with directorial duties while dealing with the passing of his production partner) had no need to embrace the computer assisted fads that were happening at that time, the practical effects and smartly constructed sets give it longevity.  Where it falters is wholly in the story its telling.  Things come together far too neatly at the end to not feel forced, while the films two distinct realms are really too distinct so when they do collide it doesn't seem right.

It's not unwatchable, even Turner's overacting is kind of endearing, but at the same time, it's a flawed movie, hints of ideas so much better realized in Fury Road.

Having watched The Road Warrior first, however, I found Beyond Thunderdome just a tad confusing from the onset, as Bruce Spence's Jebediah the Pilot is a different character from the Gyro Captain he played in the first sequel.  So to go from Mad Max 2 to Mad Max 3 and have the same actor play a different character (and yet they act virtually the same and both fly planes) is kind of maddening to resolve.  I get the sense that Miller likes to have fun with his audience (sometimes at their expense

Up until acquiring, cheaply, the DVD, I hadn't previously seen The Road Warrior, though I thought I must have at some point, right?  Nothing about it was familiar, except that fact that countless other films had completely ripped it off in the years following its release, and many of those I had seen.

I see The Road Warrior as a first draft for Fury Road (and Thunderdome, a second draft), introducing the scavenged, spiked-out, souped-up vehicles as just a glimpse of what Miller had in mind and could accomplish with limited budget and time.  The devolving society that remains in the wake of some form of cataclysm and the desert wastes in which all survivors live both seem like fruitful conditions to tell an action-adventure story on the cheap.  Tattered scraps and patched-together leathers for clothing, beat up old cars, barren terrain all somewhat available on the cheap, but putting together those bits in such a way that it becomes a distinctive, punk-infused aesthetic helped to make it a forerunner, not an also-ran.

There's a definite craft to what Miller was doing here, a vision to both the story and the world.  There's a comment on oil as a source of conflict (still so very resonant today) and how it was what literally fuelled the end of the world, and even in this new beginning it still does.  We learned nothing.  Watching the original Mad Max a while later, it's easy to see the first three films as stepping stones as Miller figured out how to make a movie.  With this sequel he's basically taking on the origin of Max from the first and keeping the name (if for no other reason it remains tangentially connected because first one made a ridiculous amount of money worldwide off virtually no budget).  The first lesson of filmmaking Miller learned was start with what's going to make money, it seems, then working on the message and/or entertainment factor can come after.

The plot finds Max reluctantly helping a small group defend their independent oil refinery from marauders, led by the iconic Lord Humungus.  Max is a lone wolf, a sole survivor, a road warrior, and he's becomed accustomed to looking out only for himself.  He's an anti-hero, someone who performs good deeds for the wrong reason.  Of course, as this small group is whittled down in size under continuous siege from the marauders, Max recognizes they don't stand a chance in this prolonged conflict and his conscience finds him helping them selflessly.

The Road Warrior is not without its flaws, and its age shows plenty of signs of wear, but it remains a quite entertaining action movie, it's influence radiates (as do the films that influenced it, like Kurisawa's samurai films and Peter Weir's The Car That Ate Paris). Gibson turns in a remarkable performance that has you cheering for him at the onset, booing his selfish behavior very quickly after that, and then winning you back over as the hero.  The star power was overwhelmingly there even in 1981.

1979 Mel Gibson, however wasn't quite so winning in the acting ability.  He was, however, undeniably handsome in his younger years, with a winning smile that didn't turn up so much again in his later Max roles.  His starring turn in the exceptionally profitable international hit Mad Max (which grossed over $100 million off a miniscule budget) isn't exactly the greatest.  As the title character it's shocking that he's barely in the movie for the first half hour.  Miller's story instead focuses on establishing the ramshackle remains of the police force and the band of road pirates that vex them in a "near future" scenario.

Eventually, as cops are wounded, Max enters the picture, with a big chip on his shoulder.  He takes down the bad guy but then his gang come out for revenge.  After Goose, Max's partner and best friend, is taken out, Max quits the force, but is convinced to take a vacation instead with his wife and son.  Venturing along the coast Max and family are unaware at first that they are being hunted.  Max witnesses his family run down and sets out for revenge of his own.  Dressed in his iconic police leathers and driving his equally iconic supercharged Pursuit Special, he takes the gang down.

Mad Max is, frankly, a weird movie.  It's subject to wickedly uneven pacing and a decided lack of focus.  The film is named after one character but throughout the bulk of the film Max seems ancillary.  While that may work, excitingly so for the fourth entry in a series, as his first and thus de facto origin story it's surprisingly Max-light.  It feels from the get-go like a grindhouse-style ("Aussiesploitation" they call it) revenge fantasy mixed with the 60's and 70's cinema fascination with ramped-up motorcycles and cars, but the actual revenge angle doesn't set in until Max's family is killed, which is roughly 10 minutes before the end of the film.

In biding its time up until the maddening of Max, the film tries to explore its in the not so distant future scenario.  Having never watched it before, I was unaware that it was not a post-apocolyptic movie like the rest in the series, though it certainly seems to be a just-shy of an apocolypse setting.  Societal structures are breaking down, the police are a shambles, hampered by the law which criminals have learned to exploit.  The lawless don't rule quite yet, but it's certainly looking for an opportunity to take over.

There are some well constructed chase sequences here, certain facets of which I've not seen before, so there remains unique elements to this movie.  Unfortunately the most unique element to the film is its disjointed meandering which proves alternately tedious or baffling.  I spent much of the film wondering exactly where it's story was going and why was it taking so long to get there.

Having seen all four films in the series in short span of time, I've come to appreciate them for their differences and their similarities, even if I don't necessarily like them all.  I found it fascinating how the rudimentary elements of each film wound up seeding the latest in the series, a real "you wouldn't have gotten here without them" scenario.  But Fury Road is more than just a culmination of the experiences of these previous endeavours, it's more considerate, better realized, less exploitative.  That Miller developed it with British comic book weirdo (said with affection) Brendan McCarthy likely led to some of it's more outre elements, and his consultations with Vagina Monologues creator/playwright  Eve Ensler, ensuring that the wives weren't just portrayed as silent, wide-eyed victims in the back seat, but instead seen as individually strong survivors with a strong gravitation towards community.

It's not exactly a contrast point, but there's certainly issue that can be had with Miller's portrayal of homosexuals in Mad Max and The Road Warrior.  While I don't think Miller is anti-gay at all by the fact that his motorcycle gang in Mad Max and the raiders in The Road Warrior so seamlessly and thoughtlessly integrate gay males amidst the thieves, rapists and murderers, they're still the only representation of gay characters in his films, portrayed as part of the cackling crew of deviants.  It's far from the harshest depiction of homosexuality on film but it's also clearly not the friendliest (although Wez, the mowhawked warrior in Humungus' crew has a rather touching, clearly visceral reaction when his lover is killed by the boomerang of the ridiculously '80's Feral Kid.)

Where it goes from here is uncertain, save to say that given Fury Road's incredible critical success, and more importantly for some, a massive financial win, there will be more.  Fury Road and a second script, Mad Max: Furiosa, were written concurrently (and while the plan was to film them back-to-back, it seems it didn't happen that way), while Miller has stated that Mad Max: The Wasteland is next up.  Tom Hardy signed on four a four-feature stint, so if we're very lucky, and if Miller's inventiveness holds up, as well as his desire to make a not just a wonderful action movie, but a meaningful one as well, we're in for a delicious series of treats in the coming years.

[Fury Road, David's Take]