Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls… dyin’ time’s here!

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome
(1985)

Time was kind to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. As in, it was such a long time since I’d seen the “final chapter” of the trilogy, it had dwindled in my memory to the status of an “alright but not great” sequel. I’d half-expected to have positive things to say along the lines of it being misunderstood, or being able to see what it was trying for but perhaps failing to quite achieve. Instead, I re-discovered a massive turkey that is really a Mad Max movie in name only (appropriately, since Max was an afterthought). This is the kind of picture fans of beloved series tend to loathe; when a favourite character returns but without the qualities or tone that made them adored in the first place (see Indiana Jones in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, or John McClane in the last two Die Hards). Thunderdome stinks even more than the methane fuelling Bartertown.


I hadn’t been aware of the origins of Thunderdome until recently, mainly because I was content to leave its memory resting in peace. George Miller’s original premise had a group of children living in the wilderness without parents; Max was grafted on when the writer-director was debating who should find them. If the Mad Maxes are loosely comparable to the Evil Dead trilogy in terms of scope and development, they diverge with the third instalment. Army of Darkness is as overblown as Thunderdome, but it carries with it a crazy sense of humour and a berserk energy; it feels like a logical extension given the leap from the first outing to Dead by Dawn. Thunderdome, on the other hand, is flat-out tedious, when the next step from Mad Max 2 ought to have been autogeddon of glossier and even more extreme proportions. More than anything, it’s this absence that betrays the spirit of the series. Predecessors that were celebrated for speed and kinetic fury have been reduced to a crawl.


And Max himself. What has happened to the warrior Max? Well, he’s become a lot more like Mel Gibson for starters. He talks a bit, he’s chatty even (volunteering that he was once a cop), throws out a few quips, and is completely without the burden of a tortured past or an inscrutable outlook. Any mythic trappings he had assumed with Mad Max 2 are thoroughly discarded even before he plays saviour to a gang of Lord of the Flies rejects.


Max: I was a cop. A driver.

It isn’t as if Miller has forgotten the Max of before. Even given the ultra-mullet he’s first seen sporting (an alarming foreshadowing of Lethal Weapon Gibson), Max resembles the Max of before (although his leg seems to work a lot better); his damaged eye, his clobber (albeit with a stylish semi-sarong, perhaps a hangover from Mel’s The Bounty period), his skills rigging his booby-trapped car. The idea is presumably that he has progressed a tad in rediscovering his humanity since the end of The Road Warrior. This is perfectly reasonable, but no thought seems to have gone into what sort of person that makes him. Certainly, it doesn’t vie with the reported cut scene where Max dreams of his wife and son. He awakes to realise he is as bad as those he used to hunt as a cop. That would only work if he were still the Max of Mad Max 2, not whoever this is 15 years later.


He comes across as a Max who has lost his wherewithal (in particular asking Pig Killer what the plan is). Rather than the desperate survivalist, he’s now content to roll with it and hope for the best, deferring to others for answers or guidance (“He’s got the knowing of a lot of things,” he says of Master, who I guess goes well with a bunch of kids since he’s the size of an Ewok; it’s Max’s very own Caravan of Courage). It isn’t necessarily a problem to do different things with the character, or even not to have a car chase movie (although some form of adrenalised pursuit is surely essential; the chase at the end of Thunderdome is borderline superfluous, like the exorcism added to punch up The Exorcist III), but it absolutely does need to be coherent and engaging. This Max takes his cues from Indiana Jones in terms of adding humour to the character. He’s almost a precursor to Kurt Russell in Big Trouble in Little China.


That’s an exaggeration, obviously, but lines like “Who are you, I can feel it! The dice are rollin’” do nothing to establish a mythic presence for Max, nor does the big-up he receives in the oral history at the movie’s finish. Miller clearly delights in the opportunity to indulge comedy moments, such as Max’s never-ending supply of armaments concealed upon his person, or placing him in askew situations we couldn’t have imagined hitherto (riding out into the desert with an over-sized papier-mâché mask on his head). Essentially, Max has been whored out to get financing for the actual idea that got Miller’s creative juices flowing.


We might as well have Goldie Hawn as Mel’s co-star, to complement Max’s hijinks. They might at least have been more fun than this. Certainly, a (doubtless improvised) line such as “Sure, me fairy princess” feeds on Mel’s freewheeling persona and casual homophobia circa Bird on a Wire. Thunderdome is Mel in a transitional phase. He’s on the cusp becoming superstar Mel. Gibson was big enough in 1985 for Thunderdome to be sold on his name, yet his US forays of the previous few years had been the choices of a serious actor (which he undoubtedly always had the chops for) rather than one chasing fame and glory. They were also choices that floundered at the box office.


His work with Peter Weir and Miller in the first five years or so of his acting career may still contain his best performances because, as powerful a screen presence as he often has been subsequently, there hasn’t always been someone guiding Gibson’s performance so as to rein in those Mel-isms; the tics and mannerisms, the excesses. He returned two years after Thunderdome in Lethal Weapon, ironically playing a proper mad chap, rather than one who gets furious occasionally, and he landed a fully formed superstar (who had also aged visibly; the Mel of Lethal Weapon is only convincing as a Vietnam vet because the actor looks about 10 years older than he actually is). Thunderdome’s Max is a slightly subdued test run for the fun-loving, ker-razeee, whip-smart Mel we are now familiar with, but that persona isn’t very Max.


The decision not to end Thunderdome on the camera’s retreat from Max alone on the road, but give him a fade as he wanders into the desert, could be seen as the next stage in the character’s iconic path. But, coming after the coda with Savannah in the ruins, it rather reinforces that this isn’t really a Mad Max movie at all. Structurally Thunderdome is an incredibly awkward beast, as the story Miller wants to tell begins halfway through. This is also the point where the movie stops stone dead. The Bartertown scenes are throwaway, inconsequential adventuring stuff (just with assuredly solid art direction, while Dean Semler makes that pig shit look good enough to eat); not what we expect from Mad Max, perhaps, but not so egregious that we feel betrayed. Max’s sojourn with the desert survivors is so miscalculated, however, it permanently hobbles Thunderdome.


Sure, give Max some young sidekicks, if you really must; it worked for Mad Max 2 (kind of)! But don’t stop the narrative in its tracks by have Max sit and listen to a cute telling of the events of the “Pockyclypse” by a ragtag gang of scamps. The middle act unwinds as an endlessly banal futuristic anthropology lecture. There’s no recovery from this point, as the picture has proudly unveiled for all to see just what a botch-job it is. 


The return to Bartertown for a heroic rescue (there are more than a few plot cues borrowed from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in Thunderdome, and it is very much not to Miller’s credit), and then, finally, the chase sequence we have all been waiting for, merely have the benefit of having something happen. The final chase was heralded at the time, but is now evidently a case of having been grateful for small mercies. That it is borderline incoherent (the manner in which Max and co end up on a functioning rail track, chased by Aunty’s gang, falls into “Don’t ask” territory) was neither here nor there; at least it was better than the indulgent drivel of the child tribe.


Dr Dealgood: Fighting leads to killing, and killing gets to warring. And that was damn near the death of us all. Look at us now! Busted up, and everyone talking about hard rain!

An aspect of Thunderdome that doesn’t bother me is the havoc it plays with the series’ continuity. My only wish is that it had played fast-and-loose to some good end. Instead it comes across again, as, “We just wanted to stick Max in this post-apocalyptic tale and didn’t care if it didn’t make a lick of sense to do so”. So Max is reconfigured into a post-WWIII environment. He now has to worry about things that weren’t an issue before, such as contaminated water (“H2O that’s my go!”) Aunty Entity (Tina Turner, complete with amazing gravity-defying boob job) comments that she was a nobody before, “Except on the day after. I was still alive”. 


Dr Dealgood (an engaging, charismatic turn from Edwin Hodgeman) invokes the memory of the Big One when he talks about fighting leading to mankind’s near destruction. Mostly, though, the allusions are saved for the tribe of the flies with their laboured deteriorated language and Miller’s tiresomely obvious appropriation of memories of television as the new myths and legends. (The best line in respect of a halcyon TV age comes not from the kids, but from Aunty; “Welcome to another edition of Thunderdome!”)


Probably the most-discussed elements in respect of continuity are the return of Bruce Spence, and his identity, and the identity of Blaster. Some have posited the idea that Jebediah is the same gangly guy as the Gryo Captain; he has now resigned his position as leader of the Northern Tribe, or been deposed, and headed off with the kid he had with the cute headband girl. Well, yes… And I suppose there’s a way to explain Lee Van Cleef’s Colonel Mortimer in For a Few Dollars More as one and the same character as Angel Eyes in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, if you really want to and absolutely have to.  As for Blaster, Master’s mentally-changed brawn to his brains, Max’s recognition was likely meant to consciously suggest he recalled Benno in the original, although I do recall wondering if he was supposed to the same person.


In Thunderdome, Miller is trying to take his decayed society to the next stage, but doesn’t have the means to make it actually interesting rather than derivative. This is driven home when we reach the tribe of the wee, We’ve seen enough post-apocalyptic societies and skewed environments, not least Planet of the Apes and its first sequel, to recognise the tropes here. But Miller makes it larky, rather than of serious intent. Miller takes an idea like Master Blaster, that probably looked half decent on paper, and runs with it, rather than paying attention to whether it would actually be believable. He messes about with a designed future even more than Mad Max 2, so rendering it less conceptually likely. There are signs like “Helping Build a Better Tomorrow” and “ATOMIC CAFÉ”, and much is made of the town being built on pig shit (ha-ha!)


Aunty Entity: But he’s just a raggedy man.

Bartertown is the product of a director too influenced by Lucas and Spielberg. It isn’t a million miles from Jabba’s palace, complete with freaks and weirdos (I’ve mentioned Hodgeman, but Frank Thring is also great as the Collector; Miller scores with on the side-lines, but never achieves with the main event), just with added adult humour (“Sorry the brothel’s full” Max is told when he tries to reach a deal for information). Everything here is a first draft gimmick, from Blaster’s size (is this Miller doffing his hat to Gilliam?) and pigeon English (”Who run Bartertown?”) to the casting of Turner.


That said, I originally found Turner’s casting rather glaring and out-of-place, a shameless attempt at promotion (the series goes from being enormously influential to being so influenced that it needs to plug itself with MTV videos). Which it is, but I rather enjoyed her large, self-aware performance this time. Her scenes in Thunderdome are still mostly about how that top remains in place, with the secondary question of whoever thought they’d look real. But Tina has curiously strong chemistry with Mel, and her playfulness in their final moments together (“Well, ain’t we a pair raggedy man?”) is the kind of ambivalent mockery that actually works; there’s an apocalyptic Leone western stirring in their somewhere, but unfortunately it isn’t the story Miller wanted to tell.


As noted, the events in Bartertown are agreeable enough; a slapstick fight that isn’t so far from Mel’s beloved Stooges territory (Angry Anderson wouldn’t look out of place as Curly, and his role here is pretty much Wylie Coyote, with added giving the finger). The dynamics of the Bartertown power base(s) don’t bear much scrutiny, but that’s the case with the picture as a whole


Dr Dealgood: Right now, I’ve got two men, Two men with a gutful of fear. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls…  dyin’ time’s here!

The titular Thunderdome (was ever a title more evocative but in the plain light of day more underwhelming?) starts off looking pretty damn goofy. What ignominy is this, that Max should be reduced to twanging about on a giant elastic band? But, once the bout gets going, it evolves into a decently staged sequence. Miller deftly juggles a brace of elements with the same expertise he engaged battling cars; Max twirls back and forth, has problems with an erratic chainsaw, continually fails to blow that all-important whistle, which he loses in the dirt. It’s good stuff, but it shouldn’t have been the high point of the movie.  Two men enter. One man leaves. Except when Aunty’s in there as well. If only Max hadn’t “Bust a deal and face the wheel”, what happens next might not have come to pass. Max and his damn compassion, eh?


Miller’s interest in his Lord of the Flies/Peter Pan tribe is baffling. In some respects, we can see the shape of things to come in Thunderdome; family-friendly movies, pigs even. His preoccupation with degenerated language and behaviours is irksome rather than arresting (much more intriguingly depicted in the likes of Doctor Who’s The Face of Evil, State of Decay – I hesitate to say Paradise Towers, which came after Thunderdome, although it correlates the best – , the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas and even Star Trek: The Motion Picture with it’s simplistically derived V’ger). There’s a designer-laziness to the constructions; dull phonetics “Scrooloos” and “Pockyclypse” and “erf”, “cleverness” like  A gang called turbulence. It isn’t the kind of thing where the audience goes “Ohhhh, that’s clever” (as opposed to the Fourth Doctor’s deconstruction of the conflations and derivations in State of Decay).


The oral tradition concept does at least provide a piece of valid continuity with the themes of Mad Max 2, but since Max the hero has been all but lost, the question remains of what is left to justify it. If Bartertown is far from grim and gritty, the oasis kids represent a state of full-blown whimsy, with Max co-opted as surrogate dad. There’s a moment, with the mural of Captain Roberts, who does look like Mel, where we wonder if Miller might recapture the spirit of mythmaking, but instead we get the most Max-ian line of the picture (“There ain’t no tomorrow-morrow land and I ain’t Captain Walker”) Whether it’s Bugs Bunny or the Wicker TV, these concepts have no lure. The response when the “sonics” are revealed as a “how to learn French record” is, “Why are you stopping the action for this crap?” There’s a way to do this kind of thing, but Miller doesn’t know it. Twee about sums it up, particularly when Max heads off to rescue Savannah Nix with a couple of munchkins and a pet monkey.


Max: It all finished. It just isn’t there any more

That said, Helen Buday (a mere six years younger than Mel) makes a strong impression as Savannah. Maybe there was even vague potential in having Max as Scrooge McDuck, shattering the kiddies’ dreams or appropriating arcane language at will (“I’m the guy who keeps Mr Dead in his pocket”). A commentary on the mythologising of Mad Max 2? That at least would have ensured a through line for the trilogy.


Pigkiller: Remember, no matter where you go, there you are.

The manner in which Miller has lost touch with the series he is, at best, appropriating is exemplified by the surface details. We have Maurice Jarre’s sub-Laurence of Arabia score (complete with Mel crossing the desert with his dromedary chain; any one would think this was The Spy Who Loved Me; all that’s missing is a Roger Moore cameo), which is every bit as unsubtle as Brian May’s were only in different ways (witness the syrup-drenched demise of Blaster). There’s the announcement of Max (“It’s the man with no name!”), beating Robert Zemeckis to the archness punch by five years (Marty McFly introducing himself as Clint Eastwood). Then there’s Mel chasing a guy into some tunnels, only to run back pursued by many more moments later (both Star Wars and Temple of Doom). It would be churlish not to laugh at some of these, but they indicate a shortage of real inspiration.


What is there to say about the climax? With all that added budget, this is the best that Miller could offer? The elements intermesh with none of the skill of Mad Max 2, even if the point of departure is virtually the same (the good people – albeit some of them are thieves or power-obsessed – are led to a better life by Spence). The chase is perversely restricted by the decision to have it run along rails, and there’s no impact to Max’s heroic sacrifice. It’s notable that, yet again, Miller ends on a game of chicken, and perhaps most significant the Max now has sufficient sense of self-worth by now that leaps to safety before the impact.


Savannah: Time counts and keeps countin', and we knows now finding the trick of what's been and lost ain't no easy ride. But that's our trek, we gotta' travel it. And there ain't nobody knows where it's gonna' lead. Still in all, every night we does the tell, so that we 'member who we was and where we came from... but most of all we 'members the man that finded us, him that came the salvage. And we lights the city, not just for him, but for all of them that are still out there. 'Cause we knows there come a night, when they sees the distant light, and they'll be comin' home.


The grandiloquence of Savannah is too little too late. She echoes the adult feral kid, but only evokes wonder in a negative way. Such as, why would the return to abandoned ruins of best-forgotten civilisation be better than the fertile oasis where Max discovered the kids? Given that Miller is clearly intending this to be positive, it’s a puzzling end point. Home is the burned out ruins of a dead society, or home is something built anew elsewhere? It’s symptomatic of the muddle that is Thunderdome that the ending presents further thematic confusion.


In Miller’s defence, by the time he was filming Thunderdome his heart may not have really been in it any more. Byron Kennedy, the producer with whom he had collaborated since the early 1970s, was killed in helicopter crash while scouting locations at the age of only 33. The credits caption reads “For Byron”.


In addition, for the first but certainly not the last time, Miller took a co-director credit. George Ogilivie, a theatre director, shared duties with Miller and concentrated on the performances of the kids. I’m not sure that explains anything in terms of the ponderous script, but it further emphasises the disparate elements and directions that pulled Thunderdome asunder.


Not everyone despised Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Roger Ebert even had it in his 10 best films of ‘85, which, given the competition, is downright peculiar. I well recall there being goodwill towards it. It was a movie that wasn’t very good, but nobody really wanted to hate on it so they looked for positives. Thunderdome messes up Max as much as Babe Pig in the City throttles the uplift of the original, but at least the Babe sequel is actually a good movie (albeit extremely twisted for a kids’ movie). Thunderdome’s crime is not ultimately that it breaks with the theme and tone of its predecessors, or even that it pays scant attention to the essence of its title character. Thunderdome stands guilty of being boring. Whatever faults Fury Road may be charged with, I doubt that will be one of them.



Saturday, 24 January 2015

What do you do in the group?

Starred Up
(2013)

(SPOILERS) Jack O’Connell can do no wrong right now, it seems. Except maybe taking a supporting role in a 300 prequel. In the space of a couple of years he’s earned his place as the next big British star. The trio of Starred Up, ’71 and Unbroken (Angelina came-a-calling) have cemented a rightfully acclaimed reputation as an immediate and visceral performer. He’s got gigs with Jodie Foster and (maybe, touch wood) Terry Gilliam coming up; it’s probably just as well he didn’t land Reed Richards. Which is a round about way of getting to his performance in Starred Up. It’s a powerhouse turn, one that almost, but ultimately can’t, make up for a movie unable to decide if it’s a serious picture about rehabilitation or your shiv-wielding genre staple replete with vicious guards, duplicitous prison overlords (not Noel Coward), and psycho wardens.


What’s surprising about this, perhaps, is that screenwriter Jonathan Asser has based the picture on his own experiences working with offenders. There’s definitely a sense of a more engaged picture emerging from the folds of a standard nick thriller every time we enter the session groups. Oliver (Rupert Friend) comes into the incarceration situation almost unbelievably ill equipped; he’s well-educated and intimidated. The sort of guy who wouldn’t last five minutes in stir. So we’re as curious as Eddie (O’Connell) about why his group seem so devoted to his methods. And why he is seized to help Eddie in particular.


In tandem with this is the set up of Eddie being incarcerated with his lifer dad Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), a man disinclined to give the son he’s hardly seen any special treatment, but who nevertheless feels the paternal bond. Neville’s inability to express himself (his one attendance at the group leads to its dissolution) is effective, but there’s a strong sense of great performances overcoming the artifice of the set up here. Eddie has come up from young offenders prison for being too much of a handful (“starred up”) and seems set to cause similar disruption. Prison Mr Big Dennis (Peter Ferdinando, memorable as the Black Knight in the none-too memorable Snow White and the Huntsman) instructs Neville to mentor Eddie, so his son’s behaviour doesn’t disrupt the dirty business line Dennis has going with the crook deputy governor Haynes (Sam Spruell).


From that, it may seem as if there’s a lot going on. And there is, too much really. Just a film about Oliver’s anger management classes could have been fascinating; even a film where the focus is as much on the malign bureaucracy of those who don’t want to help offenders as on the offender (Eddie) himself. I don’t think Neville’s presence, as good as Mendelsohn is, is strictly necessary. It brings additional elements of melodrama that undercut the more serious themes. Along with the standard prison tropes, this helps turn Starred Up into another exploitation picture.


The final scenes between father and son are touching, but Asser and director David Mackenzie (whose career has been on the unfocussed side, material-wise) precede this an action-packed, adrenalised finale that speaks the message “there’s nothing quite so effective for bringing a dad and his boy together as beating 7 shades of shit out of some screws”. Mackenzie even douses the attempted hanging of Eddie in a red filter and adds an eerie, horror-movie soundtrack. Spruell’s Deputy Governor may as well be Donald Sutherland in  Lock Up, so unspeakably motiveless Machiavellian is he.


And there are the signs of a screenplay that bends itself every which way in order to meet the demands of the moment. Eric’s eloquent insights into his situation and those around him show an empathy beyond his boundless rage, and suggest he’s in touch with his inner self before he starts attending Oliver’s groups. Indeed, when he enrages Oliver, who admits he wants to hurt him, Eric agrees to come to the meeting following the tritest of exchanges (“Good, now we’re getting somewhere”). Stallone could have been so subtle.


On the other hand, the therapy sessions are engrossing, and extremely well performed (one thing I can’t fault here are the performances). Anthony Welsh, David Ajala, Ashley Chin and Gershwyn Eustache Jnr are there for the necessary induction (“It can take a session or two to get used to it”), so it’s a shame that, just as we are gaining an insight into Asser’s method, he decides to move onto matters more lugubrious.


Unfortunately, Starred Up allows the clichés to win out. If it were that kind of film through-and-through, this wouldn’t matter. But Asser really appeared to have his mind on higher things (I’m less sure of Mackenzie’s motives). What are we to take away when Oliver loses his temper with the warden and so kills his programme? It makes for a dramatic scene, but it serves to undermine his process. Maybe Eric and his fellow groupies will make better situations for themselves due to Oliver’s influence, but in the end the focus is more on father-son reconciliation. The authenticity of filming in an actual prison is resounding in terms of the overall mood and atmosphere, but it isn’t as if that’s a rarity for banged up cinema. If Asser had the courage of his characters’ convictions, Starred Up might have really got its teeth into something. Instead, it gets down tearing new holes.



But I wanna see The Blob!

Jersey Boys
(2014)

Unlike Hudson Hawk, I never did want to sing like Frankie Valli. So maybe the intrinsic appeal of this Clint Eastwood not-musical (I expect he swore of them after Paint Your Wagon), based on the broadway musical, is probably rather lost on me. It isn’t dislikeable as such, but it’s so slight and effort-free and really rather dull. Jersey Boys is so lightweight, it’s in danger of floating off into the firmament at any moment. A film so conscious that it’s diet-Goodfellas in tone and approach, it even overtly references its inspiration. Repeatedly.


Jersey Boys is also fairly poor name for a movie; what works in the realm of musical theatre may not translate to the big screen. Maybe The Four Seasons wouldn’t have cut it either, but the title doesn’t have pulling power. Musicals are hit and miss as cinema properties, of course, but – I don’t know how it went over on stage – you’d barely know this was one. Sure, it’s got the songs (sung impeccably by John Lloyd Young as Valli). Yet the biggest clue to its show origins is the to-camera monologues as various members of the group introduce different passages of the proceedings. Was Clint embarrassed to be doing an all-singing, all-dancing picture? Is that why he left the big number for credit roll?


And, is there sufficient draw here, outside of the (admittedly) memorable tunes? The mob trappings are very loose, and borderline benign (that Goodfellas-lite thing). Christopher Walken essays the most chucklesome made guy you ever did see, and light foots away with many of the biggest laughs (“Hey you – Stay out of my bathroom,” he instructs one of the group, on learning he is prone to pissing in the sink). But the sashaymeister only actually gets to show his moves during the final credits.


The rags-to-riches trajectory is tried-and-tested. As such, this comes across as very familiar, without nearly enough backbone or drama to make it distinct. There are scrapes with the law (but Frankie’s a good kid, see?), the arranging of the various band pieces to make a hit (the arrival of Erich Bergen’s songsmith Bob Gaudio), and the gradual disintegration of the group as Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) becomes mired in debt. Then there are the infidelities (skirted lightly over) and family traumas (the death of Frankie’s daughter – don’t worry, it’s fairly light; everything is light). I found my interest piqued as the group fell apart and Frankie fell into the motions of a made-up backing band, before scoring a hit with the Gaudio-penned Can’t Take My Eyes Off You. But, by then, we’re nearly at the end.


And being nearly at the end means that the latex shuffle is needed. The youthful group members re-join as unconvincingly aged as Leo in J Edgar for their 1990 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. So runs the course (barring overdose) of the utterly pedestrian musical biopic. But is there any other way to do them? There have been occasionally inspired snippets of bands’ histories (Backbeat) but even Oliver Stone at his height came unstuck with the verbatim regurgitation of a band in the full throes of psychotropic abandon (The Doors).


The cast are solid. Piazza walks off with the film in the showiest part as the cocky wannabe-hard guy; he’s already had good practice giving attitude as Lucky Luciano in Boardwalk Empire. Lloyd Young is (yes!) light and inconsequential, so fits the material. Bergen looks like both Tate Donovan and the disgraced Commander Decker. Mike Doyle plays up the flamboyance as Bob Crewe, but not so much that he becomes a complete caricature.


Admittedly, the film is peppered with good gags. A character is watching Clint in Rawhide at one point. Joe Pesci (Joey Russo), we discover, was a friend of Tommy (and after being bought out, Tommy went to work for Pesci), and was responsible for bringing them together with Gaudio. Pesci, inevitably, utters his most celebrated line “Funny how?” (no, not “They fuck you at the drive-through”) The taciturn Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) finally goes into full meltdown mode over the 10 years he had to put up with Tommy, but the focus of his rage is his untidiness and poor hygiene (rather than squandering half a million he didn’t have).


Clint’s career probably looked on its last tired old legs. Jon Favreau was originally attached, and this seems exactly the sort of journeyman “What shall I stumble into next?” fare you’d expect from him. Clint has become that guy also, crashing from project to project like a wind-up toy, his Zimmer frame barely leaving any impression, so forgettable are the results. Then he made American Sniper and suddenly there’s patriotic zeal in abundance and queues round the block. He should have remade Kelly’s Heroes. There’s some wit in Jersey Boys, then, but it’s caught between two stools. It wants to come from the mean streets and yet indulge the musical chicanery of West Side Story. It probably worked better on stage.


Wednesday, 21 January 2015

On the roads it was a white line nightmare.

Mad Max 2
(1981)

Much has been written in praise of Mad Max 2/The Road Warrior over the years, rightly noting its enormous influence (albeit in tandem with a number of other science fiction opuses in the surrounding five years), but mostly concentrating on its abiding status as a remarkably executed, fantastically taut, kinetic thrill ride. This sequel sees George Miller coax and expand the kernel of the original, teasing out the mythical elements therein and producing a big, bold, super-charged action engine.


Mad Max 2 is an economical picture in storytelling, terms, just as its director recognises that grand spectacle is most effective when characters have been fashioned as easily identifiable “types”. Much has been made of Max speaking only sixteen lines (Miller has reportedly taken a similar approach with Fury Road), and Miller continually plays with his presence as the mythic outlaw; Max is defined as much by the reaction of others to him as anything he does, and because he is so taciturn he is ideal for observers to foist their own heroic ideals on him  (as they do when he first delivers the truck to the camp). Compared to your average hero, or even anti-hero, Max is decidedly vulnerable, even more so than Indy. He is tricked, bruised, beaten, bloodied, left for dead, and ends up with less than he started; yet this only adds to his status, as the keeper of the flame in a desert of savagery.


The broadness fits here, with the comic book design and frame-popping wide-angle lens exaggerating character and movement. Brian May’s score is now appropriate where previously it was overcooked (although Pauline Kael wasn’t wrong when she referred to it as “Jungian music”). Miller’s world is of grand flourishes, expansive stylings and iconic poses. Myth prescribes content, from the adult Feral Kid’s introductory narration onwards. This is the illustrated version of Homer’s oral history.


One might conclude this has all been laid on with a trowel; Harold Baignet’s voiceover talks up Max, and his post-apocalyptic world, and then some. Miller reached the conclusion that the first film’s success lay with the establishing of a heroic archetype; he embraced Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, just as George Lucas had with Star Wars. So with Mad Max 2 he stripped that to its essentials. Max is now the silent stranger who comes into town, defending the farming folk, dashing enough to attract the ladies and paternal enough to be worshipped by the children. And yet, to fulfil his design, he cannot really change or grow. Max’s explanation for why he wants to drive the truck (“Believe me, I haven’t got a choice”) is elusive, but then he’s a man of action who needs to live out his nature He must also remain a myth at the end, an enigma to all.


Miller touches on Max’s backstory, in the opening montage and in Pappagallo’s probing attempts to get a rise from him, but he does not make the mistake of over-explaining. It’s the death knell of the modern hero that Hollywood is impelled to over-examine and motivate, when the element of mystery – and the way in which it fuels the viewer’s imagination – is far more powerful; the audience can fill in the gaps for themselves. Leone’s Man with No Name is perhaps the exemplar of this, ensuring Eastwood is no more than a silhouette. There is nothing beyond his outfit and own amoral code to define him. Max gets more, but Miller proceeds to rub anyone up the wrong way who would wish to explore a firm continuity between his hero’s outings. He keeps moving the goalposts, and Baignet’s gravitas-rich tones sell us a Max with far more weight and inscrutability than that of the original.


Adult Feral Kid: My life fades. The vision dims. All that remains are memories. I remember a time of chaos. Ruined dreams. This wasted land. But most of all, I remember The Road Warrior. The man we called "Max". To understand who he was, you have to go back to another time. When the world was powered by the black fuel. And the desert sprouted great cities of pipe and steel. Gone now, swept away.

For reasons long forgotten, two mighty warrior tribes went to war and touched off a blaze which engulfed them all. Without fuel, they were nothing. They built a house of straw. The thundering machines sputtered and stopped. Their leaders talked and talked and talked. But nothing could stem the avalanche. Their world crumbled. The cities exploded. A whirlwind of looting, a firestorm of fear. Men began to feed on men.

On the roads it was a white line nightmare. Only those mobile enough to scavenge, brutal enough to pillage would survive. The gangs took over the highways, ready to wage war for a tank of juice. And in this maelstrom of decay, ordinary men were battered and smashed. Men like Max. The warrior Max. In the roar of an engine, he lost everything. And became a shell of a man, a burnt out, desolate man, a man haunted by the demons of his past, a man who wandered out into the wasteland. And it was here, in this blighted place, that he learned to live again...


It’s not just the reconfiguring of Max; Miller invites the sense of a long-dormant civilisation with his use of monochrome archive footage. This is far beyond the two years between releases of the picture. The pre-Mad Max newsreel could come from anywhere, while the white temples of Max, and the more haggard look of Mel, suggest it has been a decade or more (Evil Dead II amusingly riffed on this by suddenly turning Ash’s temples white).


The first film is retconned as post- the collapse; Max’s story is summarised following the info-dump of two tribes who went to war. And while he mentions they “touched off a blaze” there is nothing concrete here to suggest nuclear Armageddon; that’s wholly Beyond Thunderdome’s device. All we know is that all means of production have broken down, be it in the form of precious oil, prized tinned foods or scarce bullets. The verbiage may on the ripe side, but it palpably casts its spell. That, and May’s earnest score. The viewer is rapt. The spiel’s factuality can be viewed from either position; Miller is commenting on the inexactitudes of the oral tradition and how tales distort and grow through time and passing from person to person. Or, simply that the director is unconcerned with creating a cleanly defined continuation (despite  the care with the presentation of Max as clearly the same guy we saw from the first – his sleeveless jacket where his arm was run over, the leg brace, the grown dog, the Interceptor).


Max is not an indifferent Clint figure, and his presence serves to emphasis the disparity between memory and reality; we see doubt in his eyes when danger is imminent (although, if this is a tale told, rather than the accurate version, there should be none). Then, he is impassive when confronted by the bodies of the dead; this is a sight seen every day, and he is long since unshockable.


There’s a sense that Max only exists in this sliver of time, a nomadic loner arriving out of nowhere and ironically abandoned on the retreating highway.  Anything further breaks the illusion (as happens with Thunderdome). Only so much can be done to make him “learn to live again” before Max just becomes any old hero (by the time Tina Turner sang about him, we didn’t need another hero). Look what happens when Han Solo is tamed (Return of the Jedi); he becomes less interesting than the white hat (Luke Skywalker). It’s no wonder Miller has retreated to the Road Warrior era Max for Fury Road.


Indeed, Miller works to double-up the iconic loner status for Max. When he tells Pappagallo (Michael Preston) “I’ve got all I need here”, it is a precursor to the encounter that leaves him without even that. He doesn’t just lose his car, but also his dog! They shoot his dog! It’s only a cliché because it’s true that you can kill a human in a movie and the audience won’t care, but if you kill a pet they will be up in arms (the monkey of Thunderdome is small comfort). What would have happened if Max had taken up the Pappagallo’s offer of a future, “Rebuild our lives”? Would Max have been let in on the secret, or would he have been used as a means to an end just the same? At least his dog might have survived (unless they decided to eat it). Leaving Max truly alone on the road, the stoic warrior, serves to underline his heroic stature; he doesn’t ask the audience for idolisation and so he is rewarded with it ever more so.


Pappagallo tries to get a rise out of Max in one of the few speeches in the body of the movie itself.

Pappagallo: What is it with you, huh? What are you looking for? C'mon, Max, everybody's looking for something. You're happy out there, are you? Eh? Wandering? One day blurring into another? You're a scavenger, Max. You're a maggot. Did you know that? You're living off the corpse of the old world. Tell me your story, Max. C'mon. Tell me your story. What burned you out, huh? Kill one man too many? See too many people die? Lose some family? (Max glances angrily) Oh, so that's it, you lost your family? That makes you something special, does it?


The point is, it does make Max special. Even if we haven’t seen Mad Max, the introductory “scroll” informs us of Max’s pedestal. Pappagallo is being purposefully provocative, attempting to get a rise out of Max, albeit there is a certain truth to his words.

Pappagallo: Do you think you're the only one that's suffered? We've all been through it in here. But we haven't given up. We're still human beings, with dignity. You? You're out there with the garbage. You're NOTHING.


Max has lost touch with his humanity, but we want don’t want him to come back too far from the edge. Just as long as he remains the reluctant hero, doing enough to illustrate his credentials and stature but then retreating before being tainted with too much emotion. Miller is probably purposefully echoing the suffering line in the forthcoming Fury Road, where Max is told “Everybody’s out of their mind. You’re not the only one Max”.


But Miller has also learnt a few tricks from Leone, subconsciously or otherwise. For a Few Dollars More gives Clint a partner, and Mad Max 2 foists the never-actually-a-partner Giro Captain (Bruce Spence) on Rockatansky (although he’s not called that here). It’s with the Giro Captain that the picture is free to mine a rich vein of humour (a contrast to the chilly or queasy laughs in the original), and where, in contrast to Kael’s comments, we find the sense of humour within Max. She opined that Max should have smiled at the trick played on him regarding the sand in the tanks. He doesn’t need to; he smiles when the Giro Captain returns, the smile of someone who no longer has any defences against the Captain’s guileless optimism and who now sees the absurdity of it all.


Giro Captain: They’ve got you wrong. You’re not a coward. Stupid maybe, but not a coward.

Spence is marvellous as the Giro Captain (his role in Thunderdome is disappointing in comparison), all teeth and flailing limbs. The main times we’re given cause to doubt Max’s manner are when he mistreats the Captain (on rediscovering him, after leaving the compound, Max wastes no time making him carry the oil cans), but generally his succinct responses to the Captain are the only brightness in Max (Max is a role that works against Gibson’s natural energy, but it’s a more impressive performance for that). The Captain’s constant plays for partnership are continually rebuffed. His “honourable” thief routine also make for amusing interplay (“That’s dishonest. Low!” he responds on finding Max’s gun wasn’t loaded; asking, “How do we know that one’s not a dud?” Max waves it under his nose and suggests, “Find out”).


The humanity of the Giro Captain facilitates the broaching of otherwise severe subjects, Starvation is an ever-present threat, and he gets only third options on Max’s tin of dog food after the dog has had a go. His admiration for Max’s reflexes (“Never seen a man beat a snake before”) serves to highlight Max’s “best of the best” presence, but it boils down to how he plans to eat the snake. The sight gag where Max exchanges his binoculars for the Captain’s mighty telescope is one of the funniest moments in the picture. 


However, seconds later the horror of rape and murder, seen through binoculars, play out on the Captain’s face. He’s a good guy, a rogue perhaps, but one who has not lost his soul. Max has no such response; he is an opportunist who goes to the rescue for the least noble of reasons (“I’m just here for the gasoline”). He even looks as if he’s actually going to slit the Captain’s throat when he first overpowers him and dismisses his tale of plentiful fuel. We are told that the Captain became the group’s leader. And, as unlikely as that seems, it enables an ending where Max implicitly approves the choice.  


We can see a series of archetypal relationships in the picture, but then recent movie influences also show their hand. Those in the refinery have the most ‘80s of pale costumes (because they’re good guys, and also because they’re ineffectual); Luke in Star Wars by way of legwarmers and headbands. The Giro Captain’s relationship with Arkie Whiteley (Whiteley sadly died in 2001) recalls Jaws’ unlikely pairing in Moonraker two years earlier. (Her “This is my family. I’m not going to leave these people. I’m staying. I’m sorry,” is an effective counterpoint to Max’s self-serving position.)


The friendship between Max and the Feral Kid (Emil Minty) evokes Shane, but is perhaps more noticeable for who it influences. I disagree with Kael’s take that this relationship is sentimentalised; it’s played in about as minimalist a fashion as possible. Max tosses the Kid the miniature music box but won’t allow him to tag along. When the kid stows away during the climactic chase sequence, Max is quite practical about sending him out on the bonnet to retrieve a shotgun cartridge.  The Feral Kid allows that, in a violent world, the best thing for children to be is violent. He is adept at killing bad guys with his boomerang, or being the cause of riotous dismemberment.


Crucially, his ringside seat to Max’s high speed escape finds him responding as we, the audience, do; his yells of delight when Max coolly blows a hole in a windscreen, or takes out two punks in quick succession, are also ours. This is canny, reminding us we have taken on the role of awed children, amazed at what the superman can do. Just as Miller was forgetting completely all the advances in his storytelling style in Thunderdome, the likes od Spielberg (in Temple of Doom) and Cameron (in Aliens), influenced by Miller, were introducing unsentimentalised younsters in an adult environment where they needed to be treated without kid gloves.


The rest of the good guys amount to little more than a few choice words or actions, but they’re enough to leave an impression. The two mechanics who communicate in tandem, Syd Heylen’s old ex-military buffoon (“I’ll talk to the Humungous. He’s a reasonable man”), Virginia Hey’s Amazonian (who fulfils the role of the woman who admits she was wrong about Max, and then dies as Max has no room for women in his existence), and Michael Preston, as Pappagallo. 


Preston is the picture’s Prentis Hancock, a more memorable face than he is a gifted performer. Pappagallo’s demise is particularly needless, on the receiving end of a remarkably well-thrown trident from Lord Humungus (how he got that angle?) Revisiting the picture any number of times does rather show that, as expert a juggler as he is, Miller couldn’t keep up for everything, and we barely see Pappagallo in the chase until he is required to die.


The bad guys wear black (leather) of course, and anticipate the shoulder pads fad by several years; some of them even wear black assless chaps (Vernon Wells’ Wez, who also sports Adam Ant post-punk white stripes; Wells would be particularly memorable as Mr Igoe in Innerspace a few years later). Kjell Nilsson as Lord Humungus can’t compete with the Toecutter for overall impact, but he still exhibits more than his share of oratory prowess, if fairly one-note (“I am gravely disappointed. Again you have made me unleash my dogs of war”), although some of this is more Nilsson’s delivery than the lines themselves (“You disobey me. You puppy”). 


Apparently Mad Max’s roasted Goose was initially considered as a possibility for Lord Humungus, with the burnt scalp a legacy of this. Miller conjectured that the Humungus was a former military officer and Pappagallo might have been in the same unit. The Goose line of thinking can be traced to the Campbell-Lucas Vader mythology, but on blalance it’s for the best that Miller sufficiently frees Max from his past, except in psychological terms.


With the Humungous and Pappagallo set up as opposing leaders, Max spars with Wez (in particular, there is the encounter in the compound, where Max makes it to the flamethrower and Wez threatens him; “You! You! You can run but you can’t hide”). Wez is a force of nature, such that he is eventually chained up by the Humungus (“Be still my dog of war”) for not obeying orders (racing off after Max). Miller is clearly interested in hierarchies among the lawless, as Johnny is also reprimanded and counselled by the Toecutter in Mad Max. Ultimately, though, Max ends up playing chicken with the villain once more, and the chicken comes out of it worse.


Toadie: Greetings from The Humungus! The Lord Humungus! The Warrior of the Wasteland! The Ayatollah of Rock and Rolla!

The design of the gang is nothing if not idiosyncratic. Leather clad punks, they come across as omnisexual fugitives from a S&M fetish party. The closest they have to a human face (although Wez is allowed particularly malevolent moment of grief for his fallen boyfriend) is Toadie (Max Phipps), the sad face of the beleaguered and bullied weakling. Dismissed, ridiculed, and spurned by those around him, he wears the sickly smile of one attempting to please those who beat upon him. We see Toadie smothering a victim who is interrupting the Humungus’ speech, and, most defining, he attempts to catch the Feral Kid’s boomerang, losing his fingers to peals of laughter from the Humungus’ forces. His response encapsulates him, as he raises a pained smile in recognition of the joke.


Miller needs only bold definitions for his supporting characters – and indeed for his main character – as all is stripped down to basics. It might be this that caused him to bring Ogilvy on Thunderdome, although having watched that film again it’s mystifying why he would think it necessary (now, if he had moved straight onto Lorenzo’s Oil… with Max after the oil). That said, it’s the chases that define Mad Max 2, and Miller’s flair has moved on significantly from the original picture. He keeps his camera low, or high, taking full advantage of the anamorphic lens for framing and perspective. Max’s appropriated truck screams down the road past the camera, and then, a few seconds later, the gyrocopter follows from above. The gyrocopter provides the opportunity both for comedy (the Captain loses control after a pot shot) and poetry (the unconscious Max, framed high above the wilderness).


The kinetic fury of the movie remains undiminished 30+ years later, and the climactic tanker chase is a masterpiece of sustained action. That said, there are a few holes in the fabric of the piece. The use of under-cranked camera to speed up vehicles at some points is a little distracting (simply because it just isn’t done any more, and was fading fast in 1981). It isn’t as overt as in its predecessor, but it emphasises Miller’s rough-and-ready roots and learning curve (I’m fine with the nitro bit, however).


Miller has also not wholly eschewed the exploitation influence for something more aesthetic. There’s still a roughness that lurches against the (well, relatively) sunnier tone prescribed by humour and poetic might. For every queasy response to an atrocity, we have a tent ripped away, sped-up, to reveal a couple en flagrante, or a mechanic flattened under a de-jacked car.  There’s also the use of montage, irresistible in the opening monologue, less so when we see a burning alive with the Humongus miming pronouncements over dissolves, to a bombastic piece of scoring. It’s kind of brilliant, but also tremendously cheesy.


I’ve mentioned a few of the influences on the picture, but it’s probable that it informed the Friday 13th series’ villain (the Humungus’ headwear), as well as everything from Duran Duran’s Wild Boys to wrestling. Its pop culture legacy is immense (Neil Marshall’s lamentable Doomsday is best avoided), and it ensured Miller got the gig on Twilight Zone – The Movie, from a very impressed (and jealous?) Spielberg. It’s ironic then, that, to date, Miller hasn’t equalled Mad Max 2 with anything he’s subsequently made or produced.


The Spielberg comparisons that have persisted in respect of Mad Max 2 are worth noting, and, I think, rather superfluously preferential. Kael commented “And his chase sequence with Max driving an oil truck makes the comparable truck chase in Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark look lame – as Spielberg, who has expressed admiration for Miller, might be the first to acknowledge”. I doubt it, as that chase in Raiders is outstanding, and part of an extended fight sequence (the plane, remember?) that remains a dazzling piece of craftsmanship. But it was clearly popular to rain blows in favour of this new pretender to the throne, as Time Out was at it too; “Miller’s choreography of his innumerable vehicles is so extraordinary that it makes Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark look like a kid fooling with Dinky Toys”. I would say, I hope the ‘berg sees Fury Road and is inspired to less lofty and more adventuresome roots, back when he was a more interesting filmmaker.


Kael admired Miller’s filmmaking accomplishment, referring to it as “terrific junk food” but rejected his mythologising, and the picture, as a “cultural compost heap”, “for boys who want to go around slugging each other on the shoulder and for men who wish that John Wayne were alive and fifty again”. It wasn’t like Kael to be witheringly reductive about the appeal of movies she didn’t get, of course (she presupposes and dismisses those who consider it to have any depth). She may have a point in respect of masculine, heroic iconography in fiction generally, but it is to miss the target completely if she needs to equate appreciation with endorsement of the morality of a hero or tale (something she would never have done for many pictures she feted).


Adult Feral Kid: And the Road Warrior? That was the last we ever saw of him. He lives now only in my memory.

Kael’s point seems to be that there is nothing going on beneath the surface of Mad Max 2, even though Miller’s film is all about that surface level of myth, stripped down (she partially acknowledges this, noting its “air of intelligence”). Kael was nothing if not wonderfully provocative, however, even when you sense she is working her argument up from feeling left out from the general acclaim of her fellow critics. There’s a reason Mad Max 2 endures in spite of its creaks (in that respect it shows its years much more than Raiders of the Lost Ark, which Kael also begrudged). Two, actually. It succeeds in its goal of mythologising its hero in a manner movies forgot almost as quickly as Spielberg and Lucas had reminded them and foregrounded such devices (they were as guilty of collapsing their successes with sequels that fell victim to revealing too much). And, it is grand, physical, stunt driven movie making, dynamic and vigorous, a stark contrast in the current era that has been buried under CGI and augmentation. 


At the climax of Mad Max 2, Max stands alone on the road, the camera leaving him in its wake. This is how Fury Road really ought to end. It sums up the character; the endless road, Max’s arena of expression, set against his inescapably solitary existence.