Wednesday, September 9, 2015

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad Max World

The summer of 2015 will go down as the one where I rediscovered the Mad Max franchise.

On July 15, I watched Mad Max 2:  The Road Warrior as part of a Midnites for Maniacs triple bill at the Castro Theater.

In the early morning hours of August 22, I caught a midnight screening of Mad Max at the Landmark Clay.

Most recently, I watched Mad Max:  Fury Road on August 26 at the Castro Theater.

Mad Max 2:  The Road Warrior starring Mel Gibson; directed by George Miller; (1981)
Mad Max starring Mel Gibson; directed by George Miller; (1979)
Mad Max:  Fury Road starring Tom Hardy & Charlize Theron; directed by George Miller; (2015)

The flurry of Mad Max films is no doubt a result of the release of Mad Max:  Fury Road.  If I had planned more in advance, I could have seen the entire tetralogy this summer.  I remember  Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome screened in a Bay Area theater somewhere this summer.  I can't find the listing now.

Actually, a fifth film in the series has been announced - Mad Max:  The Wasteland with potentially two more after that so I shouldn't be calling it a tetralogy but rather a planned septology.

I guess I'll write about the films in chronological order rather than the order in which I saw them.  I have seen all four films before but I may have seen The Road Warrior before Mad Max.  The Road Warrior was on television quite a bit in the 1980s and 1990s.

Mad Max (George Miller's feature length directorial debut) introduces the character of Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson).  While watching the film at the Clay, I thought it resembled Death Wish.  The setting of the film is left vague.  I think it makes some references to Australia but it has a distinctly dystopian future feel.  Lawlessness is rampant and Max plays a hotshot highway patrolman who is burnt out with dealing with the dregs of society and wants to spend more time with his wife and son.

The film starts immediately with a lunatic called the Nightrider (Vincent Gil) shooting some police officers and speeding away in their car with his girlfriend.  After easily handling the police pursuit, the Nightrider encounters Max on the road and a high-speed game of chicken causes the Nightrider to back down, lose his nerve and die in a fiery crash.

It turns out Nightrider isn't a lone nutjob but part of a gang and the gang has now declared war on the highway patrol in general and Max specifically.  After some preliminaries where Max's best friend on the force is disfigured and Max's wife and child are killed, Max retaliates against the motorcycle gang led by Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his first lieutenant Bubba (Geof Parry).

In hindsight, the film serves to establish Max's conditions (physically & emotionally).  Max's knee brace & limp in The Road Warrior & Beyond Thunderdome are explained by a wound he suffers in this film.  His loner nature is explained by the pain of seeing his family murdered and his own response to those murders.

In the end, Max abandons all pretense of law enforcement and become a vigilante.  As a revenge tale, Mad Max is a solid film.  It's nowhere near as elaborate as the films that would come after it, Mad Max has that Ausploitation feel - murder, mayhem, rape, et al.  The scene where the bikers run over Max's wife & son is iconic.  Similarly, the Nightrider's ramblings over the police frequency radio are memorable.  I remembered both scenes from my last viewing of the film which must have been over 20 years ago.

Gibson is wooden at times but a film like Mad Max belongs to the villains - the psychotic Nightrider, the intimidating Toecutter & the quietly menacing Bubba.  The female characters in the film are, without exception, victims or ineffectual although Max's wife puts up a fight before eventually being run down by the bikers.

Little did Mad Max portend the rest of the series.  There were small signs in Mad Max that look significant with the hindsight of The Road Warrior but for the most part, Mad Max is set in a world which is recognizable to our own.  With a bigger budget and some creative freedom, Miller uses Mad Max as a launching point for his imagination in future films.  The Road Warrior is set in some other world...where gay men with leather fetishes have become marauders.  I guess within the context of the dystopian world of Mad Max it would make sense.  In a world where women are scarce, men resort to homosexuality.

Oil/gasoline is scarce in this film so the world has fallen into chaos.  This was a common theme in the 1970s and 1980s due to various oil embargos and gasoline price spikes.  Max sees the aforementioned band of marauders attack a small group near a functioning oil extraction/gasoline refining facility.  Honestly, it doesn't look anything like the oil refineries in Rodeo or Richmond but that's not the point.  Max makes a deal to return the sole survivor of the attack back to his tribe in the refinery in exchange for one tank of gasoline.

Once in the refinery, Max gets caught up in the war between the marauders led by a muscular man in a hockey mask called Lord Humungus and the oil refiners led by Pappagallo.  Eventually siding with the refiners out of necessity, Max drives an oil tanker to their new location.  This is the highlight of the film.  It's an extended sequence where Max drives the tuck as he is constantly attacked by the bikers.

Director George Miller manages to populate the The Road Warrior with more interesting characters than Mad Max.  Among them are the Feral Kid (Emil Minty), the Gyrocopter Pilot (Bruce Spence), Wez (Vernon Wells) and the Warrior Woman (Virginia Hey).

The Feral Kid reminded me of The Wild Child, a Fran├žois Truffaut film about a child raised in the wilderness and Lucan, a short-lived television series about a boy raised by wolves.  The Feral Kid had impressively feathered hair.  Bruce Spence as the Gyro Captain stole the show in my opinion.  Picaresque and with a toothy grin that would make Austin Powers cringe, Spence is memorable indeed.  Wez spends the entire film in ass-less chaps (with a codpiece in front and a tastefully placed fox tail in back), football shoulder pads and a mohawk.  He was clearly the prime inspiration for the popular 1980s wrestler duo The Road Warriors; Hawk & Animal didn't dress like The Feral Kid or Max.  Wez is particularly aggrieved at the refiners because the Feral Kid planted a sharpened boomerang into his "friend's" head.  Finally, I had forgotten about the Warrior Woman but upon rewatching the film, I see that she probably inspired Tina Turner's character in Beyond Thunderdome, Charlize Theron's character in Fury Road and possibly Rambo's use of a compound bow in the Rambo films.

With The Road Warrior, Miller begins a Mad Max tradition of creating these intricate and detailed alternate realities.  Compared against modern reality, they are ridiculous but within their own context, they are real enough.  The Road Warrior sets the mold that Beyond Thunderdome and Fury Road follow - mayhem in an unfamiliar post-apocalyptic environment where Max, the anti-hero, grudgingly throws his lot in with the underdogs or oppressed.

I've read that the Mad Max series consists of Western (as in Western movies) morality tales set in a punk environment.  The Road Warrior has some plot parallels with The Magnificent Seven but then again The Magnificent Seven was adapted from the Japanese film The Seven Samurai.  I think what distinguishes Gibson's portrayal of Max is his detachment from everyone else; a detachment born out of the pain of losing everyone he ever cared for.  That's neither unique nor original in films but give Gibson/Miller credit for not amping up Max's character.  We later see Gibson's performances of a similar character (Martin Riggs from the Lethal Weapon series).  Two protagonists with a similar backstory and outlook on life played by the same actor but with very different results.  Max is the locus around which memorable maniacs gather.  Riggs is the maniac around which more homicidal maniacs gather.

I can't remember Beyond Thunderdome very well.  I seem to recall it being the least favorite of the three Mel Gibson films.  Beyond Thunderdome received a PG13 rating whereas as the other two films (and Fury Road) received R ratings.

For Fury Road, Miller took the universe of The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome and turned the volume up to 11.  After Mad Max, Miller striped away direct references to Max's backstory and motivations as well as expository dialogue  or narration to help explain the world the audience is seeing on the screen.  Miller continues that in Fury Road but with a bigger budget and almost operatic ambitions.  In one scene, the pursuing army of ragtap vehicles is lead by a truck with six drummers sitting at an angle on the bed play extremely large drums and a guitarist hung from a crane in front of the truck with a wall of speakers behind him.  It's funny and outrageously over the top but yet when I thought about it I guess the setup could be used to communicate orders to the caravan like the drum and bugle corps used to do with armies.  I will say that the flames shooting out of the guitar's neck was a particularly rococo flourish.

It's as if Miller decided to pick and choose from his previous films.  There are brief flashbacks to Max's backstory that seem similar to Mad Max.  Most of the scene involves Max, et al. running a gauntlet in a tricked oil tanker truck similar to the end of Road Warrior.  Miller even brings back Hugh Keays-Byrne (Toecutter) to be the main bad guy in Fury Road.

How to describe the film?  There is a Mad Max Wiki to help but I went in cold.  Max (Tom Hardy) is captured by some warriors (known as war boys) who are pasty white, bald headed and heavily scared.  He is taken to the Citadel which is ruled by Immortan Joe (Keays-Byrne).  The source of his power is the aquifier under the Citadel.  In this universe, water is scarce as is gasoline & bullets.

Between the war boys & Immortan Joe in status are Imperators of which Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is foremost.  Joe has five wives whom he keeps as essentially procreation slaves.  Beyond them, there are a lot of weird looking people at the Citadel.

Fed up with the way he treats his wives, Furiosa smuggles them out of the Citadel in a war rig (a beefed up oil tanker).  When Immortan Joe realizes his wives have been taken he sets out with a motley assortment of vehicles and one war boy, Nux (Nicholas Hoult) takes Max along as a good luck charm.  Max is strapped to the front of a car like a hood ornament.

Eventually, out of necessity as usual, Max & Nux fall in with Furiosa and the five wives.  Furiosa is escaping to the Green Place where she grew up.  To get there, they will have to go through hellacious dust storms and swamplands while fighting off Immortan Joe's war boys and allies.  I won't give away the ending but let's just say climate change plays a role.

Miller strips away all unnecessary dialog and much of what remains was inaudible to me due to muffled voices or background noise.  I couldn't understand Immortan Joe's growl so I probably lost some thing from the experience.  Instead, Miller just shows Max & Furiosa doing there thing, largely without dialog.  I can't recall a single line of dialog from Max.  Although the title was Mad Max, it could have just as easily been Imperator Furiosa.  Sporting a buzz cut & prosthetic arm, Theron commands the screen.  Note:  it seemed as though the more hair you had, the higher your social status at the Citadel.

Miller litters Fury Road with so many flourishes and details that the effect is not overwhelming but actually the opposite.  I started to strip away all my questions and focus on whether Max, Furiosa and the gang to make it out alive.

Among my favorite moments - when war boys begin to use long poles like pole vaulters do to move from vehicle to vehicle during the high speed chase and one of Immortan Joe's advisers is this little person (dwarf?) with a face like a middle aged man and body like a was something straight out of Freaks.

Fury Road was a favorite of the critics at the Cannes Film Festival this year.  Reading not their reviews but articles about their near unanimous praise of the film, I reversed my decision about seeing Fury Road.  Ultimately, the film is a long chase scene but well choreographed stunts, an imaginative setting, Theron's acting and the Mad Max brand elevate Fury Road above the numerous action films I've seen.  I like action films.  I was going to write "I like an action film as much as the next guy" but that's probably not true especially if the next guy is an American between the ages of 15 and 35.  I'm frequently disappointed and bored by action films and that was not the case with Fury Road so I guess that is my ultimate recommendation - it didn't bore me to sleep but then neither did Mad Max or Road Warrior.  George Miller is doing something right with these Mad Max films.

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