Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Hey, fella! You're a turkey!

This is Kinemalogue, the cinema blog (it's Greek so that means I'm educated in all the wrong ways).  We will almost certainly discuss things other than movies, from time to time, because there's a lot of things I love and hate that aren't movies and which I will compulsively shout into this vast emptiness about.  But we'll grok that fullness when we come to it.  The primary mission for now is to share thoughts on new, old, and very old movies.

In commemoration of their combined release on Blu Ray, over this troika of virgin posts, I'm gonna tell you what I thought about one of film's most celebrated post-apocalypses, from its humble Ozsploitation beginnings in 1979, through its 1981 breakout into the mainstream and what Roger Ebert (pbuh) infamously declared one of the best movies of 1985, to my hopes for the Mad Maxes to come.

Oh, and: welcome home.  We love you.


Directed by George Miller
Written by George Miller, James McCausland, and Byron Kennedy
With Mel Gibson (Max Rockatansky), Joanne Samuel (Jessie Rockatansky), Steve Bisley (Jim Goose), Hugh Keays-Byrne (Toecutter)

Standing tall amongst the classic films of our childhoods—or adulthoods, or pre-existences, or post-existences, if you can still get Netflix service at the Omega Point—in any event classic films of the late 70s and early 80s—Mad Max has the distinction of being the movie I think I’d most like to see get remade; because despite its enormous importance to its own franchise, to the genre of badass 80s action cinema, and indeed to the culture as a whole (see how Mad Max taught us not to descend into biker barbarism?), it also has the distinction of being only marginally good.

Rest assured, gentle reader, I do not dislike this first outing in Max’ trilogy, and am not unsympathetic to the fact that it is director George Miller's debut effort.  However, to see Max for the first time in perhaps two decades, after dozens of viewings of Road Warrior and Thunderdome, is almost necessarily to be unimpressed by it.

"Can't we just get beyond Thunderdome?"

It’s all the worse when those hazy memories have been replaced largely by cultural osmosis, expository narration in the two sequels, and dead neurons, and you jumble the story’s events into what would have actually made a much tighter, perhaps more interesting, movie.

The film opens with real subtlety on Anarche Road, with the Keystone Kops that are the Main Force Patrol, engaged in a hilariously negligent hot pursuit of the vicious Night Rider, across the surprisingly non-anarchic and well-maintained roads that exist in a future, so sez the trailer, with no civilization.  (Try not to notice the busy restaurant, well-stocked auto mechanic, or the fully armed and operational British Petroleum refinery that can be seen over the course of the film.)  The film proper's opening temporal subtitle sets itself in the more vague, and more difficult to argue with, "a few years from now."

Somewhere in time and space?

But I get it.  The idea is that society is dying, but not yet dead.  The problem is that there are really very few signs of this.  There is crime, sure, but of the kind that has been around since the invention of the internal combustion engine.  A few years from now it looks like it did a few years ago.  Sure, there's a high-speed chase in progress; that's rarely presaged the fall of the empire.  Especially when the cop part of that equation are funded at least well enough to afford their cherry muscle cars and boss fetish outfits—even if their training budget seems to have been spent on amyls and booze.

However, in contrast to his less-than-professional fellow MFP officers, one Max Rockatansky emerges as the only competent and mature policeman in Victoria Province. Made aware of the situation with the Night Rider, he bides his time by not endangering numerous civilians instead waiting until his moment arrives. The comically inept phase of the chase continues.  Suddenly a child wanders into the street.

Hey, I remember what this movie is about! It’s about Max getting Mad when his kid and wife are turned into road chowder. Well, I say, I can’t imagine why I thought they wasted a lot of time!

Of course, this key event actually happens about sixty minutes later, and Max’s enemy is not the seriously threatening power of the state, however post-civilizational, but the gang of hoodlums to which the dearly departed Night Rider belonged. For the Rider is forced into a high-speed crash and dies, and his fiendish friends are bummed because he apparently owned the only car between the twenty of them.

Swearing vengeance are the Night Rider's gang of blood libelous, alternatively-sexual villain-stereotypes of the kind apparently rather en vogue during the 1970s.  For your edification, cf. the gay attempted carjackers in Vanishing Point, and Mr. Kidd and Mr. Wint of Diamonds Are Forever.  Both of 1971 vintage, Miller was a bit late to this particular prejudice party in 1979, long after David Bowie had had his way with Mick Jagger, putting an end to any discrimination against all modes of sexuality for all time, at least in the Western world. This drat-pack's asymmetrically-browed leader goes by the unlikely name of Toecutter, though we never do see if his nails are as well-pedicured as the moniker suggests.

Now, I have a huge problem with these fabulous marauders’ presentation—and it’s not Miller’s depiction of a highly-fictionalized 70s counterculture as inherently debauched and sinister, which is actually interesting as a relic of a bygone age.  But for the moment I want to say I do rather like Toecutter’s gang. They’re menacing enough as characters—their thievery, thuggery, and equal-opportunity sexual battery get more savage as the film goes on, and while there’s perhaps some pacing issues inherent to Max' kind of fitful build-up, it’s not exactly boring to see their pursuit of revenge escalate from pettiness to wanton cruelty, ultimately leading to the burning alive of Max’ colleague and pal Jim Goose. Theoretically, these are effective villains.

And, importantly, are they prone to entertainingly bizarre non sequiturs. In fact, almost everyone in Mad Max is prone to weird non sequiturs, in behavior as well as dialogue. The first act is full of these odd moments: Toecutter carrying around the Amazon free-shipping box that holds the remains of his friend at the train station, and his emphatic and intimate command to the attendant to “Remember the Night Rider!”; Max’ chief wandering his office with no shirt on his back, but a kicky scarf tied about his neck, watering his plants and just Jesse Venturaing all over everything; and, prior to his grisly murder, Goose’s assessment of a denuded man who has clearly just been violently anally raped as a “turkey”--this, way funnier than it has any right to be. Max, however, is one of the exceptions: quiet, stoic, and basically normal (for now).

"You must bring the Night Rider to Mount Seleya."

Unfortunately, since the second act involves Max retiring from the Patrol and going on vacation with his also rather quiet and stoic and basically normal wife Jessie, this alleged adrenaline-soaked ride grinds to shrieking halt. On paper stronger in character work than its successors, the emotional arc of the first Mad Max is reserved and internalized until George Miller decides, at random intervals, to make a u-turn and go for the obvious and broad; and neither of these approaches successfully engage.

“Any longer out on that road and I'm one of them, a terminal psychotic, except that I've got this bronze badge that says that I'm one of the good guys,” says Max. Since there is literally no evidence that Max’ moral edifice is crumbling, either from Max’s actions or from clues in Mel Gibson’s performance, I guess we’ll just have to take this as the blunt yet inaccurate foreshadowing it is. The upshot is that watching Max and his pseudo-character wife, while cute for a moment or two at the outset, is not particularly enjoyable in the generous portions we’re given. And since that relationship isn’t much fun, it 1)isn’t much fun, which is bad in itself and 2)it is meaningless to a jaded near-sociopath such as myself when bad things happen to it.

I probably shouldn't want bad things to happen to it, but I know the boring part won't be over until it does.  And—called it—it’s not until Toecutter and company track the Rockatanskys down and, following an abortive confrontation between the gang and Jessie’s mom that plays more as an episode of Frasier than a proper action scene, finally put the woman and child between the wheels of a motorcycle and that well-kept Ozzie asphalt that things get moving again.

And move they do. I’ll give them that. But:

This gets us back to the key problem with Toecutter’s crew, alluded to earlier, a problem that threatens the undoing of the movie entire: they are all on motorcycles. Max, with access to the resources of the state, has a car. An enormous, muscly, fast, heavily reinforced and very heavy generally fucking supercar. An iconically badass car. A car introduced in a brief but furiously-telegraphing garage scene in act one: Chekhov’s Ford XB Falcon GT.

As a result, Max’ revenge largely takes the form of not looking twice.

You can just take your half of the road out of the middle.

Indeed, the film regrettably relies on Max doing something very stupid during the beginning of the climactic showdown in order to preserve the tension.

The very end is pretty damned solid though, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover Alan Moore owes George Miller a royalty check or two for the virtually identical scene in Watchmen. James Wan and Leigh Whannell of Saw fame reportedly own up to being influenced as well.

Was the map of a violent new continent labeled "Australia"?

Mad Max: yes, a classic by reputation, and a must-see for the fan interested in the origin story, but not very highly recommended on its own merits.  The film suffers from a middling threat, a tragically saggy midsection, and the weak, take-our-word-for-it presentation of the wind-down of society.

A colossal hit in Australia, and even once the holder of the highest ROI in film history, Max had only a limited release on this side of the Pacific, and didn't do well in absolute terms—though of course this might have something to do with the fact its distributors decided the fully-intelligible Australian dialogue was unmarketable so spent what I've heard is less than zero dollars on what is universally considered a shitty English-to-also-English dub. Even so: it was no mistake on the part of Warner Bros. that Mad Max 2 was unleashed on a largely unsuspecting American moviegoing public as The Road Warrior.

Still, as I opened, I close: it’s not bad, and there’s much fun to be had in the stunts and, in particular, the final twenty minutes.

And yet it’s unfortunate indeed that the forthcoming Fury Road is not the prequel/rebootquel as once rumored. So you take the canon you have, not the canon you wish you had, and, luckily, next time we’ll be getting the real deal, with ten times the budget—and a hundred times the maturity of vision.

Score: 5/10

P.S.: what is George Miller’s obsession with 1)wipes and 2)that bug-eyed, nigh-on luxated globe makeup/special effect? Seriously. Director’s signature? They’re all over Road Warrior too. Hell, I like 'em both, I’m just asking.

You're welcome!


  1. I'm glad SOMEONE agrees with me that the original Mad Max isn't an out-and-out masterpiece. I mean, I definitely liked it and I appreciate George Miller to high heaven, but this one is a stepping stone to true greatness. Taken by itself, it really doesn't make a lot of sense. The incessant fan praise is slightly confusing to me.

  2. I just wanna say that "Mt. Seleya" caption might be the funniest thing I've ever seen on a movie review blog, whatever that's worth!

    1. Thanks! Though man, I do not like my old stuff.

    2. Happy almost 10 year anniversary! We should throw you a party!

  3. I know you've partially sworn off your old writing (I understand the feeling) but I landed at approximately the same place as you. My head says 5/10, but I went with my heart on 6/10 (an important one point difference because that's the barrier between soft fail and soft pass for me) just because I kinda like its energy and respect it as the germ of the more compelling stuff down the line, even though it's actually pretty shoddy as a film proper.

    1. Anything I wrote in 2013 is 50% trash and somehow overlong even though it's on average shorter than the stuff I write today. (The John Carter and Pain & Gain ones are... so absurdly discursive, and in the case of John Carter, condescending in a way that revealed more about me than the movie. "LET ME EXPLAIN WHAT A MATCH CUT IS FOR TEN MINUTES" kind of shit.)

      I kinda need to give this legend-birthing first Max another pass, see if the third time's the charm. (Watching it as a young teen after Road Warrior did it no favors the first time, that's for sure, and if I could somehow disconnect it from the four later movies, maybe it's worthwhile as its own thing..)