Friday, September 2, 2016

Awesomely Shitty Movies: Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

Welcome to yet another edition of Awesomely Shitty Movies here at Enuffa.com, where I examine a film that is horribly, deeply, life-wreckingly flawed but for one reason or another I can't help tossing it into the DVD player every so often.


Today the film in question is the third installment of the original Mad Max Trilogy, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.  I'm a huge fan of this series - the inaugural Mad Max is a mercilessly bleak dystopian film with an unrelentingly frantic pace, wherein our protagonist loses everything he cares about and becomes a sadistic revenge-seeker.  The second film, The Road Warrior, is simply one of the greatest action films I've ever seen.  This hugely influential piece of pop culture is essentially a Western set in a post-apocalyptic future, where Max has been aimlessly roaming the wasteland scavenging fuel and food, and lends his considerable survival skills to help a small band of colonists defeat a gang of homicidal marauders.

The first two movies make up two-thirds of a near-perfect trilogy.  Unfortunately, as with many trilogies, the third episode falls devastatingly short of expectations.  With Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, director George Miller stepped back into a Co-Director role after his longtime producer Byron Kennedy was killed in a helicopter crash.  Right off the bat this movie would lack the main driving creative force behind the first two films.  Still there was an interesting story to be told here, and some aspects of it worked quite well.  Let's take a look at the pros and cons of Beyond Thunderdome.


The Awesome

Mel Gibson

None of these movies would work at all without Mel Gibson's thoroughly compelling turn as the emotionally broken Max Rockatansky.  Gibson has lately revealed himself to be a totally crazy person with serious bigotry issues, but it's impossible to deny what an onscreen talent he used to be.  When I first heard they were making a new Max film without Gibson I couldn't possibly picture anyone else in the role (I have to admit though, Tom Hardy's a fantastic choice).  Like Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones or Bruce Willis as John McClane, Mel Gibson was born to play Max.  He brought rugged, taciturn charisma and a hardened heroic quality to this lonely but honorable character.  We're able to completely sympathize with him despite his moral ambiguity.

Max is a BAMF





Tina Turner

When this film came out, even as a ten-year-old I had some concept of how disastrous the casting of a pop star could be as a major film character.  I had pretty low expectations of her performance, but as it turned out Tina was pretty note-perfect as Aunty.  Early on we admire her practicality and powers of persuasion.  Then we come to realize how ruthless she is, and she becomes the primary villain.  This is a well-crafted character played by a surprisingly talented musician-turned-actress.

Yowza.....



Bruce Spence

Bruce played one of the main characters in The Road Warrior, The Gyro Captain.  In that film he's a likable if gangly and extremely awkward secondary protagonist.  Miller then cast him as a similar but different character in this film (Jedediah the airplane pilot), and while he doesn't have much screen time he's still a fun addition to the movie.


Bartertown

After his vehicle and all his possessions are stolen at the beginning of the movie, Max happens upon a settlement called Bartertown.  Reminiscent of Ancient Rome, Bartertown has a very strict, barbaric legal system and, as the name suggests, a barter economy.  The characters that inhabit this extremely creative setting are all colorful and interesting, and I'd have loved to see the inner workings of Bartertown explored further.


Thunderdome

The centerpiece of the movie is probably the epic Thunderdome duel.  Essentially a giant steel cage, the dome is a post-apocalyptic Colosseum in which two participants fight to the death (The catchphrase of this film as you might recall was "Two men enter - One man leaves").  Max and his gigantic foe Blaster are strapped to bungee harnesses and given access to a dozen or so deadly weapons, including a giant mallet, a mace, battle axes, and a chainsaw.  While the fight is a tad cartoonish, it's a lot of fun to watch and in some ways resembles an 80s wrestling match.  Some blood in this scene would've helped though.

Do the spectators have to sign a release form in case they get stabbed?


The First Half

In general I really enjoy the first half of this movie.  Max wanders into Bartertown, gets hired by Aunty to kill Blaster so she can control every aspect of the city, and they fight in the Dome.  When Max has a change of heart and refuses to kill Blaster, he gets exiled to the unforgiving desert and left for dead.  This is all entertaining stuff that fits the tone of the first two movies, and I really wanted to see more of this meticulously assembled universe.  Plus the idea of Max as a hired assassin was an interesting wrinkle added to his character.


Now for the stuff that didn't work.


The Shitty

Master

If Blaster is the muscle of Bartertown's underworld refinery, Master is the brain.  A diminutive tyrant, Master rides on Blaster's shoulders and wields his enormous counterpart's superhuman strength as a political weapon, threatening Aunty with cutting off the town's fuel supply if she doesn't comply with his every demand.  In concept this is one half of a very compelling villainous character.  In execution however Master is unbearably annoying, speaking broken English almost the entire movie, with a vexing, nasal vocal timbre.  I originally assumed the purpose of his poor grammar was so the simpleminded Blaster could easily understand his commands, but at one point long after Blaster's death he does it again.  At any rate, Master is positioned as a villain early in the film, grating on Aunty's (and our) nerves with every monosyllabic line he utters.  But after Thunderdome we realize Aunty is actually the baddie, and Master suddenly becomes the sympathetic victim of political manipulation.  The problem is he's still a bothersome little toad and I couldn't bring myself to root for him.  Maybe it was a problem with casting.  I bet Kenny Baker would've made us like him.

"Dude, quit playin' bongos on my helmet!"


Score

There really isn't anything wrong with this score, per se, but it doesn't come anywhere near stacking up with Brian May's superb scores for the first two movies.  The music from the first Mad Max featured a hectic, driving pace that conveyed a palpable sense of the world flying apart at the seams.  Mad Max 2's score had a more world-weary feeling of melancholy, matching Max's burned-out desolation.  Maurice Jarre's score for the third film would've been fine had it not followed two epic pieces from his predecessor.  Unfortunately Brian May's musical presence is greatly missed here.


Tone

The first two films are both very dark pieces of work.  Mad Max takes place at a time where society is breaking down and the lawless have begun to take over.  Max's grossly underfunded police unit is ill-equipped to combat the terroristic biker gangs, and in the process everyone Max cares about is taken away from him.  At the end of the movie he has become exactly what he feared, a roving outlaw completely detached from civilization.  The Road Warrior, while also very dark, violent and intense, ultimately results in a redemption of sorts for Max.  He comes to care about the inhabitants of an oil compound and agrees to fight for their survival, in a way taking up his old mantle of Law Enforcement Officer.  While he stubbornly remains a wandering loner, for a little while his life has purpose again. 

But much of the third film completely deviates from the tone of the first two, instead going for pretty cheap laughs for most of the second half.  The climax of this movie is like a very weak echo of the Road Warrior, with Max driving a large getaway vehicle while the bad guys give chase.  But where the Road Warrior's extended finale is a masterfully sustained action sequence, Thunderdome's is a goofy, barely exciting bit of clutter that, thanks to a barrage of unfunny humor, resembles Looney Tunes more often than not.  Maybe George Miller just couldn't bring himself to make another heavy R-rated action film, but the shift in tone from The Road Warrior to Thunderdome is really quite jarring.


Ironbar

The Road Warrior featured a badass, iconic secondary villain in the form of Wez, the mohawked loose cannon who frequently goes into business for himself and eventually has to be chained to his boss's car as punishment.  Wez behaves like a rabid dog and is a major threat to the heroes at every turn, stealing the movie with his unpredictable, acrobatic antics.  In Thunderdome the filmmakers clearly tried to recapture that magic with Aunty's henchman Ironbar, who like Wez has an odd fashion sense and is portrayed as the most barbaric of the bunch.  But it doesn't work.  He's nowhere near the menacing figure of Wez and in the second half just becomes over-the-top comic fodder.

You sir are no Wez.


The Second Half

For me the movie starts to fall apart when Max is rescued by the tribe of kids.  They mistake him for the captain of a downed jetliner whose crash their ancestors survived, and they think he can fix up the plane and fly everyone back to civilization.  He carefully tries to explain that they have the wrong guy and there's no civilization to fly back to, and that they have a good thing going in this lush oasis they've discovered.  But about half these ungrateful little brats sneak off in the night toward Bartertown and now Max has to go save them from themselves.  As with Master, I found most of these damn kids massively irritating (particularly the way they talk) and like the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi, their presence struck me as a hamfisted attempt to appeal to the audience's appreciation of cuteness.  I was generally too annoyed with them and their refusal to listen to the one guy who's seen the outside world to empathize with their characters.  I mostly felt sorry for Max, who was now saddled with playing nursemaid to these fools.  The last 45 minutes of the movie deals with the fallout from these pre-adolescent dipshits leaving their picturesque, luxurious sanctuary in search of a mythical city, based on a bunch of old ViewMaster slides their parents left them.  If we think the protagonists' actions are misguided and wrong it's hard to become emotionally invested in their quest.



Nitpicks

-After Savannah the other kids sneak off in the night and Max catches up with them, he decides that rather than heading back to the oasis they need to proceed to Bartertown, claiming "It's our only chance."  But it's never made clear why.  Yeah I know one of the kids got swallowed up by the desert, but Max also warned them earlier about what a horrible place Bartertown was.  Why couldn't they have turned back and carefully made the trip home?

-Upon arriving back in Bartertown Max makes it a priority to find Master so he can help them, but once they rescue the little guy he's never used for that purpose.  In fact I don't think Master has another line of dialogue in the movie after that.

-During the climax our heroes board Jedediah's airplane to make their getaway, but with the bad guys' vehicles approaching Jed claims there isn't enough runway for them to take off.  Umm, the terrain is pretty flat as far as the eye can see, couldn't you just fly in a different direction where you won't crash into Aunty's army?

-Between them and us....there's not enough runway.
-.....Go around, asshat.

-On the same subject, Max decides to sacrifice himself to create enough space for them to take off, which will presumably result in his untimely demeeze.  But he survives the crash, and then Aunty opts not to kill him either.  So my question is, why do our heroes in the plane not make any attempt to come back for him?  I guess they assumed he bought it, but then in the epilogue when Savannah is telling their story to the new kids, she implies there will come a day when Max comes home.  So she's clearly allowed for the possibility that he survived his selfless act.

-And again, why did they need to fly around for days looking for the remains of a city no one knew for sure would still exist when THEY HAD A BEAUTIFUL OASIS RIGHT THERE!



Conclusion

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is most certainly not without some merit.  Once again Miller and co. have created an intricately detailed universe that feels real and invites deeper exploration, while populating it with memorable, lively characters that are largely fun to watch.  Unfortunately with this film the story takes a fairly abrupt turn that's a) not all that interesting and b) strays so far from the tenor of the first two movies that this film feels unworthy of being the series finale.  Were the characters and the first half of the story not so promising, Beyond Thunderdome would likely belong in the This Movie Never Happened bin with Star Trek V, Crystal Skull, and the Star Wars prequels, and I could just ignore it completely.  Sadly it never achieves the greatness of the first two movies, nor the awfulness of many of cinema's more routine sequel tripe.  So in limbo it shall stay, or as we pronounce "limbo" here, Awesomely Shitty Movies!

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