Day: July 10, 2012

Mad Max

1979

American International Pictures

Produced by Byron Kennedy and Bill Miller

Directed by George Miller

Written by George Miller, Byron Kennedy and James McCausland

In the “Lethal Weapon” movies Mel Gibson played  L.A. police detective Martin Riggs who undergoes such a severe psychological trauma when his wife is killed that the common held belief is that he’s gone straight flat out crazy.  Insane.  Mad, even.  That’s the main trait shared with an earlier Mel Gibson character: Australian highway cop Max Rockatansky who undergoes such a severe psychological trauma when his wife and son are killed that the common held belief is that he’s gone straight flat out crazy.  Insane.  Mad, even.  In fact, so mad that he’s called MAD MAX.

The movie is set in Australia of the near future after some sort of global disaster.  We’re never told in this movie what the disaster was but the two sequels to MAD MAX make it clear that the world superpowers finally threw down over dwindling oil resources.   Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) is a highway cop in The Outback.  Along with his partner Jim Goose (Steve Bisley) and the other members of the small band of cops known as The Main Force Patrol, they do their best to protect the public from marauding bands of motorcycle gangs that roam the highways, looting, raping, pillaging and just generally carrying on cranky.

The cops are so poorly funded that their headquarters, the ironically named Hall of Justice looks like a rotting pigsty with  only one half-crazed mechanic to keep their vehicles running.  The MFP has a hideously dangerous run-in with a psychotic called The Night Rider who steals one of their souped up Interceptors and leads them on a terrifying high speed pursuit that ends in several civilian and police cars wrecked, an officer severely injured and The Night Rider dead.

This starts Max to thinking that maybe it’s time for him to get out.  He’s got a wife (Joanne Samuel) and a baby boy he’d like to be around to grow old with.  The Goose conspires with their boss, Fifi Macaffie (Roger Ward) to get Max to stay by bribing him with a customized Ford Falcon with a supercharged V8 engine.  Max is Fifi’s best cop and if he loses Max then the MFP is going to be in real trouble as they’re barely holding their own against the vicious motorcycle gangs as it is.

The situation heats up when The Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) the leader of the gang that The Night Rider was a member of decides to wage war on The MFP and takes a horrible revenge on Jim Goose, setting a trap for him and burning him alive while he’s trapped in a flipped over truck.  This decides it for Max.  He turns in his resignation, takes his wife and son and heads north, determined to find peace for them while he’s still able.  But Max is next on The Toecutter’s list of revenge.  And if he can’t have Max then he’ll settle for Max’s wife and son instead.

MAD MAX is a good example of what is meant by ‘grindhouse’.  It’s a straight-up B-budget action/adventure with no other purpose than to entertain.  I vividly remember seeing this on 42end Street back when it really was 42end Street and thinking even then it was pretty damn cool.  I watched it last night for about the 12th time and I still think it’s pretty damn cool.  Primarily because of the highly exciting action sequences.  George Miller knows how to film action.  And he knows how to film car chases.  Back in the 70’s audiences had become pretty jaded when it came to car chases because just about every action movie back then definitely had one, sometimes two and if they could figure out any way possible then dammit, they’d throw in three.  But George Miller really has a way of making car chases so energized that you don’t feel like you’ve seen these car chases before.

And even though I’ve got nothing against CGI, I dearly love action films of the 70’s and 80’s because you know that these are real guys in real cars doing these stunts.  When cars are slamming into eighteen-wheelers at 90 miles an hour or guys go flying through the air to land on concrete and roll for another 50 feet you feel it because you can see it’s an actual human being getting busted up and not a CGI.  It also gives an air of believability to the action because nobody is breaking the laws of physics here.  The fighting is sweaty, brutal and painful.  Especially in the scenes where Mad Max faces down The Toecutter and his protégé Johnny The Boy (Tim Burns) during which Max is shot and run over with a motorcycle.  Max doesn’t shrug off his wounds and get up to whoop ass.  He gets up, sure, but it takes time, it hurts like hell and even back then Mel Gibson was a good enough actor to sell the scene.

This being Mel Gibson’s first major starring role is probably the reason most will want to see a movie that’s almost 35 years old and even then you can see the easy charm as well as the grim intensity that would bring him international fame.  He’s as competent as you would imagine in the action sequences but he’s also amazingly gentle and warm in the scenes with Joanne Samuel who plays his wife.  They have a real chemistry together and it’s not hard to buy them as a young couple in love.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Gibson blows the screen apart but he’s a helluva lot better in his first film than a lot of others I’ve seen.  Steve Bisley as Max’s partner Jim Goose is so full of life and so likeable that you wish he had more screen time.  He’s got one of those grins that you’ve seen before: he’s either just put one over on you or he’s about to.  Either way, you’re gonna let him because you just can’t resist that grin.  Roger Ward is one of my favorites in this movie.  Despite being named Fifi, he’s a towering slab of man, bald as a rock, always chewing on a cigar, wearing a flowing black scarf and telling his boys: “Do whatever you want out on the road as long as the paperwork’s straight!”

Hugh Keays-Byrne does something really remarkable with The Toecutter in that you really get the sense that this is a guy who actually tunes into the wavelength of a world we can’t see.  He leaves the stereotypical villain-type acting stuff to Tim Burns who plays Johnny The Boy as a cowardly bad guy.  Much more interesting and fun is Geoff Parry as The Toecutter’s enforcer, Bubba Zanetti.  He’s the main source of humor in the movie as he delivers some really goofy lines but in a sober, dead-pan manner that I found both utterly hilarious and totally chilling.  He was a character I wanted to know more about as compared to The Toecutter and Johnny The Boy he seems rational, calm and he gives The Toecutter advice that is perfectly sane.  I wanted to know how Bubba ended up with these guys but unless George Miller decides to do a prequel, my curiosity will continue.

MAD MAX was followed by two sequels: “The Road Warrior” and “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” each of which I heartily recommend.  Both movies aren’t just rehashing the first movie.  They continue the story of Max Rockatansky, deepening his character and humanity even as the world slides further and further into barbarism.  Taken as a whole they’re not only classic action/adventure but also a forerunner of just about every adventure trilogy you see nowadays.  If you haven’t seen MAD MAX in a while, treat yourself.  And if you’ve never seen it, why don’t you?  Yeah, yeah, I know it’s not a 100 million buck summer blockbuster but the lack of a budget actually gives the movie a hard and gritty reality that a lot of today’s movies simply don’t have.  And it’s simply just a lot of fun to watch.  Enjoy.

93 minutes

Rated: R

The Driver

1978                           

20th Century Fox

Produced by Lawrence Gordon

Written And Directed by Walter Hill

Some time back I wrote of review of the existential car chase thriller “Vanishing Point” and I received an email from a gentleman (at least I think it’s a gentleman…you can’t always tell just by email addresses) who informed me that he had seen the movie on my recommendation and found it pretentious and pointless and suggested that I watch and review what he considered to be a much better movie revolving around car chases: Walter Hill’s 1978 crime thriller THE DRIVER  I vaguely remember seeing THE DRIVER years ago at 42end Street.  This was back in the day when you could see three movies for 5 bucks and frankly, I remember the other two movies much better but thanks to The Fox Movie Channel I had a chance to see it again recently.  Maybe “Vanishing Point” is pretentious but THE DRIVER takes pretentiousness to an almost Zen-like level to the point where the characters don’t even have names.  They are just identified by what they are and what they do.

The Driver (Ryan O’Neal) is an undisputed professional master of driving getaway cars.  He does not participate in the actual robbery.  He drives and that’s all.  He commands a flat fee of $10,000 up front and 15% of the take.  And he’s worth it because he guarantees that you won’t get caught.  His driving abilities are inhumanly unnerving and he never displays any emotion at all.  The man’s a driving machine.  His nemesis is The Detective (Bruce Dern) who badly wants to catch The Driver.  So obsessed is he with catching The Driver he puts his career on the line by recruiting a second-rate gang of bank robbers to hire The Driver.  The Detective will ensure that the gang will rob the bank and get away then they’ll bring The Driver and the money to a spot where The Detective will be waiting to arrest The Driver, take the money and let the gang get away.  Of course, the plan doesn’t work out and pretty soon everybody’s double-crossed everybody else and the gang, The Driver and The Detective are all scrambling for the half-million robbery loot while The Driver and The Detective play their own cat-and-mouse game of Catch Me If You Can.  You see, The Detective has told The Driver the robbery is a set-up and he dares him to pull it off and get away.  The Driver takes the challenge and the game’s afoot…or awheel, I suppose is a better phrase in this case.

And that’s there is all, folks.  That is all the movie is about. THE DRIVER is probably the most stripped down movie I’ve ever seen.  There’s no characterizations, no background information about anybody given, No extra characters, no dialog exchanged that does not relate directly to the plot, no flashbacks, no nothing except for what is happening right at the moment.  In fact, there isn’t that much dialog.  Supposedly Ryan O’Neal only speaks 350 words in the whole movie and I think that’s stretching it.  Bruce Dern has most the dialog as The Detective and he’s really the main character in this thing as he has motivations and desires that we can understand and even though he’s a bit of a bastard at least he’s a human bastard.  Ryan O’Neal’s Driver is such an emotionless humanoid that we never understand why he does what he does.  He doesn’t seem to enjoy his work and we never see what he does with the money he makes.  He wears the same clothes throughout the movie and lives in a cheap hotel.  He only has three relationships: The Connection (Ronee Blakely) who sets up his jobs, The Player (Isabelle Adjani) a professional gambler who deliberately misidentifies The Driver in a police line-up, enabling him to avoid arrest and his pocket transistor radio.

There’s no point in talking about the performances in this one because outside of Bruce Dern’s, there are none.  This movie is all about plot and Walter Hill, who wrote and directed THE DRIVER cares about nothing else.  This movie is nowhere as good as some others he’s done such as the “The Warriors” and “Streets of Fire” which are both classics and I’d advise anybody to Netflix “The Long Riders” “Johnny Handsome” or “Extreme Prejudice” before this one.

Even the car chase scenes aren’t all that exciting but I liked them a lot because back then when movies did car chases you knew that some fool was actually doing the driving and when a car flipped over, it was because a trained and experience stuntman was doing it and it added a sense of realism.  For sheer exhilaration, none of the car chases in THE DRIVER don’t match anything done today, true, but it works for this movie because it gives it a gritty realism.  None of the driving stunts done here don’t seem like anything that couldn’t be done in real life and I liked that.  After all, The Driver is supposed to be trying to get away from the cops, not showing off how many aerial acrobatics he can do.  The whole movie has a realistic feel to it that is probably the movie’s greatest strength.  Nobody here takes a whole clip of .45 slugs in the chest then drags himself or herself half a mile before expiring.  You get shot and you fall over dead.  End of story.  There’s no meaningless romance between The Driver and the two women he knows just to have a romantic subplot.  These people are involved in a dirty, dangerous business and they conduct themselves accordingly.

There is one really cool scene where The Driver is asked to demonstrate his skill and he does so by proceeding to demolish a car while he and three passengers are inside. They climb out completely unharmed but the car is a wreck and still able to run.  But that comes halfway through the movie and it’s over much too soon.

So should you see THE DRIVER?  I can think of a couple of reasons why you might want to: if you’re a Walter Hill fan like me, you’ll want to check out this early work of his.  Hill is an infuriating hit-or-miss director.  When he’s good, he’s very good but when he’s bad he’s even worse and THE DRIVER is an example of this, especially in the last five minutes of the movie when you’ll probably be screaming at the screen; “That’s IT????” even as the credits are rolling.  If you like Bruce Dern you’ll also enjoy seeing him in this one as he really doesn’t get to play a cop that often but when he does, he makes the most of it.  If you like him as a cop here, check out “The Laughing Policeman”.

But as for THE DRIVER if you’re at all curious by all means check it out.  But if you’re not, don’t worry, you won’t be missing a thing.

91 minutes

Rated R