Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)

2015 #125
George Miller & George Ogilvie | 107 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | Australia / English | 15 / PG-13

The third (and, for 30 years, final) Mad Max movie sees the titular post-apocalyptic drifter (Mel Gibson) rock up at last-outpost-of-humanity Bartertown in search of his pilfered car and camels. Max finds himself dragged before the town’s ruler, Aunty (Tina Turner), who has a job for him: kill the mutinous overseer of the city’s power supply, Master Blaster. As payment, she’ll arrange for the return of his belongings. The only conditions are he can’t reveal Aunty has employed him, and he has to do it in a fair fight in the town’s arena of combative justice — the Thunderdome. And then the story goes beyond that, funnily enough.

Writer/director/creator George Miller hadn’t intended to make a third Mad Max film, but when he conceived a story about a man stumbling across a gang of kids in a post-apocalyptic world, someone suggested that man should be Max, and Beyond Thunderdome was born. That might explain why the end result feels a bit like two different movies stuck together: the very Mad Max-y first part in Bartertown awkwardly transitions into the society-of-kids segment, before the two clash for a Mad Max 2-emulating chase-through-the-desert climax. It might not make for the smoothest throughline — the movie almost stops and starts again — but at least it exposes us to a different facet of the series’ post-apocalyptic Australia.

Not everyone agrees; indeed, I hadn’t realised quite how poorly regarded Beyond Thunderdome was by many fans (though not critics, who generally liked it). Reading up, there are some genuine criticisms — like that stop-start plot, or the kids’ cod-babyspeak dialogue — but an awful lot of it boils down to childish “it’s a PG-13 and I wanted R-rated violence” reactions. Which is kinda ironic. I have to say, I didn’t even notice the change in level until I read those comments afterwards. The film still reaches a 15 certificate in the UK, so clearly it isn’t toned down that much. And the lack of visible blood doesn’t mean it lacks creativity: Roger Ebert described the Thunderdome duel as “the first really original movie idea about how to stage a fight since we got the first karate movies”, and he may well be right.

The changes do stretch beyond the level of violence, with a slightly slicker feel to the filmmaking. This is also viewed negatively, many attributing it to a reported influx of US funding that also led to the PG-13 and the casting of Tina Turner. Personally, I saw it more as part of Miller’s development as a filmmaker: Mad Max 2 is appreciably ‘slicker’ than Mad Max, after all. Some call Beyond Thunderdome “Indiana-Jones-ified”, though. I can see the similarities, but I didn’t find it so different from the previous Max film that it really bothered me.

And from a very personal, very 2015 point of view, Mad Max 2 has already earmarked itself a place on my year-end top ten, and if Fury Road lives up to the hype then it will surely prebook a slot too, so it’s probably for the best that Beyond Thunderdome isn’t quite up to that standard or my top ten would look a little bit weighted.

Nonetheless, I very much enjoyed Beyond Thunderdome. The Bartertown stuff works incredibly well, and a community of children who survived the apocalypse without an adult influence is also an interesting concept. It feels a bit like two Mad Max short stories that have been forced to coexist because neither was enough to sustain an entire feature, but at least neither part feels unduly padded, meaning the narrative keeps on rolling. It doesn’t hit the same heights as the exceptional Mad Max 2 — especially with a climax that invites a direct comparison, and is good but not as good — but, as a post-apocalyptic action-adventure movie in its own right, it’s a good film.

4 out of 5

The fourth Mad Max movie, Fury Road, is released in the UK on digital platforms today, and on DVD and Blu-ray on October 5th.

The Expendables 3: Extended Version (2014)

2015 #77
Patrick Hughes | 131 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & France / English | 15

The Expendables 3Oscar-nominated screenwriter Sylvester Stallone continues his examination of masculinity and machismo amongst older men in this trilogy-forming instalment of his Expendables franchise.

You think I’m joking… because I am. But there is actually an element of that in this latest action-fest, as the leader of the titular band of mercenaries, Barney Ross (Stallone), chooses to retire his team of ageing soldiers (Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, and new re-recruit Wesley Snipes) after one of their number is put in critical condition, and replace them with younger models (Kellan Lutz, Victor Ortiz, Glen Powell, and Ronda Rousey). It’s all in aid of capturing the team’s latest target, international arms dealer Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), who Ross thought he’d killed years ago…

That said, if you’re looking for any commentary on… well, anything… you’re going to have to read it in there yourself, because co-writers Stallone, Katrin Benedikt and Creighton Rothenberger, and director Patrick Hughes (now attached to The Raid remake, incidentally) are more focused on providing the simple ’80s-throwback action thrills and bad one-liners that genre fans expect from The Expendables. There’s certainly an abundance of both, to varying degrees of success: there are plenty of lines delivered in a knowing way that don’t seem to contain even a trace of humour, while the plot is naturally built to string together the combat scenes.

Fears about the PG-13 rating — lower than the R of the first two, in a misguided attempt to improve the box office — are largely misplaced. Well, unless you really like CGI blood spatters (there are none, not even added in for the ‘unrated’ longer cut) or other such special effects. The action choreography is fairly slick, Mogadishu actionthough occasionally obscured by camerawork and editing that turns it into a cacophony of violence. The Blu-ray release helps expose this: the special features include an extended version of Statham’s main battle from the climax, and in that focused form you can see how it’s been carefully constructed and designed. In the film itself, it’s chopped up into ten-second chunks and intercut with everyone else’s duels. It becomes like an impressionistic painting of shooting, punching, kicking, stabbing, running, jumping… It’s a war, as the now-double-sized team of heroes takes on a literal army, and some will revel in the over-the-top-ness of it all. The sheer excess does have a certain charm.

The best bits come a little earlier on, though. A car/van/truck chase around the Port of Mogadishu is the action highlight, in my opinion; later, the young team attempt to infiltrate an artsy modern building in a sequence that seems to emulate a Tom Cruise Mission: Impossible film, which is at least a different style for this series. Elsewise, the supporting cast of cameos provide good value — in Harrison Ford’s case, literally, as he replaced Bruce Willis after the latter demanded $4 million for four days’ work. Ford just has to turn up on screen to be cool, though he has his moments beyond that. There’s also Kelsey Grammer as a merc talent scout who seems to have a habit of kicking off whole non sequitur conversations; a bigger role for Arnie, though still on the sidelines; and a pointless appearance by martial arts expert Jet Li, performing no martial arts whatsoever. The new kids are adequate but nothing to write home about.

Parkour-performing blabbermouthThe best addition, unquestionably, is Antonio Banderas. He’s a parkour-performing blabbermouth who keeps pestering Grammer for a job, but no one wants him because he won’t stop talking. And he’s hilarious. Of the 93 changes in the five-minutes-longer extended version (yes, ninety-three), most are split-second action beats, the vast majority during that big final battle, but a handful are more of Banderas just chatting away, and those are welcome. He takes a while to turn up, but when he does it lifts the whole film. His performance is the best thing to come out of the entire franchise. I mean, it’s not a reason to watch the films if you weren’t going to, but if you are anyway…

The Expendables 3 is, for my money, much for muchness with the previous two films. They all have different pros and cons, sliding different elements up and down on the series’ mixing board with various degrees of success, and this third entry is no different. It seems Stallone intends to keep producing Expendables flicks, with talk of who might appear in a fourth outing taking place even before the third was released (Pierce Brosnan, maybe? More recently, ex-wrestlers the Rock and Hulk Hogan), though the box office of this instalment throws that into question: off a $90 million budget, it only made $39 million in the US… but then it did take almost $167 million from everywhere else — surely enough to consider a sequel? Especially if next time they can stop it leaking on the internet several weeks early…

Ageing action actorsI kind of hope they do make more. The Expendables movies aren’t great films — heck, they aren’t even really great action films — and they’re a bit too cheesy and in-joke-y for the own good — and yet, somehow, I can’t resist them, and I’ll be happy to keep watching them for as long as Stallone and co can keep making them. After all, there are an awful lot of ageing action actors who’ve not appeared yet…

3 out of 5

The Expendables 3 is available on Netflix UK as of yesterday.

Mad Max 2 (1981)

aka The Road Warrior

2015 #42
George Miller | 91 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Australia / English | 18 / R

Mad Max 2Roaming the outback of a gasoline-desperate post-apocalyptic Australia, “Mad” Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) comes across a commune-like oil refinery, whose inhabitants are under siege by a brutally violent gang. Max strikes a bargain: he’ll help them escape with their oil, in exchange for a tank full for himself.

I’m not going to be the first to point out that, in terms of its plot, Mad Max 2 is essentially a Western: a drifter comes across a small community under siege and agrees to defend them purely out of self interest. Of course, the whole “post-apocalyptic wasteland battle for car fuel” isn’t such a traditional genre element. But let’s not get into a debate about whether a film has to be set in the Old West to be considered a Western (though my verdict is it does — flip it around: no one calls The Magnificent Seven a samurai movie because it took its plot from Seven Samurai, do they?) Anyway, the advantage of transplanting the storyline to a new time and place is it makes it feel moderately fresh. There’s an unpredictability to who people will side with and when, which, to be honest, is considerably less unpredictable when you spot the genre parallels.

With such a staple story, the film’s real delights are to be found elsewhere. The design work is first rate, whether that’s the scary bondage-themed gang or the array of vehicles that populate both sides of the conflict. The location allows for some grand scenery — I suppose the oil refinery set is quite modest, really, but place it in the middle of nowhere with cars swarming around it like insects and it looks epic. Without meaning to spoil anything, its ultimate fate is definitely momentous.

Mad to the boneThe most memorable part, however, is the climax. They escape the oil refinery, Max driving the tanker — fitted out with weaponry and defences — and the gang give chase. An almighty action sequence follows, a speeding battle through the outback. It feels wrong to just call it “an action sequence”, like that’s selling it short. You get the sense that this is why the movie exists; that co-writer/director George Miller’s goal with the entire rest of the film has been to get us to this point. It’s not just “the climax”, it’s “the third act”, and it’s stunning — the choreography of it, the editing, the stunts, as dozens of vehicles chase each other, people run around on top of them, jump between them… I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to say it must be one of the greatest action sequences ever committed to film. One of the reasons Fury Road looks so good is the trailers seem to suggest it’s this sequence turned into an entire movie, and I’d have no problem with that (maybe that’s just the trailer highlighting the action; either way, even critics love the result).

Mad Max 2 cherry-picks some of the best aspects of Westerns and post-apocalyptic movies, combines them with tightly-constructed, heart-pumping action scenes, and produces a sci-fi-action-Western of the highest, most entertaining calibre. After the first Mad Max, I sort of wondered why the franchise was so beloved. The sequel is the answer.

5 out of 5

Mad Max: Fury Road is in UK cinemas from tomorrow.

Mad Max 2 placed 2nd on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

Braveheart (1995)

2014 #87
Mel Gibson | 178 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

BraveheartI figured I ran the risk of affecting the outcome of the Scottish independence referendum if I posted this review yesterday (because of course I have that kind of reach and influence), but after Mel Gibson’s historical(ly-dubious) epic wound up on my 2014 WDYMYHS list, it seemed too good an occasion to miss. So whether Scotland is about to become independent or not, here are my thoughts on a movie that hopefully didn’t actually influence anyone’s vote…

I say that because Braveheart, for thems that don’t know, is the Oscar-winning story of William Wallace (Mel Gibson), a Scot who led a rebellion against English rule and King Edward ‘Longshanks’ (Patrick McGoohan) at the end of the 13th Century. That much, at least, is true — I think. Y’see, Braveheart has been described as “the least accurate historical epic of all time”, its plot and subplots riddled with changes that go above and beyond the usual tweaks needed to make a coherent narrative out of a true-life tale. You don’t have to dig very hard on the internet to find those errors catalogued, so I’m going to set them aside: this is a movie, not a history lecture; and while I can completely understand the frustration its inaccuracies must provoke in those who’d rather see the truth on screen, it’s not as if rewriting the past is anything new for dramatists (to stick with Scottish examples, Macbeth — resplendent as it is with cold regicide and prophetic witchcraft — is based on history), and we can (should?) view it as an entertainment rather than an education.

Blue da-ba-deeJudged as that, Gibson’s three-hour (near as damn it) movie is a pleasingly traditional epic. Many big films these days are just long, but the story here has scope too — it’s about a war, essentially. And war means battles, which are a particular highlight. The standout is surely the famed Battle of Stirling Bridge — you know, the one where the Scots moon the English. Funny and all, but just a small part of a larger sequence. Gibson has the confidence to show the build-up to the fighting, outline the tactics that will be used, and only then launch into the fray. It’s this measured approach that makes it so effective, rather than the crash-bang-wallop straight-to-the-slaughter style of more recent movies. Due to its notoriety I’d assumed the aforementioned clash was the film’s climax, but it’s actually the centrepiece, pretty precisely in the middle of the film. Fortunately there’s enough else going on (because this isn’t actually An Action Movie) that it doesn’t make things feel lopsided.

A big plus comes courtesy of the era the film was made in. It’s the mid-’90s, still a few years away from “let’s use CGI for everything!”, so it was all done ‘for real’. That means great sets and location builds, stunning scenery that’s beautifully photographed, and swathes of extras in the battles. There’s something much more viscerally exciting about watching a few hundred men run at each for real than watching a few hundred thousand polygons do it. The downside of the aforementioned era is some occasionally dated direction, in particular at least one sequence that goes overboard with the slow-mo, but almost everything becomes dated with time — it’s not as bad as, say, Robin Hood with a mullet from Prince of Thieves.

Evil KingIt also doesn’t suffer from that film’s accent issues. Mel Gibson isn’t an American-Scot (or an Australian one), instead delivering an accent that sounds passable to this Englishman. He believed he was too old for the part, which may well be true, but when the rest of it is so inaccurate what does that matter? He’s a solid leading man and a commanding-enough presence. The supporting cast are an array of recognisable Celtish faces — including at least one Irishman playing a Scot and a Scot playing an Irishman — and, because they’re from our fair isles, of course they’re all brilliant. Best of all, however, is Patrick McGoohan. He makes for a fantastic Evil King, given some juicy lines that are even juicier thanks to his delivery. He may not be moustache-twirling-ly memorable like an Alan Rickman creation, but any scene is enlivened by his presence.

Interestingly, Braveheart’s Best Picture Oscar win was the only time it took that gong — no other award or critics group saw fit to deem it 1995’s best movie. So what’s wrong with it? Well, that’s hard to pin down precisely. It’s a little politically simplistic, with the Bad Oppressive English and the Good Honest Scots, including inventing all sorts of stuff to sway the arguments in both those directions. Plenty of old-fashioned epics do exactly the same thing, but I guess by the ’90s we were demanding a little more nuance. The same can be said of the characters — there’s nothing wrong, but aside from Gibson’s grandstanding speeches and McGoohan’s first-class villainy, the only really memorable turn is from the morally-troublesome camply homosexual prince — and that’s a whole can of representational worms.

Royally f**kedThen there’s that issue of historical accuracy. I know I said we should ignore it, but even if you accept fiction films shouldn’t be slavish history lessons (and not everyone does), how far can they ignore the facts? Often with such films the viewer assumes they’re true until someone says, “actually, I think you’ll find in reality…” Not so with Braveheart: you don’t have to know anything of Scottish history to guess that the face-to-face chats (and more, wink-wink-nudge-nudge) between Wallace and the future-Queen must be almost entirely poppycock (and, in fact, you can drop that “almost”).

How much that matters — indeed, how much any of those issues are a problem — will vary from one viewer to the next. For some, Braveheart goes beyond the pale. It does make for a rollickingly good story, though.

4 out of 5

Braveheart was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2014 project, which you can read more about here.

Lethal Weapon (1987)

2009 #8
Richard Donner | 110 mins | download | 18 / R

Lethal WeaponLethal Weapon comes from another era — an era in which R-rated films were still allowed to be blockbusters. One only needs to look at the classifications attached to the most recent instalments of formerly-R-rated ’80s franchises — primarily, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Die Hard 4.0, both PG-13 — to see how things have changed. Of course, maybe they have just cause: Watchmen, the first proper R-rated blockbuster for a while, has been labelled a box office disappointment (because that’s what $150m worldwide in two weeks is these days).

I digress. Though, my mind frequently wandered during Lethal Weapon — often to Die Hard. This may predate the Bruce Willis franchise by several years, but it’s a testament to the fame of that film’s Christmas setting that my first thought was they’d ripped it off (Lethal Weapon, like Die Hard, begins with a classic Christmas song over an urban setting). And my next thought was, did they not have a costume budget? The film opens with a young girl, lazing provocatively with one tit out… at first, before Donner makes sure to show them both off thoroughly before she hurls herself from a building; and then we find Danny Glover’s Murtaugh in the bath and Mel Gibson’s Riggs wandering around showing his arse off. Nudity is fine in its place, of course, but here it’s so gratuitous that it sets a low tone — to be fair, one the film does little to belie.

More seriously then: the plot is full of holes with great gaps in its logic, especially as it heads towards the climax. There’s also no mystery — the investigation is just an excuse to string together action set pieces and comedic buddy scenes, neither of which are much cop, and most of the story is conveyed in a couple of info-dumps that supporting characters volunteer for no definite reason. The dialogue and performances are appalling — “may I remind you of some stuff you already know, that’s convenient exposition for the audience, thoroughly explaining the troubles of the main character and the scene you just saw”. I’ve seen better episodes of Murder, She Wrote. Their motivation makes about as much sense too — “tell me the truth!” “But they’ll kill my daughter!” “We can protect her!” “No you can’t!” “Tell me!” “Oh OK then.”

The villains aren’t just poorly drawn, they’re barely sketched at all. There’s an early scene where we see how Hard they are, then they just turn up in time for the climax and do little more than get chased around and die explosively, and in the wrong order to boot. At the very end, our heroes capture the one remaining bad guy… and then have a fight. Why? Because they do. And then all the police turn up and just watch this punch-up going on. It’s the thinnest excuse for a final fight ever put on film, and consequently the least tense — none of those officers are going to let the villain kill Riggs, and even if he did beat or kill him he’s not going to escape. There is literally no point to it. It’s appalling writing, and dire filmmaking to have left it in.

Oh, and Murtaugh smashes a car into his own front room for no reason.

Lethal Weapon probably wants to be a lot better than it is. Was it supposed to be a drama about these two cops with any old investigation plot stuck on, or a standard action-thriller with too much time spent on character? At best, it falls somewhere between the two — they’re not real characters (i.e. it wouldn’t pass as a drama if you cut out the thriller), each being made up of several stock Action-Thriller Hero traits; but nor is the plot the main focus, what with it being rather generic and not especially interesting or at all complex. The leads’ repartee and bonding is more interesting than the actual plot, and is surely the explanation for the film’s enduring popularity and three sequels, though to be honest I didn’t get it.

I’d always thought Lethal Weapon must be alright — after all, as I said, it’s had an enduring popularity and was written by Shane Black, who went on to both write and direct the thoroughly wonderful (and underrated) Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (with Robert Downey Jr being fantastic a good few years before his popularity resurgence in Iron Man) — but having seen it, I struggle to see why people like it to any significant degree.

2 out of 5

ITV1 are showing Lethal Weapon tonight at 10:15pm.
Lethal Weapon is on Watch tonight, Tuesday 23rd September 2014, at 10pm.