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Summer Series 2: The Karate Kid
Unlike the first franchise in this summer’s experiment, the Karate Kid is a franchise I was intimately familiar with as a child. I don’t know if anyone my age couldn’t recite the first movie by rote, and I know I watched the second one dozens of times over the years as well. I don’t quite remember the third one, although I’m sure I saw it at least once, and I’ve never seen The Next Karate Kid at all, so that will be an adventure. I know there was a remake a few years ago starring Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith. I’m not counting it, as it’s obviously a total reboot and therefore not part of the original series, and also Jaden Smith is the most pretentious thing outside of a cologne commercial I’ve ever seen.
The Karate Kid (1984)
Director: John G. Avildsen
Writer: Robert Mark Kamen
Cast: Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita, Elisabeth Shue, Martin Kove, Randee Heller, William Zabka
Thoughts: As I said, I watched this movie a lot when I was a kid, but I haven’t seen it in years. When the opening credit sequence began, with Daniel Larusso (Ralph Macchio) and his mother Lucille (Randee Heller) loading up a station wagon in New Jersey to move across the country to California, I didn’t remember it at all. I was a bit taken aback, but once the dialogue started it all started clicking back, I found myself anticipating the lines before they started. There’s something great about watching an old movie for the first time in a long time. It’s kind of like coming home.
Anyway, the story is pretty universally known at this point – Daniel moves to a new town and falls for a girl named Ali (Elisabeth Shue). Ali’s creepy ex-boyfriend Johnny Lawrence (perennial 80’s movie douchebag William Zabka) beats him up using the skills he learned from his Karate sensei, John Kreese (Martin Kove). Just when things seem darkest, Daniel meets his apartment complex’s handyman, Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita, in a genuinely iconic performance), who reluctantly takes Daniel under his wing and begins teaching him to defend himself.
I forgot just how long the build-up was in this movie. Daniel’s troubles take up an enormous chunk of the beginning, and in fact, he encounters Mr. Miyagi several times before he finds out the old man is a Karate master. Until that point, it’s about building the relationships between Daniel and his mother and Daniel and Ali, both of which work well. Maccho and Heller have great mother-son chemistry, with her gentle nagging and his quiet frustration rubbing each other just the wrong way. It’s also a more honest relationship than you see in a lot of movies – it seems like most of the time parents and children in cinema either have a flawless connection or are at each other’s throats with nothing in-between. Here it’s clear that Daniel and Lucille love each other deeply, but at the same time, the move west has caused undeniable and unavoidable friction between them. Ali is kind of a typical 80s teenager, at least for a PG movie and not a slasher flick, but part of that is due to Elisabeth Shue. Between this movie and Adventures in Babysitting, she was every 80s boy’s childhood crush at some point.
As this is going on, we see Daniel and Miyagi starting to bond. Miyagi helps him several times, teaches him how to trim a bonsai tree, makes him a disguise so he can go to the Halloween dance without being pulverized… and then the ass-kicking begins. Morita’s performance here, even 30 years later, is absolutely flawless. He’s a good man, a kind man, but a man who has seen enough violence and doesn’t want to see any more. Even when he sees Daniel practicing karate from a book, even when he sees the results of one of his beatings, it’s not until he has to step up and defend Daniel from nearly getting killed by a whole mob of Cobra Kai that we get any hint of the fierceness he’s capable of. And it’s only when Daniel practically begs him that he agrees to teach his young friend to fight for himself.
Plus he was more than capable of holding his own against the youngsters. Morita was 52 when this movie came out, but he played the character as that sort of wizened, ageless Asian character that seems to carry around an age that transcends his body. That’s why it’s so awesome to see him beat the crap out of William Zabka in such a convincingly choreographed fight scene.
Speaking of Zabka, it’s funny how time can change your perspective on a movie. When I was a kid, I always thought of Johnny Lawrence as the bad guy in this film. And while he’s certainly not a good guy, watching it again for the first time in years, I’m starting to see that Martin Kove’s John Reese is the real villain here. Johnny and his buddies are thugs, to be certain, but they learned to be thugs from Reese. This man is supposed to be a teacher. A mentor. Instead, he’s taken something that’s supposed to be about discipline and control and turned it into a weapon. He refuses to tell his attack dogs to leave the new kid alone, he tries to pick a fight with an old man, and he orders a teenage boy to lay a brutal and illegal hit on another one. That’s way more insidious to me now than some high school punk who beats up the new kid.
Again, because it’s been so long since I saw the movie, I’d forgotten just how 80s this soundtrack is. Virtually every song pumped in the background evokes feelings of elementary school for me, some of them going so far as to cause me to wistfully remember Kids, Incorporated. If you know what I’m talking about, I assume that you, like me, are currently being bombarded by Facebook posts by former classmates talking about an unpcoming reunion and making you feel about a million years old.
We all know how Daniel wins, taking out Johnny Lawrence in the final battle (which is technically illegal, as he hits him in the face, but the judges seem to ignore that – I’m going to assume because they all know John Reese is a jerk). When you’re a kid, this is wish fulfillment at its finest – the boy takes down his oppressor. He proves himself the better man. Every boy my age wanted to be Daniel, every one of us wanted to be trained by Mr. Miyagi. And yeah as an adult it’s easier to look back and see that in the real world a confrontation of this sort probably wouldn’t solve the problem. Johnny wasn’t going to be nice after being taken down in the ring. The Cobra Kai kids weren’t going to leave you alone after you beat them. If anything, it would probably simply escalate the problem. But in Movieland it doesn’t matter, in Movieland Daniel wins and the rivalry is settled for all time. Hell, in Movieland the defeated Johnny actually hands Daniel the trophy.
The real world doesn’t work that way. But man, it’s nice to look back a movie like this one, where it does.
The Karate Kid Part II (1986)
Director: John G. Avildsen
Writer: Robert Mark Kamen
Cast: Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita, Martin Kove, William Zabka, Yuji Okumoto, Joey Miyashima, Danny Kamekona, Tamlyn Tomita, Nobu McCarthy
Thoughts: The Karate Kid Part II begins with a brief prologue that takes place right after the first movie ends. Right after the tournament, Miyagi encounters Kreese berating Johnny for losing, and winds up humiliating him in a fight by only acting defensively, then refusing to strike a killing blow. This was actually an unused ending written for the first movie but not filmed until production began on part two. I don’t know if it was changed at all, but it works very well to bookend the film, providing Daniel’s first lesson in his second adventure.
After the prologue we fast-forward six months to the end of the school year, where Daniel’s life is crapping out on him again. Ali has dumped him and his mother is being sent to Fresno for two months, so Miyagi decides to help him focus by having him build what turns out to be a guest room so he can stay in town. His relief is almost immediately derailed though, when Miyagi gets a letter from Okinawa telling him that his father is dying.
There’s a great moment early in the film when Miyagi is about to board the plane to go back to Okinawa only for Daniel to come running up behind him, having emptied his savings account to buy a plane ticket. This scene demonstrates two things. First, it shows just how deeply the affection these two characters have for one another runs. Second, it flips things from the first movie. In Part I, Daniel was the one who needed help from Miyagi. Here, Daniel is asking Miyagi to let him become the helper. The role reversal becomes plainer later on, but this helps show how Mr. Miyagi mostly takes the protagonist role from Daniel this time around. Later, when Miyagi’s father dies, Daniel tells him a story about the death of his own father, and Morita squeezes out very convincing tears. The student has become the teacher, and it’s done very smoothly.
Miyagi’s arc continues nicely from the first movie. When Daniel was first in trouble, it took an extreme situation to draw him out and you could tell there was a reason he didn’t want to fight. Here we find that reason. Again no matter how much Sato and Chozen provoke him, he doesn’t decide to fight back until it’s necessary to defend somebody else. The first time it was Daniel, this time it’s his entire village in Okinawa that’s in jeopardy. I doubt Kamen and Avildsen (who wrote and directed both movies, respectively) planned things quite this far when they were working on the first script, but the pieces come together very well.
That said, this movie does share a bit too much of the DNA of its parent, almost making it a clone. Miyagi’s former friend Sato (Danny Kamekona) takes over the Kreese role, Sato’s nephew Chozen (Yuki Okumoto) is the new Johnny Lawrence. Miyagi’s lost love Yukie (Nobu McCarthy), the woman who came between him and Sato, has no analogue… but there’s her niece Kumiko (Tamlyn Tomita) to take over as Daniel’s love interest. And just like the original the climax of the film boils down to a fight scene in which Daniel uses a “special move” he picked up from Miyagi almost as an afterthought in order to win.
Chozen, however, is more than just Johnny Lawrence redux. While Johnny was a bully, everything he did in the first movie was easy to chalk up to teenage bravado. Chozen is brutal and far crueler than Johnny ever was. He beats Daniel severely more than once, trashes Miyagi’s father’s house and garden, scams farmers in the town who rely on his family business for their livelihood… he’s an outright criminal. And while it may have been a bit of a stretch for Johnny to hoist Daniel’s trophy and proclaim, “You’re all right, Larusso!” it would be simply inconceivable for Chozen to do such a thing. Even after Miyagi saves Sato’s life and he relinquishes his vendetta, Chozen still carries around that chip, that blow against his “honor.”
But there’s enough that’s unique to this movie to make it compelling. It builds on the characters, particularly fleshing out Miyagi’s backstory, in a very pleasing way. For example, Miyagi tells Daniel that his father took him fishing as a child in 1927. Morita wasn’t even born until 1932, validating my feelings during the first movie about the ageless quality they tried to give the character. The final fight, this time between Daniel and Chozen, is also markedly better than the Daniel/Johnny fight. In fairness, though, in the first movie the fight was a strictly regulated battle for points, except for the judges letting Daniel get away with that kick to the face. This time, Chozen fights to kill and Daniel fights for his life. It’s a more brutal fight, with some pretty good choreography and a finale that bounces back to Miyagi’s defeat of Kreese at the beginning of the movie.
The first Karate Kid would have stood perfectly well without ever having a sequel but The Karate Kid Part II was a pretty good sequel to have.
The Karate Kid Part III (1989)
Director: John G. Avildsen
Writer: Robert Mark Kamen
Cast: Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita, Martin Kove, Randee Heller, Robyn Lively, Thomas Ian Griffith, Sean Kanan
Thoughts: I only vaguely remember The Karate Kid Part III, but I find it amusing that – like Part II – it kicks off with a montage of moments from the first film. This montage also picks up the Part II prologue, where Kreese wound up with a pair of bloody fists after Miyagi refused to fight him. Did the 80s really have that big a problem with people forgetting what happened between installments of a film series? Is that simply something I don’t remember?
Anyway, after ignoring the rest of Part II, Part III jumps ahead in time to show us Kreese, now a broken man with an empty dojo and no students left. He goes to his old army buddy Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith), a millionaire businessman who he owes back rent on the dojo. Terry isn’t mad, though, far from it. No, he wants to plot with Kreese to get revenge on Daniel and Miyagi for humiliating him. Our dynamic duo, meanwhile, are returning from Okinawa only to find that their apartment complex has been sold and Miyagi is out of a job. Oh, and Daniel’s mother has gone back to New Jersey to tend to a sick uncle and he’s been dumped again. I don’t know what this kid was doing between movies to drive these girls away, but he had to knock it off. In fact, when he meets this film’s love interest, Jessica (Robyn Lively), she preemptively breaks up with him by saying she’s got a boyfriend “back home” that she’s going back to after Thanksgiving. Before I met my wife, I always thought I had the worst luck with women in the history of the planet, but watching these movies back-to-back has made me realize I can only play for the Silver in this competition.
Anyway, Daniel again blows his college money for Mr. Miyagi’s benefit, this time helping to open a store selling bonsai trees. This is the same money he just brought back from Okinawa, mind you which means that all three of these movies take place in less than the space of a year. Ralph Macchio was 23 when the first one came out, and still capable of passing as a teenager. By 1989 he was pushing 30, and while he still had a babyface (and does to this day, honestly), it was getting harder for him to pull off playing the “Karate Kid.”
The Daniel/Miyagi stuff is strong, but Silver as a villain is comical. With his greasy, slicked back hair and his casual racism (I never noticed the ethnic slur Kreese used in the prologue of Part II when I was a kid, but I caught it this time, and when it showed up again in the recap in Part III, and again when Silver says it a few minutes later), it’s as if he plucked all the bits and pieces of his existence out of a Bad Guy Catalogue and turned into a generic jerk. He’s constantly turning up in bubble baths or saunas while he wheels and deals, recruiting a ringer named Mike Barnes (Sean Kanan) to fight Daniel as he defends his tournament title. Of course, he doesn’t know that Miyagi has no intention of sending Daniel out to fight again. After all, a big part of Part II was Daniel learning the lesson of what real Karate is, and how it should be used for defense, and that fighting for the sake of a trophy would be stupid, which is why Silver exists in the first place. There needs to be some reason for Daniel to do Karate, or neither of the words in the title would make sense.
Aside from the plot, the dialogue in this film is painful. When Barnes and his flunky harass Daniel and Jessica, the best insult she can muster up is “slimeball,” and the best retort he can summon is “Did your mother teach you that?” I was in middle school when this movie came out, and evidently, so was whoever wrote these lines. (To be fair, Robert Mark Kamen wrote all three movies, but claimed this time his script was warped so much that he walked away from the franchise.) Silver’s plot – which involves him pretending to train Daniel while his hired goon threatens him – is bizarre and pointless in regards to his actual goal. He makes a speech at the tournament about training people with “values,” then sends out his student to beat Daniel around and take cheap shots in full view of everybody, which seems somewhat counterproductive. The metaphor of a bonsai tree standing for Daniel keep turning up over and over again, growing beyond merely strained to obnoxious. And Jessica, frankly, is pretty worthless as a character. This isn’t a knock against the actress – Robyn Lively is actually quite charming – but she doesn’t do anything. She’s not even a damsel in distress, which may be a trite and outdated cliché, but at least it’s a role.
Oh, and Daniel wins thanks to a casually-learned “secret move” yet again.
A great original film, a decent sequel, a weak part three. Now for the capper, the Karate Kid movie I’ve never seen. Is it possible that it could dip from here?
The Next Karate Kid (1994)
Director: Christopher Cain
Writer: Mark Lee
Cast: Pat Morita, Hilary Swank, Michael Ironside, Constance Towers, Chris Conrad, Arsenio Trinidad, Michael Cavalieri, Walter Goggins
Thoughts: Mr. Miyagi is in Boston to get one of those military decorations that the previous movies clearly established were meaningless to him. While there, he drops in to visit Louisa Pierce (Constance Towers), widow of one of his old army buddies. Louisa is having a tough time – not only is she a widow, but she’s raising her teenager granddaughter Julie (future Oscar winner Hilary Swank, but man, you never would have guessed it from this film), who has carried around an anger with the world since her parents died in a car accident. We know this because Julie announces it in some of the most forced dialogue ever written. She could have easily ended the speech by screaming, “THERE! Is THAT enough exposition for you, GRANDMA?” and I wouldn’t have been surprised in the slightest. At any rate, after approximately twelve seconds of movie time Miyagi tells Louisa to go chill at his house in California for a while so he can straighten Julie up.
Julie resists, of course, because there wouldn’t be much of a movie if she didn’t, and she gets mad enough to bolt into the street and almost get plowed over by a pizza delivery guy, which she avoids by jumping on the hood of the car. Miyagi recognizes the “tiger jump” she did, and gets her to admit she learned it from her father. They strike a bargain for him to teach her karate, which comes in handy after she gets suspended for fighting in school – although she was actually just trying to protect a hawk that’s kept in a cage on the roof… look, I know it doesn’t make any sense when I explain it but it doesn’t make any sense when I’m writing it either, so we’re on the same page. With her time off from school, Miyagi takes her to a Buddhist monastery where she learns to respect all life, which frankly doesn’t really seem like it was her problem in the first place.
And that’s the major problem with this film, friends. The writing in this movie is just plain sloppy. Aside from the awful dialogue, there’s the fact that Julie’s early exposition enunciation comes after her grandmother accidentally calls her “Susan,” her mother’s name. That would be a stretch in and of itself, but Louisa and Julie have the same last name, implying that it is Julie’s father who was Louisa’s offspring, not her mother. What’s more Julie’s dad learned karate from Louisa’s husband, who learned it from Miyagi… that feels like a father/son thing to me. More and more, Louisa shouting “Susan!” feels like lazy writing. This is the point where people in the comments will start saying things like, “well, maybe her parents weren’t actually married” or “what if Louisa had known Susan since she was a small child and thought of her as her own” or somesuch. My response to that is: if the movie intended for that to be the interpretation, then damn it, they should have said it somewhere. Otherwise it is sloppy damn writing.
Then there’s Michael Ironside, the bad guy in this movie, as Col. Dugan. Dugan is… it’s actually not clear what the hell he is. Is he an ROTC instructor? A really intense coach? Whatever. The point is, he teaches physical education by verbally brutalizing students, then punching one. Granted, I’ve never been in the military and I know they go to extremes to break their cadets down and bring them back up, but I can’t imagine a school in this country where a teacher who clocks a student in the jaw is going to have their job come seventh period. Not only does he stick around, but he’s training his students to be criminals with absolutely no coherent reason or motivation behind it.
I try to give screenwriter Mark Lee at least a little credit for winking at the fans’ expectations. When Miyagi agrees to teach Julie karate in exchange for doing all the homework she’s missed, he immediately tries to pull the ol’ “wax on, wax off” routine again, but she’s having none of it. Okay, clever. But then his alternative solution for teaching her discipline is having her babysit the hellions next door. Nineties-era feminism, ladies and gentlemen!
I’ll give him this too – although Dugan’s thugs are the antagonists here, the fights don’t really get physical until the end. Julie isn’t learning karate because she’s getting the crap beat out of her like Daniel did, she’s learning it as an anger management technique. (The real violence doesn’t happen until they attack her date after he has the audacity to point out that they nearly killed themselves when they bungee-jumped into the prom.) That, at least, is something different. And there are a few nice moments with Miyagi learning how to deal with a girl, including one rather charming moment where she thinks he’s giving her a karate lesson, but he shifts it into a dancing lesson to get her ready for the prom. Again this is not a great moment for women in cinema, but it feels nicely in-character for Mr. Miyagi, which is sorely needed, as nothing else in the entire movie feels even remotely like the original.
The weird thing is, despite the many, many flaws with this movie, I still think it’s better than Part III. This is different and is trying to do something new, which isn’t a bad thing, whereas Part III was pure rehash and really added nothing of substance to the mythology of the franchise. It’s not as good as the first two, but after Part III, The Next Karate Kid was at least a step up before the series died.
Summer Series 1: Mad Max
Welcome, all, to the first installment of the Summer Series here at Reel to Reel Movies! A few months ago, I was lying around with a lot of time to think, and I started to ponder what kind of project I could bring to the blog this summer. After all, summertime really is the best time for me, as a teacher, to watch and comment on a lot of movies. This led me to thinking about my personal (expansive) DVD collection, which includes a lot of boxed sets and a lot of movies I’ve never seen. As I pondered, the idea finally came to me: I could use this as an excuse to watch and rewatch entire series of films, then discuss the way the movies developed over time. There will not be a regular schedule for this – I’ll post a new installment whenever I finish watching a series, but I’m hoping I can pull off a goodly number of these before the siren song of school lures me back in August.
With that said, let’s leap right into the first series of films for this experiment, a series whose newest installment is still in theaters: George Miller’s Mad Max. Although I was, of course, aware of the Mad Max movies, until a week ago neither I nor my wife, Erin, had ever seen any of them. With the latest installment getting rave reviews, though, Erin suggested that we try to track down the first three and then see the new one. We watched the original about a week ago, then the next two and the new one in a 24-hour period this weekend. Without further ado, here are my thoughts on each one. As always, Reel to Reel is a full spoiler zone, so if you haven’t seen these movies, particularly Fury Road, you may want to step back before you read all the way through.
Mad Max (1979)
Director: George Miller
Writers: George Miller & James McCausland
Cast: Mel Gibson, Joanne Samuel, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Steve Bisley
Thoughts: As I said, this is my first time actually watching any of the Mad Max films, so this is a good time to mention just how much public perception of a franchise can be shaped by its legacy. What I knew going in was that Max was a leather-wearing, cool car-driving, desert-dwelling warrior in a post-apocalyptic landscape. What I didn’t know was that in this movie, the first one, the apocalypse hadn’t actually happened yet. Oh, it’s definitely impending. From the early moments of the film we get a sense of a society on the verge of collapse – but that collapse is still in the future. When we meet Max Rockatansky, played by Mel Gibson, he’s still a police officer, still trying to maintain law and order. The streets of the Australian community he’s trying to protect are under siege, however, by a vicious gang that rides around in the aforementioned cool cars. Their leader, Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) is something of a cartoon villain, not really wanting anything but chaos for the sake of chaos… that’s pretty much par for the course for the villains in this film, in fact.
Honestly, this is one of the rare occasions where (after having watched them all) the first movie is my least favorite in a series. It’s not bad, not at all, but it’s nothing compared to what the franchise would become as early as the next movie. The plot is fairly thin, showing a lead-up to one of those sci-fi dystopias that the movies promise can happen as early as this time next Thursday, depending on if it catches all the lights. The villains have no arc at all, and the hero’s arc is a fairly common, predictable one. Max is a cop who is driven to incredible acts of violence by crooks who assault, maim, or murder everyone who is close to him, including his partner, his wife, and his child. This obviously leads to one of those roaring rampages of revenge that Quentin Tarentino would grow up wanting to emulate. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as it’s done well, and Miller does do it well.
The film was made pretty cheap, but by late 70s standards it doesn’t look stark. There are good chase scenes and plenty of cars and stunts, more than enough for a viewer to believe every dime spent went on the screen. His script works well for what it is, showing pretty clearly that this movie takes place in a world where everything is going downhill. Maybe the best indicator of this is how casually Max’s son, “Sprog” (which is an Austrailian slang term for “baby” – the child’s name is never actually mentioned during the movie) picks up and plays with his father’s gun. I actually had glanced away from the screen at that moment, my attention immediately reclaimed when my wife yelped in terror.
Mad Max works, and it’s an okay movie, but I don’t think it’s anything special. If it weren’t for the fact that the sequels would turn out to be particularly spectacular, I don’t know if people would remember this one very much at all.
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)
Director: George Miller
Writers: George Miller, Terry Hayes & Brian Hannant
Cast: Mel Gibson, Kjell Nilsson, Emil Minty, Bruce Spence, Michael Preston, Vernon Wells, Virginia Hey, William Zappa
Thoughts: The first Mad Max was so forgettable in America that, when the sequel was released, it was only titled The Road Warrior over here, as the studio figured nobody saw the first one and they didn’t want people to get confused. This is actually a rare case of a studio marketing program doing something smart. Not only is The Road Warrior perfectly accessible whether you’ve seen the first movie or not, it would turn out to be part of a trend… none of the movies in this franchise are strictly beholden to one another. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad Erin and I watched all of them, but I’m here to tell ya that you can watch any Mad Max movie regardless of whether you’ve seen any of the others and still get a perfectly reasonable, understandable, and complete moviegoing experience.
More importantly, though, The Road Warrior is where Miller upped his game. He took a character from what had been little more than a mild exploitation movie and turned him into the hero that has largely defined the post-apocalyptic sci-fi subgenre ever since. In this movie, some years have passed since Max took his revenge on Toecutter, and in that time society’s collapse has become complete. With the world in a shambles following what is heavily implied to be a nuclear war (remember, this was 1981, nuclear war was Cinematic Boogeyman Number One), there is no government, no military, no civilization save that what is pieced together by small cliques of survivors. In this movie, Max gets caught up in a struggle between one such group – generally decent people desperately trying to survive by keeping an old gasoline refinery operational – and a \warlord intent on taking their resources for his own.
This would turn out to be part of a pattern for subsequent Max films. Although he’s the title character, he’s no longer strictly the protagonist. Rather, he’s the drifter, the wanderer, the Man With No Name archetype (almost literally – he has very little dialogue in this movie, and I honestly can’t remember if his name was ever actually said out loud) who wanders into a conflict between good villagers and the bullying overlord who threatens them, helps facilitate the real protagonist’s victory, and then wanders away. The only real continuity from one film to the next is Max himself, and Miller is incredibly good with this. The injuries Max suffered in the first film (a kneecap that gets shot, an arm severely wounded) leave their traces in this and subsequent movies, but not in such a way that a first-time viewer will feel like they’re missing part of the story.
The real protagonist in this movie is a little difficult to define, actually, but the role seems to be shared by the “Gyro Captain” (Bruce Spence) and the “Feral Kid” (Emil Minty). These are the two who interact the most with Max, grow the most from having come into contact with him, and in a small degree help him come back a bit from the cold, remorseless man he was at the end of the first movie. This is also where Miller’s storytelling skills first become apparent. Although it isn’t made explicit to people who are being exposed to the franchise for the first time, if you’ve seen the first movie it’s clear that Max views the Feral Kid as a sort-of substitute for his own long-dead child. In that way, Max’s arc in the movie becomes one of redemption, trying to make up for his failure to protect his own family by saving this new one, even if he can never truly join it.
This is also the film where the antagonists evolve from simple thugs to straight-up supervillains. Lord Humungus, so named because in the post-apocalyptic outback there’s no room for subtlety, is a mask-wearing barbarian, heavily burned and scarred. Although he, like Toecutter, is a brutal creature, it’s somehow more believable in this landscape. Once the apocalypse has happened, it’s easy to accept a warlord of his caliber willrise to power… although since I was four years old when this movie came out, I’m not sure if the entire reason that trope is so acceptable is because of the impact this movie had. At one point, I understand, the plan was for Humungus — played by Kjell Nilsson — to turn out to be Max’s tortured and burned former partner from the first film, but this was dropped for some reason. Honestly, I think that’s probably for the best, as that link would have made it far more difficult for this movie to stand on its own.
Of the three original movies, this is the one I think is the best. While the third installment clearly has a bigger budget and a flashier villain, this one has the strongest story. Miller and Gibson communicate volumes with very few words, but still craft a powerful and entertaining study of the characters and the world they now inhabit, while leaving you with a modicum of hope… even if that hope doesn’t specifically apply to Max Rockatansky.
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)
Directors: George Miller & George Ogilvie
Writers: George Miller & Terry Hayes
Cast: Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence, Tina Turner, Frank Thring, Angelo Rossitto, Paul Larsson, Helen Buday
Thoughts: The third movie, which by far had the most impressive scenery and design of the original three, begins with Max being robbed by a pilot named Jedediah. The pilot is played by Bruce Spence. This has apparently caused a bit of controversy – many people believe that Spence, who also played the Gyro pilot in The Road Warrior, is playing the same character again. Others say that the voiceover narration at the end of that movie clearly spells out a future for the Gyro pilot that does not include ever encountering Max again. George Miller himself says that Jedediah and the Gyro pilot are not intended to be the same character, so I’ll take his word for it, but damned if he doesn’t make it confusing by having the only two people in this entire franchise who operating flying vehicles played by the same guy.
Anyway, Max makes his way to a place called Bartertown, where he hopes to find Jedediah and get his stuff back. Instead, he winds up in the company of Bartertown’s leader, a wild woman called Aunty Entity (Tina Turner, who Tina Turners the hell out of this movie). She’s been having a bit of a problem with “Master Blaster,” a duo who my wife Erin has found endlessly entertaining since we watched this movie Saturday morning. Master (Angelo Rossitto) is the one responsible for converting the city’s pig crap into methane, which their civilization needs to keep running, and he’s threatening to use his brutal buddy Blaster (Paul Larsson) to take over. Aunty offers to get Max’s stuff back for him if he takes care of Blaster in combat… in Thunderdome. When Max discovers that Blaster is mentally disabled, though, he’s unable to bring himself to kill the man, and winds up in exile. In the desert, he encounters a tribe of wild children, the survivors of a plane crash who believe Max is their long-lost pilot, who went to get help and never returned. Disheartened when he tells them that the world has collapsed, their leader Savannah (Helen Buday) takes a group to set out and find other people. Max knows they’re heading straight into Bartertown, and sets out to save them once again.
Of all the Mad Max films, this one probably has the most convoluted plot. This isn’t a bad thing, but it does require a bit more effort to follow than the pretty straightforward stories of the first two (or even the fourth, but we’ll get to that). It also takes a long time for Max to get to the true heroine of the film, Savannah, and her little civilization that she’s trying to keep intact.
That said, the stuff we see before we get to the kids is pretty great. Thunderdome (which I really thought would play a larger role in the movie than the one scene in which it is featured) makes for an awesome battle sequence. Max and Blaster, inside the metal dome, are tied to elastic bands and told to kill one another by any means necessary, including leaping up and grabbing the weapons placed in various places in the dome. The fight is well-staged and well-acted, but perhaps most importantly, it feels real. Most filmmakers today would use the elastic as an excuse to have Max doing high-flying superhero kicks and kung-fu moves that would be very difficult to believe in this weatherbeaten warrior. Miller, however, has Gibson and Larsson make moves that are impressive and fun to watch, but at the same time, never cross the border into being cartoonish or outlandish.
Aunty Entity is probably the most memorable villain in the franchise, at least at the time this movie came out, but I think that’s largely due to the fact that Tina Turner plays the role. She does a perfectly good job, don’t get me wrong, but if it weren’t such an out-there casting choice, I don’t think she’d overshadow Humungus one bit. Still, her role and the role of Bartertown are both important – they demonstrate that enough time has passed since the apocalypse that people are trying to find alternative societies, different ways of reconstructing civilization. These are important things, things that demonstrate that the world is moving on, and in many ways they set up the landscape for the fourth film. Of course, I don’t think Miller expected that it would be 30 years before he and Max returned to the outback.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Director: George Miller
Writers: George Miller, Brendan McCarthy & Nico Lathouris
Cast: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Zoe Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whitley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton
Thoughts: After many years of false starts, this year Miller finally brought Max back to screens, this time with Tom Hardy taking over the role. It’s not really clear if this is intended to be a sequel or a total reboot of the franchise, but honestly, it doesn’t matter much. Like I said before, each of the films stands alone very easily.
This time out, Max is captured by a wild group of “War Boys” who discover he has type O blood. As a universal donor, he’s quickly hooked up and used to replenish the blood of one of their own, Nux (Nicholas Hoult), as all of the War Boys suffer from radiation sickness. Their Citadel is run by a brutal man called Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played Toecutter way back in Mad Max and is now returning to the franchise). Immortan Joe not only hoards water and supplies, giving his people just enough to keep them alive, but also maintains a brothel full of beautiful wives. One of his lieutenants, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) sets out on what appears to be a standard supply run, but it is soon discovered that she’s really trying to help the wives escape. Nux takes Max, his “blood bank,” with him as part of the party that’s set to recapture Furiosa, but Max frees himself, helps wreck Nux’s car, and the two of them wind up throwing in their lot with the women in their attempt to escape Joe and get to a “green place.”
This movie is getting all kinds of rave reviews, and I have to say, I think they’re well earned. The past three decades have seen Miller’s skill as a director increase by leaps and bounds, even as effects technology has caught up with his vision. Fury Road includes some of the most spectacular high-speed action sequences I’ve ever seen put to film – crashes, fights on the back of (or side of, or underneath) racing vehicles, and a crazy dude on the front of a car playing a flamethrowing guitar. The design aesthetic has increased as well, with the film still very recognizable as being part of the world of the previous two movies, but at the same time, done with a much higher budget that doesn’t feel wasted at all.
All that’s great, but it would be meaningless if it weren’t for the story and the performances. Tom Hardy’s Max isn’t quite the same as Mel Gibson’s. He’s not as hard-edged or crazy-eyed, but the different feel he brings to it works just as well. If there’s any word I would use to describe Hardy’s Max, it’s “tired.” He comes across very much as a man who has seen everything already, he’s sick of it, and he can’t believe he’s got to fight for his life and the lives of a bunch of strangers yet again. Hmm. When you look at it that way, it’s almost undeniably a sequel, isn’t it?
Charlize Theron’s status as a talented actress is already well-established, but she’s also a fearless one. She proved in Monster that she’s not afraid to get dirty for a movie, and here she does it again, shaving her head and making herself into a battle-hardened warrior woman, believable in every respect. Nicholas Hoult is an up-and-comer, doing good action work as the young Beast in the X-Men movies and a nice turn in the zombie romcom Warm Bodies, but here he’s got a totally different thing happening. He’s a crazy creature – all of the War Boys are – but he’s got sadness and a sense of loss as well. He’s like any person raised in a cult-like atmosphere who is shocked when he sees the larger world he’s been missing out on, and he gets that across remarkably well.
Speaking of the world, Miller has gone out of his way this time to prove that this is a world that has “moved on.” Despite the fact that a nuclear war occurred some time between the first two movies, this is the first time that any sort of radioactive fallout has had a significant presence in the movie. The War Boys are all ill – Nux has even named his tumors – and early on we see Max munch on a two-headed lizard. The death of this world isn’t over yet. What’s more, the backstory we get on Furiosa implies that this world was shattered while she was still a child, at least twenty years ago, maybe more. Even if we accept this as a reboot instead of a sequel, this makes Max — who explicitly says at the beginning of the movie that he was a cop pre-apocalypse — a lot older than he looks. (Hardy himself is two years younger than Theron, for what it’s worth.)
At any rate, the fact that this world has moved on is what allows the main theme of the story to come through. In the last two movies, the struggle for resources was at the core of the plot. Here we’ve got a world where enough time has passed that resources – while still scarce – are at least stable. This makes Immortan Joe’s brothel work as a storytelling element. After all, once food is secure, what is the second most imperative instinct of any animal life? Reproduction, of course. Immortan Joe chooses to pursue that instinct in the most brutal, horrific way imaginable, but this is exactly what makes the story compelling. We can understand what the villain wants, even though we’re repelled by how he’s going about getting it, and we immediately buy into Furiosa (this movie’s stealth protagonist) and her quest to save these women and get them someplace else.
This movie is simply spectacular, easily the best film in the franchise, and I can’t wait to see what Miller has planned for the next installment, which Warner Bros has already tentatively approved.