Thursday, May 14, 2015

Retro Review: Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

 So there's some kind of Mad Max movie coming out this weekend, but I heard it sucks so there's no point in talking about that, right? Why waste time talking about some dumb reboot when we can discuss the true highlight of George Miller's post-apocalyptic saga, the only one to have earned its own dedicated Mystery Science Theater 3000 joke? Of course, I'm talking about Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, and all joking aside, I do actually like it. I know that Thunderdome is the "black sheep" of the Mad Max movies, if only because most people have only seen Mad Max 2 (The Road Warrior) and / or forget that Mad Max 1 (Mad Max) is nothing like its sequels, vehicular mayhem aside. That's okay, because they're kind of right to think that Thunderdome is not as good as The Road Warrior, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have its charms. As long as those charms don't involve the term "Captain Walker".

 There's significantly less vehicular mayhem on display for most of Beyond Thunderdome, starting with the fact that Max (Mel Gibson) is riding on a camel-drawn truck, which he quickly loses to Jedediah (Bruce Spence), who is not the gyro-copter pilot from The Road Warrior* but is another pilot who has a son (Adam Cockburn). We don't even know it's Max right away, but I mean, who else is the movie going to start with? Max has scraggly, long hair, and one of his eyes is a different color after the crash Wez (Vernon Miller) caused in the last movie, but it's still him. He's understandably not pleased that someone knocked him off of his vehicle and took it, so he follows the trail of detritus to Barter Town. If you meet somebody who will admit to liking Thunderdome (as I do), this section of the film is probably their favorite part. It is for me, but that's because I'm a sucker for world-building in post-apocalyptic cinema, and Barter Town is a great example of how humanity reforms itself after collapse.

 Max has to enter with the rabble, because who is he? Nobody. No one in Barter Town cares that he used to be a cop or that he saved a whole community and smuggled out their gasoline from Lord Humungus (Kjell Nilsson) that one time. Those stories don't get passed around until the Feral Kid (Emil Minty) grows up, anyway. To Barter Town, he's just some dude who walked in, just like everybody else. He doesn't have anything worth trading with The Collector (Frank Thring) at the gate, so he has to be a little more, shall we say, persuasive, but you still have to turn in your weapons or get lost. You can keep the flyswatter, I guess. The pilot has to be here somewhere, so Max has one hour to find him. Instead, he meets Aunty (Tina Turner)**, and her goons.

 Aunty likes Max's moxie, and when he dispatches some goons with the knife hidden inside his flyswatter, she's even more impressed. Like Max, Aunty was someone else before, and she senses that he's resilient, and adaptable. Mostly that he's dangerous, which is good, because Aunty has a problem. She likes to think she runs Barter Town, but there's a bit of a power struggle. See, in order to keep the power running, she needs the generator to keep running, and only Master (Angelo Rositto) knows how to keep the pig shit / methane production going underground. Master's a diminutive fellow, but that's why he has Blaster (Paul Larsson) as his muscle. As long as Master Blaster is a unit, Aunty doesn't really run Barter Town. Master runs Barter Town, and if he feels he's being slighted, he cuts the power off to prove it.

 The way that Master and Blaster are introduced leans heavily on presenting them as antagonists, even though there's clearly something about Aunty that's not to be trusted. Max goes down to Underworld, where Master runs everything, in order to learn more about Blaster. If he can defeat him in combat, everything the pilot stole will be returned to him, plus methane. Of course, once he's down there, it becomes clear who has his truck: Master. Max rigged it to explode, so any attempts to repair it have been thwarted. Master draws a hard line with Max, but in the process reveals Blaster has a weakness: high pitched sounds, including a penny whistle that Max has been carrying around. Max takes Aunty's offer and we're off to Thunderdome. Two men enter. One man leaves.

 It goes without saying that the Thunderdome portion is the best part of the movie, not only because it's an inventive, exciting action sequence, but also because it has some of the best examples of world-building in the film. Aunty keeps the citizens and criminals of Barter Town in line by giving them gladiatorial-like combat, provided in a dome they can hang onto. She also gives them easy to remember catchphrases to keep them invested: "Two men enter. One man leaves." "You break the deal, you spin the wheel." Nobody watching Max fighting Blaster seems to know or care about the stakes, and it's not necessarily clear that anyone cares who really runs Barter Town. There's a fight in Thunderdome, and Blaster is the reigning champ. There is, of course, another twist, one that we find out at the same time Max does, that almost immediately reverses our sympathies towards the otherwise loathsome Master. Aunty gets what she wants, even when Max "breaks the deal," and he has to "spin the wheel". Luckily for Max, he lands on "Gulag". It may not be so lucky for us.

 So Aunty ships off Max, on the back of a horse with a paper mache mask, into the desert, thus exiting the "Barter Town" section of the film. Unfortunately, it ushers in the "Never, Neverland" portion of Beyond Thunderdome, which feels like it belongs in a different movie. Mostly because it does: the original concept, prior to being appropriated into a Mad Max film, was about a group of children left alone in the post-apocalypse, who form their own Peter Pan-esque society. It turns out that when you drop Max into the equation, that doesn't harmonize as well as one might think. I'm not opposed to juxtaposing the hardened Max Rockatansky with innocent children, many of whom seem to have completely forgotten about the plane crash they survived (and almost everything else), but the mid-section of Beyond Thunderdome grinds whatever narrative progress there was to a halt. Okay, the children think he's "Captain Walker," the pilot of the plane they crashed in who left to get help. Only he's not, and they figure that out, but decide they can still find the "Tomorrow-Morrow Land" Captain Walker promised them, so he reluctantly follows them back into the desert. I wonder where they'll end up?

 In the defense of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, things do pick up when they decide to rescue Master and escape using the locomotive he lives in, with the help of Jebediah and son. The chase scene is largely what Miller directed (George Ogilvie handled the rest of the movie), and it's reminiscent of some of the better moments in Mad Max and The Road Warrior, even if the comically un-killable Ironbar (Angry Anderson) eats up much of the screen time. The ending is surprisingly reminiscent of The Road Warrior, substituting Savannah (Helen Buday) for the Feral Child, as Max once again becomes a story of a budding society. Epilogue aside, I do appreciate the last scene between Max and Aunty, when she and her gang have him dead to rights, having once again separated from the others in an act of sacrifice. There's no reason she shouldn't kill him, having functionally ruined Barter Town and costing her Master, but she just laughs and lets Max go. There's the grudging respect between two survivors we saw early in the film, and after everything goes to hell, what's the point in killing him? We don't need another hero. He's alone in the desert, and she's going back to Barter Town. Let the chips fall where they may.

  To be honest with you, despite being a studio mandated "American" presence for this Mad Max sequel, I really like Tina Turner as Aunty. There's a lot about this movie that seems kind of like a watered down version of Mad Max, but Turner seems really invested in playing this ridiculous character with her ridiculous haircut. She's an equal onscreen with the not quite Lethal Weapon-level famous Gibson (one could argue that Tina Turner was a bigger star than Mel Gibson in 1985), and even though he destroys everything she built, something tells me that Aunty will be all right. She'll set up shop again, re-open Thunderdome, and Barter Town will be back. Meanwhile, Max will roam the wasteland, hopefully not running into more kids. I guess maybe the brides of  Immortan Joe or Toecutter or whatever he's calling himself. Max will get his Interceptor back and somehow be younger or something. You know, reboot crap.

 I mean, if we're being honest here, there's no way that Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome isn't a better movie than Mad Max: Fury Road. Even with the stupid kids. No chance I could eat crow or something like that. Happy 30th, Thunderdome. You might not be everybody's favorite Mad Max movie - or anybody's - but you're good enough for me.

* Or maybe it is. It depends on what story you hear or what person is citing George Miller at what point. A similar problem exists when you try to figure out whether Mad Max: Fury Road is a reboot or whether it fits somewhere between The Road Warrior and Thunderdome, or after Thunderdome, because over the last five years, Miller has vacillated a bit about that. Although the current position is that it's a reboot. A terrible, no good, nobody likes it, reboot.

** I know the credits say "Aunty Entity," but I challenge you to find me any point in the movie where someone says the word "Entity" in relation to her. Hell, Max only says his name one, and that's to Master.

No comments: