Headhunters in More Ways Than One

After last week’s terrible film, I wanted to watch a good film to wash away the bad taste left by The Snowman. Since The Snowman was based on a book by Norwegian novelist Jo Nesbo, what better film to watch and write about than another film based on a Nesbo book?

That film is Headhunters, a brilliant 2011 film from Norway. Yes, it’s a foreign film and it’s in Norwegian, which necessitates the reading of subtitles (unless you speak Norwegian of course). But this does not detract from the sheer pleasure of watching this excellent film. As with The Snowman, I haven’t read Nesbo’s book. Also, beware of spoilers.


Image: Magnolia Pictures

Headhunters has an irresistible premise. The main character is Roger Brown, a successful corporate recruiter (or headhunter, if you prefer). He is five feet six inches tall and overcompensates massively. He lives a luxurious lifestyle and his wife Diana is tall, blond, and beautiful. He showers her with expensive gifts and they live in an elegant house.

But it’s all a façade. In reality, Roger is living well outside his means. All of his accounts are overdrawn, and he keeps his financial troubles from his wife. Roger and Diana are happy together, but Diana longs for a child and Roger is reluctant to have children, for reasons that are not immediately made clear. Diana has recently opened an art gallery with financial help from Roger, which has put him even deeper in debt.

But Roger has a secret way of making money. He uses his position as a recruiter to learn personal details about people he interviews. Specifically, he finds out if they have any valuable works of art. He finds out if they’re married, have kids, housekeepers, or dogs. Once he has this information, he uses it to figure out the right time to break into their house and steal their valuable paintings.

Aiding him in this endeavor is his associate Ove Kjikerud, who works at a security company and deactivates the alarms at the homes of Roger’s marks, allowing Roger to sneak in and swap the real painting for a counterfeit. It’s a slick operation that Roger and Ove have going, but of course it all starts to fall apart.

At the opening of Diana’s new art gallery, Roger meets a friend of Diana’s named Clas Greve. Clas is a former executive of a GPS company who is interested in working for the company Roger is recruiting for. Roger doesn’t like Clas at first, since he seems a bit too friendly with Diana. But he changes his mind when Diana tells him that Clas has asked her to help him authenticate a Peter Paul Rubens painting thought to be World War II. It could be worth tens of millions.

It’s too good of an opportunity to pass up, even when Roger discovers that Clas is an expert at finding people. Before he worked at the GPS company, Clas was a member of an elite military unit that specialized in tracking people. Clas was clearly involved in some dark stuff, and has the scars on his back to prove it.

Despite his misgivings, and after a fight with Diana about having children, Roger goes to Clas’ apartment to swipe the Rubens painting. While there, he sees a group of kids playing outside. He takes out his phone to call Diana, perhaps having changed his mind about not wanting to have children. But as soon as he dials her number, he hears a phone start to ring somewhere in Clas’ apartment. He follows the sound to Clas’ bedroom, where he finds Diana’s cell phone next to the bed.

Could she be cheating on him? With Clas?

I don’t want to give too much away, because I don’t want this post to drown in plot summary and because I really want people to see this film. Headhunters is a film that is full of twists and turns, and it would take too long to summarize them all. Instead, I’m going to focus on a couple of scenes that have always stood out to me.

Image: Magnolia Pictures

From the moment that Roger swipes the painting, he is a marked man. Clas proves to be extremely adept at finding him. He’s like the damn Terminator: wherever Roger goes, Clas is not far behind. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Roger goes to a remote cabin he and his associate Ove would use as meeting place in order to hide the painting. Roger takes the painting to the outhouse to hide it there, only to see Clas and his terrifying, enormous Pitbull arrive at the cabin. When the dog barks at the outhouse, Clas draws a weapon and advances on the outhouse. With nowhere else to hide, Roger takes refuge in the only place he can. Yep, this film gives entirely new meaning to the phrase “in the shit.” It’s disgusting but it’s also hilarious, and it’s tense as hell.

The suspense in this film will have you literally holding your breath. The first time I watched it I remember being on pins and needles the entire time, sometimes peering at the screen from behind clenched fingers. The tension is so thick you could cut it with a knife.

Other highlights include Roger, covered in filth, driving a tractor down the road in the middle of the night with Clas’ gigantic Pitbull impaled on the front of it. Or Roger’s bumbling attempts to get rid of a corpse, which turns out to not be quite as dead as he thought it was.

Or the film’s most gruesome scene, when Roger is in the back seat of a police car sandwiched between two burly police officers, and Clas rams the cop car with a semi-truck, sending it flying into a ravine. Roger winds up upside down, still sandwiched between the two very burly and now very dead police officers. Seeing Clas approaching, he smears himself with blood and plays dead. But he is unable to close his eyes before Clas reaches him, and has to keep his eyes open while Clas investigates what he thinks is Roger’s corpse. It’s a fantastic scene, one of the most riveting and nail-biting I’ve ever seen. Brilliantly, the film forces the viewer to keep their eyes open the entire time, since Clas takes his time inspecting the crash. It’s bloody and not for the faint of heart, but it’s utterly fantastic.

Afterward, Roger realizes that Clas has planted microscopic tracking devices in his hair, so he brutally shaves his head using scissors and a razor. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Roger. He’s a bit of a cad, but watching him break down in tears as he painfully shaves his head in a ravine surrounded by corpses is downright emotional. He’s in hell, but it’s a hell of his own making, which is always the worst kind.

Roger is a fascinating protagonist. Why does he do what he does? Many of his actions are deplorable, but you could argue that he does many of them for his wife in order to make her happy. Conversely, you could argue that many of his actions are simply for the sake of his own ego and his massive need to overcompensate. He’s psychologically complex and always watchable. He’s in pretty much every scene in the movie, and he’s magnetic in all of them.

There’s a deeply touching scene late in the film between Roger and Diana. They haven’t seen each other in a while because Roger has been on the run from Clas, and when Roger finally comes home Diana welcomes him. She is heartbroken when she sees Roger bald, scarred, and wearing someone else’s clothes. She admits to her affair with Clas, and deeply regrets it. She tells Roger that she’s done with Clas. Roger is the one she wants. She loves him.

He loves her too, and finally tells her what he has been unable to tell her the entire time they have been together. He tells her that he’s scared. He’s been scared ever since he first met her. Scared that she would see what kind of person he really was, and not like it. Scared that, if they had a child, she would love the child more than him. It’s a heartbreaking revelation, and it’s easy to see that it’s a hard confession for Roger to make. It also reframes many of his actions throughout the film and makes the viewer see him in a completely different light.

Roger is played by Aksel Hennie, a Norwegian actor known to American audiences for his roles in Hercules and The Martian. In Headhunters, he gives what is probably one of my all-time favorite screen performances. The fact that all the dialogue is in Norwegian does not detract at all from Hennie’s superb acting. The movie puts Roger through the ringer time and time again, and Hennie sells every second of it.


Image: Magnolia Pictures

Clas is played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, a Danish actor best known for playing Jaime Lannister in Game of Thrones. Game of Thrones was actually filming at the same time as Headhunters, which made scheduling difficult for the film. As a result, there are long stretches of the film in which Clas does not appear, but as with any good suspense or horror film, the presence of Clas as the antagonist is strongly felt. It’s like he’s always lurking just out of frame, and when he does appear it’s all the more meaningful. Coster-Waldau is a great actor, effortlessly suave and menacing. Someone make him the villain in a James Bond movie, ASAP. Daniel Craig ain’t getting any younger.

Image: Magnolia Pictures

Finally, Diana is played by Synnove Macody Lund, in her first acting role. She was formerly a model, journalist, and even a film critic. She’s gorgeous in that statuesque Scandinavian way, and whenever she’s onscreen it’s hard to take your eyes off her. She’s soulful and intelligent, and it’s understandable that Roger would be protective of her, and maybe even intimidated by her. She’s great.

Image: Magnolia Pictures

The movie was directed by a Norwegian director named Morten Tyldum, whose next film was The Imitation Game, which earned multiple Academy Award nominations, including best picture, actor and director. He then made the controversial sci-fi film Passengers with Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, which received a mixed reception. Headhunters is a fantastically-directed movie, and is funny, gross, touching, and nail-bitingly tense, sometimes all at the same time. It’s a tricky balancing act, but Tyldum makes it look easy.

Headhunters is the kind of film in which every small detail is important. You could probably poke holes in the story if you really wanted to, but why bother? Headhunters is a superbly-crafted thriller that easily rivals any American-made film, and is right up there among my favorite films of all time.

Coming up next week, one of the most highly-anticipated movies of the year. I’ve heard nothing but great things about it and I can’t wait to see it. It’s THOR: RAGNAROK. See you next week!

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Hell or High Water

Sometimes, a movie’s title is so perfect that I don’t need to think of a title when I write about it. 2016’s Hell or High Water is such a film. I’m going to get real with you guys here. We’re going to get into some intense emotional stuff, and I’ll be quoting a lot of the film’s brilliant dialogue, which will include uncensored f-words. Also, there will be a lot of spoilers. Here we go.

Image: Lionsgate

Hell or High Water is the story of four men. Two are brothers by blood, two are brothers by friendship. The blood brothers are Toby and Tanner Howard, played respectively by Chris Pine and Ben Foster. Tanner, the older brother, was recently released from prison after ten years for killing the brothers’ abusive father in a hunting accident that may not have been so accidental. While his older brother was incarcerated, Toby cared for their terminally ill mother. Toby is estranged from his wife and two sons, and the recent death of their mother has left Toby deep in debt, unable to pay child support to his wife, and the bank is about to foreclose on the family ranch, on which oil has recently been discovered. Desperate for money, Toby enlists his brother’s help to rob a series of banks.

Toby is the brains of the operation, and the robberies are well-planned. They hit the banks early in the morning when there are less people there, and they take lower denominations of bills. They then launder the money at a casino, where they convert the stolen cash into poker chips, and then after a bit of drinking and gambling, they have the casino convert their “winnings” into a check made out to the Texas Midlands Bank, the same bank they’ve been robbing. Toby’s clever plan pays the bank back with their own money, and the bank has no way of tracing it.

Despite Toby’s well-crafted scheme, his big brother Tanner is unpredictable. He is aggressive and takes unnecessary risks, which frustrates Toby. But Toby also has a conscience, and despite being the brains of the operation, he would be a terrible criminal without his brother’s help. Toby needs Tanner, and they both know it.

There’s a lot of pent-up resentment between the brothers, exemplified when Toby tells Tanner that “while you were in prison, I was taking care of Mom, so you can go fuck yourself.” Toby resents Tanner’s wildness, while Tanner feels he’s doing Toby a favor, and since they both know Toby would suck as a criminal without Tanner’s help, Toby should just shut up and let him help. “How the fuck have you managed to stay out of prison for a year?” Toby asks his brother at one point. “It’s been difficult,” Tanner admits.

The relationship between these two characters is utterly fascinating, and all of it feels completely real. Pine and Foster have a relaxed, easy chemistry, and are completely believable as brothers. The film was written by Taylor Sheridan, a former actor who also wrote the bleak thriller Sicario in 2015, which is an incredibly good movie. Hell or High Water demonstrates many of Sheridan’s strengths as a writer: sharp dialogue, believable characters, and murky morality. The viewer of Hell or High Water is never sure who to root for, and the film wisely withholds judgment on its characters, leaving the viewers to form their own decisions.

Image: Lionsgate

But Toby and Tanner are only half of the equation. The brothers by friendship are Marcus Hamilton and Alberto Parker, played respectively by Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham. Hamilton and Parker are the two Texas Rangers investigating the brothers’ bank robberies. Marcus is nearing mandatory retirement, and figures this bank-robber caper will be his last hurrah. Alberto is half-Native American, half-Mexican, and endures constant jabs from Marcus about his heritage. After one of many insults, Alberto sighs and says, “You know I’m part Mexican, too.” Marcus’ response: “Yeah, well, I’m gonna get to that when I’m through with the Indian insults, but it’s gonna be a while.”

It may not seem like these men are brothers, but they are. In the special features on the film’s Blu-ray, Sheridan talks about how Marcus insults Alberto because he doesn’t know how to express how much Alberto means to him. It’s a toxic way of expressing love and friendship, Sheridan says, but it’s the only way Marcus knows. Sheridan’s writing is so good at capturing characters that feel like real people. He is also good at suggesting backstory without overly explaining everything. Much of the backstory I talked about between Toby and Tanner earlier isn’t spelled out or shown directly, but Sheridan’s dialogue is so good that it doesn’t have to be. Sheridan respects the viewers to be able to put the pieces together for themselves.

And there are many moments that are quietly heartbreaking. When Alberto suggests to Marcus that he needs a hobby, maybe horseback riding, Marcus rejects the idea. “Marybeth was the horse rider,” he says. “It would just remind me of her.” The knowledge that Marcus lost his wife makes the viewer reconsider Marcus’ actions. Without his wife, Marcus’ work and his friendship with Alberto mean that much more. There’s never any mention of Marcus’ wife aside from this one line, but it speaks volumes about his character.

Image: Lionsgate

The movie was directed by David Mackenzie, a Scottish filmmaker who does a brilliant job capturing the feel of rural, small-town America. The movie mostly takes place in west Texas, although it was filmed in New Mexico. The environment is as much of a character as the people who inhabit it. As Toby and Tanner drive to and from their various bank heists, they constantly pass signs and billboards reading “FOR SALE” and “FAST CASH” and “DEBT RELIEF”, making the reality of Toby’s financial woes all the more real.

Toby is a good man whose life is falling apart, and he’s been forced to take extreme actions to help his family. I’m not trying to say robbing banks is a good idea, but Toby is a deeply sympathetic character. You could even argue that his motives are altruistic, since the money from the robberies goes towards paying off the bank and setting up a trust in his family’s name, so that they will be able to keep the ranch in the future, and live off the money the oil-drilling will provide for them. “I’ve been poor my whole life, like a disease passing from generation to generation,” Toby tells Marcus near the end of the film. “But not my boys, not anymore.”

Even the volatile Tanner is a complex character. While many of his actions are horrendous (he kills a bank security guard, a civilian, and a cop without a hint of remorse) and his behavior is sometimes despicable (he scares off a woman putting the moves on Toby at a bar, only to seduce a hotel receptionist mere minutes later), you could still make the argument that he does what he does in order to help his brother and his family. Conversely, you could argue that he’s a cold-blooded killer who only does it for the thrill. The fact that you could make a convincing argument either way is another testament to the strength of Taylor Sheridan’s writing.

It should go without saying that things eventually go wrong for the bandit brothers. They eventually bite off more than they can chew when they try to rob a larger branch of the bank when there are a lot of people there. They soon learn the perils of bank-robbing in Texas, and are pursued by a heavily-armed posse when their attempted robbery devolves into a shootout. It’s an incredibly tense sequence, but it’s also wryly funny. “Those concealed-carry permits sure complicate bank robberies,” Tanner says as they drive away in a hail of bullets.

After Tanner scares the posse away by unloading three clips from an assault rifle at them, the brothers go their separate ways in what is my favorite scene in the film. Toby, taking the money and limping from a bullet wound in his side, staggers over to his car. As he opens the door and gets in, Tanner leans out from the driver’s side of his bullet-riddled pickup truck. “Hey, Toby,” he says.

Toby looks up.

“You know I love you, don’t you?” Tanner says.

Toby smiles faintly. “I love you, too,” he says, and shuts the car door.

“Hey, Toby,” Tanner says again.

Toby looks up again.

“Go fuck yourself,” Tanner says with a grin.

Toby grins back. “Go fuck yourself,” he replies.

They both laugh and drive in different directions, never to see each other again.

That short scene is, to me, the definition of brotherly love. These two men don’t always see eye-to-eye, they frequently don’t even like each other. But they love each other just the same. It’s not a long, drawn-out goodbye, because it doesn’t have to be. But it’s deeply moving just the same. Tanner leads the cops away, singing merrily to himself as they chase after him. He leads them to a mountain ridge, where he takes shots at them with a rifle.

Marcus and Alberto are among the pursuers, and as they take cover behind a police car, a shot rings out and hits Alberto in the head, killing him instantly. It takes Marcus a few seconds to realize what has happened, and once he does, his strangled gasp is heartbreaking. But Tanner has the high ground, and the cops can’t get to him. Marcus finds a local resident who knows the area, and manages to get behind Tanner. Tanner, unaware of this, continues firing at the lawmen. “Lord of the plains,” he grins to himself. “That’s me.” The view changes to Marcus aiming down the scope of a rifle, right at Tanner’s head. He fires, hitting Tanner square in the head, and it’s over. Tanner slumps lifelessly forward, blood pooling in the ground at his feet. There’s no drawn-out, blaze-of-glory death sequence. Just BANG, and he’s gone. Marcus leans against a rock and half-laughs, half-cries.

Meanwhile, Toby is able to pass a police checkpoint without incident, and heads to the casino to launder the money. He is sitting at the bar having a drink when he hears about Tanner’s death on the news on a TV behind him. He doesn’t even turn around to look at the TV, just raises his glass and silently takes a drink. Then he visits the bank, pays off his debts, and sets up a trust fund in his family’s name.

Some time later, Marcus visits his old office to talk with his replacement and get some closure on the Howards. He learns that the Texas Rangers have cleared Toby as a suspect, since his record is clean and he has no motive because the oil wells on his family’s property make more money in a month than what was stolen in all the bank robberies combined. The bank is also not cooperating with the investigation, since they don’t want to lose management of the family’s trust fund. The Rangers never got descriptions of the bank robbers, since the brothers wore hoods and masks to all their robberies, so Toby and his family are in the clear.

Although he has no proof and no authority, Marcus knows Toby was the brains of the operation. He visits Toby at the now-lucrative family ranch, and their conversation is fascinating. These two men have every reason to hate each other, but there’s no real sense of enmity between them. Just a grudging sort of respect. Marcus tells Toby that he knows Toby was the mastermind, and wants to know why. Toby is evasive, and this is when he says the line to Marcus that I quoted earlier, about how his family’s poverty won’t be passed down to his sons.

As Marcus gets up to leave and heads back to his car, Toby stops him.

“Hey,” he says.

Marcus turns around.

“I rent a little house in town,” Toby says. “If you wanna stop by and finish this conversation, you’re welcome anytime.”

“Oh, I’d like that,” Marcus replies. “Be seeing you.”

“Yeah,” Toby says. “Soon, I hope. I’m ready to be done with this.”

“You’ll never be done with it no matter what,” Marcus says. “It’s gonna haunt you, son, for the rest of your days. But you won’t be alone. It’s gonna haunt me too.”

“If you stop by,” Toby says, “Maybe I’ll give you peace.”

“Maybe,” Marcus agrees, nodding, then says “Maybe I’ll give it to you.” He turns away, gets in his car, and drives off. And that’s the end of the movie, leaving the audience to wonder if that peace will come from a shared six-pack or the barrel of a shotgun.

Who wins? Toby provides for his family, but at the cost of several deaths, including that of his own brother. As Marcus says, he’s just going to have to live with that for the rest of his life. Marcus kills one of the robbers, but he’ll never be able to nab the man he knows is the second one, and his best friend was killed before Marcus was able to tell him how much he valued him. And while Tanner’s motives are questionable and his behavior is frequently deplorable, in the end he gives his life for his brother, and there is no greater sacrifice.

With most movies I see, there are pros and cons. But while the pros of Hell or High Water could fill a book, when I think about cons, I can’t come up with a single one. It’s damn near perfect. It’s tense, relatable, wryly funny, deeply moving, and the writing, acting, and directing are superb. It’s an achingly human story and its characters and their relationships are profoundly real. The movie was nominated for four Academy Awards in 2016, including Best Picture, and while it didn’t win any of them I’m glad it was recognized. Chris Pine has never been better, nobody plays a crusty Texas Ranger better than Jeff Bridges (he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor), and the supporting work from Ben Foster and Gil Birmingham is commendable, as is the rest of the supporting cast.

It’s a tremendous movie. Oddly, the back of the film’s Blu-ray package lists the film’s running time as 122 minutes, when it’s actually 102 minutes. The fact that the movie does what it does in such a relatively brief amount of time is extraordinary. There are plenty of big blockbusters with ten or even twenty times the budget that are 45 minutes longer, and don’t have nearly as much pathos as this film does.

Image: Lionsgate

See it. It’s unforgettable.

Also unforgettable (albeit for entirely different reasons) is the movie I’ll be talking about next week. It’s the weirdest movie of 2017 and one of the weirdest movies to come out of Hollywood in a long time. It’s a twisted tale full of slithering eels and dark secrets. It’s Gore Verbinski’s bizarro fright flick A Cure For Wellness. See you next week!

Baby Driver: Nowhere To Run To, Baby

Thank God for Edgar Wright. In an era where so many movies (looking at you, Transformers) feel like the filmmakers are making them up as they go along, Edgar Wright is a guy who makes movies that are coherent, thrilling, and emotionally resonant. He makes movies where you can see that he had the whole movie planned out in his head before the cameras even started rolling, and the results are spectacular.
Baby Driver is only his fifth theatrical feature, and he is five-for-five. I adore all three films he made with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Shaun of the Dead is my favorite zombie movie of all time, and I absolutely love Hot Fuzz and The World’s End. Those three movies are endlessly rewatchable, as is Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, his hyperkinetic take on the beloved comic book series. It’s been a long four years since The World’s End, which was his last feature (he was going to direct Marvel’s Ant-Man but ended up leaving the project), but since Wright is only 43 years old, hopefully we’ll see a lot more films from him in the future.

Image: Sony

Baby Driver is the story of Baby, who is a driver. Baby is played by appropriately baby-faced The Fault in Our Stars heartthrob Ansel Elgort, who is fantastic in the lead role. Baby is a man of few words, who expresses himself through body language and music. He suffers from chronic tinnitus as the result of a car accident when he was a kid that also killed his parents, and drowns out the humming with a constant stream of music from one of several different iPods. He has different Pods for different moods, and you get the feeling that he knows every song on every one of them by heart.

He’s also the best getaway driver in the business. He works for a gangster called Doc (played perfectly by Kevin Spacey), who makes not-so-veiled threats like “Your waitress girlfriend, she’s cute. Let’s keep it that way.” Once, Baby made the mistake of stealing from Doc, and now gives Doc most of his take from the various jobs they do as a means of paying off his debt. Also along for the ride are various miscreants, the most notable of which are Buddy (Jon Hamm), his girlfriend Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and the violent sociopath known as Bats (Jamie Foxx).

Every actor seems tailor-made for the part they play, and Jamie Foxx is just terrifying. He clearly enjoys being a criminal way too much, and his violent outbursts during their heists are part of what makes Baby long to escape from these dangerous people he finds himself involved with. Baby’s problem is that he has a conscience. “The moment you catch feelings,” Bats explains to him from behind the barrel of a shotgun, “is the moment you catch a bullet.” Bats hasn’t caught a bullet yet because he has no feelings for any of the people he hurts, which sets him on a collision course with Baby.

Further complicating matters is the aforementioned waitress girlfriend Baby meets one day in his favorite sparsely-occupied diner. Her name is Debbie, and she is played by Lily James, who is perfect as the girl the hero must risk everything to be with. Debbie is as sweet as Bats is frightening, and when Bats brings Baby, Buddy and Darling to the diner partway through the movie the tension is nearly unbearable. It’s a beautifully-acted and -directed scene, with Debbie and Baby pretending not to know each other and trying not to make eye contact, lest Bats figure out that Baby cares about her.

Edgar Wright directs the hell out of this movie. The many car chases are beautifully chaotic, and they manage to be frenetic and intense without sacrificing clarity. While Baby Driver is not a comedy in the way Wright’s earlier films were, there are still some very funny moments, and Wright deftly balances the tone of the movie so that it never feels out-of-control.

And of course there’s the music. I’ll admit that most of it is music I was unfamiliar with, but much like the actors, every song feels perfect for the scene it’s in. Wright is also a master of editing, and precisely times moments during the action scenes to correspond with the beats of a song. That’s what I meant when I said earlier that you can tell how he’s envisioned the whole movie is in his head before he even starts filming, since that level of precision with the music, editing, and stunt choreography doesn’t happen by accident. It all blends together to create a seamless experience.

Image: Sony

The movie is very stylized, and some might say it’s style over substance, but I disagree. Partly that’s because I love Edgar Wright’s style, but there’s also a strong emotional connection to the characters. I really cared about Baby and Debbie, and during the suspenseful, action-packed second half of the film I was on the edge of my seat. This movie is such a breath of fresh air after the pair of crummy blockbusters that were the subjects of my previous two posts.

If there’s one thing I didn’t love about the movie, it’s the ending. It’s not terrible, and I won’t spoil it, but it’s the weakest part of a really good movie so it stands out. I don’t hate the ending, but it goes on a bit longer than it should. It’s one of those endings where there’s a perfect moment where it could have ended, but then it keeps going for two or three more scenes that didn’t need to be there. This is a minor complaint when I loved everything else about the movie, but I do feel that Wright didn’t quite stick the landing with regards to the movie’s conclusion.

I hope it doesn’t take four years for Edgar Wright to make another film, he’s one of my favorite directors. But until he makes another one, I’m very glad we’ve got this one to rewatch. Coming up next on the Summer Movie Watchlist is Spider-Man: Homecoming, the latest reboot of everyone’s favorite wall-crawling superhero, so look for that next week.

The Simple Art of Murder

Shane Black’s 2005 film Kiss Kiss Bang Bang has been a favorite of mine ever since I first saw it. It is a criminally underrated movie that nonetheless has a developed a cult following over the years, which it more than deserves. Black’s new film, The Nice Guys, is coming out on Friday, so I figured there was no better time to look back at his earlier underappreciated gem.

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Kiss Kiss Bang Bang stars Robert Downey Jr., Val Kilmer and Michelle Monaghan as one of my favorite cinematic trios. Shane Black is most famous for writing Lethal Weapon and directing Iron Man 3, and he’s got a real knack for writing characters that spark and dialogue that crackles.

Robert Downey Jr. plays Harry Lockhart, a two-bit thief in New York who finds himself whisked away to Los Angeles after a job goes wrong, and in his efforts to escape from the cops he inadvertently wanders into an audition where he impresses the casting directors so much that they fly him to LA for a screen test.

Once in LA, he meets Perry van Shrike, played by Val Kilmer. Perry is a private detective who also works as a consultant for movies and TV. He’s also gay, and is known as Gay Perry. Perry is supposed to give Harry private-detective lessons to help his acting. And wouldn’t you know it, the rhyming-name duo of Harry and Perry promptly find themselves in a heap of trouble when what should have been a simple stakeout ends with a dead girl in the back of a car that winds up in a lake, and a couple of sinister-looking thugs in black leather jackets and wearing ski masks.

Harry also reconnects with an old flame, the wonderfully-named Harmony Faith Lane, played by Michelle Monaghan. I will always have a huge crush on Monaghan because of this movie. Not only is she gorgeous, but she plays Harmony with so much vitality and energy that it’s impossible not to fall in love with her. Although calling her Harry’s old flame may be a bit of a stretch, since they were friends in high school but never, you know, more than friends, despite Harry’s anguish at her hooking up with every guy in high school except for him. Harmony’s sister also suddenly turns up dead in LA, and she turns to Harry for help (thinking erroneously that he is an actual private detective).

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Harmony is from a small town called Embrey, Indiana (“When in doubt, cut up a pig. That was the town motto,” Harry explains in voice-over) who moved to LA to pursue becoming an actress. As a kid, she fell in love with a man named Johnny Gossamer. Johnny was the main character in a series of dime-store paperbacks with names like “Die Job” and “You’ll Never Die in This Town Again.”

The most obvious comparison is to Raymond Chandler’s iconic private eye Philip Marlowe. Chandler is one of my all-time favorite writers, he’s one of my literary heroes. Shane Black clearly feels the same way, and even gives sections of the film titles that are names of some of Chandler’s books (Trouble Is My Business, The Lady in the Lake, The Little Sister, The Simple Art of Murder, and Farewell, My Lovely).

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One of the many pleasures of Raymond Chandler’s novels is that the reader spends a large chunk of each book wondering how in the hell the different threads of the story could possibly be tied together. And then, in every book, there comes the moment of clarity: the wonderful moment of revelation when you realize how it all fits together. It’s a sublime moment that happened to me during every one of Chandler’s books, and this is something that Shane Black is also very much aware of.

Harry even explains this to Perry, when describing how in every Johnny Gossamer book, it turns out that two separate cases are in fact the same case (this happened in a lot of Hardy Boys books too as I recall). And without giving too much away, in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang this also holds true, when it turns out that Harry and Perry’s case of the dead girl in the trunk of a car and Harmony’s case of the sudden death of her sister Jenna are also connected.

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Even though this movie came out in 2005 and the statute of limitations on spoilers has expired, I’m not going to give away too much more about the plot. For one thing, it’s all a bit complicated and explaining every minute detail would take too long. It’s so complex, one could even call it convoluted, and it took me several viewings before I felt like I really had a handle on it. But it’s the kind of movie that encourages and rewards repeat viewings, and there’s something new to discover and enjoy every time you watch it. It wasn’t until the third or fourth time I watched it, for example, that I realized the ring tone on Perry’s cell phone is “I Will Survive.”

My enjoyment of the movie also has a lot to do with the characters of Harry, Perry, and Harmony, who are three of my favorite cinematic creations. The chemistry between Downey, Kilmer, and Monaghan is palpable and Shane Black’s dialogue is always on point. Robert Downey Jr. excels at playing fast-talking smart alecks, and he played Harry a full three years before he put on the Iron Man suit for the first time. Kilmer has a reputation as being difficult to work with, but the former Batman turns in one of his best performances as the tough-as-nails gay private detective. And I’ve talked a bit about Michelle Monaghan, but I have to mention her again because she’s just so great. I would happily hang out with any of these people in real life, as messed-up and with as much baggage as all of them have, their personalities resonate and they feel like genuine human beings, despite the frequently outrageous circumstances they find themselves in.

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The movie is also hilariously funny, and there are scenes and lines of dialogue that have been permanently seared into my memory. (Perry: Look up the word “idiot” in the dictionary, do you know what you’ll find? Harry: Uh…a picture of me? Perry: NO! The definition of “idiot,” which you F*CKING are!!)  Some of the humor is of the gallows variety, like Harry and Perry’s bumbling efforts to get rid of a corpse (they toss it off the roof of a building, aiming for a dumpster, but the body hits the edge of the dumpster and lands in an alley).

There are some aspects of the movie that are hard to describe, such as Harry’s narration which pops up now and again throughout the movie. Harry frequently comments on what a bad narrator he is, and sometimes even stops the movie to go back and explain something he forgot to mention earlier. This makes the movie’s narrative even more complicated but Downey’s fourth-wall breaking is always funny, and it’s never so confusing that you completely lose track of what’s going on.

I love this movie. I genuinely do. It may not be to everyone’s tastes, but if you are a fan of noir and hard-boiled detective stories (and don’t mind a dose of black humor along the way) you owe it to yourself to check this one out.

Popcorn Perfection

I am on the record as saying that I like many of Tom Cruise’s movies. He may be a weirdo in real life, but he’s a fantastic entertainer. He’s very good at what he does, and his latest film, “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”, is probably my second-favorite summer movie this year.

I’m a big fan of the Mission: Impossible series. Last week, I re-watched all four of the previous films in anticipation of the new one, which I then saw on Friday. I thoroughly enjoyed all of them, with only one possible exception.

The first film in the series was released all the way back in 1996. Cruise was in his mid-thirties then, but man, the whole time I was watching the first movie I kept thinking he looked like he was about 17. I didn’t use to like the first movie all that much, but I have a newfound appreciation for it. It’s fairly light on action but is more concerned with intrigue and the many twists and turns of the plot.

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The plot is complicated and there are still some things about it that are slightly baffling to me, but I can see how the various pieces of the puzzle fit together, even if some of the details continue to elude me. It’s a tense, well-made spy thriller that contains one truly iconic sequence: the famous vault heist, where Cruise’s superspy Ethan Hunt is lowered from the ceiling into the CIA’s most secure vault. It’s a wonderfully tense scene that still holds up as one of the best, most suspenseful sequences in the series.

Unfortunately, its sequel, Mission: Impossible 2, is by far the worst film in the series. The first entry was directed by Brian de Palma, who crafted a tense, complex spy thriller. MI2 was directed by John Woo, well known for his particular brand of super-stylized, slow-mo, firing-two-guns-whilst-flying-through-the-air action filmmaking. Now don’t get me wrong, Woo’s films can be great fun (if you haven’t seen Hardboiled you really should, it’s amazing), but his style is not suited to a Mission: Impossible movie.

In stark contrast to the first film, MI2 is a much more straightforward action movie, lacking the twists and turns of the plot, which is of the fairly dull “Stop the bad guy from selling the incredibly lethal supervirus to the highest bidder” variety. The first half of the movie is mostly buildup for the second half, which is full of ludicrous shootouts and slow-mo flip kicks. Seriously, this is the kind of movie where, instead of simply punching a henchman, the hero performs a ridiculous-looking slow-motion backflip kick.

MI2 doesn’t even feel like a Mission: Impossible movie, it’s title could have been “Generic Action Movie” and that would have been entirely appropriate. At one point near the end of the film, I noticed that the villain has these big containers in his lair, which are clearly labeled HAZARDOUS WASTE. Geez, dude, you probably shouldn’t just leave that kind of stuff lying around in your hideout, you just know a grenade is eventually going to find its way over there.

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The movie’s final showdown is a mess of over-the-top kung fu and those ridiculous slow-mo flip kicks that John Woo couldn’t seem to get enough of. Tom Cruise has an awful hairdo in this movie, and his stupid emo hair flops around all over the place during the final fight, which is just silly. Oh, and this is preceded by a truly absurd scene where Ethan and the villain do this kind of motorcycle joust, where they drive at each other on motorcycles and then throw themselves off the motorcycles and collide in midair, and the motorcycles fly through the air and explode for absolutely no reason.

To top it all off, the end credits feature tracks from Metallica and, uh, Limp Bizkit. Wikipedia informs me that the soundtrack also featured such “artists” as Rob Zombie, Godsmack, and a band called (I kid you not) Butthole Surfers. Good luck getting that image out of your head.

Let’s move on, shall we? The third Mission: Impossible movie is one of my favorites, not just in the M:I series, but, well, generally. It’s a top-notch action thriller that also features the series’ best villain: Owen Davian, a ruthless arms dealer played brilliantly by the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman. The third film was the film directorial debut of J.J. Abrams, who gets a lot of flack from various corners of the internet, but I’ve always been a fan.

He fills the movie full of action, but gives it a much more grounded feel than the second entry. It’s less stylized and much more engaging. The plot is full of twists and turns, but crucially, they are twists and turns that still make sense. The movie also gives Ethan a personal life, and gives solid character development to him and his wife Julia. It’s nice that the movie acknowledges that Ethan the superspy can still have a personal life (although this is largely abandoned in the subsequent films) and it humanizes Ethan quite a bit.

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The movie is so full of action that it might be a bit overwhelming for some viewers, but I loved every second of it. It’s a tremendously exciting film that is one of my favorite summer action blockbusters. The bridge sequence, where Ethan and his team are attacked by bad guys with a predator drone, is one of my favorite action sequences of recent years. The movie also features one of the most satisfying villain deaths I’ve ever seen in a movie, where Philip Seymour Hoffman’s villain gets run over by a truck. That sounds a bit anticlimactic, but it’s actually incredibly satisfying. The movie’s ending is great and its opening is also great: the first line of the movie is “We’ve put an explosive charge in your head.” Oh, SNAP. You know shit just got real when there’s an explosive charge in your freaking HEAD. Now THAT is how you start a movie.

The fourth movie, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, is similarly excellent. Ghost Protocol was the live-action directorial debut of Brad Bird, who previously directed several acclaimed animated films (such as The Iron Giant, Ratatouille, and The Incredibles). Bird proves to be a sure-handed director of live-action, and orchestrates several impressive action sequences. This is the movie with the famous Burj Khalifa sequence, in which Tom Cruise scales the tallest building in the world (yes, Cruise actually did that).

The plot sounds simple, with Ethan and his team trying to stop a rogue nuclear extremist from inciting nuclear war between the US and Russia. In contrast to the second and third films, in which the villains had small armies of henchmen, Ghost Protocol is notable in that its villain has a grand total of one henchman. And yet, these two guys almost cause nuclear war. I really like this movie’s more stripped-down approach. The stakes in the film are very high, since Ethan and his team have no backup and have to rely mostly on each other because their equipment keeps malfunctioning.

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One of the things I like most about these movies is the way that they emphasize teamwork. Sure, Ethan Hunt is a badass, but he wouldn’t get very far without his teammates. Every member of the team is important, and every one of them contributes. I really like that.

This trend continues in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, the triumphant fifth entry in the series. In it, Ethan and his team must track down the Syndicate, a rogue terrorist organization responsible for all sorts of dastardly deeds. They must once again do this with no backup, since the Impossible Mission Force, or IMF, has once again been disbanded, this time by a pompous bureaucrat played by Alec Baldwin, who is admittedly pretty great at playing pompous bureaucrats.

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If I have one complaint about this series of films, it’s that they tend to fall back on the same plot elements a bit too often. Ethan and his team have gone rogue or the IMF has been disavowed in four of the five films. That aspect of the plot is a bit repetitive, but the movies are so consistently entertaining that I can forgive a little plot rehashing.

Rogue Nation was written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, who worked with Cruise on Jack Reacher and also co-wrote Edge of Tomorrow, which was one of my favorite movies last year. His film strikes a perfect balance between thrilling action and international intrigue.

One of the film’s strongest assets is the character of Ilsa Faust, a slinky, sexy secret agent played by a Swedish actress named Rebecca Ferguson. Ferguson is a relative newcomer, but I certainly hope this is a star-making role for her, because she’s awesome. She plays a character whose loyalties are in question for pretty much the entire movie, and Ferguson really nails the conflicting aspects of her character. She’s also great as a foil for Ethan, since she proves herself capable of doing anything he can do on multiple occasions. She’s also not overly sexualized and exists as more than just a potential love interest for the hero, and it’s really refreshing to see such a strong female character portrayed in this way. Ferguson gets my vote for breakout star of the year, she tackles a tricky role and absolutely kills it. She niftily steals the movie right out from under Tom Cruise’s nose.

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The film’s action sequences are also excellent. McQuarrie proves himself to be a more than capable action director, deftly avoiding the extreme close-ups, shaky camerawork, and rapid-fire editing that can make action sequences hard to follow. The action scenes in the film benefit from a strong sense of spatial relationships, in that you always understand where things are in relation to each other. This is especially important in the riveting Vienna opera house sequence, in which a complex cat-and-mouse game plays out. It would have been easy to get lost in such a complex sequence, but McQuarrie’s confident direction ensures that the viewer is always able to follow the action.

Other highlights include a thrilling motorcycle chase, an underwater heist that is as nail-bitingly tense as the vault heist in the original film or the Burj Khalifa sequence in Ghost Protocol, and the much-hyped plane stunt, in which Ethan desperately clings to the side of a cargo plane as it takes off. All of these sequences look great and are riveting to watch. Cruise proves once again that he’s game for all manner of insanely dangerous stunts, and his commitment enhances the film’s realism and makes it all the more exciting to watch as a result.

Other than Cruise and Ferguson, the supporting characters are also great, with solid work from Jeremy Renner, Ving Rhames and the always-great Simon Pegg. All of these actors have great chemistry and there’s a sense that they’ve all been through this kind of thing before, they understand the stakes but they know what they’re doing and they know that they can rely on each other.

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The film’s villain, the head of the Syndicate, is a bespectacled baddie by the name of Solomon Lane. Lane is played by an English actor named Sean Harris, whose raspy voice practically oozes menace. There’s also a terrifying henchman nicknamed the Bone Doctor, who you just know is seriously bad news.

I really love the Mission: Impossible movies. They are perfect popcorn movies, and Rogue Nation continues the series in fine fashion, offering tense and thrilling action, a plot that keeps you guessing, great acting, and a fine performance from one of the breakout stars of the year. What more could you ask for?

MAX TO THE MAX

Mad Max: Fury Road had a long road to cinemas, but holy crap was it ever worth it. According to the always-reliable Wikipedia, director George Miller (who I’m pretty sure is a mad genius) had the idea for the film as far back as 1998. Quoting Wikipedia, “Miller conceived of a story where ‘violent marauders were fighting, not for oil or material goods, but for human beings’.”

Miller was almost set to start filming in the early 2000’s with Mel Gibson reprising the title role, but the project was shelved after terrorist attacks made safety an issue in the locations they were going to film in, and then of course there was Mel Gibson’s much-publicized breakdown that made him a toxic commodity in Hollywood.

Now, seventeen years after Miller had that idea, it’s finally here, and it’s awesome. I saw the film twice over the weekend, and it only took two viewings for the movie to skyrocket on to my all-time favorite movies list. Both times I saw it, I wanted it to start again as soon as it was over, and as I write this now, all I want to do is see it again.

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The movie is more of a reboot than a sequel, since it doesn’t directly follow the previous films. It follows the same basic continuity, but it stands on its own as an individual movie and it is not necessary to have seen the previous films in order to enjoy it (although that certainly helps).

The movie does take a page out of The Road Warrior’s book, however, in that it starts with badass opening narration, delivered this time by Max himself.

“My name is Max. My world is fire. And blood. I am the road warrior. I am the one haunted by the living and the dead. My world is reduced to a single instinct: survive. As the world fell it was hard to know who was more crazy. Me….or everyone else.”

Awesome. In addition to being spine-tinglingly badass, this narration serves a dual purpose: it sets up the world of the film for new viewers, and it’s a callback to the previous films that fans will pick up on.

From there, the movie goes full throttle as Max is promptly captured by fanatical followers of the cult leader/warlord Immortan Joe. Immortan Joe is a terrifying and imposing figure who wears a skull-like mask that also serves as a breathing apparatus. Joe’s hold over his tribe is secured by the fact that he controls the water supply.

Pretty much everything Joe says is shouted rather than spoken and he’s the classic sort of dictator/despot who lords his power over his underlings and tries to convince them that he’s looking out for them. “DO NOT BECOME ADDICTED TO WATER,” he says to his downtrodden people, “IT WILL TAKE HOLD OF YOU AND YOU WILL RESENT ITS ABSENCE.” He uses this as an excuse to avoid giving people very much of his precious water supply and makes it sound like he’s doing them a favor by relieving them of a potential addiction rather than what he’s actually doing, which is depriving them of a basic human need.

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One of his most trusted lieutenants, a woman known as Imperator Furiosa, is sent by Joe on a mission to a nearby place called Gas Town in order to bring back, you guessed it, gasoline. But on the way, she unexpectedly veers off course. Joe sees this from his citadel, and becomes suspicious. He goes to a vault he keeps tightly secured, and does not find what he is looking for. On the walls are painted the words “OUR CHILDREN WILL NOT BE WARLORDS” and “WE ARE NOT THINGS.”

It turns out that the vault was where Joe kept his “breeders,” five white-clad beauties he keeps as, you know, breeders, which is really creepy and disgusting. Joe has been betrayed by Imperator Furiosa, who has kidnapped the breeders and taken them with her. Actually, “kidnapped” isn’t really the right word, since it implies that they didn’t want to go with her. A more accurate way of putting it would be that she escaped with them. This enrages Joe, and he sends his entire army of chalk-white, fanatically loyal Warboys after her.

One of the Warboys is a young man named Nux. Nux is sick, and needs blood transfusions to survive. Chosen as his “blood bag” is none other than Max himself. So when Nux hops in his car to join the chase after Furiosa, Max unwillingly goes along with him, chained to the front of his vehicle as his mobile blood bag.

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I won’t give away anything else about the plot. As with the previous Mad Max movies, the plot is pretty barebones, but that doesn’t affect the quality of the movie. These movies aren’t really about the plot, they’re about the experience, and this movie is an experience like no other.

And they’re also about the action. Oh, so much action. Mad Max: Fury Road is quite possibly the best car chase movie ever made. The action is nonstop and intense. Picture the climactic chase from The Road Warrior. Now triple the number of vehicles and combatants. Add the enhancements that modern special effects and a nine-figure budget can provide. Now picture that for pretty much the entirety of a two-hour movie.

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Fury Road is the ultimate adrenaline rush. In terms of sheer nonstop visceral ferocity, the only movies I can think of that even come close are The Raid and the Raid 2, and maybe John Wick. Mad Max makes the Avengers look like a bunch of amateurs.

Part of what makes the movie such a treat to watch is that the majority of it was done practically. Look, generally I don’t have that much of a problem with CGI. I’m okay with using CGI to do things in movies that are impossible in real life. I’m fine with that, but movies these days can sometimes seem like CGI overload (as anyone who suffered through the most recent Transformers movie, for example, can attest to).

But everything in this movie was done for real, which means real people, real vehicles, real stunts, and real pyrotechnics. The fact that a bunch of fearless people actually went out into the middle of the desert and filmed all of this insane vehicular mayhem gives me hope for the future of mankind, not to mention the future of cinema.

Another great thing about the film’s many action sequences is that they’re easy to follow. One of the complaints that pop up a lot about modern action movies is that they’re shot and edited in such a way that it makes the action hard to follow, since things are happening so quickly and the camera moves around a lot it can be hard for the viewer to orient him- or herself in the scene.

But George Miller, on the other hand, is careful to avoid these potential issues. For one thing, the spatial relationships in the action sequences are very clearly defined, so the viewer always has a good sense of where things are in relation to each other. This is important during fast-paced, intense scenes with a lot of things happening at once, and a lot of characters in different places.

It makes the movie feel like a very connected, unified whole, and it makes the viewer feel like you’re getting the whole picture of what’s happening and that you’re not missing anything. The editing isn’t too fast and the camera doesn’t shake around constantly, so the action always flows smoothly.

And on top of all that, the film is visually stunning. The bleak desert vistas have a sort of stark beauty to them, enhanced by the fact that they’re real (the movie was filmed in Namibia). And I just love the movie’s production design. One of the things I love most about these movies is how good they are at suggesting things. Every element of this film tells its own story. Every piece of clothing that every character wears, every weapon they use, and every piece of every vehicle has its own story behind it.

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I also love how you can tell that some items the characters use are things that had their uses in the old world, but those uses have since become irrelevant and so people have found new uses for them. You know that metal thing people use to measure your foot whenever you go to get new shoes? I feel dumb that I don’t know what that’s called. Is it just called a scale? Man, now I feel stupid. Anyway, I noticed that one of those is used as a pedal in Furiosa’s cobbled-together semi truck. Since the concept of “going to the store to get new shoes” no longer exists in the Mad Max world, things have been repurposed.

Tom Hardy gives a solid performance as Max, and is a worthy successor to Mel Gibson. He growls all of his lines and there were a couple of times where I noticed a bit of his Bane voice slip through, but he’s a great actor and an appealing lead.

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But really, the movie belongs to Charlize Theron. She completely steals the movie as Imperator Furiosa, and is one of the best action heroines since Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley. She’s just badass, and she gives the movie a lot of emotional weight. It’s really her story as much as, if not more than, Max’s. All of the film’s protagonists, except for Max (and Nux the Warboy, who eventually joins them), are women, which is pretty awesome.

If you are a fan of action movies, you need to see this movie ASAP. It’s a beautiful, brutal movie. It’s not for the faint-hearted, since it is VERY intense and there is some pretty disturbing imagery, but it’s not particularly bloody and never feels gratuitous or overwhelming. It is an absolute adrenaline rush and one of the most pulse-pounding exercises in expertly-crafted cinematic mayhem that you will ever see. It is unlike any other movie and is thrilling from start to finish.

Go see it. Now.

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MAXIMUM MAX

Mad Max: Fury Road is FINALLY almost here, which means it’s time to turn back the clock and re-watch the original Mad Max trilogy.

Let’s get right to it, shall we?

The first film of the original trilogy was released in 1979, and was simply called Mad Max. It was Mel Gibson’s first major film role, as he was but 23 at the time.

And boy, does he look it.

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Look at that fresh-faced youngster. He looks like he could be a Ralph Lauren model or something.

The original movie has a great opening scene, in which officers of the Main Force Patrol, or MFP, are in pursuit of a psychotic joyrider who gleefully calls himself the Nightrider, and spouts stuff like, “I AM THE NIGHTRIDER! I’M A FUEL-INJECTED SUICIDE MACHINE! I AM THE ROCKER, I AM THE ROLLER, I AM THE OUT-OF-CONTROLLER!!”

Despite the fact that he’s clearly nuts, I kind of liked the Nightrider. Unfortunately for him, that part about being a suicide machine turns out to be pretty accurate, as the chase ends in a fiery explosion. It’s a great opening scene that sets up the movie’s setting very well.

One of the most interesting things to me about this first Mad Max film is that it’s never really spelled out in the movie what exactly has happened to the world that led to this point. We get more background in the second movie, but in the first one it’s left very ambiguous. The movie opens with the words “A FEW YEARS FROM NOW…”, so it’s always set in the near future no matter when you watch it.

Also, and this is fascinating to me, there appears to still be some semblance of civilization and society that have survived. There’s still an organized police force, the MFP, of which Max himself is a member. There are still restaurants and nightclubs and there even appear to be lawyers and some kind of justice system still in place, so while it’s clear that things have started to go downhill at this point, they haven’t yet gone completely to hell (although that has certainly happened by the time the second movie takes place).

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Another thing I noticed while re-watching the movie last weekend was that, with the exception of Max, all of the MFP officers are pretty damn useless. They manage to wreck two of their squad cars and almost run over a little kid in the street while pursuing the Nightrider, and he would clearly have gotten away if Max hadn’t joined the chase when he did. It made me think that maybe the MFP is just accepting whoever the hell shows up and volunteers to be an officer, since (again, except for Max) most of them seem to have no idea what the hell they’re doing.

The MFP is headquartered at the grandiose-sounding Hall of Justice. Isn’t that the same place where the Justice League was headquartered? Ironically enough, director George Miller was attached to a Justice League movie at some point, but it never happened. It’s really too bad.

Anyway, the name “Hall of Justice” sounds very proper and justice-y, and would maybe give the MFP a little more credibility, if it weren’t for the fact that the Hall of Justice is an absolute shithole. Seriously, it looks like an abandoned building that a bunch of druggies would use as a crack den.

Now that I think about it, it’s a little bit funny that the MFP is so useless. Are parts of this movie intended to be satirical? I dunno, maybe. There is a sense of cruel irony to it, in the sense that, as the world is going down the tubes, the people who are supposed to prevent it from going any further downhill are pretty much completely unprepared and unable to do so.

The captain (or lieutenant or whatever) of the MFP is one weird-looking dude. Just look at this bastard and tell me you don’t feel the need to take a shower for some reason.

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I actually took notes on all three movies as I watched them, which I don’t usually do, and I think my note on this freaking guy speaks for itself. In my notebook, I wrote, and I quote: “The police captain looks like the commandant of a Nazi sex dungeon.” I defy anyone to disagree with that. His name is Fifi, for crying out loud! If that’s not the name of a commandant of a Nazi sex dungeon, then I just don’t know what is.

So we’ve established that the cops in this movie are a bunch of incompetent losers who are in way over their heads and are run by a guy whose tastes I don’t even want to speculate on, now how about the actual villains in the film?

Well, turns out that our old friend the recently-deceased Nightrider was part of a crew led by a fellow called the Toecutter, who looks like this:

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Yeah, he definitely looks scarier than Fifi the sex-dungeon enthusiast, and him and his pals, while all clearly loony, are better organized and much more ferocious than the hapless MFP.

SIDE NOTE: the actor who plays the Toecutter, a fellow by the name of Hugh Keays-Byrne, plays the villain Immortan Joe in Fury Road. You know that dude from the trailers with the terrifying skull-mask thingy and a serious case of crazy eyes?

You know, this guy?

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Yup, same actor. It’s cool that they’re bringing him back to play another psychotic villain. Kinda makes me feel all warm and fuzzy.

Anyway, the Toecutter is the leader of a motorcycle gang whose members, like I said, all appear to be off their rockers, but they do display some measure of loyalty towards their leader (or maybe they’re all just scared of him), and they’re much more ruthless than the MFP. If you took the MFP and the Toecutter’s gang and dropped them all into an enclosed area and made them fight to the death team-deathmatch style, I know which team I would put my money on.

The funny thing about the original Mad Max is that it (and its sequels) seem to have reputations as really super-violent movies, but, by today’s standards at least, they’re really not. In the first movie in particular, much of the violence happens off-screen. It’s really not a particularly violent film at all. Maybe it was by 1979 standards, but I’ve seen PG-13 (hell, even PG)-rated movies with way more violence than this R-rated one has.

In my opinion at least, the movie is a little boring. There are long stretches where nothing much really happens. The movie spends a long time with Max and his wife and their kid as they go on vacation, and nothing all that interesting really happens. Eventually, of course, they do run afoul of the Toecutter and his crazy pals, who run down Max’s wife and kid. And, even though Max’s family are murdered by presumably being run over by psycho bikers, we don’t see this happen directly, as the camera pulls away just as Max’s wife and son are about to go down. It’s another example of how the movie leaves a lot to the viewer’s imagination.

After this happens, Max has nothing left to live for but good old-fashioned REVENGE, so he swipes the Nightrider’s car from impound and takes off after the Toecutter and his gang of psycho-douches.

Also, I forgot to mention that the Nightrider’s car (I could be wrong about this so don’t get mad at me) just so happens to be the classic Interceptor, the iconic Mad Max car, which I think the MFP somehow managed to salvage and put back together after the opening chase scene (at least I think that’s what happened).

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Max hunts down and takes out the Toecutter and his crew (in the process being shot in the leg and having his arm run over by a motorcycle), and has a dead look in his eyes as the movie ends. I have no idea if George Miller ever thought he would get to make a sequel to this movie, but he does a great job of setting up Max as the wasteland-wanderer we see in the second movie.

One of the many things I love about these three movies is that there is a strong sense of progression from film to film. There is no real indication as to how much time passes between the first and second movies (or the second and third movies), but watching all three sequentially gives the viewer a strong sense of the downward spiral of society.

In the first movie there is still some semblance of civilization, but in the second movie that is nowhere to be found. And by the time the third movie takes place, people have moved on from the old world and started to form new societies.

I’ve already written about The Road Warrior, which is the second Mad Max film, in my post titled “The Man We Called Max,” and I still stand by everything I wrote in that post, so I refer you to that if you want my more detailed analysis of the film.

But don’t worry, I’m not going to skip over The Road Warrior entirely, I love it far too much for that. There are a couple of things that stood out to me on my most recent viewing, which I would like to describe here.

max to the max

The main thing I realized is that there are strong parallels drawn between the two opposing groups in the film. Just as a refresher, in The Road Warrior a group of folks holed up in an oil pumping station are in conflict with the Wasteland marauders led by the Lord Humungus (the muscular guy with the hockey mask in the poster above), who want their hoard of gasoline. In the world of The Road Warrior, mobility equals survival, and gasoline is more valuable than gold.

But what I realized is that these two opposing groups aren’t really all that different. There’s one specific bit of dialogue that keyed me in to this, which requires a bit of background.

I think most people would agree that the Lord Humungus is one scary-looking dude.

Road_Warrior_Lord_Humongous

One of his henchmen, Wez, hangs out with a blond dude and it’s implied that Wez and the blond guy have a thing together. When his boy toy gets killed by a razor-sharp metal boomerang to the head, Wez flips out and Humungus attempts to calm him down.

What Humungus says to Wez is very interesting. He says, “Be still my dog of war. I understand your pain. We’ve all lost someone we love. But we do it my way!”

This fascinates me. Humungus doesn’t get angry at Wez, he talks to him as a friend and sympathizes with him. He seems to genuinely care for him. Despite his frightening appearance, Humungus appears to be the most sane and rational of his entire group, which is probably at least part of the reason why he’s in charge. His statement that they do things his way indicates that he is used to getting what he wants, but it also suggests that he has a plan that doesn’t involve just running into the pumping station and killing everyone there, which is clearly what Wez is in favor of doing.

He goes on to tell Wez that, “We do it my way. Fear is our ally. The gasoline will be ours. Then you shall have your revenge.” Humungus sympathizes with his screwy pal, but he’s got his priorities straight, and he clearly understands the value of intimidation.

And even more interestingly, he appears to not be without some measure of compassion. His appearance suggests a mindless killing machine, but his words and actions say otherwise. He even gives the people in the pumping station multiple chances to leave peacefully. I’m quoting him a lot here, but only because this is so intriguing to me. After he calms Wez down, he picks up his microphone and tells the pumping station inhabitants that “There has been too much violence. Too much pain. But I have an honorable compromise. Just walk away. Give me your pump, your oil, the gasoline, and the whole compound, and I’ll spare your lives. Just walk away and we’ll give you a safe passageway in the wastelands. Just walk away and there will be an end to the horror.”

He clearly understands what he is putting the beleaguered inhabitants of the pumping station through. You could even say that his speech here is tinged with just a bit of regret at the fact that he has to cause more pain. He’s seen (and caused) his share of pain and suffering, and he doesn’t want to cause any more if he can avoid it.

Look, I’m not trying to hold up the Humungus as a shining beacon of humanity and virtue in the post-apocalyptic wasteland. He’s clearly not a really nice guy, since he lets his men kill and rape pretty much whoever they want. And there is of course no way of knowing if he would have kept his promise of safe passage and not just killed everybody as soon as they surrendered, but I dunno, something about the way he says it makes me think he’s serious.

He’s not a brainless lunkhead like some (heck, maybe most if Wez is any indication) of his acolytes, and he understands honor and compassion. I get the impression that he’s the only person capable of keeping his group together, and that without him around, they’d all turn on each other in a heartbeat.

When it comes to the Humungus, I’m torn between being happy at the fact that his background is never given, since it makes him a more mysterious character, and really wanting to know exactly what this bastard’s origin story is.

We get maybe a hint of it when he takes out his signature weapon, a scoped magnum revolver, which he keeps in a red-lined case.

Humungus gun

We can see what look like medals of some kind, perhaps indicating a military background. And although it’s slightly obscured by the scope in the picture, there appears to be some kind of skull-and-crossbones emblem. I’m no expert here, but to me it looks a lot like a Nazi Totenkopf, or Death’s Head symbol, which was used by the SS in World War II.

SS_Totenkopf

And who’s in the picture? Is it him? Maybe his parents? Did the gun belong to his father or something? He clearly cares about it, since he takes such pains to preserve it and only brings it out for special occasions (as a side note, Googling “Nazi totenkopf” probably put me on some kind of CIA or Homeland Security watch list. The things I do in the name of blogging).

These movies are so good at suggesting things, which is so hard to do effectively. It is really hard to show and not tell. It is really hard to be subtle. How many movies and TV shows have you seen that get bogged down at times by endless exposition? It’s a storytelling crutch that can be hard to avoid, but these movies do it effortlessly.

And I realize I talked for quite a while there about the Humungus, but I promise there was a point to all that. Remember when I said that there was one particular bit of dialogue that keyed me in to the idea that the marauders and the defenders of the pumping station aren’t all that different? Well, the first half of that comes in what Humungus says to Wez to calm him down, and tells him that they have all lost something.

The second half comes when the leader of the pumping station, named Pappagallo, is trying to convince Max to stay with them. Max wants to leave, but Pappagallo presses him, and what I realized here is that Pappagallo’s message to Max is almost exactly the same as Humungus’ message to Wez earlier.

Pappagallo implores Max to tell him his story, and says, “Tell me your story, Max. C’mon. Tell me your story. What burned you out, huh? Kill one man too many? See too many people die? Lose some family?”

At this, Max glares at Pappagallo angrily, but he continues undeterred. “Oh, so that’s it, you lost your family? That makes you something special, does it?”

Max loses his temper at this remark and punches Pappagallo in the face. But Pappagallo is nothing if not persistent, and when he gets up he says, “Do you think you’re the only one that’s suffered? We’ve all been through it in here, but we haven’t given up. We’re still human beings, with dignity.”

This sets up a very strong parallel between Humungus and Wez, and Pappagallo and Max. Max’s mistake is in thinking that the fact he has lost something makes him special. But it doesn’t. In this world, everyone has lost something. What makes one person different from another, and what truly separates Pappagallo’s group from Humungus’ group, is in how you deal with it, and in how you choose to move on.

By the end of the movie, I like to think Max has learned that. At the end of the first movie he has a dead look in his eyes, suggesting that some part of his soul has died along with his family. At the end of the second movie, despite being bruised and battered, he looks somehow more purposeful, like he has realized that life, despite its hardships and despite everything he has lost, can still be worth living, and that, as the film’s opening narration tells us, he has learned to live again.

Which brings us to the third movie, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, probably the least-loved of the three.

Mad_max_beyond_thunderdome poster

Beyond Thunderdome is a movie of two halves, and its main problem is that its two halves don’t fit together very well.

In the first half, Max stumbles across a place called Bartertown, run by Aunty Entity, played by Tina Turner. Bartertown runs on Methane, generated by pigsh*t. Aunty Entity is in the middle of a bit of an energy crisis with the guy, or guys, who run the Underworld, which is where the pigsh*t farming takes place (it sounds weird when you write it down, but it makes more sense when you see it in the movie).

The Underworld is run by MasterBlaster. MasterBlaster is actually two people – Master is a small fellow who rides on the back of Blaster, a hulking behemoth of a man. Master is the brains, Blaster is the muscle.

master-blaster-mad-max-road-warrior

Master knows that, since he controls the energy supply, he’s really the one in charge of Bartertown, and he repeatedly rubs this in Aunty Entity’s face. Aunty Entity does not take kindly to this, and so she hires Max to take care of the problem for her. Max picks a fight with MasterBlaster, which leads to him facing off with Blaster in the titular Thunderdome, where the only, oft-repeated rule is, “Two men enter, one man leaves.”

The Thunderdome fight is very creatively staged, where Max and Blaster are both suspended from cables strung from the top of the dome. There are weapons at various places in the dome, which can be reached using the cables the combatants are suspended from.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome 1985 Mel Gibson pic 1

Max eventually defeats Blaster by using a high-pitched whistle, after having previously discovered that Blaster has a weakness to loud, high-pitched noises. Max refuses to kill Blaster, however, after knocking his helmet off and discovering that Blaster, despite his hulking physique, has the mind of a child. Aunty Entity, unhappy that Max has reneged on his deal, executes Blaster anyway, leaving Master helpless. Master loses quite a bit of his bluster once Blaster is gone, which is really sad to see, as he cries despondently over the body of his fallen comrade.

Aunty Entity sentences Max to exile in the Wasteland for having reneged on their deal and Max wanders the desert and eventually collapses from exhaustion.

It is here that the second half of the film begins, and in many ways it feels like a completely different movie. Max is found by a mysterious young woman who takes him back to her home, where she lives with a group of children, who are the descendants of a group of people whose plane crashed in the desert years ago. They think that Max is Captain Walker, the captain of the plane, and that he has returned to lead them to safety. Max hates to burst their bubble, but he tells them that he’s not Captain Walker, and some of the more devout among them refuse to accept this.

Through a series of circumstances, some of them end up going back to Bartertown and rescuing the imprisoned Master, and the film climaxes with an epic pursuit across the desert as Aunty Entity and her henchmen give chase. Ultimately, the kids escape and I guess establish some sort of settlement in the ruins of Sydney, where they tell tales of Max, the man who saved them.

At the end of the climactic chase, Aunty Entity decides to let Max live, and as the film ends  he wanders into the desert into places unknown, as he passes into legend among the tribe of lost children.

So, yeah. I’m just going to come right out and say that the kids in the movie are basically the Lost Boys from Peter Pan. My problem with this aspect of the story is that seems like a rehash of the previous film, where Max becomes the savior of a different group of people. I mean geez, can this guy not go anywhere in the Wasteland without becoming someone’s mythological savior?

mad max kids

I still love the idea of the loner who shows up and saves everyone and then disappears (I talked about this a bit more in my previous post on The Road Warrior), but it’s just not as poignant in Beyond Thunderdome as it was in The Road Warrior. Partly it’s because the kids are, let’s be honest, kind of annoying. Their way of speaking is a bit overly cutesy (sample kid line: “Time counts and keeps countin’, and we knows now finding the trick of what’s been and lost ain’t no easy ride”), and they just don’t really connect very well with the first half of the film.

My other problem with this movie is that, ultimately, I wasn’t sure what it was trying to be about. Is it about survival? Redemption? Moving on from the old world? I don’t know. By the end of the movie, it just left me feeling unsatisfied. To me, it didn’t have a satisfying conclusion, and it doesn’t really feel like it goes anywhere.

It also lacks a strong central antagonist. I wasn’t even sure who the villain of the movie was supposed to be. I guess it’s Aunty Entity, but she didn’t seem particularly evil to me. She’s power-hungry and a bit ruthless, but that doesn’t automatically make her evil. The movie lacks a clearly-defined conflict, and that makes it feel a bit empty. The movie has good ideas but doesn’t really know what to do with them.

Still, overall, I love these films. What I’ve realized over the course of writing this epically long post is that I only love one of these films individually. That film is of course The Road Warrior, which will always be one of my all-time favorite movies. I like and appreciate the first and third films in the trilogy, but I don’t love them.

But taken as a whole, as an overall trilogy, I do love these movies, even if I don’t love them all individually. There’s a strong sense of connectivity and continuity between them, and they all present different, distinct stages of what the world could be like after the downfall of society.

There’s also a strong sense of continuity in the character of Max himself. Even the injuries he sustains from one movie to the next carry over. In The Road Warrior, Max’s outfit is the result of the injuries he received from the Toecutter’s gang (the sleeve of Max’s right arm is ripped off where it was run over by a motorcycle, and Max walks with a slight limp and wears a brace on his left leg where he was shot in the first movie). And in the third movie, if you look close enough, you’ll notice Max’s left eye is always dilated and there’s a slight scar over his eyebrow, due to the injury he received in the second movie after his car was run off the road.

max and aunty

While I would only consider one of these films (the second one) to be a masterpiece, taken as a whole they still work extremely well. Each film can stand on its own, but they also strongly cohere as a unit, and I think that these films will continue to be remembered. They have already stood the test of time, and I strongly believe that they will continue to do so. Something about these movies has really resonated with people, and from what I’ve heard about Fury Road so far, the future is looking bright…

…for the man we called Max.

the man we called max