2015: The Year in Villainy

Another year, another roundup of baddies. There were a lot of big-franchise movies this year, with a lot of big-name villains, as well as a couple of memorable new (evil) faces. Without further ado, let’s get to the villainy!

Richmond Valentine in Kingsman: The Secret Service

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Samuel L. Jackson played one of the most unique villains of the year. A billionaire who wants to destroy humanity because he believes they are a disease that must be exterminated in order to save the planet, he speaks with a lisp and grows nauseous at the sight of blood. He’s also got a first-rate evil lair hidden in the mountains, protected by surface-to-air missiles and an army of henchmen. He may not be the scariest villain of the year, given the film’s comedic tone, but certainly one of the most entertaining.

Deckard Shaw in Furious 7

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I love Jason Statham, and he doesn’t usually play bad guys, so it was really fun to watch him cut loose and turn to the dark side for a while. I’ll admit that his character didn’t have all that much personality, but every time he showed up in the movie, his appearance was accompanied by a fight, shootout, or ridiculous car chase. He kicked plenty of ass, and probably got his hands dirty more than any other villain on this list, which earns him a spot as one of my favorite villains of 2015.

Ultron in Avengers: Age of Ultron

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For a while, Gollum was the most realistic digital character around, but some of the recent Marvel movies have given old Smeagol a run for his money (Rocket and Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy are other examples of this). But in terms of digitally-created villains, Ultron steals the show. Age of Ultron was a mixed bag, the story was a bit of a mess and the whole film felt overstuffed, but it was still plenty of fun and James Spader gave a fantastic performance as the titular villain. He gave Ultron distinctive mannerisms that made him feel like much more than just your average everyday murderous robot. When you’ve got five or six superheroes in one movie, you need a villain capable of standing up to all of them, and Ultron fit that description perfectly.

Immortan Joe in Mad Max: Fury Road

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I may be biased here because Mad Max: Fury Road was far and away my favorite movie of 2015, but Immortan Joe was also my favorite villain of 2015. A classic dictator and a first-class bullshit artist, Immortan Joe was the kind of villain who would scare the pants off you, but he was so magnetic you couldn’t take your eyes off that terrifying visage. He was the kind of villain you love to hate, and his was also one of the most viscerally and emotionally satisfying deaths of the year. When Charlize Theron’s equally-badass Furiosa hooked his mask to the wheel of his truck and ripped half his face off, it was enough to make you want to stand up and cheer.

John Connor in Terminator Genisys

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You’ve got to give the makers of Terminator Genisys some credit. It took some serious cojones to make John Connor, the savior of humanity in the previous Terminator films, the bad guy in the most recent installment. That would be like making Harry Potter a dark wizard. But what one hand gives, the other hand takes away, since the reveal of Connor as the bad guy was relentlessly spoiled in every bit of the film’s advertising. Posters, trailers, you name it, all of it gave away the big twist. It was really too bad, since it hugely undermined the film’s big reveal of the villain. Jason Clarke still did solid work in the role, but the damage was done and the twist didn’t have as much of an impact as it should have. Still, it took balls, and I do have to give the filmmakers some credit for that.

Yellowjacket in Ant-Man

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Ant-Man was great fun, one of the most purely entertaining movies I saw this year. And it just makes sense that Ant-Man’s nemesis would be another insect-based character. Yellowjacket had the same shrinking abilities as Ant-Man, but of course he added more laser guns, as any self-respecting villain probably would. The climactic battle between Ant-Man and Yellowjacket is one of the most unique in all of cinema. You will not find anything else quite like it, and that alone makes the movie worth checking out.

Solomon Lane in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

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The fifth installment in the venerable spy series was all about providing Tom Cruise’s superspy Ethan Hunt with equals. Newcomer Rebecca Ferguson neatly stole the movie as slinky, sexy spy Ilsa Faust, who was every bit the equal to Cruise’s character, but she’s not on this list because she was not the villain. That title belongs to Solomon Lane, the devious criminal mastermind who managed the difficult task of frequently out-maneuvering Ethan Hunt himself. He’s a shadowy figure for much of the film, speaking in a silent, raspy voice that drips with menace. The villain in the previous Mission: Impossible movie was a bit flat, but Solomon Lane more than made up for that.

Franz Oberhauser in Spectre

2015 villains oberhauser

Spectre was a bit of a comedown after the awesomeness that was Skyfall, and that included the film’s villain. Christoph Waltz is an amazing actor, and it’s always fun to watch him be evil, but his character was not quite as memorable as Javier Bardem’s was in Skyfall. Still, Waltz is more than up to the task of being a Bond villain. Few actors provide more reliable villainy than Waltz, and he does so again here. There’s nothing really wrong with his character or his performance, but it would be tough for anyone to follow up Javier Bardem’s villainous turn in Skyfall, even an actor of Waltz’s caliber. But it’s still a kick to watch Waltz do his thing, even if his character wasn’t all it could have been.

Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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Don’t worry, this entry will be spoiler-free. Although, given the ridiculous amount of money Episode VII has already made, most people reading this will have probably already seen it. But on the off chance that you haven’t seen it yet, I won’t give anything major away. Suffice to say that Kylo Ren’s true identity drops a pretty big bombshell in the middle of the Star Wars mythos. He’s played by an actor named Adam Driver, who I was unfamiliar with, but I thought he did a pretty great job playing a role that he must have known would be carefully scrutinized by legions of rabid fans. The Force Awakens was a hell of a ride, and it did exactly what it was supposed to do, in that it left you wanting more, and wanting more NOW. It’ll be a few years before we get to see the continuation of the story, but I can’t wait to see what the future has in store for everyone’s new favorite dark Jedi.

So there you have it, the best of the best of 2015’s villainous vagabonds. There are plenty of big movies coming in 2016, including a whole slew of comic-book movies that feature some truly iconic baddies (does the name the Joker ring a bell?), so I’ll see you at the movie theater.

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.

IMMORTAN JOE BITCHES

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.

mad max 1979 gibson

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).

mad max 1979 poster

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.

mad max fifi

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:

mad max toecutter

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?

IMMORTAN JOE BITCHES

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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

The Man We Called Max

“My life fades. The vision dims. All that remains are memories. I remember a time of chaos. Ruined dreams. This wasted land. But most of all, I remember The Road Warrior. The man we called ‘Max’…In the roar of an engine, he lost everything. And became a shell of a man, a burnt out, desolate man, a man haunted by the demons of his past, a man who wandered out into the wasteland. And it was here, in this blighted place, that he learned to live again…”

God, I love that. I’d forgotten how much I love The Road Warrior until I caught part of it on TV the other day, which inspired me to dust off my old DVD copy of it and give it another watch.

road warrior poster 1

It’s such a great movie, and its greatness is apparent right from the opening narration. Starting a movie with voiceover can be risky, but I can’t think of any other movie that does it as well as The Road Warrior. It sets the stage perfectly. It’s evocative and poetic, and gives some background to the story while still leaving room in the viewer’s mind for interpretation.

This is even more impressive considering the fact that the movie is actually a sequel to an earlier film. The Road Warrior is actually Mad Max 2, but it was renamed The Road Warrior in the US because the first Mad Max, released in 1979, received only limited distribution in the United States. So when a sequel was made, they changed the name for US distribution in order to avoid confusing audiences.

I’m kind of glad it worked out that way to be honest, since it had the effect of making The Road Warrior feel like a very standalone movie. The opening narration does include some brief flashbacks to the first movie, but The Road Warrior is still very much its own film.

And I like that because it makes the whole movie feel so much more mysterious. It’s one of those rare sequels that is able to stand completely on its own.

In that respect it is not unlike its protagonist, a classic loner whose only companions are his car, his dog, and his double-barreled sawed-off shotgun.

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It’s a classic archetype, from The Man With No Name…

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To Conan the Barbarian…

1982, CONAN THE BARBARIAN

To Jack Reacher…

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To any number of other westerns and samurai movies.

Some time ago I wrote about ONE MAN MOVIES, in which ONLY ONE MAN can save the day. The Road Warrior is definitely a ONE MAN MOVIE, but of a somewhat different sort. It belongs to the variety of ONE MAN MOVIE in which the protagonist is given little background, shows up out of nowhere to help people in need, and then disappears into the sunset, never to be seen again.

And yes, I realize that Max’s background is shown in the first movie, but the entire point of what I was saying earlier is that there is little background given for Max in just this particular movie, so that the viewer is able to make it up for him- or herself.

Max becomes a sort of mythological figure in the movie, the kind of man told about in stories around the campfire. He showed up, he saved them from the marauders, and then he vanished. And I just love that. I’ve always been a bit of a loner myself, and that type of character has always really appealed to me. And clearly I’m not the only one, since there are so many examples of this type of character.

The Road Warrior is a dreamlike movie, and it succeeds with only the bare minimum of plot. It takes place in a world that has elements of the world we live in, but is dramatically different in myriad other ways.

There’s also not a great deal of dialogue in the film, and there doesn’t really need to be. According to the movie’s trivia section on IMDb, Mel Gibson only has 16 lines of dialogue in the entire film, and two of them are “I only came for the gasoline.” This is a man who doesn’t waste words, and, as with anyone who doesn’t talk much, this has the effect of making everything he says have much more impact. So you know he’s serious when he says the classic line, “You want to get out of here? You talk to me.”

I’ve praised Mel Gibson’s acting before when I wrote about Lethal Weapon, and I will praise him again here. He’s so good as Max that it is difficult to imagine anyone else playing Max in the movie. He underplays Max so that his motives aren’t always clear, which makes him riveting to watch because you’re never quite sure what he’s going to do next.

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Max isn’t the only memorable character in the movie, either. The villains in particular are just as memorable, from the leader of the bad guys, The Humungus…

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To his main henchman, Wez…

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I like to imagine that Wez and the Humungus were like accountants or Microsofties or something who went totally batshit once the world went to hell and became post-apocalyptic marauders. It’s unlikely, especially given the Humungus’ bodybuilder-like physique (have you ever known a Microsoftie that buff?) but it’s entirely possible.

As a side note, Wez is played by the same actor who played Bennett in Commando, and if you’re as big of a fan of that movie as I am you’ll know who that is right off the top of your head.

And of course I can’t forget to mention the epic chase scenes. The Road Warrior is a classic car movie, with stunts, crashes, and chases that still stand up more than thirty years after the movie was released. The final chase sequence in this movie is epic, and easily ranks among the greatest cinematic car chases of all time. It’s even more impressive when you consider that this film was made before the advent of computer-generated special effects, so everything you see in the movie is completely real, and every vehicle had an actual driver.

It’s also worth mentioning that Max is one of only two characters in the movie who uses an actual firearm, everyone else uses mostly crossbows. That the movie is able to sustain as much tension as it does largely without the use of guns is another impressive feat.

The Road Warrior is a classic. It’s just a really great movie that holds up really well more than thirty years after it was released. It has had a huge impact on popular culture, which it is set to continue in 2015, when the long-delayed fourth film Mad Max: Fury Road will be released, starring Tom Hardy as Max and directed by the same guy who directed The Road Warrior, George Miller. The first trailer was just released at Comic-Con and I have to say that it looks pretty promising. Check it out if you haven’t already.

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I for one can’t wait to see what the future has in store…for the man we called Max.