Friday, February 28, 2014

George Miller's The Road Warrior Still Drinking Your Sequel's Milkshake

There is a preconceived notion with film sequels. Although a fraction of exuberance to see a continuation of a story a great deal of people enjoyed, there's also a immediate concede that it will never touch the original. Almost makes the process the very definition of fatalistic, despite almost a guaranteed a cash flow for a studio.

"It won't be as good as the first." I mentioned this last time. This cliche is another you can shelve next to "It's not as good as the book" in the library of lame film criticism.

But, as we all know, there are surprises from time to time. Probably more than we actually realize where a sequel lives up to its predecessor or dare say exceeds it.

Again, this is something everyone will have distinct opinions on and it's useless being a troll about it. Believe me, I can riff for awhile like an asshole about how I think The Dark Knight is way overrated, but nevertheless people will back that as a superior product to Batman Begins.

Of course the pinnacle of sequel debates usually takes all of a minute before Godfather II and Empire Strikes Back is brought up. And both deserve their due. Godfather II won the Oscar for Best Picture. Empire Strikes Back has yet to be dethroned as the best of either Star Wars trilogy. But those are also low hanging fruit. That's easy to say, even though there's definitely credence to it. Terminator 2, Aliens. Give them their due as well, no doubt about it. But again, these are low hanging fruit.

In 1979, Australian filmmaker George Miller released Mad Max, a dystopian, violent action story set in the backdrop of a world where the shortage on gasoline creates its own energy of volatility. Max is our hero. Mel Gibson; years before he would blow up as Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon. He is a just a cop doing his job, but through the violence he experiences, he becomes disillusioned to the point of leaving the police force. Fate sadly intervenes when his wife and child are run over by a motorcycle gang, which ultimately turns Max into, well, Mad Max, the vigilante who only lives now for vengeance and the lives taken from him.

Max gets his closure by films end in one of the best payoffs for a face to triumph over a heel, as he drops a hacksaw next to the villain who he has handcuffed to an overturned car spilling gasoline. "The chain in those handcuffs is high-tensile steel. It'd take you ten minutes to hack through it with this. Now, if you're lucky, you could hack through your ankle in five minutes. Go."

As Max drives away, the car explodes behind him, and he speeds out of our lives into the wide open Outback. Vengeance fuliflled. Our final image are the white lines screaming past Max's car on the highway. Driving towards what? We don't know. With his family avenged what is left for Max?

Miller's Mad Max might have been glossed over in the US with varying reception among critics but was a huge success around the world and laid the groundwork for a second installment that for most of the world was simply dubbed Mad Max 2. Here in the US, due to studio thinking no one had seen or liked Mad Max, gave it another title. Whatever you want to call it, be it Mad Max 2 or The Road Warrior, Miller's sequel is arguably the best sequel ever made.

Let's take one more look at Mad Max before we dive in. George Miller created a deeply polarizing, violent, dystopic, even exploitive character study that went on to make over a hundred million in worldwide box office. The character of Max goes on a very relatable journey. Not to say all of us battle marauding motorcycle gangs and find our family turned into road kill before launching into a vindictive third act. But it's at least relatable in the aspect that in a world of energy crisis and increased volatility, the level of ramped up violence leads to an internal conflict that is logically manifested into a bloody climax. As Kevin Costner says during the mound meeting in Bull Durham, "We're dealing with a lot of shit here!"

Why this is important to restate is within the first ten minutes of The Road Warrior (at least the US version because we were dumb and ill-informed about who the hell Max was) he completely invalidates the necessity for a first movie to exist. Those ten minutes of flashback, highlighting the high points of Max Max, give you everything you need to know as the camera comes pulling back like a screaming rocket ship out of the grill of Max's Interceptor.

The Road Warrior from the get-go gives you the high octane vehicular kinetics that Mad Max set you up for previously, and most certainly they ramp it up. At the time, this became Australia's most expensive film, which nowadays we expect from a sequel. The stunt-work has been previously chronicled in documentaries and deserves its fair share of praise. No matter the risk involved, these guys were excited about what they were putting together.

But to put The Road Warrior on such a high pedestal because of stunt-work alone would be superfluous. What separates and distances The Road Warrior from its predecessor is the combination of character and story.

The funny thing is the story is nothing original. Miller, like so many directors, lifted from the likes of Kurosawa and specifically Yojimbo. Fifteen years before the world embraced Clint Eastwood in a similar plot in A Fistful of Dollars, Kurosawa gave birth to arguably the most influential plot in the last fifty years. The loner, the mercenary, hungry for his own profit, looking out for his own interests, finds himself in the position to make that big score but finds it is at the expense of a struggling few against a larger enemy. The loner, Max, is ultimately faced with the internal conflict of taking the money and running or putting those interests aside to help those in need.

Character-wise, the arc of Max through The Road Warrior is extraordinary. The young, dutiful cop, a family man, reduced to the rubble of solitude in a world of madness. That's the man in the US narration we see. Once we're launched into the present time, Max is a shell of that man, and Mel Gibson sells it. His dialogue is kept to sixteen words only, so when he speaks you know its important, and he doesn't rush any of those sixteen words. They are as valuable as the two shotgun shells he has in his limited arsenal.

By the end of the film, once he has made the choice and helped the group of settlers get away, he doesn't inherit a new family. There's no new wife or child. There's not even the glory of the profit. That part of his life was lost in the physical form. But with his actions, he finds closure. Alone in the Outback but a man with closure.

Even a protagonist, alone, though, and his arc can't be the scale-tipper to give The Road Warrior the edge. Max's opposition, his villains, are a complete step-up from what we saw in Max Max. (And those guys killed his family in cold blood. You can't get more evil that.)

And yet standing somewhere around six feet three, damn near three hundred pounds, a steel hockey mask covering his face and rolling around in a black leather studded speedo is Lord Humungus. The Ayatollah of Rock n' Rolla. He is the head of the snake. He sends the dogs of war into the great wide open of Australia's white light nightmare. His goal is absolute. A derivative of John Huston's Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Humungus' madness, however, isn't for the gold. It's for the gas, for gas is the true measure of wealth in the world post-Mad Max. The gas.

And if it wasn't enough that this guy's a beast, he's got a mohawked rider with shoulder pads and a quick tendency to fly off the handle. He is Humongous' most dangerous dog of war, Wez. There is no one more relentless for Max's blood than Wez from the opening scene to his fiery demise. And to top it all off, the way you can tell this might be the most badass guy in the post-apocalyptic Australian west? He proudly displays a pretty blonde boy on the back of his motorcycle as a not-so-subtle prize of war and part of Miller's subtle subversive homoeroticism. You want to that guy he can't take a boy as his own? Try again.

Maybe that was all way off the rails, but Miller gives you so much to chew on in with his top two villains in The Road Warrior. Take this into account as well: these two guys and their look became the basis for not one but two of wrestling's most famous tag teams in the 80's. Yeah, you can take a dump on wrestling as much as you want, but The Road Warriors and Demolition were as bad ass as tag teams got.

Broad strokes again, The Road Warrior is by and large a perfect film. Could it exist on its own in the Mad Max universe? Absolutely. What it comes down to is ultimately how you follow your previous film. Do you keep the momentum going? Godfather II did in spades. It earned its Oscar. Do you ramp up and enter a new realm of your saga? Empire Strikes Back did in spades. But the Ace of Spades is do you completely outdo and (I'll use the word again) invalidate your predecessor out of existence? That's The Road Warrior's legacy. A god damn amazing display of characters and story fuzed with action so perfectly on the verge of out of control that only Brian May could score it.

God damn fucking perfect.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Under Duress: The Argument for John Carpenter to Wreck Your Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore has sadly become a hot-button phrase for reasons that have nothing to do with the four men that occupy its space. It's a sports buzz topic for the last few weeks since Lebron James answered a reporter's question that simultaneously omitted Bill Russell from his quartet and anointed himself as a future occupant. Both responses drew a certain amount of ire and criticism. Now every athlete, every sports pundit, every writer has jumped into the fray to voice their opinion.

Well, shit, I just realized I'm in that same pack too since I'm bringing this up. I've heard radio show hosts maintain that the Mount Rushmore topic is a rainy day draw; mainly used for the slow sports day when the wire happens to be cold for a few hours. (How they can really be cold when that bottom line ticker on every ESPN channel never stops churning, I'll never know.)

However, I digress. We're here to talk about film, and in particular, directors. People love to make lists in film. People love to interject about who one-ups who in the art form of cinema. So let's get down with it.

I want to propose something more here in my maiden post for Under Duress. Great directors are easy to peg in a "gun to the head" situation. American, British, French, doesn't matter. Everyone has their arguments.

Since we're in the wake of Rushmore-gate, why not give in to our innate nationalistic tendencies and completely sensationalize in the spirit of Lebron. Who goes on the Mount Rushmore of American film directors?

I'm not actually going to make a list, here. Not by any means. Again, I want this blog to be able to go in different directions or at least make the attempt to. You all can answer the question yourselves about who belongs on it. What I'm here to do is propose an argument for someone who will likely in 95% of people's answers be left omitted.

Everyone can throw a name against the wall like spaghetti and give a reason for it to stick. Whether its Oscars or box office stack rankings. Everyone has their reasons. Arguments about themes, motifs; all of the accoutrements of a ninth grade English paper. All of which can be backed up passionately or even scholastically.

Rather than that, let's get concrete. Oscars are a political campaign left in the end to votes. Concrete. Gun to my head, I'm taking John Carpenter. The Master of Horror himself. Simple lip service would be the fact that he created arguably one of the most influential films of all time in Halloween. Kids of the 80's can fall back simply on the fact that he made Big Trouble In Little China and raised the bar for badass Kurt Russell moments in film with every collaboration they did.

I'll simply fall back on the number four (although as a kid of the 80's I got an incredible fill from Big Trouble in Little China on almost a weekly basis).

Four remakes. Four times John Carpenter's films have been remade. And let's not forget that at least twice the rumor has been heavy that Escape From New York would make number five.

How did this happen? This is a man who doesn't have a plethora of Oscars. How did the "cheesy movie synthesizer guy" (no joke, thats a quote) get remade four times?

Because he's fucking good. And arguably the fucking best.

Someone is always bound to make the argument that a film gets remade because the original wasn't good, but that's more than a mixed bag. The bigger question to ask is how with more money and seemingly better technology to make a film more commercial to the masses have each of these five failed to come even close the resonance Carpenter left us?

Eh, that's a part of another debate. Film style has changed. We all know that. I'm not here to get into the endless "remakes suck" debate. You can shelf that next to the "book is better" debate and let it collect dust.

But with four remakes out of his catalogue of feature films, the question has to come back to "why?" It's not because the originals were't good. I mentioned the resonance earlier; the resonance Carpenter left us with each of his films, or at least most of them.

Government mistrust, unlikely allies in the man (or woman) you consider a enemy. A couple of the major motifs. Very universal, though. Whether it's 1974 or 2014, people everywhere can identify on that level, and Carpenter tapped into that with a combination of slow, deliberate build-ups that created a mountain of tension.

I'm not going to delve into why each and every film is brilliant. I'm already long-winded enough with this thing, but Carpenter was ahead of his time with a lot of his films which might have been why they didn't receive the majority of their popularity until years later with the boom of the VHS and DVD market.

He essentially created the genre of the slasher film with Halloween and yet did the improbable and never went back to make another. Escape From LA, although somewhat marginalized next to Escape From New York, saw the results of a 9/11 level of catastrophe that would create such a fear among Americans that they would give the government near unlimited power. The Thing foreshadowed the paranoia a disease like AIDS would create amongst the global popularity.

The count is at four as of now, but how long before someone takes They Live or Christine and tries to remake them? Those seem ripe for the taking especially in an updated world capacity. Would they be better? Okay, that's rhetorical. Not to try and be trolling again but probably not. Nevertheless, one fourth of this man's feature films have been remade and that number seems destined to inch closer to the one third mark.

I tried to swear off in the wake of the Dark Knight-Godfather fiasco that represented the low-point of internet fandom, but I'll admit I always come back to it now and then for little tidbits. They have tons of Carpenter quotes posted there with some very humorous as to why he didn't choose to make films such as Fatal Attraction (which is ironic because he said he didn't want to remake Play Misty For Me with Michael Douglas in the Clint Eastwood part).

The quote I was looking for, though, was something based in this territory of remakes. This isn't the first, nor the last piece that will talk about John Carpenter's catalogue being plucked and remade, but what does the man himself have to say about it?

"I'm flattered if someone comes to me with the idea of remaking one of my films. Remake or original, making a movie still comes down to old-fashioned hard work. If it's based on another film, well, so be it. Remakes have been part of cinema since its earliest days - think of A Star Is Born (1937), which was remade numerous times. And they're especially big right now because it's become increasingly difficult to lure audiences into theaters. Advertising a remade title that may be familiar to audiences can hopefully cut through the clutter of titles and products that one sees."

Four out of 18. Leave the Oscars at home. John Carpenter reigns supreme. You can pick your other three.