Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

My mom loved — dearly loved — a handful of movies, and one of them was the 1985 Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, a movie I think is pretty damned great, myself.

I am not sure why Mother loved this particular Mad Max movie. She didn’t seem to have enjoyed its predecessor, The Road Warrior. But she did have an affinity for post-apocalyptic movies, and Thunderdome is, if nothing else, probably the most fun you can have after the end of the world. Watching it again recently, I find it holds up extremely well.

The Mad Max movies are, by and large, fun to watch, though I have to say the first self-titled film in the series, the one that introduced the world to Mel Gibson as a leading man, is more scary and unpleasant than fun. And I would argue that I don’t really get all the fuss over Mad Max Fury Road (2015), which has so many CGI effects that I half-expect Jar Jar Binks to show up. Thunderdome, however, hits the sweet spot.

If the first Mad Max depicted society on the ragged edge of a breakdown, with bands of savages roaming the Australian Outback, then its 1982 sequel showed the world in utter collapse. Max Rockatansky (Gibson) is a sad, depressed ex-cop, wandering the wasteland in search of highly-priced gas and dodging bad guys dressed in all manner of Eighties music video garb. One mark of the impact of Mad Max on cinema is that we still associate leather chaps, mohawks, and hot rods built out of the spare parts of other hot rods, with these films. No one in a Mad Max movie drives a simple car; their vehicles look like tractor-trailer rigs crossed with mopeds cross-bred with dune buggies and NASCAR racers. In Thunderdome, that aesthetic gets kicked up into the upper reaches of the stratosphere.

We first meet Max in the desert, driving a team of camels (of all things), hauling his souped-up super-car. It’s a scene (and a vehicle) crossed out of a Western, or perhaps a dream. Modern society is so far-gone as to be unrecognizable. A nuclear war (or a famine, or a pandemic) has erased all vestiges of what we think of as civilization, leaving a rag-tag mass of toothless, illiterate, immoral, all but cannibalistic tribes fighting over non-existent resources. Max, the ruthless ex-cop, is smart enough to survive on his own terms. He’s a sort of post-apocalyptic superhero.

Max wanders into a hellhole called Bartertown, an unforgettable piece of art direction and production design, peopled with monstrous characters all jostling for a drink of contaminated water or whatever food there is in this place. Bartertown is the creation of Auntie Entity, perhaps the most marvelous character in any Mad Max film (including Fury Road). She’s played by Tina Turner, who was incandescent in the mid-1980s, enjoying a career resurgence that included her appearance in this film. Tina owns this movie from the minute she walks into it. Her performance is so quirky, powerful and singular that I think she probably should have been Oscar-nominated. She’s that good. And, to my knowledge, she never appeared in another film.

Auntie Entity presides over Bartertown with an iron fist, but she’s challenged for supremacy by Master Blaster, a villain who comes in two pieces: the “little person” brains, or Master, and the human tank who drives him around, Blaster. Together they control “the Underworld,” where methane-producing pigs (yes!) provide the fuel that makes Bartertown the commercial center of the wasteland. (The set decoration on display in the Underworld section of the film has to be seen to be believed. Thunderdome, if nothing else, creates the most original universe of the Max series.)

Auntie and Max strike a deal: he will start a fight with Master Blaster, get sentenced to fight the bad guy(s) in Thunderdome, and legally kill him (them), thus paving the way for her uncontested power over Bartertown. What is Thunderdome? It’s a Coliseum-type arena in which two fighters engage in gladiatorial combat, fighting with chainsaws, sledgehammers, and bare hands, lunging at each other while strapped into giant slingshots. The battle between Max and Master Blaster is the highlight of the film, and one of the greatest action sequences ever filmed. That’s really Mel Gibson doing all those incredible stunts. Director George Miller keeps the camera right on his star; there is no faking it, and, of course, no CGI. The sheer creativity on display in this sequence actually puts every frame of Fury Road to shame (odd, since Miller directed all four films).

Max, of course, survives the duel, but is exiled to Gulag — tied to a donkey and dispatched into the burning desert. Improbably, he survives this, too, when he is rescued by some feral kids known as Them Who Lived. In a series known for bizarre characters, weird stunts and berserk action sequences (see: the 20-minute chase at the end of The Road Warrior), this forlorn tribe is something else. They tell Max their story through a ritualistic performance that’s almost like cinema. Apparently they are the children of plane-crash survivors and await the return of their Messiah-like savior, Captain Walker. They think Max is their Captain Walker, but he isn’t, of course — he’s just Max, as he somewhat cruelly informs them.

One thing leads to another, and a handful of kids break off from the main tribe, to go searching for … Captain Walker, I think. Max has to save them, and ends up leading them back to Bartertown. They free some prisoners from the Underworld and challenge Auntie Entity to a final battle. Act Three of Thunderdome is The Chase, a mainstay of these films, and this one might be the best ever. Miller finds a way to incorporate a truck on rails extending to the horizon. It is besieged by armed road warriors, with Max and a host of other characters leaping from one vehicle to another, battling it out. The stunts are awesome. The music and cinematography are magnificent. And — that’s Tina Turner doing her own stunts!

Thunderdome might strike some Max fans as too Out There, but that is exactly where these films need to be. It corrects what I always felt was a bit of a minor flaw in The Road Warrior, by giving Max some actual dialogue and a reason to exist. By this point in the trilogy, he needs someone to bounce off of, and care about, and these abandoned children in the middle of nowhere give Max a chance to show some empathy. Gibson delivers another charismatic performance as the heroic loner who rises to the occasion, but it’s Tina Turner’s show, hands down. There’s a lot that’s special about this movie, but she is by far the best reason to see it. Turner wrote two songs for Thunderdome that were both big (HUGE!) radio hits in 1985, and they are both prominently featured. I have no idea why Miller thought it would be cool to literally cast Tina in his movie — who knew she had any acting talent? — but she’s perfect, in a most unexpected way.

If the first Mad Max is a downer, and The Road Warrior an exhilarating if slightly unsatisfying experience, Thunderdome finds the right balance, blending action with satire, and solid storytelling with fun and a feeling of spontaneity. Mom wasn’t wrong — this is a great movie.

 

Bulbous

My wife has this beautiful arum-lily in a pot in our front yard. I’d been trying for days to get a decent photo of the gorgeous yellow bulb, using my 100-400MM Canon telephoto lens (it’s for birdwatching) to capture detail. I couldn’t get the camera to focus correctly due to the angle, strength of lens, etc., so I did something radical — I changed position!

I put the flowers that are displayed on an antique sled in the background to provide color and focused tightly on the yellow bulb in foreground. The edges of the green leaves to the right provided framing and color contrast. I could not have been happier with the resulting image; the background provides a painterly contrast to the sharpness of the bulb.

bulb

Beverly Hills Cop II a bust

Beverly Hills Cop II is the prime example of the cop movie gone wrong. Proceeding from the 1984 smash Beverly Hills Cop, which cast Eddie Murphy as Axel Foley, a Detroit cop who ends up solving a crime caper in Los Angeles, this sequel rolled right off the glitzy Hollywood assembly line in the mid-1980s, afflicted with all the “quirky” characteristics that drove me crazy even then. I won’t say it’s the worst movie I’ve ever seen — it does, after all, have some entertainment value on a pandemic Sunday — but it proves to us all the ways that a movie like Lethal Weapon does this genre true justice.

Murphy is one of the greatest standup comedians of all time, and his recent Dolemite movie was not only one of the funniest things I’ve seen in years but should have gotten him an Oscar nomination. (I would have been tickled if he’d actually won.) In movies like 48 HRS and The Nutty Professor, Murphy is deadly funny. I have laughed longer, harder, louder, at Eddie Murphy than almost any other actor, including Robin Williams.

However, I did not laugh during a single moment of Beverly Hills Cop II (I’m willing to pretend this is the only BHC movie worth watching.) Tony Scott, who also helmed Top Gun, directs this movie as if it were a perfume ad on steroids. Or a music video. The synthetic MTV-style glam rock that permeated the 1980s also permeates every aural minute of BHC II, so much so that whole sections of the movie cease operating on the level of story and function merely as an ad for the soundtrack.

I went back and re-watched Mission: Impossible — Fallout yesterday and marveled at how well that movie holds together as a story. It astonishes me to find out it had no proper screenplay; that Tom Cruise and company were literally making up the story as they shot it. Well, BHC II seems also to have been put together on the fly, with spare parts from other movies. Nothing makes any sense here as a cohesive narrative; potential story threads are started and then dropped; the plot is just an excuse for action scenes. I know that it is possible for a good film to result from no script, but BHC II is not that film.

Murphy’s Axel Foley is one of the most obnoxious characters in all movies. He’s beyond brash, but irritating and without plausible motivation. We don’t believe him for an instant as a police officer because we don’t believe Eddie Murphy as a cop. No wonder that every time we see Axel holding a gun or subduing a “suspect,” it’s quite obviously a stunt double. Roger Moore acted out more stunts as James Bond than Murphy does here. Many, many actors portray Axel Foley; Murphy was just the one who got paid to recite dialogue.

As for the dialogue, I find it hard to believe that any was actually written for Murphy. Most of his big scenes feel like improvised “comedy” routines where Murphy humiliates a white person, er, “snooty” Beverly Hills resident, and we are supposed to find it funny. He tries on different comedic personas, adopts different “funny” accents, and invents cockamamie “stories” designed to distract and/or offend clueless elitists. It’s just not funny. If Axel would simply skip the hysterics, he would accomplish the same goals in much shorter time, saving us all a lot of grief.

Worse than Murphy — who is pretty bad — are the supporting cast members. I’ve never understood the appeal or continued longevity of Judge Reinhold, who reprises his role from the first film as a cop of some capacity who seems to have a passion for firearms. That’s about the only characteristic I can assign him. His Detective Rosewood laughs at all of Axel’s jokes and seems to want to imitate the wisecracking Detroit cop, but that’s a thin characterization indeed. It simply is no fun, nor is it interesting, to have one character just stand back and admire another. Reinhold doesn’t have the acting skills to make Rosewood seem like anything other than an audience member for Axel.

As to the paper-thin plot, it is both convoluted and underwritten, as sure sign that the filmmakers had A) no confidence in their story and B) no clear idea what they wanted the story to be about. Axel seems to be on a revenge mission after a friend of his in LA (the always reliable Ronny Cox) gets gunned down by Bridgette Nielsen (who never, ever demonstrated a shred of acting talent). But that tangent gets cast aside in favor of something involving drug running and stolen weapons and Jurgen Prochnow and … oh, whatever the fuck it is. There’s a shootout at the end in a warehouse. Boom.

Murphy finally just seems pathetically sad. At least in the Bad Boys movies, Will Smith and Martin Lawrence have each other to bounce off of. They get each other and have a shared work ethic. Their relationship makes those movies somewhat bearable. (I consider Bad Boys II and Bad Boys For Life guilty pleasures.) But Murphy has no one to ping his humor off of in BHC II. (No, Rosewood doesn’t count.) He’s yelling and screaming at people, making jokes, pulling pranks, and NO ONE GETS HIM. He is utterly alone in a humorless universe. Maybe life is more amusing in Detroit — but wait, no, it’s not there, either. Axel Foley is by himself in a world of assholes. Or here is another possibility: he’s just not that funny. Certainly, Beverly Hills Cop II isn’t.

 

 

 

The French Connection

Wiliam Friedkin’s 1971 The French Connection is widely considered one of the classic cop dramas of any era, and I’ll agree, it’s an important one. It took Oscars for Best Picture, Director and Actor (Gene Hackman, never better) and is something of a milestone in its genre. The film was wildly successful on release and inspired dozens of knock-offs imitating its style but not necessarily its tone, which is the most impressive thing about it.

The French Connection looks and feels like no other movie. It kind of defines the techniques of the early 1970s, which focused on realistic settings, down-and-dirty characters and stories that did not necessarily subscribe to the tried-and-true three-act formula for screenwriting. Friedkin directed French Connection to look and feel like a documentary about a pair of NYPD narcotics investigators struggling to take down an international heroin ring. Watching the movie today, you marvel at Friedkin’s ability to drag his film down into the muck, less so at the story that we are told.

It was based, I suppose more or less, on true events, the details of which are lost to history. We no longer even care about the film’s veracity. There really was a Popeye Doyle — the hard-charging, never-say-die, stubborn-to-a-fault narco investigator portrayed by Hackman — but it doesn’t really matter. Fifty years later, watching French Connection is like seeing the template for every cop picture that came down the pike since its Oscar wins. There’s the mismatched cop couple (Hackman, wild and crazy, and Roy Scheider, cool and collected); the foreign criminal mastermind (“Frog One,” ho ho); the disapproving superior officers who spend more time yelling at the heroes than busting bad guys; the psycho assassin; THE CHASE; the drug deal, and the case of mistaken identity, resulting in a dead cop.

These story details have been used over and over in everything from Beverly Hills Cop to Lethal Weapon to Bad Boys to practically everything on television today. The sociopathic loner hero cop intuits that some bad guys are up to no good, but no one else will listen to him; he drags his reluctant partner into the adventure; wisecracks and gunshots ensue. It’s an entertaining formula, one that has proven as durable as any other in Hollywood, and here it is, in its original form.

I like this movie a lot. I like the pseudo-documentary shooting style, which really takes us into the mean streets of the incredibly filthy New York City and convinces us that this is all really happening. The French Connection seems to have predicted Martin Scorsese by at least five years (it has exactly the same grimy texture as Taxi Driver) but is diametrically opposed to the romantic sentiments of Woody Allen in Manhattan at the end of the decade.

So, as a paragon of realism, The French Connection is a masterpiece. Thing is, there’s not much going on where the story is concerned. Here is that rare picture with no subplots. Popeye Doyle wants to bust the French drug dealer — period. He’s single-minded, nasty, racist (boy, is he racist), violent, mean, self-obsessed, dogged, and utterly un-heroic. Nothing he does in this movie is for the public good; he does his job only to feed his own ego. Nowhere is this proved more than in the famous high-speed chase that inspired about a thousand movies over the subsequent decades. A gunman is on the elevated train; Popeye gives chase in a “requisitioned” civilian car in the streets below. He wants to catch and kill the bad guy and nothing will stand in his way. This is a fantastic chase, justly celebrated and imitated. But think about it — as far as Popeye knows, the gunman hasn’t killed anyone. Popeye simply cannot tolerate being humiliated again by a bad guy who slips away. (Earlier, Popeye loses the main villain, the “French connection” of the title, in the subway.) He’s willing to risk dozens of innocent lives and untold millions in property damage just to nab this one guy.

Popeye is not a hero. He’s not even likable. Fortunately, Hackman doesn’t play him as a hero. The script gives him no great lines or speeches, unless you count the one about “picking your feet in Poughkeepsie.” Popeye is a mad-dog asshole whose reckless disregard for public safety gets a colleague killed (which we can see coming from a mile off). Why is Popeye such a raging, hateful fellow? Were people just like this in the Seventies, or only New York cops? Why should care what happens to this guy? After all, in the end, “Frog One” escapes — nothing is resolved. The whole chase plot was for nothing.

The visual style of the picture is remarkably grim — ugly, I think, is the better word. At one point, Friedkin literally tilts the camera down into some garbage. Every where you look there is depressing urban blight. Was this Friedkin’s intention, to overwhelm his (admittedly thin) story with ugliness? I dunno.

I mentioned the film’s tone. This movie is at least consistent in its obsession with filth. The sound design is completely unique, blending with the unsightly visuals to create an aura of impending doom. This mood is sustained from beginning to end — it’s really quite remarkable. The characters are quickly sketched but never developed; there is no arc for Popeye. The music anticipates the use of “Thredony” in Friedkin’s The Exorcist two years later. Our takeaway from this film is one of utter hopelessness.

Few movies get away with being so purposefully unlikable while retaining their status of greatness, but this one does. I don’t recommend the sequel, though.

Sharky’s Machine

Now this is what I’m talking about. Sharky’s Machine is a tough, gritty, street-level cop drama, the sort of movie they really don’t make anymore. It’s representative of a very specific genre: the early-1980s crime film, all hardcore action, scary bad guys and moody anti-heroes. It also shows off the acting and directing talents of Burt Reynolds, who churned out a lot of shit in the ’70s and ’80s, but was also capable of something like this.

Sharky’s Machine might seem dated on the surface, with many of the filming and editing techniques that were popular at the tail-end of the ’70s, but in a way, that datedness just adds to the film’s appeal. This is old-school moviemaking to the max, and Reynolds is an old-school kind of hero. For this movie he shed his goofy good-ole-boy persona (think Stroker Ace) to embody the kind of character that Eastwood or Bronson might have portrayed — the strong silent type, good with a gun, better with his fists, laconic, sarcastic and single-minded in his pursuit of justice.

Reynolds is superb in this movie. I can’t decide if he does much acting or not. He doesn’t seem to have given himself much dialogue; maybe he went the Eastwood route and tore out pages and pages of script so that he had to speak as little as possible. It’s still an effective, believable performance. I honestly never thought once of his Bandit persona. His Tom Sharky might be in the mode of Dirty Harry, but Reynolds cuts the performance with sly humor, creating an original presence. You don’t think of Eastwood, either, when watching this movie. Reynolds holds the screen, and Sharky is his own man.

The film is set, surprisingly, in Atlanta, an original location for any time period. It’s centered (at least visually) around the Peachtree Hotel, which, at the time, I suppose, was the tallest structure in the ATL. Not unlike Miami in the Bad Boys pictures, Atlanta makes for an interesting locale. For most of the movie, however, we feel like it might as well be taking place in New York or Chicago. Reynolds finds dirty streets, rough locales, dark alleys, and grimy urban settings for his story.

The movie starts off with a kick, tracking Reynolds’ Sharky through the streets of ATL as a classic tune, “Street Lights,” plays on the soundtrack. Quentin Tarantino would later use this same song in a long sequence in Jackie Brown. This sets up an incredibly brutal foot pursuit and gunfight, with Reynolds obviously performing his own exciting stunts.

The outcome of the shootout is that Sharky gets demoted, from Narcotics to Vice, where he establishes a core group of veteran cops who form his “machine.” Brian Keith, Richard Libertini, Charles Durning, and the great Bernie Casey coalesce around Reynolds, who seems comfortable playing as part of an ensemble with these powerfully effective actors. (I especially liked Casey as the Zen-spouting detective who has some terrific scenes with Sharky.)

After stumbling across a nefarious (and somewhat undercooked) plot involving drugs, pimps and ho’s, the Machine sets up surveillance on a prostitute called Dominoe, played by the alluring Rachel Ward. Sharky spends much of the middle portion of the movie observing Dominoe through a long lens, falling in love in the process. This would be creepy were it not for the fact that Reynolds, the director, never shows any of Dominoe’s skin and only hints at her sexual activities. Further, Reynolds the actor shows a surprisingly tender side; he’s genuinely smitten with this woman, though they have never met.

There’s a truly scary assassin on the loose, played by the always terrifying Henry Silva. This cat kills people with a variety of weapons after snorting cocaine and working himself up into a screaming frenzy. Silva trains his shotgun on Dominoe’s door and blows away the person standing on the other side; in a grisly shot, Reynolds shows the blood-soaked aftermath of a point-blank shotgun blast. But Dominoe turns up alive and Sharky takes her into protective custody while the rest of his machine play cat-and-mouse with Silva. The plot never really makes a whole lot of sense, but the emotional performances and Reynolds’ sturdy direction carry us through.

There is a sensational fistfight between Reynolds and two Chinese assassins in a basement, followed by a truly frightening torture scene and a great escape. The climax finds Reynolds, Casey and Keith chasing Silva up and down the stairwells of the Peachtree Hotel. The final shot of that body flying out the window in the great blue beyond is still startling after all these years.

Gotta say, they don’t make em like this anymore. Sharky’s Machine is some kind of a minor classic.

Stick

Here is another Burt Reynolds-directed crime flick from the 1980s that is perhaps even more obscure than Sharky’s Machine, which was a bit hard to find when it first came out. After 35 years of curiosity (Stick was released in April 1985) I finally managed to track this movie down on a streaming service, opening one of those nefarious “free trials” to do so. I’ll have to shut the account down soon or else they’ll start charging me; Stick isn’t worth the $8 a month.

I remember the movie bombing almost as soon as it reached theaters, and I don’t remember it airing on any of the premium cable services (HBO, etc.) to which my parents subscribed in the Eighties. It was just another Burt Reynolds movie, of which there were too many to count back in the day. Stick, however, had an unusual title — what the hell kind of name is that? — and in the trailers, Reynolds was affecting a hobo-looking beard and brimmed fedora that reminded me of a certain Harrison Ford character from a few years earlier. I was intrigued.

Unfortunately, I had to wait 35 years to actually see the movie, because Stick is the definition of rare. Was it worth “the wait”? Well, yes and no. I can’t decide if Stick is one of the worst movies ever made, or a truly underrated film noir that never, ever found an audience. Oh, it’s competent enough; Reynolds was a competent director. But it never really rises above the level of competence. If I were being a completely ungenerous prick, I would say that Stick is a masterpiece of mid-1980s mediocrity … but I hate to be ungenerous.

Reynolds plays the title character, Ernest Stickley, an ex-con who rolls into Miami in a boxcar. He literally jumps off the train in the film’s opening credits sequence. Soon he’s embroiled in a low-stakes narcotics trafficking game involving a Mexican named Rainy, a fright-wig-wearing goon named Chucky (Charles Durning, who also made way too many movies in the 80s), and a crazy albino hitman called Moke (played, inexplicably, by the legendary stuntman Dar Robinson). These characters are all — erm, let us say, “larger than life” — so Reynolds navigates between them with a low-key if slightly smarmy performance. Stick never raises his voice, but speaks loudly with violent action.

The plot was written by pulp novelist Elmore Leonard, who wrote, I think, probably too many books, many of which truly were mediocre. Stick is a low-level crime “thriller” that apes the laidback atmosphere of some of “the best” of Leonard’s writing, but stays stuck in first gear as far as excitement goes. I like the early scenes best, where Stick is introduced to the drug-running game enforced by Moke, who, I have to admit, is one of the best villains of all time. Robinson plays him as one crazy motherfucker with “bunny eyes,” as Stick puts it. He gets all the best scenes in the movie, and in fact, was the most interesting thing about the ads. I mean, a psychotic albino hitman? He’s the best assassin in a Burt Reynolds movie since Henry Silva’s coke-sniffing shotgun killer in Sharky’s Machine.

The film also stars Candice Bergen, whose movie-star status I never understood, and George Segal, who turned up in some of the egregious films I’ve ever seen. Neither is any good here; Bergen sleepwalks through her underwritten role, turning in a performance that defines “wooden,” and Segal … well, put it like this. Segal doesn’t just chew up the scenery. He takes a chainsaw to it, mugging, cackling, aping, raping, and pillaging his way through his scenes. Reynolds’ direction to Segal must have been: “destroy the movie,” because that what Segal does. There is no rhyme or reason to Segal’s behavior; it isn’t character work it’s not acting. I think of all the people associated with this movie, fictional or otherwise, Segal was the one on coke.

What’s good about this movie? Not much, tell you the truth. I like Stick’s introduction to Moke, and the big fire in the Everglades — that’s some good suspenseful action filmmaking right there. I like a few other scenes in the middle, though none are spectacular. And I like Moke’s final scene, which features an insanely difficult stunt that made the ads so intriguing. (He falls backward off a building, firing his gun at Stick as he plunges screaming to his death — great stuff.)

Otherwise … I’ll probably wait about 35 more years before watching Stick again.

 

 

Dances With Wolves after 30 years

Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves is an exciting boys’ adventure movie with tragic overtones. Watching it again recently, I was amazed at how well it holds up after 30 years. I first saw the film on the giant screen of the Cinema 150 theatre in Little Rock, the greatest place ever designed for movies, and I have to say, it is better to watch this movie on the largest screen possible, with the best sound. Costner did not make the film for the small screen with a standard aspect ratio. This film is WIDE, and really only makes sense if you get the full gist of Costner’s compositions.

But this movie is more than just cinematography. I was struck by how well-written and organized is Michael Blake’s screenplay. It’s the story of Lt. John Dunbar, a Union officer who suffers potentially mortal injuries on the battlefield and is rewarded for valor by being dispatched to the post of his choice — Ft. Sumpter, S.D., on what Dunbar calls “the frontier.” Dunbar (played by Costner) is a loner in the midst of a spiritual crisis. He apparently no longer believes in the war he’s fighting (the film never mentions slavery) but seems fed up with his own culture and wants to experience something different. In short, Dunbar is suicidal, and views a post in the untamed West as his last shot at salvation.

What’s brilliant about the screenplay is that Dunbar never openly announces his motivations. He writes in his journal that he is only excited about seeing the frontier “before it’s gone.” But Costner’s performance depicts Dunbar as weary and scared; perhaps he was never happy back wherever he came from and longs for real adventure. The long first act of the movie shows Dunbar slowly melting toward happiness as he makes contact with a tribe of wild Lakota Sioux Indians. They become his friends, but it’s a friendship shot through with the unspoken tragic knowledge that the “great Horse Culture” of the Plains will soon be wiped out by Costner’s own encroaching race.

This movie doesn’t seem to have aged a day (especially not in HD). No other movie captures the visual splendor of the frontier the way this one does; the sunsets, the wide-open prairies, the free-flowing streams, the snowy mountains are rendered gorgeously (and, again, the bigger the screen, the better). But what makes the movie great is that it is centered on the characters, and that we come to care so much about Dunbar and the Sioux.

Costner might not be capable of a lot of range, but he never met a character more suited to his laconic talents than Dunbar, one of my favorite characters in movies. Dunbar has personal issues, to say the least, but he learns to shed them in the quest for survival — and greater self-knowledge. He’s goofy and somewhat heedless of danger, but also prescient in warning his friends that whites will one day occupy their country “like the stars.” We grow to like Dunbar because Costner is so willing to make fun of him, especially in the early scenes, as when he chases off an Indian scout while unwittingly naked, or knocks himself unconscious after stumbling out of bed to ward off thieves. Yet the character is also capable and smart, transforming the abandoned “soldier fort” into a “going concern,” and somehow staying alive when all elements — natural and otherwise — are trying to kill him.

The Lakota Sioux are the true heroes of the movie; they are a beautiful people who seem to have the same kinds of hopes and fears as the rest of us. It was shocking, back in 1990, to see this “alien” race, mocked and vilified for so long in John Wayne movies, to be portrayed as relatable and heroic. They are as frightened of Dunbar as he is of them; the first act of the movie shows them fumbling through their fears and suspicions.

The movie is filled with beautiful scenic moments, but what is most affecting are the character interactions, and I think this is the reason Costner won the Oscar for Best Director. The long, patient dialogue scenes between Dunbar, Stands With a Fist (Mary McDonnell) and Kicking Bird (Graham Greene) are well done, and, as I say, patient. These people have to learn how to talk to each other; they have no shared language, customs or understanding. Much of this communication boils down to pantomime, but it’s all so well done and underplayed that we see the humor in the situation while understanding the seriousness. After all, one misinterpretation and Dunbar is pretty much scalped.

Dances With Wolves is not a Western. There are scenes of action but no shootouts; the big chase is a magnificent buffalo hunt that provides Dunbar with the irrevocable decision to not return to white culture. Dunbar is a hero but not in the traditional sense; the Indians are savage but not in the way we’ve been trained by Hollywood to expect. Costner finds the humanity and wisdom in all these characters, but there are also nominal bad guys, such as the marauding Pawnee and the brutal white Union soldiers who appear late in Act Three.

Yes, the white soldiers who brutalize Dunbar and kill all his animal friends are depicted as villains, but even this has the ring of plausibility, as whites largely regarded Natives as a hostile force. The crux of the matter is that the soldiers see Dunbar as a traitor, not an enlightened man; he’s so far gone into the Sioux culture that he treats the whites as his personal enemies. He doesn’t recognize them anymore and sees himself only as Sioux. This is the clash of cultures that was inevitably coming — and for those easily offended by Costner’s treatment of the Union soldiers, don’t worry, the Indians still have the Trail of Tears to look forward to.

The scenes of adventure in this movie have sweep and excitement, and John Berry’s score is one of the most memorable I’ve ever heard. Yet this often thrilling film, in which men get around on horseback, sleep in tents and never have to wash, ends on a sad note, with Dunbar riding out to meet the judgment of white society. The look of anguish on his face is a far cry from the triumphant endings of so many Westerns in which the Indians are put down and the whites enjoy the fruits of conquest.

Did Costner deserve his Oscar victories here? I’d say yes, probably so, given what he achieved with this film — which was never supposed to succeed in the first place. Watching it again all these years later, it’s easy to see how original this movie is; hardly anyone else has attempted anything like it since. Many argue that Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas was more deserving of Oscars, and while that might be true, these arguments overlook the fact that Costner took a bigger risk than Scorsese, who had already explored similar territory in Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, and whose GoodFellas was directly competing against yet another big splashy mob movie — Godfather III. There is a depth to Dances With Wolves that Scorsese intentionally omitted from GoodFellas, which he has said he wanted to direct like a “coming attraction.” Dances might not be as much fun as GoodFellas — few films are — but it’s on equal footing in terms of great filmmaking. This is one of my 10 favorite movies of all time.

Braveheart

The amazing thing about Braveheart (1995) is that, for a film about a rebel uprising, it is refreshingly non-political. If the same movie were made today, the Right would claim it as a statement against the tyranny of the Left — and visa-versa.

But Braveheart is surprisingly apolitical. Watching it today, the movie seems inspired by only one thing: Mel Gibson’s desire to make a violent adventure film in which one man takes on legions of troops in open combat — and defeats them. He plays William Wallace, who may or may not have been an actual figure in history, who may or may not have helped lead Scotland to declare its independence from the English monarchy back in … well, let’s say, several hundred years ago. I don’t know whether or not Wallace actually existed, or if he did, whether his story played out the way Gibson and screenwriter Randall Wallace portray. I’m sure the historical details behind the film were all laid bare in 1995, but believe me, I neither remember nor care.

What we have today is an action-adventure film that has barely aged a day. Braveheart still looks and feels as fresh as it did in May 1995, on the day I saw it in a packed theatre with my then-brother-in-law. We enjoyed the film — in fact, were blown away by it, and I went on to see it so many times on VHS that I learned it like the back of my hand. It remains one of my favorite movies.

Gibson never set out to make a political statement. In the Nineties, politics hadn’t become quite so polarizing, and “left-wing” or “right-wing” positions were harder to find in mass entertainment. Braveheart uses as its rallying cry the idea of “freedom,” which, according to Gibson, can apply to anyone, anywhere, anytime. His Wallace is freedom fighter to the Scots who rise up behind him, but an international terrorist to Edward Longshanks. It would be all too easy to draw certain parallels in the post-9/11 era, or to see them retroactively in Gibson’s film — but they just aren’t there. Gibson sees his character as an action hero, first and foremost. The genius of Braveheart, indeed, is that it is a largely fictional action movie that feels like the standard Nineties biopic.

There’s nothing more potentially boring than the biopic — the kind of movie that purports to tell a historical figure’s life from childhood to death, covering most of the Major Events in between, fueled by an epic screenplay and centering on a talented actor’s body-morphing impersonation of said figure. Gandhi is my favorite example of the genre, but Malcolm X might be my least favorite, simply because it focuses too much on “details” of its main character’s personal life that I frankly don’t care about. The best biopic of recent years is Lincoln, which takes one episode out of the 16th president’s life and uses it to explore his character.

Braveheart begins with Wallace as a child, taking us through the most formative event in that period (the murder of his father at the hands of the Ang-lish) and then picking up his story again several years later when he’s old enough to be played by Gibson. The King is still a prick, instituting the diabolical prima nocte as a means of “breeding out” the Scots. Wallace unwisely falls in love and gets married, but his secret wife draws the attention of some English troops who first rape and then murder her. Wallace takes gory revenge, becoming Longshanks’ Public Enemy No. 1 . We have no idea whether any of this actually happened, but Gibson tells the story so convincingly, with so much raw-throated passion, that it feels compelling. Braveheart might be a total work of fiction, but there’s no doubt: we care about William, his battle, his men, and his quest to free Scotland.

That’s all due to Gibson, who has never been better than he is here. This might be the ultimate Mel Gibson movie; not only did he direct the film (winning an Oscar in the process), but his performance is as feral, ragged, wild-eyed and hot-blooded as his portrayal of Mad Max. There are scenes where Gibson seems to have wallowed in blood, mud and shit for about 10 minutes before stepping in front of the camera, nothing more visible than his cold blue eyes. It’s a driven performance, with moments of genuine madness. There was a time when Gibson could do literally anything on screen and we would line up to watch him; Braveheart was the apex of that moment. Everything went downhill for Gibson just a few years after this film.

But in Braveheart, he was the movie star of the century, and smart enough as a filmmaker to keep his film on the right track — as an enjoyable entertainment in which one man’s need for revenge freed a nation.

 

 

Bad Boys, Bad Boys II

I had no good reason for watching Bad Boys II one slow night during the pandemic lockdown, but I can think of no better time to watch Bad Boys II. With humanity, or at the very least, all our jobs, threatened by a virus for which there is no herd immunity or vaccine, a movie like Bad Boys II speaks to all the bitter cynicism and hopelessness we might reasonably be expected to feel right now. Bad Boys II does nothing to increase our joy or understanding of the world, but it is weirdly watchable, as long as you have a decent idea of what you are in for.

What you are in for is 2.5 hours of Michael Bay explosions, Michael Bay car chases and Michael Bay profanity. The director of this as well as the first Bad Boys and the Transformers movies is a peerless schlockmeister whose work is like A) nails on a chalkboard and B) entertaining in exactly the same way a train wreck would be wholly fascinating. His movies are bad, but if you have been trapped in the house all day, you might find reason to enjoy this particular sequel if no other film in the Bay oeuvre.

Bad Boys II stars Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, admittedly two of my least favorite actors, in a plot that makes absolutely no sense, in a screenplay that rejects the usual three-act structure in favor of a clothesline approach that has plenty of room for chases and explosions. Ostensibly a cop movie, the film focuses on the relationship between Smith and Lawrence, which seems genuine enough, but is primarily motivated by A) Bay’s fetishistic photography and B) the financial possibilities of appearing in a hit sequel. Neither of them has a compelling character to play, and there’s no other reason to be in this movie except for a large paycheck.

This is the kind of cop movie that believes that all cops do is engage in car chases and fire fights. And while other cop movies do show cops engaged in car chases and fire fights, Bad Boys II submerges its cop characters in such a high degree of non-stop action that it loses all connection to the real world and floats out into the stratosphere, becoming a gore-spurting Looney Tunes cartoon. We are not intended to associate this movie with anything we might even loosely refer to as “reality.”

For example, in the opening scene, DEA and Miami police officers track a Cuban “ecstasy” delivery (contained in coffins) from the middle of the ocean to a cross-burning Klan rally in which all the Klansmen are all, apparently, drug dealers. What? Oh, and during the ensuing gun battle, Smith’s character accidentally shoots Lawrence’s character in the ass, leading to an endless barrage of quasi-homophobic gay sex jokes that are unfunny from beginning to end.

Sounds tasteless, right? Well, A) you knew what you were getting into and B) you can always throw on Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (an excellent film, which I highly recommend) instead. Anyway, back to that tasteless question, the bad taste doesn’t stop there. Later in the film, there is another car chase in which dead bodies, recently embalmed, spill out of a van onto the freeway, for Smith, Lawrence, et al, to run over and crush beneath their wheels. Yes, it’s exactly that gross.

Look, this is a guilty pleasure for me. I hated every minute of the film’s aesthetic, which is vile, to say the least. But there is a crazy kind of conviction to it. Bay doesn’t back away from the revulsion he inspires in us; he revels in it. The car chases, explosions, shootouts, etc., make about as much sense as a Daffy Duck cartoon (provided Daffy goes around spouting the N-word and dropping F-bombs). And, the movie does seem to have influenced a ton of modern-day cop shows, especially the ones co-streaming with it on Netflix right now. Bay is also a master showman, and while I abhor his Transformer movies … I kind of enjoyed the fact that he brought a diverse cast to this cop film, and that the whole Bad Boys series is set in Miami, which we almost never get to see.

The movie is actually a ferocious remake of Scarface, with the cops as the heroes. There are a couple of really gory kills involving psychopathic drug-dealing criminals that are, you gotta admit, good kills. And, I enjoyed the staging of some of Bay’s action sequences, especially the one where, for no reason at all, the camera travels in complete 360 circles as Smith faces down a roomful of shotgun-wielding bad guys. That scene alone would be worth the price of admission (which, luckily, I didn’t have to pay).

Look, on one level, this movie is totally indefensible. But that’s how Bay wants it. To crash half a million cars, shoot of millions of bullets, and encourage Smith and Lawrence to indulge in their worst behavior is not what we refer to as “art,” but it is, under the worst of circumstances, something of an entertainment.

 

 

Lethal Weapon hasn’t aged a day

I give mad props to 1989’s Lethal Weapon 2 as one of the finest, fastest and funniest action sequels ever made, but it’s important to remember that it never would have happened had it not been for the original Lethal Weapon in 1987. A careful re-watch of the Mel Gibson-Richard Donner classic confirms that it might have been the best movie of the Eighties.

Action movies were all the rage in that decade, with Arnold Schwarzenegger scoring a hit as Terminator and Sylvester Stallone packing theaters as Rambo. Bruce Willis made his debut in Die Hard, and Sigourney Weaver changed film history with her heroic starring role in Aliens. Stunts were real, guns were loud, and cars were built to be destroyed. There was a whole subgenre of Chuck Norris movies, and Eddie Murphy introduced his own brand of wise-cracking humor to the genre with the Beverly Hills Cop movies (unseen by me). About 90 percent of all action movies were straight trash to be devoured nightly on HBO, but a few auteurs like James Cameron and John McTiernan were using big stars and top-flight technology to tell good stories.

Lethal Weapon came along in the middle of this action movie gold rush, and changed the form. It split its leading man position between two equally strong (and talented) leading men, Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, and straddled itself perfectly between action and comedy. The result was a movie unlike anything we had ever seen before. Watching it today, I am struck by how deeply its influence was felt.

My wife said, “So, is this a comedy?” She’d never seen the movie before, and I simply replied, “Yes, it is a comedy.” But thing is, Lethal Weapon can be a strong dose of medicine if you’re not prepared. The screenplay by Shane Black was notorious even in 1987 for its profanity, dark humor and obsession with mortality — particularly the concept of suicide. This was an idea that had never been introduced into an action film before, that the hero might harbor a secret desire to off himself. Can you imagine Conan the Barbarian having second thoughts about his life? Or Rambo getting so depressed he just can’t go on? Lethal Weapon gives us a fatally flawed hero in super-tough LAPD homicide detective Martin Riggs (Gibson), who, when we first meet him, is grieving his wife’s death. Early in the film, he bites down on a gun barrel, and judging by the crazed look in Gibson’s eye, we kind of think he might pull the trigger just as we’re getting started. (Maybe the whole movie will be a flashback?)

The movie successfully balances Gibson’s high-wire suicide act with Glover’s domestic stability. His Roger Murtaugh, who is turning 50 as the movie opens, just wants to relax, but he’s paired with Riggs on a troublesome murder case that reaches back to their days in Vietnam. (As in literally dozens of Eighties action movies, the specter of Vietnam haunts the characters, who are just old enough to have fought in the war.) Murtaugh came out of Vietnam relatively unscathed — just as he has gotten through 20 years on the LAPD “without a scratch” — but Riggs is such a loose cannon he might end up getting them both killed. The movie is about how each man changes the other in ways large and subtle. Riggs eventually sheds his desire to kill himself by becoming friends with Roger, who finally finds meaningful companionship outside the family unit. (I will digress here to say that this sometimes happens with men. We need the companionship of other men, but such friendships can be hard to find.)

I will say that the movie gives Riggs and Murtaugh a somewhat standard set of bad guys to fight; the only memorable one is Mr. Joshua, played with cold-eyed menace by Gary Busey. They go up against an international heroin ring that isn’t afraid to kidnap Roger’s family or string Riggs up and torture him. The battle between the LAPD and the heroin ring spills out into the streets of LA in a spectacular gun battle that features some of Gibson’s best acting; we believe he is actually crazy enough to do anything, take any risk, to defeat his enemies — or protect Roger.

Movies with as cynical a first act as Lethal Weapon‘s are few and far between; we’re relieved when the characters begin to loosen up and stop firing zingers at each other. But it is the relationship between Riggs and Murtaugh that makes this movie watchable in the first place. Gibson and Glover — as I’ve said elsewhere — are magic together. Most action movies in the Eighties lived or died based on the performance of their leading man. Neither Stallone nor Schwarzenegger or, later, Willis, would have dared shared the screen, or credit, with another actor. Gibson and Glover make each other better, and their electrifying chemistry powers not only this movie but all of the sequels. Just their scenes together constitute action sequences; look at the scene where Glover confronts Gibson over his handling of a suicidal jumper. There’s enough energy here for three or four lesser Ah-nold movies.

No question, Lethal Weapon is a sharply written, brilliantly acted, well-crafted action film that stands up to an infinite number of viewings. It’s just as good today as it was in 1987 — if not better.

 

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