The Warrior’s Way

There now exists a subgenre known as the Samurai Western; they were made for each other, as Kurosawa directly inspired spaghetti westerns, and now it’s come back at us like a kid’s boomerang in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. We’ve had SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO, SIX STRING SAMURAI, SHANGHAI NOON and NIGHTS, and now we get cowboys, carnies and carnage with THE WARRIOR’S WAY. Written and directed by Sngmoo Lee, who’s IMDb resume includes only this film. So I’m calling him Schmoo for the entirety of his review, in case he does not actually exist.

Dong-gun Jang from the excellent Korean war flick TAE GUK GI: THE BROTHERHOOD OF WAR stars as the Yang, Greatest Swordsman of All Time Ever, as we are told in glittering Comic Sans. We see him pose dramatically after slicing apart a dozen warriors in a few seconds, and he finds the treasure they are guarding is a baby girl, the last of the enemy clan. He cannot kill her, so his assassin’s guild- the Sad Flutes- vow he will die. He flees to the mythical American West, and comes upon a ghost town that a group of Carnies have chosen to build a Ferris Wheel in, hoping to lure pioneering tourists to the middle of the desert. It’s like Vegas, built by extras from “Deadwood” and “Carnivale.”

The movie keeps us interested by having an absurdly comic tone, from Yang carrying the baby girl like a shopping bag to how he kills innocuous-seeming bystanders, only to have assassin’s weapons fall out of their hands after they collapse. There are references galore, from Lone Wolf & Cub, to John Woo, and more, but they never feel like cribbing. Yang strolls into town, Walkin’ the Earth like Kane in “Kung Fu,” as lone killers are wont to do. We meet Geoffrey Rush as the Town Drunk, Tony Cox as the midget ringmaster who’s quick to crush someone’s nuts in his hands, and Kate Bosworth as Jesse the Cowgirl from TOY STORY 2, at least at first. She manages to mellow out into less of a caricature, but still has plenty of fun with their role. Rush is very memorable as the drunk, staggering around in his pajamas and getting the best lines.

The closest you get to boobs in this R rated bloodless film.

The wild west equivalent of a post-apocalyptic wastelands motorcycle gang rides into town on horses, like they have once before; Kate has a score to settle with their leader, and Yang can’t draw his blade without alerting his Sad Flutes to his whereabouts. But you know he’ll have to, and thank goodness he does. That’s when we get to see six guns versus samurai swords, and it’s a lot of fun to watch how they make it less one-sided than it seems. The town drunk is of course a great gunslinger; they nod toward BLAZING SADDLES
some more with how they use dynamite. It’s not long before blood, explosions and gunplay light up the town, and we get to settle that childhood bet, who kicks more ass? Toshiro Mifune or Clint Eastwood?

The director makes great use of his bizarre set, with merry-go-rounds and circus freaks and clowns fighting against masked marauders with a Gatling gun and ninja swordsmen. It’s a lot of fun to look at when the overuse of CG doesn’t get in the way. I have made peace with CG blood after @AxelleCarolyn on Twitter- better known as the smokin’ hot killer Pict babe from CENTURION– told me how much money it saves independent productions. But I noticed CG cowboys climbing the Ferris Wheel, and CG swordsmen in black leather all over the place. It really stood out and made it look like anime at times, which I know the story owes a lot to, but it was very distracting from a very fun film.

3 out of 5 midgets with specially designed spiked gloves for crushing your nutsack

© 2010 Tommy Salami

Movies with Milky: Centurion

Is CG blood cheaper or easier? I just want to know why it’s so prevalent these days. Everything from Rob Zombie putting a CG Bowie knife in someone’s chest in THE DEVIL’S REJECTS to the virtual buckets of CG blood in Neil Marshall’s latest, CENTURION. It looks so fake. Are squibs too dangerous? I’m guessing it makes filming a lot easier, as the Pict just falls down and then we can add the gore later, so if they flub it, no re-shoot required. However, I’ll forgive this latest film by the guy who gave us DOOMSDAY (full review) THE DESCENT and DOG SOLDIERS because he makes films that are just so much damn fun that I can overlook their flaws. This one has the usual- some off pacing with an overlong second act, and a few meandering subplots that could have used a rewrite- but they are easily forgiven with the tons of bloody action we get. Marshall knows how to engage the audience and he does a great job here.

My kingdom for a tongue!

CENTURION tells the story of the Roman Ninth Legion (wikipedia link) which was glossed over in the history books, due to the Romans’ brutal defeat by an uprising of the Picts. I liked this bloody version better than the fun sword & sandal version THE LAST LEGION (full review) that came out a few years back. Michael Fassbender (the British spy who can’t count to 3 in INGLORIOUS BASTERDS) plays Centurion Quintus Dias, the lone survivor of the most remote garrison north of Londinium in the overstretched Roman Empire. The story begins after we meet him, and soon a guard has a spear thrust into his crotch and the place is overrun by marauding Picts, in a spectacular and bloody battle that doesn’t rely on silly movie cliches. Don’t get attached to anyone, because in a swordfight, people get hurt…

The problem with rabble is there’s so many of them!

Quintus escapes, and flees south to get the rest of the legion ready for this onslaught, but the Picts are very well prepared with ambushes. The leader has a “tame Pict” tracker played by Olga Kurylenko – Camille from QUANTUM OF SOLACE- who unfortunately had her tongue cut out by Roman soldiers as a child. Unfortunate because this gives us a mute female lead, but I guess her accent might have been odd, given that everyone has a British one. Anyway, she’s the female badass in this Marshall flick, and I like his better than Joss Whedon’s, because they actually look like they can kick your ass instead of being anime characters from a fanboy’s wet dream. She’s got the Rhona Mitra role this time, except she can’t say any snappy one-liners.

Run, Fassbender, run!!

The story bogs down a bit with betrayals and aborted rescues, but the battles are a blast, and it’s a fitting tale to explain the loss of the Ninth Legion. It’s a lot like OUTLANDER (full review) without aliens, and I’m glad more films like this are being made. If CG blood allows us to have more bloody sword & sandal flicks, then so be it! This one is definitely worth a rental, and I’ll be adding the Blu-Ray to my collection when it is released. Milky loved it as well, and recommended it. I haven’t seen this many heads get lopped off since the French Revolution (yes, I was there) and the battles will make you fondly remember BRAVEHEART and GLADIATOR. Fave kill? Someone gets chopped in the mouth and the whole top of their head gets removed.

3.5 severed tongues out of 5

© 2010 Tommy Salami

Les Expendables

It took 33 years, but Sylvester Stallone once again has a sense of humor about himself. And that’s what makes The Expendables, the balls to the wall ’80s style action flick that we’ve been anticipating for over a year now, so awesome. I’ll admit it, when I saw his low rider pickup truck that hearkens back to his ’50 chopped Merc in Cobra, I was a little bit concerned that the kickassitude of Rambo went to his head. But no, he is definitely the star of this one, yet plays well with others. He gives plenty of screen time to all the big names he got together to make this throwback extravaganza, and we can’t ask for anything more. Well, except maybe for Kurt Russell and Jean-Claude Van Damme to show up in the sequel.

Testosterone Level Causes Impregnation Within 50 Yards

I’m not going to bore you with the plot except for this single line: a group of bad-ass mercenaries take a suicide mission to assassinate a South American dictator. We first meet them as they rescue a cargo ship held hostage by Somali pirates, scaling it like Navy SEALs and blasting them to pieces with laser sighted machine guns and shotguns loaded with shells that will blow a man in half. But they’re reasonable people; Sly isn’t playing Rambo here, he’s more of a tired old guy who wants you to surrender, but will blast six holes in you with his revolver the second he realizes you won’t. He has a buddy rivalry with Jason Statham, the knife master of the group, over who can take someone out quicker. As in many of Sly’s previous films, he equips his men with custom knives, from a Gil Hibben Bowie blade with a brass parry strip, ring-pommelled throwing daggers, switchblades and huge, fast draw folding knives.

If I wasn’t getting married, I’d buy this $1850 Gil Hibben Bowie…

Sly and Statham are the biggest roles, but Jet Li gets some good fights in, and gets to show some comic chops as he complains he should have a bigger share, because everything is harder for him because he’s the short one. He has to take more steps when they run someplace. Randy Couture “used to wrestle in high school” and that explains his cauliflower ears, which he is very sensitive about. Terry Crews gets to have some fun with a Sledgehammer shotgun, but this is a long way from his hilarious role as President Camacho in Idiocracy.Pity, he can be really funny. Dolph Lundgren gets the thankless job of being the guy who’s a little too psycho for a band of psychos, and Mickey Rourke has retired from mercenaryin’ to be a tattoo artist. He gets to give the “I’ll cry when I’m done killin'” speech.

The movie showcases the strengths of our favorite bad boys but peppers humor in between, a wise choice that has worked since classics of the genre like Commando. I was a little disappointed that the fictional country they invade isn’t named Val Verde, but that should be saved for an Arnie movie, I suppose. Speaking of which, Arnie and Bruce Willis’s cameos are hilarious. Sure, they only get five minutes, but Arnie lets himself be the butt of the jokes, with Sly poking fun at the weight he put on as Governor, and that he “wants to be President.” He’s a rival merc leader, and doesn’t ham it up. Maybe after he’s done governating, Sly will give him a big role in the sequel. I sure hope so.

If he dies… he dies

The bad guys are played by a psycho Eric Roberts and David Zayas, best known as Angel from “Dexter.” The girl is Giselle Itié, a beauty from Mexican television, who will likely appear in Hollywood again. She has good chops, though Sly isn’t the best at getting realistic performances out of women (see Julie Benz in Rambo, who we know can act like a champ). But that’s not what we’re looking for in an action funfest like The Expendables. It was great seeing so many of them together. I enjoyed the hell out of it, but I don’t think it’s as good as Rambo– which is damn hard to top. The best I can say about it is: IT DELIVERS. And I damn well hope they make a sequel, and keep it rated R. And I will agree with Milky, my movie buddy, that they better bring back that shotgun, too. It should get its name in the credits.

4 out of 5 exploding human heads

© 2010 Tommy Salami

Occupation: Viking! Severed Ways

I had planned this Viking project many months before finally renting Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America. I heard it was about Vikings vs. American Indians, and was set to metal. I though it would be something like Pathfinder (full review) only less stupid. It was much less stupid, but it was also less entertaining. My alternate title for it would be The Blairviking Poopwitch Project.

It too recreates the meeting of Vikings and Native Americans (called Skraelings here) in 1007 A.D., only this time the Vikings flee, riddled with arrows by a force with superior numbers and a proclivity for fighting in choked forests instead of farm villages. Two men are left behind, and decide to make their way north to a settlement, through enemy territory. At first, the slow camerawork and over-saturated colors reminded me of a parody of Terence Malick, and I was very patient with it. It has a documentary feel in parts, and is entirely in Norse with subtitles.

The colors, children! The colors!

A short time later, we get to watch him take a dump in the woods, as graphic as Pink Flamingos without any of the shock humor, and wipe with leaves. At first, I thought, alright. It’s a survival picture; we never get to see the mundane and boring stuff in movies about survival. This could be interesting, in a primitive survival sort of way. They spear some fish, we watch them cook on hot rocks by the fire, and thankfully they make fire a lot quicker than Tom Hanks in Cast Away. And then, while they are cutting firewood, metal starts playing and one of the Vikings starts headbanging.
Now, I love me some Scandinavian metal. Dimmu Borgir, Moonsorrow, drone like Sunn O))) and folk like Korpiklaani. And I applaud the inclusion of Dimmu Borgir on the soundtrack. But until now the tone has been utterly different. A few hours later they see some monks, attack them because hey, we’re Vikings, and burn the only shelter they’ve found. Milky explained it best: Why are they burning the church down? Because metal is playing. The rest of the story plays out with helpful title cards like “Separation,” so you know they’ll get separated. One guy gets captured by “Skraelings,” and a woman ties him up and hops on his Viking sword. No, you don’t see anything.
I liked arty films better when it meant gleeful nudity, instead of a guy taking a dump in the woods. Will our boring Viking comrades find each other? Can they escape the wilderness? Do American Indians see in weird tunnel vision, as the cinematographer would have us believe? You’ll never know unless you rent this. For Odin’s sake, don’t buy it. Even if you’re a freak with a Viking poopfetish, I’m sure you can find it online. I wanted to like this, but it’s a tedious and pretentious mess. The idea and the concept are pretty cool- even dubbing the entire thing in Norse- but the characters never manage to evoke a personality, and the pointless plot is predictable and so sparse that its running time is mostly filled with shaky footage of a guy lugging a camera around in the woods. And filming poop.

Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America on Netflix

All reviews in the Occupation: Viking project

Badass du jour: Oliver Reed, in Sitting Target

My only regret is that I didn’t drink every pub dry and sleep with every woman on the planet.” -Oliver Reed
My friend Pita-San wanted to see this movie, Sitting Target, with Oliver Reed and Ian McShane, so I went on the hunt. Turns out it was rated X in Britain when it came out for brutality. They had me at “brutality.” Of course I expected it to be tame now, and in many ways it is- there’s nothing as racy as Lee Marvin throwing a naked man out a window as in the spectacular Point Blank, or as brutal as um, Lee Marvin smashing a pot of hot coffee in a woman’s face, as in The Big Heat (Marvin’s a bad-ass among bad-asses). But it remains a gritty and yes, brutal thriller about a crook who busts out of prison to get revenge on his woman when she shacks up with a well-off acquaintance, instead of waiting for him.
That crook is Harry Lomart, played by Oliver Reed, a bad-ass on and off the screen. Let us have a moment of loudness to remember his passing, at the age of 63, during the filming of Gladiator. He was at lunch, drinking 3 bottles of rum, a half dozen beers, and various shots of whiskey and cognac, and had a heart attack after besting five Royal Navy sailors at arm-wrestling. There are method actors, and there are forces of nature that you are lucky enough to capture on film. Ollie “Mr. England” Reed, so self-proclaimed because he was one of few celebrities to flee Britain’s high taxes in the ’70s, was certainly one of the latter.
Sitting Target begins with Harry getting the bad news from his girl, who’s on the other side of the prison glass, talking to him on the phone. When he learns that she’s been untrue and is leaving him, he bashes through the barrier with one punch and seizes her by the throat. The guards beat him down with their truncheons, and drag him back to his cell. But he’s already been planning a breakout with pal Birdy Williams, played by Ian McShane (you know, Al Swearengen from “Deadwood,” among many other roles). Harry does his time by sticking to a cruel training regimen, working out in his cell. In an age when even hunks had the uni-ab, he’s got the definition of a Greek statue and he’s cold and hard as marble.
He breaks out by hiding during the night roll call, hanging from the ceiling in a feat of physical strength, and swinging down to clobber the guards when they search the cell. They’re the same guys who beat him when he choked his wife, and he gets his revenge. To show how driven he is to pay back his wife’s betrayal, when they finally escape the prison after dealing with guard dogs, search lights, and climbing across guy wires in the dark, Harry has to climb barbed wire with his bare hands. The other guys used rags to protect themselves, but there’s no time. So he does it the hard way.

Tell me he doesn’t look like The Terminator?

Once they are out, they are hot and have to leave the country, but not before Harry finishes his business. They break an unspoken rule of “no guns” in the underworld, and pick up a broomhandle Mauser with a removable stock, that can be fired full auto. This leads to a brutal gunfight with motorcycle cops in the back alleys that is probably what gave the film its X certificate. A cycle bursts into flames, and Douglas Hickox’s direction makes it seem documentarian and all too real. As Harry hunts down his wife and realizes he’s made more enemies with his obsession, double crosses lead to more gunplay and an excellent car chase through a railyard with a Land Rover. It’s a forgotten and memorable piece of ’70s crime, and while it may not be a classic like Get Carter, it’s a fine thriller that stands on its own, and deserves a DVD release.

Artful upside down boobies.

Reed is more famous for starring in Oliver! as Bill Sikes, and the excellent Three Musketeers films of the ’70s, and of course as Proximus in Gladiator. He played many colorful roles in everything from Tommy and The Devils to Vulcan in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Every once in a while you find an actor who’s as colorful off screen as he is on screen, but Reed is one of the true originals. I look forward to watching more of his roles, but I know they can’t live up to the man.

One day I should like to live in Ireland. I love the Irish, the more I see of other races the more I believe the Irish are the only real people left, and apart from that they have space and clear air in which to wander and think and to feel free.

The Mad Max-a-Thon!

Movie Nights With Milky

Last week Milky and I decided to watch all three of the Mad Max movies. Some of the best of the post-apocalyptic genre, the movies that catapulted Mel Gibson to stardom, and some of the best car chases ever. However, it was a bittersweet moment. As a child of the ’80s, Milky was too young to watch the first two, and grew up on Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. He recalled it fondly, reciting Max’s line of “I’m the one who keeps Mr. Dead in his pocketses!” You could watch his heart break as his nostalgic memories crumbled. Unfortunately, they follow the Star Wars Trilogy formula of: First movie is fun, Second movie is brutally awesome, and Third movie is a cash-in to attract kiddie audiences.

Mad Max exploded out of Australia in 1979- a bastard son of the biker exploitation flick, violent cop thriller, depictions of society’s breakdown straight from the ’70s zeitgeist. It recalls such classics as A Boy and His Dog, which the creators cite as an influence, Electra Glide in Blue, the motorcycle cop character drama, Westerns and revenge films. It was shot on a budget so low that they kept repainting the same police cars- the Ford Falcon XB sedans, the “last of the V8 interceptors”- and only Mel Gibson, then unknown, actually got to wear a real leather jacket. The smaller cop parts got vinyl. The plot is simple- Max Rockatansky is the cool as Steve McQueen member of the Motor Police, as society breaks down and the roads become more and more dangerous, with roaming biker gangs and maniacs joy riding. After he takes out a psycho called the Night Rider, his friend Toecutter, leader of an outlaw biker gang, vows revenge on the police.

Toecutter and his fearful flunky Johnny the Boy trap Goose in his flipped truck and burn him alive, which sends Max over the edge. The cops have to play by the rules, and the bikers don’t. Rather than go psycho and become “one of them,” Max takes his wife and infant son on a road trip vacation, but Toecutter and company stalk them and take their revenge. Now Max has nothing to lose, and takes his V8 interceptor, a sawed off shotgun, and his wits to finish off the gang. The crashes are particularly realistic and brutal, owing to the remote stretches of Australian highway and some excellent or very lucky stunt work. We see cop cars explode through mobile homes, vans twisted like tin foil, bikers explode like meatballs against tractor trailer grilles. The infamous ending, where Max handcuffs Johnny’s ankle to a burning wreck and throws him a hacksaw, making him choose whether to cut steel or flesh before the gas tank explodes, is one of the most brutal and memorable avengings ever filmed.

Today, the low budget of the film is quite evident in some of the make-up effects, the sound quality, and how some scenes are edited, but it still holds up very well. First time actors abound, but they are among classically trained fellows. It takes time to introduce us to the character of Max Rockatansky, as if the film makers knew he’d be coming back. Sure, some of his cop pals like Fifi- a big bald guy who wears a silk scarf- evoke some chuckles, and the lawyers who get Johnny Boy off are hilarious stereotypes, but as a whole this remains one of the best revenge pictures of the 70’s. So much that it would be released in the states with an American overdub to save us from Aussie slang and accents! I urge you to watch the original, it’s available on the Special Edition DVD.

Goodbye, Johnny the Boy!

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior was inevitable after the success of the first film, and unlike most sequels, it is superior in every way. It’s a marvel of concise film making, depending on a short introduction with narration to recall Max’s tragedy in the first movie, and the complete breakdown of society that transpired shortly afterward. It’s intentionally vague: “two mighty warrior tribes went to war and touched off a blaze which engulfed them all.” It never mentions nuclear Armageddon, and I prefer to think that oil dried up and society devoured itself. We meet Max again on the road in his Interceptor, modified with huge gas tanks, booby traps, roll cage and supercharger; he’s got a Blue Heeler along side him. A Man and His Dog. With marauders in pursuit of his sweet ride and its tank of precious juice…

The bikers have gone full tribal, guns and ammo are scarce, so they wield bludgeons and crossbows. Reduce, re-use, recycle. A mohawked maniac named Wez gets shot in the arm by friendly fire, due to Max’s superior driving skills, and a silent feud begins between the two. They will meet again. The mood and theme of the story are told perfectly in this opening scene as Max faces off the wounded biker, antsy as he watches a bad guy’s car spilling fuel on the roadway. He’ll risk his life to sop up a few more ounces of the gas. For anyone who remembers the lines around the block at gas stations during the oil embargo, it hits home.

Coolest dog ever!

Max is as cool as they come, eking out a lone survival with his dog at his side. He barely speaks a word for the first half hour of the film. He comes upon a gyrocopter in the desert, with a poisonous snake guarding its fuel, but he’s fast enough to grab it before it strikes. Borrowing heavily from The Man With No Name of the Clint Eastwood-Sergio Leone films- he’ll actually be called this in the next sequel- Max is a little more human and vulnerable. It’s one of Gibson’s best roles, because he lacks that cocksure star power that sinks most action stars. I could recount every scene of the movie, because it’s that good, and so many are memorable. But if you haven’t seen this, it holds up incredibly well. Max takes the gyro captain prisoner, and they see the bikers Max fought earlier, surrounding a walled encampment around an oil refinery. They can’t escape, and the bikers can’t get the gas. Enter Max, who found a tractor trailer, that could haul their tanker of gas to freedom…

The leader of the bikers, The Humungous, is as iconic as they come. A masked, musclebound freak who looks like Jason Voorhees crossed with Arnold Schwarzenegger, his growled, Germanic taunts make him instantly fearsome. His men strap the wounded enemy to their vehicles as human shields. Inside the compound, the last vestiges of humanity are led by Papagallo (big chicken?) with flamethrowers, bow wielding warrior women, and feral children with razor-bladed boomerangs. Max is in between, mistaken for a marauder at first. He works a bargain- he’ll get the truck, for as much gas as he can carry. They want him to join them, but he refuses. Just the deal.

In post-apocalyptic films, children should not speak, but be spoken to

The set pieces with the tanker truck are still some of the best car chases on film. First, Max has to get the bobtail into the compound, and he plows through the biker camp like a juggernaut. Director George Miller- who’d oddly enough move on to 3D features like Happy Feet– inserts quick comic shots, like a tent being pulled away to reveal a naked couple, to keep the mood from becoming as brutal as the first film. He manages just the right balance. I told Milky that the Feral Kid isn’t annoying like Short Round because he can’t speak, and I hold fast to that statement. There’s a camp sense- one of the baddies drives a pink Chevy Bel-Air and has a pink beard- but it never gets smarmy or silly, as in the final chapter.

Once Max returns the truck he leaves alone, and loses everything once again- only the Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence, the Mouth of Sauron among many other roles) manages to save him. So he decides to join up and help them escape, driving the tanker. Why? Because it’s suicidal; Max doesn’t want to be human again, even if he’ll never sink to the lows of the Humongous and his ilk. But a last mad dash through a swarm of psychos appeals to him. And the final chase remains a thrilling, insane update to Buster Keaton’s locomotive stunt film The General and has yet to be topped. It may also have been inspired by Race with the Devil, where cultists chase Warren Oates and Peter Fonda in an RV, and countless Westerns where Indians chase stagecoaches.

The stunts were incredibly dangerous, and the infamous ass over teakettle biker flipping through the air was an actual accident that broke the stunt man’s leg. The driver of the tanker was told to not eat for 12 hours prior to the crash stunt, in case he had to be rushed to surgery. Some of the footage is sped up a bit, but most of the road chase is at good speed, and the tanker demolishes many, many vehicles. What’s surprising of Mad Max 2 is that no one is safe; nowadays you know the paralyzed mechanic, and the hot chick are going to survive. Nuh-uh! They die horribly this time. And our hero is gets a very cynical trick pulled on him. It makes for a very memorable ending, and a “second entry” that stands on its own.

The Tanker Chase

The third time around they had a huge American-style budget and unfortunately, for the clumsily named Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, they tried to broaden the appeal by making it PG-13 and included a funny midget, a Lord of the Flies in the Outback, and Tina Turner as Auntie Entity, a name which makes no sense. The Humongous was obvious; he was … humongous! Toecutter, well I guess if you cross him, your toes would be cut. But Auntie Entity… say it three times fast, and if you’re a 12 year old boy you’ll be … tittering. Heh.

This one is half a reboot, because while Max is older with straggly gray hair, and a herd of camels are towing his truck, guns are more plentiful, radiation is mentioned, and when the Gyro Captain shows up, they don’t recognize each other! Oh, it’s infuriating. But the movie isn’t awful and does have its charms, especially if you fast forward from when Max is sent to the Gulag to the chase at the end. That leaves out the whole second act, the Lord of the Flies homage, which is utterly contrary to the mood of the series. The Airplane Kids are the Ewoks of the Mad Max world, and it’s a shame only one of them dies. It really would have been better if they all died in an explosion that sent Max into a murderous rage, but what can you do. It was 1985.

No, Pinkbeard doesn’t return for Thunderdome, sadly.

The Gyro Captain (cough, I mean “Jedediah the pilot”) steals Max’s caravan, so he tracks them to Bartertown- an aptly named place where people go to trade. Also, for the first time, Max encounters people without Australian accents. Must’ve been tourists before civilization collapsed, I guess. Max barters his skills as a killer, showing off his stuff by blasting the headdress off a knife-swinging tough with his sawed-off. Very Indiana Jones. The fat merchant who decides who can enter, The Collector, sees promise in Max for a sinister plan, and introduces him to the supposed leader of Bartertown: Auntie Entity. Played by Tina Turner in a chain mail dress, she’s actually believable and quite good. She shows Max why they need him by taunting the leader of the city’s underworld, Master Blaster, into putting the town’s pig-shit fueled power supply on Embargo, and her lip quivers with the sting of acknowledgement that she is beholden to the little man’s power. And she’ll kill to be free of his fetters.

To avoid strife, she wants a stranger to do it- so Max is recruited to pick a fight with the hulking two-headed behemoth, a helmeted giant with a midget on his back barking orders. Master is played by little person Angelo Rositto, who’d been in Tod Browning’s Freaks and the ’70s midget crime caper Little Cigars. Unfortunately, he speaks in broken English, spouting things like “him brain broken! my vehicle. You… pedestrian!!” This makes him a bit too twee for a guy who orders his giant to strangle people, and fight in the Thunderdome with chainsaws. But nevermind. Max wants his car back, and Master Blaster has it, so he picks a fight, and all disputes are settled in the Thunderdome. You know the story. Two men enter. One man leaves.

Max fights, and learns Master Blaster’s secret- that the murderous giant is mentally challenged. The score by Maurice Jarre swells with pathos as we look at his face, to make us forget that just moments ago, he stabbed someone with a spear and was trying to cut Max in half with a chainsaw! It does this twice, and it’s really sickening. Thankfully, Auntie’s men can’t hear the soundtrack, and shoot him with crossbows, put Master in tiny chains, and subject Max to the Wheel of Fortune. Break a deal, face the wheel. The possible outcomes on the Wheel are: – Death – Hard Labour – Acquittal – Gulag – Aunty’s Choice – Spin Again – Forfeit Goods – Underworld – Amputation – Life Imprisonment. I was hoping for “Lose a Turn” but no such luck. Max gets… Gulag.

Gulag is especially ignominous, because not only to they tie you to a donkey and shove you off into the desert, put they also put a humiliating Mardi Gras head on you. This way, if anyone sees you, they’ll be too busy laughing to rescue you. And it almost works. But as Max’s donkey dies of dehydration and is swallowed by quicksand, he is found by a wandering nomad. A child, who drags him back to her oasis. She thinks he is Captain Walker, the airplane pilot who abandoned them years ago. She and her Lord of the Flies tribe of cutesy-talking kids want him to take them to Tomorrowmorrow land, the place they’ll finded after the pockyclipse. Yes, they really talk like this. Between them and Master Blaster, there’s way too much baby talk in this movie for it to be a Mad Max story.

If only dingoes had eaten them all as babies!

And this sequence drags on forever, as Max refuses to lead them, and they go off on their own, and he has to save them, and then they’re so close to Bartertown that they just up and decide to free Master. To be generous I’ll say Max wants to steal Master away to destroy the town’s power supply and stick it to Auntie for crossing him, and this leads to what should be the best car chase of the series, but it’s just a rehash of Road Warrior on train tracks. Not horrible, but we’ve seen it before. And guess who shows up at the end? Bruce Spence as Jedediah, who captains a little cropduster instead of a gyro these days. And he has a son like Feral Kid, except he talks. He lives conveniently at the end of the line, so they can escape on his plane. I could have forgiven this vegemite ex machina if Max and Jed recognized each other. He could have just said “You again!” but no, another opportunity lost.

Now, I’ve complained a lot but it’s not that bad, despite being overlong and toned down. The Bartertown sequence is quite memorable and has become part of popular culture, at least on the nerd quadrants of the internet. It’s not quite an offensive end to the trilogy, but like Jedi, seems crafted to appeal to kids. Vernon Wells, so memorable as Wez the mohawked marauder, was busy playing Bennett in Commando and the evil biker in Weird Science and did not return. I wonder if they asked. Other than Max, he’s the most iconic star of the series.


demonic duo: Faust and The Devil’s Rain

Movie Nights with Milky

My pal Milky and I have had a weekly tradition of renting random crap to watch over Chinese food, Lil Burgers, or sushi. Last week we happened to both receive Satanic flicks in our Netflix queues: he had Jan Svankmajer’s surrealist take on Faust and I rented The Devil’s Rain after Final Girl posted about it. It intrigued me. Shatner, a goat-faced Borgnine, John Travolta’s debut, Tom Skerritt in full mustachioed glory, and a tale of Devil Worship set in the barren West? Who could resist?

I’d totally rock out to a metal band called “Borgnine”

The Devil’s Rain is pretty awful. We meet the Preston family one dark and stormy night when Poppa comes home without no eyes! And then his face melts off in the rain. Momma (Ida Lupino of all people) and her idjit manchild servant run to get son Mark, who’s a sheriff round these parts, played by William Shatner in all his dramatic, shirtless glory. They tell him of his family’s peculiar destiny, to keep a Satanic book from the hands of devil worshipper Jonathan Corbis (Ernest Borgnine). The next day, when Mark goes to confront Corbis at the old abandoned church in the desert, they have a quiet stand-off where Borgnine exudes malevolence. How great the movie could have been, with these two giants butting heads.

Butt heads… get it?

But no. Mark returns to find Momma kidnapped and the idjit trussed upside down, and then he himself gets captured by Corbis’s devil cult and tortured, shritless of course, until he becomes one of the many eyeless minions. As Borgnine performs the creepy ritual, he becomes a goat-faced devil, and the effects are actually pretty good. But the story is a huge mess that put us to sleep. From here, we learn there are more Prestons, played by Tom Skeritt in his pre-Dallas from Alien days, and Joan Prather as a psychic girl in the mold of The Fury (full review). No offense, but at this point the movie is better than Ambien and we both dozed off. Once they track down Corbis, they get attacked by a young, eyeless John Travolta, and then join forces with Sheriff Eddie Albert to disrupt the final ceremony.

Shatner’s contract demanded a shirtless scene

We get a flashback to pilgrim days to see how the familial curse began, and learn that Corbis’s book contains the names of all the people who sold their souls to Satan, and without his rolodex he loses all his power. They don sacrificial robes and sneak in, and something that looks like the clock in Grand Central Station is declared to be “the Devil’s Rain,” but I never understood why. Does it matter? There’s also a hole in the desert floor full of explodium, since whatever falls in there explodes. Maybe it goes to Hell. The Sheriff throws the “Devil’s Rain” in there and it of course explodes, and frees everyone from Corbis’s curse. It also makes it rain, which makes all the eyeless minions’ faces melt off. And Corbis’s goat-face too. I’m guessing they wanted to call this movie The Devil’s Reign and misspelled it, and then had to put rain in it so people wouldn’t be confused.

Mista Kotta… I’m meltin’!

Directed by the man who brought us the Dr. Phibes movies, I expected better. It’s worth seeing to watch Shatner do his thing, and more importantly to see Ernest Borgnine play the Devil’s Left Hand. He’s always amazing, even when he’s reading a terrible script. Not only was Ernie the first guy to make an ugly momma’s boy gets the girl movie with the Oscar-winning Marty, he was perhaps the evilest-looking of The Wild Bunch, the cabbie from Escape from New York and most recently, the 92-year-old coot who authored an autobiography titled I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire, I Just Want to Keep My Nuts Warm. The man is something else. He said he got the title from a guy selling roasted chestnuts in New York. And he’s grumpy that in the U.S., the title got changed to avoid offending the Midwest. Gotta love this guy.

Faust is the first Jan Svankmajer movie I’ve actually sat down to watch; I’d seen bits of Little Otik on Shotime Beyond, heard of his surrealistic take on Alice in Wonderland, and of his fantastic stop-motion animation work. I’ve always liked that form of animation and his style is rather unique. Darth Milk has always wanted to read Goethe’s Faust, but the mix of dramatic theater and epic poem is a bit daunting even for us snooty English majors, so he put this in his queue and brought it over. Say what you will about Svankmajer’s style, but the bizarre concoction of surrealism, stop-motion effects, full-size marionettes, and the play-within-a-movie structure certainly are gripping.
I like David Lynch like any good internet film nerd, and also Luis Buñuel and Peter Greenaway. So this wasn’t a shock to my sensibilities. I was unsure of exactly what Svankmajer was going for, but that’s part of the fun. As a story, it works in a circular fashion and as a dreamlike take on all the forms the Faust story has taken- opera, film, play, moral folktale. He has a morbid sense of humor and in one hilarious scene, the devil sends a demon disguised as Helen of Troy to seduce our Czech everyman who’s been forced to play Dr. Faustus. What’s the disguise? Well, he drills a hole in the life size marionette and pats on a little tuft of hair, and slaps a mask on him. The claymation effects for the summoning of Lucifer and how he appears are quite memorable too. It begins with a clay baby with a spell stuffed in its mouth; this disintegrates into three egglike blobs that roll around, merging into a horned and fanged face, or merely eyes and a mouth, depending on its whim. In the Englush version, all the voices are dubbed by one man- Andrew Sachs- who’s been in many small roles, including Gerard the Frenchman in Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part One.
If you’re in the mood for an odd one, this one gets Milky and I’s approval. Svankmajer’s Alice and Little Otik are queued for future movie nights.