Mad Max (1979)
by Steve Habrat
In 1979, a violent little dystopian action thriller from Australia introduced a majority of the world to an unknown actor by the name of Mel Gibson. Made for only $400,000, director George Miller’s Mad Max barely made a ripple in the United States, and it wouldn’t be until the 1982 sequel Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior that American audiences would be familiar with the gruff Gibson. Today, many genre fans consider Mad Max to be one of the greatest action films ever made, second only to it’s follow-up, but the original film actually fails to live up to some of the hype that surrounds it. There are spurts of exploitation violence, high-octane car chases, and fiery car wrecks that are sure to please anyone who considers themselves a fan of savage cinema from the 1970s, but the revenge aspect of Mad Max, which reveals itself in the last fifteen minutes of the film, seems crammed in and brushed over. Despite the flawed climax, Mad Max does have plenty of apocalyptic action and death-defying stunts to keep you pinned to your seat (Holy destroyed camper, Batman!) and there are colorful characters galore. The major draw here is Gibson and his performance as Max, an upstanding Main Force Patrol officer who is the king of the gang-infested highways.
Mad Max opens on the desolate highways of Australia, which is in ruin due to the dwindling supply of oil. The highways are infested with motorcycle gangs who crash into small towns, raid their supplies of oil, and terrorize the town citizens. The only ones fighting for law and order are the Main Force Patrol, a leather-clad police force who battles the gangs in their supped up Interceptors. One of the best officers working for the MFP is Max Rockatansky (played by Mel Gibson), who is extremely skilled when it comes to high-speed pursuits. After Max runs down escaped motorcycle gang member Nightrider (played by Vincent Gil), vicious gang leader and Nightrider’s friend Toecutter (played by Hugh Keays-Byrne) vows to track down the MFP officers responsible for Nightriders death. Max and his partner, Jim “Goose” Rains (played by Steve Bisley), respond to attacks by Toecutter’s gang in a local small town and when they arrive, they arrest Johnny “The Boy” Boyle (played by Tim Burns), Toecutter’s protégé. It doesn’t take long for Johnny to find a way out of jail and while he is being escorted out, he makes violent threats against Max and Goose. Johnny meets back up with Toecutter and the two start plotting revenge against Max and Goose. The gang soon makes good on their violent threats against the MFP officers, which forces Max to consider retirement from the force. However, when the gang attacks Max’s family, he takes to the highways to dish out a little revenge.
Early on, Miller sets the bar high with a breakneck car chase that features more destruction and more eye-popping stunts than any CGI offering of today. A family’s camper is turned to dust as a car goes ripping right through it, Interceptors spin and tumble wildly about the highway, and Max watches over all of it with calculation, waiting for the proper moment to strike. It’s like a futuristic chase through the Wild West as Miller pulls his camera back to reveal the parched and rocky Australian landscape. Miller follows the chase scene up with an intimidating raid on a rundown town, which acts as our brutal introduction to Toecutter. It drips in exploitation even if some of the nastier stuff if kept just off screen and it nicely builds up a slew of despicable villains that we sincerely dislike. As Mad Max speeds on, the film slowly starts to loose the momentum that it gathered in those opening moments. Each new attack or action sequence seems to pale in comparison to what we saw early on. Miller gets back on track briefly when Max’s family is horrifically attacked while they flee on foot down that dreaded highway, but then the film takes on a hurried tone, almost like Miller just wants to finish the revenge side of the film off. The climax is way too brief considering its importance and it fails to really let the viewer feel or savor any one moment. However, the final sequence that finds one character handcuffed to a wrecked vehicle is undeniably influential.
While the action and suspense of Mad Max may slowly slip, Miller makes sure that his cast is one of the most memorable in the action genre. Gibson is electrifying as Max, a skilled MFP officer and softie family man who fears the horrors of his job may push him over the edge. Some of the scenes between Max and his wife, Jessie (played by Joanne Samuel), are a bit too sweet for some of the harsher moments of the film, but these scenes make Max’s violent transformation all the more intense. When Gibson unleashes his gruff vengeance, you can tell that he was born to be action star. Bisley is enthusiastic as Goose, Max’s ruthless, motor-mouthed partner who meets a particularly grisly end. Tim Burns gives a dazed performance as Johnny, Toecutter’s depraved protégé who enjoys rapping and attacking anyone who dares cross him. Hugh Keays-Byrne gives a particularly disturbed performance as Toecutter, a shaggy biker who is calm one minute and then foaming at the mouth the next. His fury over the death of Nightrider is guaranteed to send a chill. Roger Ward has several great moments as Fifi, the hulking MFP captain with a strong man mustache and a bald dome. There is something exciting about the way he encourages his officers to track down this bloodthirsty gang by any means necessary and he reveals a softer side when he tries to convince Max to stay on the force.
Despite its abrupt climax, Mad Max does have an unusually fast paced feel about it. It comes, it entertains, and then it speeds off down the highway. The style that Miller applied to Mad Max has also clearly rubbed off on many action and science fiction directors over the years, especially the look of the cars, which all have an armored predatory aesthetic about them. It is also worth tracking down the film just to admire a film that applies real stunts over computer fakery. It truly is amazing to see what Miller was able to pull off with so little. It lacks polish but the action is unshakably raw and in your face. As far as the violence goes, there is a hearty dose of blood and gore, but most of the really nasty stuff is implied. I don’t think there is anyone out there who would want to see what Toecutter and his gang do to Max’s son. There is an extra graphic scene near the end that finds our hero stumbling down the highway with a smashed up hand and a bloody leg. Overall, for all the action junkies out there, Mad Max is certainly a must-see if you haven’t already experienced it. It isn’t the smartest film you are ever going to see, but its impact on action cinema does make it an essential film within the genre. However, the sins of the climax prevent it from truly becoming a classic.
Mad Max is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Night Train Murders (1975)
by Steve Habrat
Imitation was the name of the game in Italy from the mid 1960s until the mid 1980s, something that was both positive and negative. Sergio Leone gave birth to the spaghetti western genre in the mid 60s with the marvelous A Fistful of Dollars, a leaner and meaner version of the American western, and Lucio Fulci sent Italy into a zombie craze with his uncompromisingly vicious 1979 grindhouse film Zombie, which was marketed as a sequel to George Romero’s mega hit Dawn of the Dead. It is no surprise that Italy was also enamored with Wes Craven’s grainy rape/revenge horror outing The Last House on the Left. Aldo Lado’s Night Train Murders is Italy’s answer to Craven’s horrifying redo of Ingmar Begrman’s The Virgin Spring, even marketed as the “new Last House” and using The Last House on the Left’s famous tagline, with minor alterations (“You can tell yourself it’s only a movie – but it won’t help”). Many have argued that Night Train Murders is actually a stronger and much more intelligent film than The Last House on the Left, but in reality, the film seems to be preoccupied with its graphic sexual assaults rather than really doing anything fresh or constructive with the story outside of some thin satire and a change in setting. It should also be pointed out that the film is poorly paced and (naturally) shoddily dubbed with eye-rolling dialogue. The only thing that saves the senseless clone is the acting, which is surprisingly strong for a controversial grindhouse throwaway.
Night Train Murders focuses on two pretty college girls, Margaret (Played by Irene Miracle) and Lisa (Played by Laura D’Angelo), who are taking an overnight train from Munich to Lisa’s parents home in Italy for Christmas. While on board, Margaret and Lisa cross paths with two thugs, Blackie (Played by Flavio Bucci) and Curly (Played by Gianfranco De Grassi), who hop aboard the train to avoid being arrested by the police. As they hide from the ticket collector, Blackie attempts to rape a pretty upper class woman (Played by Macha Meril), but is shocked that the woman begins seducing him and enjoying his advances. This promiscuous woman joins the two thugs on their journey, but the train is soon stopped after authorities get word of a bomb on board. The girls decide to hop on another train that guarantees they will reach their destination by morning and allow them to avoid the suspicious Blackie and Curly. As the girls settle in, they are shocked to discover that the two thugs and the woman who pursued them on the previous train are also on board. As night falls and the train cabins darken, Lisa and Margaret become the victims of rape and torture at the hands of Blackie, Curly, and the mysterious woman. As the night goes on, the girls begin to realize that no one is going to be able to save them and they begin wishing for death.
After the slow set up that hangs over the first act of Night Train Murders (the girls flirt with the thugs, Curly plays his harmonica, Blackie has graphic sex with the mysterious woman), director Lado settles in for almost forty minutes of graphic rape and jaw dropping torture that will certainly stir up the casual viewer, but frankly just exhaust the hardened horror buff. The initial first encounters during the lengthy rape sequence are certainly appalling (the deflowering with the switchblade comes to mind), but after a while, you are left checking your watch and wishing that Lado would move on with the story. When we do finally move past the nasty stuff, Lado seems to rush the confrontation between Lisa’s parents and these three sadistic individuals. If you are familiar with The Last House on the Left, you obviously know that the parents cross paths with the thugs and proceed to serve up a bloody plate of revenge. Night Train Murders approaches the sequence as almost an afterthought, and the way the parents figure out what has happened feels forced. When the sparks finally do fly, things do get bloody, but it never reaches the levels of violence that The Last House on the Left reaches. Amazingly, there is plenty of atmosphere during the final confrontation (the billowing fog and the whistling wind do send chills as Lado fixes his camera on a dead body), but the action feels a bit sanitized for a film that seems well aware that it is a knock-off exploitation film. It sadly never achieves the realism that Craven achieved.
For an exploitation film, Night Train Murders does muster some above average performances from its leads. Miracle and D’Angelo are certainly sympathetic as Margaret and Lisa, especially when they realize that there is no hope of escape from these three maniacs. Especially effective is D’Angelo’s Lisa, a virgin who is violated with a switchblade and then left to bleed out. As far as the thugs go, Bucci and De Grassi will make your skin crawl as Blackie and Curly. One is just as bad as the other, the loose cannon easily being Curly, who happens to be an unpredictable junkie with a sinister harmonica. Meril’s mysterious woman (we never do learn her real name), who joins forces with Blackie and Curly, is probably the creepiest character in the film, a seemingly sophisticated upper class woman who conceals her darker interests in porno and smirks at the violence erupting around her in the final moments. It is frightening the way evil is lured out during an attempted rape, a horrific act that she enjoys. And we can’t forget Enrico Maria Salerno and Marina Berti as Lisa’s parents, Giulio and Laura, two more upper class citizens who erupt in quivering carnage even though they state their dislike for violence in society.
At times, Night Train Murders seems to have a bit more on its mind than simply rape and revenge, but the idea of violence lurking in the most civilized human beings seems stale and borrowed, much like the plot itself. The film is effective with its claustrophobic setting (very rarely does Lado’s camera venture out of the train cabin) and the image of a switchblade stuck between Lisa’s legs is certainly something that will not leave your memory any time soon, but the film never manages to sicken like it thinks it does. The middle section just becomes tedious and sadly, boredom begins to set in. It should also be noted that the film packs a beautiful and haunting score from Ennio Morricone, a nice little surprise for the viewer. Overall, if you’ve exhausted your copy of The Last House on the Left and you’ve admired Bergman’s staggering The Virgin Spring, Night Train Murders is worth checking out simply for the slightly different take on the story. However, if you’re an exploitation fan, Night Train Murders will leave you longing for the scummy realism of Craven’s film.
Night Train Murders is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003)
by Steve Habrat
After disappearing from movies for six long years, Quentin Tarantino finally returned in 2003 to the cinema scene with one of his wildest films yet. Enter Kill Bill: Volume 1, a globetrotting epic that blends together blood-drenched kung fu, anime, squinty spaghetti westerns, sleazy revenge flicks, and, you guessed it, more pop culture references than you can shake a Hattori Hanzo sword at. After his rather docile blaxploitation feature Jackie Brown, it was great to see Tarantino embrace a whirlwind of crazy again but Kill Bill: Volume 1 remains a film that turns many viewers off, especially if they are not in on what Tarantino is trying to do. Kill Bill: Volume 1 is another love letter to the exploitation films Tarantino marveled at as a kid, but the film is also a nod to the influence Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo had on the creation of the spaghetti western. Kill Bill: Volume 1 stands as more of a vibrant kung fu movie than a spaghetti western (the spaghetti western is alive and well in Kill Bill: Volume 2) and it puts a lot more emphasis on artery spurting action sequences than in-depth story. Despite all of its energy, Tarantino still slips in some knockout emotion, especially near the end when we begin to learn more about Uma Thurman’s mysterious and bloodthirsty Bride. Until then, Tarantino keeps you glued to the candy-colored action and boy, those action scenes are exhilarating.
Kill Bill: Volume 1 introduces us to the Bride (Played by Uma Thurman), who was a valued member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad led by Bill (Played by David Carradine). It turns out that the Bride grew tired of working as a hitwoman and decided to distance herself from the group and find love. On the Bride’s wedding day, her old coworkers burst into the El Paso wedding chapel, gun down her friends, family, and fiancé, and then proceeded to beat her to a bloody pulp. After the savage beating, Bill proceeds to shoot her in the head despite a last gasp plea that she is pregnant. The Deadly Viper Assassination Squad assumed they killed the Bride but instead, they put her in a coma for four long years. After snapping out of the coma, the Bride makes a list of all who were involved with the massacre, tracks down Japanese sword maker Hattori Hanzo (Played by Sonny Chiba) in the hopes that he will create a new weapon for her to unleash her fury, and then sets her sights on former colleagues O-Ren Ishii (Played by Lucy Lui), who is now head of the Tokyo Yakuza and controls her own personal army called the Crazy 88, and Vernita Green (Played by Vivica A. Fox), now a housewife with an array of weapons stored around her home. Nothing will stand in the Bride’s way and she will not stop until every last one lies dead in the dirt.
Not nearly as chatty as Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown, Kill Bill: Volume 1 puts the pedal to the metal and jumps right into the bone-snapping action. The film opens with a thunderous confrontation between Vernita Green and the Bride. Sure, there are a few moments where the characters trade clever lines of dialogue but Tarantino seems more hell-bent on spilling as much blood and guts as he possibly can in just under two hours. At the time of its release, Kill Bill: Volume 1 was certainly Tarantino’s biggest and most polished film yet. When compared to his first three features, it is clear to see he had a lot more money to work with (the budget was $30 million). With that much dough in his hand, Tarantino dares to get flashy, especially at the climax of the film. The last portion of the film jumps to Tokyo in a swanky restaurant/bar/nightclub called the House of Blue Leaves, where the Bride confronts O-Ren and her Crazy 88. This showdown finds the Bride hacking and slashing her way through a seemingly endless army of hotshot gangsters in Kato masks as blood gushes like geysers from their wounds. It is hilariously extreme to the point where Tarantino had to scrub away the color and present it in black and white so the film would nab an R rating (it has also been said that Tarantino did this to pay tribute to the television airings of classic kung fu films, which would switch to black and white to mask some of the gore). It is the shining moment of Kill Bill: Volume 1, complete with the Bride dressed in a yellow motorcycle suit that pays tribute to Bruce Lee’s 1972 film The Game of Death.
Then we have Thurman, who plays the Bride with such ferocity that you would think that this was the last role she will ever play. I love the way that Tarantino drenches her in mystery, even censoring her name in a wicked tribute to Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name. It is great the way he provides little morsels of information to tease and hook us for the big reveals of her character that will come in Volume 2. Yet Thurman remains one tough and scowling cookie, more so in this installment over the second, where he really fills her emotions in. She’s the ultimate hardass who never seems to break a sweat even as she is surrounded by hissing bodyguards. As the Bride bops around in her Pussy Wagon (a bright yellow pick up truck she steals from a perverted orderly), she encounters Daryl Hannah’s Elle Driver, a one-eyed femme fatale who is clearly a nod to Christina Lindberg’s character in Thriller: A Cruel Picture. We basically get a sample of her vile character but she is certainly an evil piece of work. There is also Fox’s Vernita Green, a smooth-talking lioness who gets into a living room brawl with the Bride. Fox is basically given an extended cameo, as Tarantino seems more interested in Lui’s O-Ren, the ruthless head of the Yakuza. He spills O-Ren’s back-story in a shockingly violent anime sequence that will captivate even those who don’t have much interest in anime. There is also Sonny Chiba’s wise and scene stealing Hattori Hanzo, Chiaki Kuriyama’s pint sized ball-and-chain assassin Gogo Yubari, and Carradine’s heard and only briefly seen Bill.
Kill Bill: Volume 1 is ultimately a mash up of everything Tarantino loves. It is loaded with toe tapping songs from a wide-ranging collection of artists. He opens the film with Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang” droning over a silhouette of the Bride and has her flying off to Tokyo as the Green Hornet theme trumpets her arrival. He makes reference to countless grindhouse and exploitation films, mostly ultra-violent kung fu that he is always raving about in interviews. In addition to being a massive sampler, Kill Bill: Volume 1 is also Tarantino’s most cartoonish film. It is almost like witnessing a comic book suddenly springing to life, which is why I think some people tend not to really care for it. Overall, if you’re open to what Tarantino is trying to do here, you will be left wiping the drool off your chin when the credits role. Not one moment of the film ceases being cool and you can practically hear Tarantino giggling with glee at some points. If you’re new to Tarantino’s work, this is probably not the best place for you to start but for those who love his work, you’ll be thrilled to find him in full form again. Kill Bill: Volume 1 is a roller coaster ride from beginning to end.
Kill Bill: Volume 1 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.