Mad Max Fury Road – One Of The Greatest Action Movies Ever

I re-watched the original “Mad Max” just before I checked this sequel out, and I was amazed at what spectacular stunts director George Miller was able to pull off on a budget of less than $1 million. Even today, the 1979 movie is exhilarating to watch as Max Rockatansky lays waste to the gang of bikers who coldly and viciously murdered his wife and son. After watching it, I had to wonder what Miller could do with an even bigger budget. Of course, we all came to see exactly what he could with the next two “Mad Max” movies as well as with his segment of “Twilight Zone: The Movie,” “Happy Feet” and the highly underrated “Babe: Pig in the City.”

But all of his previous works came close to completely paling in comparison to “Mad Max: Fury Road,” the first “Mad Max” movie in 30 years, which had Miller working with a reported budget of $150 million and giving us the kind of action movie which effectively redefines the words thrilling, exhilaration, non-stop and spectacle. It’s as furious as movies get, and the real lack of CGI effects makes the action feel all the more wonderfully brutal. For a follow-up which got stuck in development hell for what seemed like an eternity, it was well worth the wait.

There’s a bit of confusion as to whether “Fury Road” is meant to be a franchise reboot or a sequel, but even with Tom Hardy taking over the role made famous by Mel Gibson, I’m just going to consider this a straightforward sequel. And like many of the best sequels, this one does not require you to have seen the previous three movies to understand all of what is going on.

Once again, Max travels the wretched wasteland of planet Earth in his car equipped with the kind of horsepower we would love to convince others we have under the hoods of our own cars, and it doesn’t take him long at all to get captured by people who have long since been driven mad by the desecration and lawlessness surrounding them. Max ends up being brought to a place called the Citadel which is ruled over by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his army of War Boys. Max eventually escapes (it wouldn’t be much of a movie if he didn’t) and comes into contact with Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a hardened warrior who drives a heavily armed truck known as the War Rig. It is eventually revealed that Furiosa has absconded with Joe’s Five Wives, women selected for the purpose of breeding, and Joe will stop at nothing to retrieve what is now considered Earth’s most valuable property: no oil, not water, but human bodies.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” wastes no time in putting the pedal to metal as it is essentially one long chase movie which never lets up. The plot is fairly thin, but it’s still thick enough to support the tremendous action sequences which involve some of the craziest stunts and crashes this side of a John Woo or a James Cameron film. Seeing real cars actually crash and get demolished provides us with the visceral thrills I don’t get enough of at the local cinema these days. The fact Miller was able to give us such an amazing spectacle even at the age of 70 more than raises the bar for the next generation of filmmakers who have a lot of catching up to do.

I do have to admit I’m a little bummed Gibson didn’t return to play Max. It’s certainly not hard to understand why he was absent this time around, but coming back to play the role which made him a worldwide star would have been the icing on the cake for “Fury Road.” Having said that, Hardy does a terrific job of making this iconic role his own, and he proves to be furiously mad in his own crazy way.

But seriously, “Mad Max: Fury Road” really belongs to Charlize Theron who steals the show as Imperator Furiosa. There should be no doubt as to how phenomenal an actress Theron is as she has given us amazing performances in “Monster” (and no, the makeup did not do the work for her), “North Country” and “Young Adult” and she deserves far more credit than she typically gets. Her toughened up performance as Furiosa brings to mind Sigourney Weaver’s in “Aliens” as she dominates the special effects in a way few actors get the chance to do.

When it was released, many said “Fury Road” had a strong feminist angle to it, and they said this as if it were a bad thing. Then again, those who urged us to boycott this movie for that reason still have not bothered to watch it, so their hypocrisy remains as infinite as ever. What they need to understand is women cannot and should no longer be considered the weaker sex. The fact is they never were.

I also liked how Miller brought back Hugh Keays-Byrne to play Immortan Joe here as he is the same actor who portrayed Toecutter, the villain of the original “Mad Max.” Byrne ends up having to wear this scary looking mask throughout “Fury Road,” so his eyes and his voice do most of the acting for him. But even with these given limitations, Byrne gives us a very threatening and mesmerizing antagonist who is bent on dominating anyone and everyone who has the misfortune of being in his path.

And let’s not forget Nicholas Hoult who plays Nux, the sick war boy who comes to discover what really matters to him in such a desolate world. It’s been fun watching him go from his early days as a child actor in “About a Boy” to where he is presently, and it has been a voyage full of memorable performances. As Nux, he looks to be having the time of his life as he shouts out loud, “Oh what a glorious day!” His energy never lets up from start to finish, and he succeeds in making us care about Nux even though he is not entirely trustworthy when we first meet him.

There are many images here which have stayed with me long after I first saw it on the silver screen. The design of the cars the characters roam the desert in, the Darth Vader-like mask Immortan Joe wears, those guys hanging tightly to totem poles as the vehicles they are tied to travel at breakneck speeds, and, of course, the travelling guitarist known as the Doof Warrior (iOTA) who plays his instrument and shoots fire out of it with reckless abandon. All of this amazing imagery is done to the thunderous score composed by Thomas Holkenborg (a.k.a. Junkie XL) which proves to be as furious as the onscreen spectacle.

It has now been five years since “Mad Max: Fury Road” was first released, and there should be no doubt that it is one of the best action movies ever made. Time has not taken away from the pure adrenaline rush Miller provides us here, nor does the frustration of him losing the Best Director Academy Award to Alejandro G. Iñárritu who won instead for “The Revenant.” For an action movie, this one is a real work of art.

Seriously, there is something to be said for a movie which brought cinematographer John Seale out of retirement to work on it.

* * * * out of * * * *

Edgar Wright Talks with Walter Hill about The Driver

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2011 when this screening took place.

Continuing with his film programming at New Beverly Cinema which he entitled The Wright Stuff II, filmmaker Edgar Wright gave us a vehicular double feature with “The Driver” and “Duel.” The main attraction of the evening, however, was “The Driver,” a 1978 movie directed by Walter Hill, and Wright gleefully told the audience it was more for him than us as it was his first time seeing it on the big screen, and that it made him want to become a getaway driver. Joining him for this screening was the film’s director Walter Hill, actors Bruce Dern and Ronee Blakley, and producer Frank Marshall.

Upon seeing the sold-out audience at the New Beverly, Hill remarked, “This is the largest crowd in the United States that has ever seen this movie. It didn’t do all that well when it was first released.”

Indeed, “The Driver” is not as well-known as some of Hill’s other movies like “48 Hours” or “Southern Comfort.” When it came out, it was criticized as not being fun and for being “too real.” Hill remarked how depressing it can be when a movie you make does no business and gets bad reviews. Later though, another filmmaker contacted Hill about the reception “The Driver” got and told him, “Pay no attention to reviews. The movie’s marvelous, life is hard.”

“The Driver” marked the first time Hill worked with Dern, and Dern praised Hill endlessly throughout the evening and said he would go anywhere in the world for him. Dern said he found Hill to be “full of surprises,” and he came to work thinking they would do something which had never done before. Hill in turn described Dern as “a very special actor” who always jumped out at him with quality and personality in each of his performances, and that he gave each role an unusual quality of psychological density to even the most mundane characters.

Marshall, best known for producing the Jason Bourne movies and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” originally turned the movie down because it was being shot at night in downtown Los Angeles. Back in the 1970’s, he was worried about shooting there as it had a very brutal atmosphere. Somehow though, he got sucked into doing this one and ended up trading a summer in Malibu as a result. “The Driver” later led Hill to make another film called “The Warriors” which was also shot at night.

While Dern has most of the movie’s dialogue, the main star of “The Driver” is Ryan O’Neal. His character is noted for having only 350 words in the entire script, and Wright remarked how nice it was to have an action movie where the hero has no good lines. O’Neal was known as a heartthrob at the time, but he was eager to do something different in his career when this role came along. However, many didn’t accept O’Neal as this character when the movie came out as people had a different image of him at the time. Years later though, it is clear just how good he is here, and it served him well in his growth as an actor.

When it comes to the car chases in “The Driver,” it is clear the actors really were driving those cars instead of their stunt doubles. This film was released not long after “The French Connection” which did everything for real, and everyone was really tearing around at crazy speeds. Hill said he and his fellow filmmakers were “young and reckless” back then, and he gleefully pointed out there indeed was “a real man in that car that flipped.”

But what’s great about the car chases in “The Driver,” as Marshall pointed out, is how Hill uses them to tell a story. These are not car chases for the sake of car chases, but ones which are an integral part to the movie as a whole. Watching it at New Beverly Cinema, it made me yearn for the kind Hollywood doesn’t do any more unless CGI is heavily involved. In the end, there is not much which is even better than the real thing.

One audience member asked if there were any police experts on set during the making of “The Driver.” Hill said there were not, and he made clear how the movie is really “pure fantasy” in what it portrays and is the “opposite of law enforcement.” It’s hard to think of any police force wanting to be involved with a movie like this as it appears to show the bad guys getting away without any real repercussions. In the end, Hill saw it as an extension of the “dark sides of personalities.” Indeed, this is not a film inhabited by easily redeemable characters, and Hill was correct in describing as a “very unreal movie.”

Hill also took the time to talk about his style of directing, and this something I was eager to know more about. His films typically don’t get much rehearsal time, but he found this actually works in the director’s favor. He told the audience that two-thirds of directing is casting, and he never gets any rehearsal until take one. Dern added how Hill is not very good at rehearsal, and this made him and Walter seem like a perfect match for one another.

Hill even talked about how he originally wanted Robert Mitchum for Dern’s role, and that he talked with him for six hours straight about it. In the end, however, Mitchum told Hill there was “too much car stuff” and that he didn’t have the energy for it. This clearly benefited Dern who got the role instead, and he admitted Mitchum would have been a “handful” for Hill to deal with.

In the end, this screening “The Driver” really turned out to be a gift for everyone at New Beverly Cinema. It was a gift for Hill and the other guests as it brought back so many memories they would have otherwise forgotten. It was also a gift for Wright as he would never have seen it on the big screen otherwise. But it was an especially big gift for the audience because many of would not have seen it otherwise. I probably would not have rushed out to see “The Driver” if Wright did not feature it in his festival of movies, and for me it turned out to be a special treat.

“The Driver” is one of the many movies which show how Walter Hill is still a vastly underappreciated filmmaker at times. After watching it at New Beverly Cinema, I am reminded of how effective a director he can be when given the right material.

ADDITIONAL WRITER’S NOTE: This movie has become a cult classic in recent years and has proven to be very influential on many filmmakers. Nicolas Winding Refn has cited it as an inspiration on his brilliant movie “Drive,” and you can see its influence all over Edgar Wright’s 2017 action film “Baby Driver.”

William Friedkin Discusses the Creation of ‘The French Connection’ Car Chase

The French Connection car chase

William Friedkin’s “The French Connection” was shown as part of American Cinematheque’s tribute to him, and he went into great detail about how the famous car chase came together. It is still one of the best car chases in cinema alongside “Bullitt,” and it’s the kind Hollywood doesn’t dare do anymore.

The French Connection movie poster

Actually, it turns out there was never a car chase in the original script for “The French Connection,” but Friedkin felt it needed one as this was a police procedural, and the audience would need a temporary release from it. Also, Friedkin didn’t do any storyboards to prepare for it. In fact, he has never done storyboards for any of his movies because he feels he has to see it in his mind. The shots captured on film come together from what he sees at the time, and he doesn’t even use a second unit to shoot any footage. All that you see on screen in “The French Connection” comes from life as it happened in front of Friedkin.

In coming up with the chase, he and some crew members walked down 50 blocks of New York streets to figure out how it would work best. As Friedkin kept walking, he suddenly felt the subway under his feet. Now logistically, he couldn’t do a car chase with a subway as it was underground, but it made him wonder if there were any elevated trains left in New York. The production team ended up finding one in Brooklyn, so Friedkin went to the Transit Authority to get their cooperation in pulling this chase off.

The first thing to figure out was how fast the trains could go. Friedkin said if they went over 100 mph, they couldn’t do the chase as it would be impossible for Popeye Doyle to follow the train by car. The train supervisor he talked to said the trains go at 50 mph, so what seemed impractical suddenly became possible. Not only did Friedkin want to have a car chase the train, he also wanted to crash the train for the chase’s climax. But the train supervisor said it would be too difficult because they had never had an elevated train crash or even heisted. Having heard all this did not deter Friedkin, and he planned to steal the scene if the transit authority’s cooperation was not going to be granted.

As Friedkin and his crew headed for the exit, the train supervisor suddenly said, “Wait a second. I told you it would be difficult. I never said it would be impossible!” He told Friedkin that if he were to help him with this, then he would need $40,000 and a one-way ticket to Jamaica. His reasoning was if the movie was to be done Friedkin’s way, he would be fired, and retiring to Jamaica was always in the back of his mind. Sure enough, the supervisor was fired, and he moved to Jamaica like he said he would, so it’s safe to say he lucked out.

In filming the chase, the shots were picked up just as they happened in real life. There’s no way they would ever be able to film a chase like this today without prior approval from the city, but Friedkin and his crew were young and reckless, and they unleashed mayhem New York never saw coming. There were not supposed to be any accidents while filming it, but there ended up being many of them which forced the crew to fix the car after each take. I’m pretty sure they ended up using more than one as a result. Friedkin ended up saying they did a number of things he would never even think about doing today, and that they were very fortunate no one got hurt.

Taking all this information into account, this car chase feels even more thrilling than when I first saw it. The way it was filmed was completely insane, and the fact they pulled it off at all was a miracle. When Gene Hackman finally brings the 1971 Pontiac LeMans he is driving to a complete stop, the sold-out audience at the Aero Theatre applauded loudly which shows how powerful the sequence remains today. “The French Connection,” like many of Friedkin’s movies, has deservedly stood the test of time.