Cult vs. Mainstream: Part 2, Dredd Vs. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (suggested by T-kun Unusual Wordsmith III)
And now, to finish my thank you gift, here’s part two of Mad Max vs. Judge Dredd. Max Max took round 1 for the cult movies, but now, it’s time for a role reversal. With the release of Beyond Thunderdome, the final entry in the Mad Max trilogy, the series was far into mainstream territory, grossing today’s equivalent of $80 million in the United States alone. Judge Dredd, meanwhile, went back to the drawing board for a little passion project attempt to bring us the adaptation the series deserved, but the result never quite made it out of cult territory. Will Mad Max take it all, or is the cult status where this genre belongs?
Dredd: If I have a style as a reviewer, it leans towards the analytical, though more of my own feelings, post-experience, than the elements a more seasoned critic might explore. I like to see if I can find the wavelength of a movie, to paint the picture of what it did for me, and I usually figure out something that I, at least, can be satisfied with. But a few minutes into the credits of Dredd, I realized Iâ€™d have to confess up front: You canâ€™t exactly convey the full effect.
I could start with its merits as a brutal futuristic thriller, very akin to Robocop, which is probably its foremost trait. Dredd is exciting in both its pace and visuals, with a bleak humor and a clear sense of right and wrong to keep the massive carnage from seeming dreary or needless. But thereâ€™s something under the surface, always at work, whose presence gets stronger as the movie progresses.
Judge Dredd is a revered officer of the law in an apocalyptic time when the law itself is not revered. Surrounded by irradiated soil, the land from Boston to DC has been merged into a mega-city, packed with mega-structures collapsing under the weight of the citizens they hold. The only law enforcement are the Judges such as Dredd, who serve as judge, jury, and if need be, executioner, with no room for error. Firepower but not numbers are on their side, and they can only respond to 6% of the 17,000 crimes reported every day. Now theyâ€™ve found a much-needed potential resource in the psychic powers of the mutant Cassadra Anderson, a type harder to come by in this universe than in that of the X-Men. But whether it was placed in the right body is a coin toss, for while she wants nothing more than to become a Judge and aid the struggling citizens, her test results were on just the wrong end of â€œmarginal.â€ Dredd is assigned to conduct her final test, putting her in charge of one of the readily-available investigations. The first act manages to squeeze a share of tension just from whether Cassandra â€“ marginal indeed next to Dredd, for all her strength and world experience â€“ will pass; the scene in which she is required to look a pleading man in the eyes and personally kill him is the movieâ€™s most chilling, for the fact that you might find yourself hoping she does.
But the investigation they choose turns out rather extreme, even for the top 6%, for the homicide reported turns out to be the work of a drug lord, ruthless enough to claw her way to the top after a long scar inflicted under her eye ruined her first way of life. When they apprehend one of her men for questioning, she uses her influence to lock down the city, leaving the two Judges trapped with limited ammo and everything from armed goons to Vulcan bullets that slide straight through concrete coming at them. Dredd himself, unlike Stalloneâ€™s 1995 version, would barely list this as a notable day in his life, continuing to quiz Anderson on appropriate defenses as they are surrounded. But Anderson is forced to find her footing, particularly in the movieâ€™s other virtuoso scene, in which she must challenge their captive to a mental duel of depravity for information. Not only does she surprise with the dark corners of her mind that she manages to stomach every day, she actually leaves us a bit disappointed in her opponent: For all the movieâ€™s hints at a few tricks of his own, heâ€™s down in round 1.
Now if only I could pinpoint what makes it all feel so full-blooded. It isnâ€™t a message or even a theme per se. The movie points out flaws in the Judges and their laws, only to carry on without addressing them. As a matter of fact, itâ€™s surprisingly easy to accept Dreddâ€™s near-merciless brutality once we see the magnitude of what heâ€™s up against, fighting, after all, to protect society from it. Itâ€™s also not character growth, because while thereâ€™s plenty to be found in Cassandra, the only purpose it serves past allowing her to grow on us is an impartial comparison to Dreddâ€™s ice cold resolve. And though Dredd himself, Cassandra tells us, keeps one particular emotion â€œbehind (his) control,â€ itâ€™s never revealed. Instead of emphasizing that quality to make a statement on Dredd, it weaves it in as a strand to latch onto, helping us to appreciate him in the role he plays, not just his pistol and square jaw. Actually, I think there I at least have one example of what Iâ€™m talking about.
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome: The list of reason fans might reject the third film in an action franchises is well-worn. Why, I asked, did Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome have its own little group of haters calling it the least of the three Mad Max films? Fewer cars? Watered down violence? Did it somehow contradict the other films or take the story in a different direction? Oh, of course; itâ€™s the chapter that turns Max into the babysitter by teaming him with non-feral kids.
Actually though, it makes a certain amount of sense. Not that everyone didnâ€™t want Max to stay the same cold-blooded road warrior forever (which Iâ€™m assuming they did), but good storytelling means continuing to advance the character after you start, not getting stuck on one note. And what else could push him to call back his soul? Wasnâ€™t failing to protect his son what turned him into Mad Max in the first place? And isnâ€™t everything he does in line with what weâ€™ve seen from him in the last two movies, just leaning gradually towards his sympathy and altruism? True, the self-sufficient tribe of children with an ill-founded utopian prophecy does alter the tone of the movie in a way that some have compared to The Goonies, but it reminded me more of the Lost Boys from Peter Pan. Alright, maybe Iâ€™m not the first one to make that comparison either, but Iâ€™ll still argue itâ€™s a good thing.
Mad Max begins in the dessert, where there are no roads, and Max now drives a would-be wagon pulled by camels. For me, the only moviegoer who never thought desserts were interesting to look at, the points in which the movie wasnâ€™t doing anything unique and exciting were pretty much dead zones. Thankfully, there werenâ€™t very many. Mere seconds into the story, a pilot played by Bruce Jenner (who may or may not be the same character he was in the last movie) flies by with his son and knocks out Max, stealing his possessions to sell in the savage Bartertown.
Nobody in Bartertown cares about helping Max if he doesnâ€™t have anything to trade, so he offers up his skills, which might just be the perfect scale-tipper in the townâ€™s power struggle. The queen who wants his help, played by Tina Turner, is technically meant to be in charge, but she and her entire town are at the mercy of Master-Blaster, one invincible man formed from two: Master, a dwarf, is the only one who knows how to make the methane-based fuel that powers the town. (Youâ€™re going to love where he gets it from.) The only way to bend him to her will is physically, which is where Blaster, a giant hulk of a man who carries Master on his back and follows his every order, comes in. And the only legal way to kill Blaster is by challenging him to a one-on-one match in Thunderdome, a domed cage used to settle disputes, where the only rule is â€œtwo men enter, one man leaves.â€
One-on-one duels have been my favorite action trope ever since, ahem, Peter Pan introduced me to them, so I was looking forward to the acclaimed match in Thunderdome between Max and Blaster more than any car chase. It didnâ€™t disappoint. It involves hanging them both from the ceiling in harnesses, allowing them to slingshot to the weapons hanging on the ceiling, and the result is a glorious scramble of a fight in which some of the best moves in professional wrestling are actually plausible. And the wait for it is only a half-hour into the runtime, although by that point, I didnâ€™t see what else the movie had to accomplish and wasnâ€™t in the mood to sit through more politics in Bartertown. But as usual, Max isnâ€™t quite superhuman and canâ€™t beat the system on his own. So when the queen becomes Maxâ€™s most formidable foe yet â€“ surprisingly convincing with Turnerâ€™s portrayal â€“ Max finds himself teamed with the child tribe, living in a jungle-like sanctuary several miles away. They mistake Max for the pilot who brought them there before leaving to look for remnants of civilization, expecting him to now, ahem, fly them to Tomorrow Land.
It never would have occurred to me to compare Max Rockatansky to Peter Pan, but it sort of fits. They both ran away from civilization for good when they felt the ties to their loved ones sever, even though they both still technically had someone to go home to. Theyâ€™re both courageous heroes and cold-blooded killers at the same time. Theyâ€™re both often pressured to forgo their self-centered existence, but theyâ€™re rarely moved by the idea. And of course, their favorite ways to get away from it all are high-speed traveling and sinking their trademark weapons into the bad guys. It not a perfect match, which it shouldnâ€™t be, but itâ€™s a much better allegory than, say, Superman and Jesus. The Lost Boys parallel is what helps it work as a theme: Where all of Panâ€™s Lost Boys manage to successfully make the journey back, only some of Maxâ€™s gang take the risk after he warns them against it. When Max goes after them and helps them complete the journey, we start to notice his reemerging soul, until he chooses to sacrifice himself to make the save he couldnâ€™t in the first film. Max is left between the two worlds when the dust settles, and this time, weâ€™re left thinking that he might just be able to finish the journey someday.
Beyond Thunderdome might just be my favorite of the Mad Max trilogy. Itâ€™s fun, itâ€™s original, and it has by far the most variety. And despite what I said about car chases, itâ€™s hard not to be excited when the group fires up a train/truck in the final act to bring us back to the franchiseâ€™s roots, kicking off a chase thatâ€™s second only to the climax of the Road Warrior, if even that. Maybe the movieâ€™s real crime wasnâ€™t changing what fans liked so much as giving them more on top of it.