Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

Hacksaw_Ridge_poster.pngHacksaw Ridge is not for the squeamish, its greatest irony being that for a film about a man who took on the mantle of a conscientious objector and would not brandish firearms, it is a very violent film, even aggressively so. But Mel Gibson, after all, is the man who brought us Braveheart (1995) and The Passion of the Christ (2004) while starring in The Mad Max and Lethal Weapon franchises.

Like its predecessors, this picture does not shy away from any depiction of violence but you can make the case that it is not violence for violence sake. There is a broader and some would say even a spiritual message behind it. Still, the chaos, the images of war, the killing, and the suffering are all there on the screen. No doubt about it.

Thus, Mel Gibson’s war biopic on Desmond Doss will not be a film for everyone. Perhaps it was not even a film that I truly needed to see (as I briefly skipped over some of the gorier sequences). Because the truth is I have some idea of what war can do to a man’s body. It was not something I needed to be reminded of.

However, this story is nevertheless an uplifting one and if nothing else it was a story I needed to unearth. Because as is usually customary, something as volatile and pernicious as war always seems to bring out not only the very worst in people but in others, the very best and those individuals take on the banner of heroes.

In the case of the unassuming Desmond Doss, it meant giving life instead of taking it away. And without a doubt, it’s a noble ideal and as a Seventh Day Adventist, he held ardently to that belief. Still, a major component of war is taking the life of your enemy. Some would say even that there is a time of killing especially going up against certain foes.

But Doss would not budge on the tenets of his beliefs and I think any person can laud him for that. There’s no hint of hypocrisy or contempt in him only an unswerving adherence to what he deemed to be right.

For these very reasons, it’s quite easy to draw parallels between Doss and Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire (1981) who was another man of faith who would not compromise his belief in keeping the Sabbath either. What further connects these stories is how these men took those circumstances and made a name for themselves beyond them. For Liddell, it was winning gold during the Olympics and for Doss it meant saving countless men on the battlefield.

However, Hacksaw Ridge’s closest and most obvious predecessor might be Sergeant York (1941) which while being about a similar figure who held to his convictions, was nevertheless a great deal tamer and felt more focused on its hero in light of American’s imminent involvement in WWII. It was a patriotic propaganda picture starring one of the era’s icons in Gary Cooper and one of its up and coming girls-next-door Joan Leslie.

In fact, Hacksaw Ridge is carried by a romance of its own and while not a substantial portion of the narrative, the romance between Doss and a local nurse is one that does tug at the heartstrings for the very fact that we know a version of this meet-cute probably existed in real life.

There’s also something deeply moving when the camera dies and we first see Mr. Doss himself looking back on his earlier exploits. His humility stands front and center. Dare I say, he seems an ordinary fellow but sometimes it’s those very fellows who prove just what extraordinary things men can be capable of in the midst of tremendous duress. The numbers speak for themselves. He saved 75 soldiers in one day’s work. There are few words applicable except Awesome.

Andrew Garfield once again proves his seriousness as an “actor” and his joint performances in Hacksaw Ridge as well as Martin Scorsese’s Silence (2016) make for an extraordinary one-two showing on the year. Meanwhile, both Vince Vaughan and Hugo Weaving inhabit roles that you would not initially peg them for. But all and all, if you can tolerate Hacksaw Ridge’s gore, there is a great deal that can be gleaned from this story of unassuming heroism.

3.5/5 Stars

Lethal Weapon (1987)

Lethal_weapon1Richard Donner (Superman) has an understanding of the balance of grand spectacle and more subtle moments. The opening aerial shot and the tenuous desert rendezvous with a helicopter churning up sand capture our attention. But it’s the little bits of humor and vulnerability that make the showmanship of Lethal Weapon ultimately worth it. There’s a vibrancy that runs through Shane Black’s script in both the action sequences and character-driven moments.

It’s the quintessential buddy cop action film that in many ways defines the ’80s and that’s because it has a different slant. That’s part of the secret to its success. The main man (Danny Glover) is different and it’s not simply because he’s African-American. His family holds an important place in his life and he’s a genuine person — not an action hero. His partner in crime (Mel Gibson) also has his own deal. We meet Riggs in an abandoned trailer with bedhead, smoking and drinking a beer before he’s even awake. The loss of his wife causes him to contemplate suicide and everyone on the force questions his sanity. But when duty calls these two men are thrown together and out of their initial incompatibility comes mutual respect and genuine fun. As an audience, we enjoy watching them together.

What sets Lethal Weapon apart is how the violence is almost a side thought because what really matters are the characters and their relationships. Friends and family are important. Certainly, there are profane moments but they come in moments of extreme provocation. There’s even gratuitous violence at times but there’s consequence to it, more often than not.

Those in trouble are not simply damsels in distress because most everyone is in the same boat. Martin and Roger both are put in danger, captured and tortured. They don’t just dispense retribution. Their lives and families are put on the line too. However, it’s easy to point out the fact that some characters are killed, most notably in the opening moments, and they feel like mere plot points. For such reasons, the film’s certainly not perfect.

Also, its final moments are admittedly out there. It could be a scene out of Mad Max as Mel Gibson battles in the deluge of a spewing fire hydrant nearly to the death. The question is why, can’t they just arrest the culprit? It’s this scene that allows the character of Riggs to get his desired resolution. In fact, both he and Roger Murtaugh earn a bit of satisfaction as they rise up above the tumult. They are a pair of lethal weapons. But what matters most is that after a hard days work they can get together for a mediocre Christmas dinner. That’s true friendship.

3.5/5 Stars

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)

Mad_max_two_the_road_warriorNow that I’ve seen Road Warrior, the film that is the hallmark of the Mad Max trilogy, I have a little better understanding of how George Miller arrived at Fury Road. It was a brilliant, exhilarating, wild ride that fully grasped what makes an immersive action film. But to get there we have to look back. In Mad Max (1979) Miller and his crew were simply feeling around, testing the waters, and getting acclimated to their apocalyptic world. It’s interesting, but not fully realized.

With Road Warrior there is still more exploring of the Mad Max character (Mel Gibson), however, more crucially, we get the type of action that propels the franchise from being another run-of-the-mill action saga. Do you think it would carry any clout in the U.S. if there was not something dynamic about it? It stems from Max, who although a main character, seems content being in the background. He’s a man of few words, who only takes on the role of hero when necessary. He’s self-assured and confident when the need is there. Otherwise, he’s fine cruising around looking for gasoline through the wasteland with his faithful canine pal. That dog is great, by the way.

However, during one such excursion, he crosses paths with a clan trying to fend off a band of marauders. Max initially begins as a prisoner only to become an ally that the locals are wary of, because, after all, he’s not trying to be their friend. But nevertheless, after helping defend their Australian Alamo, he ultimately decides to take on the task of guiding their shipment of fuel to safety. In one of the most memorable chase sequences (a predecessor to Fury Road), Mad Max guides his load with settlers guarding the tanker while the biker gang follows from behind. Their leader Humungus offered up a ceasefire only in an attempt to double-cross, and he’s not looking to leave any survivors.

In the ensuing chaotic cross-country race, machinery gets totaled, lives get lost, and Mad Max takes a brutal beating. He gets help from the wolf child, who will end up growing up to be the leader of his people. Now he helps Max in the struggle to fend off Humungus and his psychotic crony Wez. As it turns out, it was all a ploy and the settlers continue their exodus with their precious fuel. But of course, Mad Max does not go with him and in the mind of the boy, he becomes a sort of mythos. He’s not to be fully known, only talked about and spoken of like Greek heroes of old, who have long become more fiction than fact. The eponymous character of Mad Max is deliciously enigmatic, and it certainly doesn’t hurt having a few wonderful set pieces that will make most action fans lick their lips with delight. It’s sure to taste better than a tin of dog food, and dog food was fine dining for Max.

4/5 Stars

Mad Max (1979)

MadMazAusThis is where it all began and honestly, I knew so little about it. You have Mel Gibson and about everyone else is unknown to me. But that’s fun because they are a population that’s made up of clean slates. I have no expectations for them so they’re constantly engaging me and altering my expectations. Australia’s Outback is not quite apocalyptic yet, but we’re on the road there soon enough, with bleak roads and gasoline shortages. Likewise, Max Rackatansky has not quite taken his name to heart. He needs to go through hell first, and that’s where this film leads.

Max and his best bud Goose are Main Force Patrol officers who work for the highway patrol. They soon are chasing after the crazed gang member “Nightrider,” who is looking to outrun his pursuers in a stolen vehicle. But Max waits patiently for his prey and then strikes after his colleagues are knocked out. But despite the demise of “Nightrider,” his motorcycle gang lead by Toecutter continue to ravage the roads. They commit rape, partake in all kinds of destruction, and raise fear in anyone who gets in their way, because of their sheer unpredictability.

The fiery Goose becomes an easy target for their mayhem, and he’s left a sitting duck. Not even his good friend Max can save him and with his friend gone our hero seems content to get away with his family. He doesn’t want to deal with the madness so he picks up and leaves on a vacation. Max takes his beautiful wife Jesse and their little baby, but of course, the gang crosses path with him once more, and yet again there’s nothing he can do. He’s too late. Max has a choice now: either do nothing or go on a mad rampage of vengeance. He chooses the latter.

George Miller shows his audience these events without holding our hands, simply placing them in front of us and allowing us to observe as if this is in fact cold hard reality. Despite what we might think, there is nothing strange or out of the ordinary about it. This is the way society works and once you buy into the adventure, it’s easy to get enraptured in the action. Although there are jumps in narrative most definitely, it is made engaging by a dystopian world and characters who have so many odd ticks and mannerisms. Perhaps more importantly, stunts, car chases, and crashes never feel like pointless eye candy, but they are executed with precision and impact that is impressive. There’s nothing cheesy about it. This is all grit and a lot of road rage.

3.5/5 Stars