With Fury Road hitting the final straight before its May release, what better time to revisit a trilogy that raised the bar not only for the post-apocalyptic genre but action films in general and the career of Mel Gibson.
The world inhabited by Max Rockatansky is one of speed, violence and death. It’s the usual tale of a world gone mad; an energy crisis, the breakdown of law and order, abandonment of the corridors of power. You know, just like real life.
As the greatest and most feared Main Force Patrol officer, armed with the nitro-junked buzzsaw engine of his Interceptor, it’s Max’s M.O. to keep the swathes of blood-thirsty and drugged-out bikers from finally taking over the highways of the Australian outback.
Whatever Mad Max lacked in budget, it more than made up for with ingenuity, wreck after wreck after wreck and a filthy attitude.
The bikers that terrorize the roads aren’t your run-of-the-mill, cookie cutter hoods. They’re the puncture that starts an oil leak. After a gang ambush, beat and rape a male and female couple, one of their number hangs around to shoot heroin. Even with the blazing Aussie sun causing a haze in the distance, it’s a bleak future.
Of course, it all unravels for Max. Losing his best friend and colleague, then wife and child makes him a little…well, mad. Donning his leathers and back behind the wheel, Max takes his revenge calmly and methodically. Mel Gibson, no stranger to a little road rage now and then, would have done well to heed his character’s advice.
Max’s propensity to take major damage during firefights is a pretty neat talent. At one point, busted from a write-off and a bullet wound in his thigh, he still manages to get to his feet and dispense of some road scum. Terminator and Robocop, released five and eight years later respectively, might owe a debt to our man Maximillian.
As you would expect, the film does show its age a little as it passes 35. Too much time is spent listening to Max and his wife witter on about love n’ stuff under trees on a sunny day. Let’s be brutally honest; his wife and child were only there to be killed in the first place. We just want to see them avenged!
But it is the rest of the cast, including the reckless Goose and flamboyant Fifi, that helped prevent Mad Max falling under the wheels and becoming just another b-movie.
It was with Mad Max II (or The Road Warrior, whichever) that things got a little more serious.
Seemingly a part of that odd tradition where a sequel is also sort-of-a-remake (see also: El Mariachi/Desperado and Evil Dead I & II), part two manages to surpass what came before in every way.
Now, we need no introduction (but we get one anyway). We don’t need Max’s story. It’s all blood and thunder from now on.
The Road Warrior gives and takes from influences with aplomb. The story of a scarred lone wolf rediscovering his empathy while helping a troubled community screams Western. The bondage motif and not-very-subtle homosexual overtones of the villains borrowed and evolved niche concepts. And if that doesn’t tickle your pickle then there’s ton of intense fight and chase sequences. Come onnnn, what more do you want?
For better or worse, Road Warrior’s imagery and award-winning cinematography bled into mainstream. It inspired Kevin Costner’s megabucks sci-fi jaunts, Waterworld and The Postman. The mohawks and studded leather look was taken from the punks and reshaped for a world only three years away from William Gibson’s seminal cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer.
Hell, we might not even have had the Road Warriors (aka The Legion of Doom), one of pro-wrestling’s finest tag teams, were it not for director George Miller and Co. Who’d want to live in a world like that?
There’s one thing we must address: the utter oddness of the film’s big baddie – Lord Humongous. A wheezing Scandinavian muscle head in a leather skirt and iron gimp mask, the wispy strands of hair on his bulging, veiny cranium make him look like a knock-off Jason Voorhees.
Hey, don’t get us wrong. We wouldn’t go hand-to-hand with the Ayatollah of Rock N’ Rolla (another steal by pro-wrestling), and I’m no fashion guru, but something’s got to give here.
The film’s climax, Max driving an oil tanker while being pursued by the mob, is an exceptional piece of cinema. Tightly edited, disorienting and offering genuine thrills, the viewer is left almost as frantic as Max; attacked and jostled from all angles.
Also, Max is a bit of a dick at times in this movie. His treatment of the Gyro Captain (an elastic performance from Bruce Spence) is roundly awful, given he saves Max’s life on two or three occasions. His general demeanor is at once sullen, seething and vulturous throughout. It’s a dog-eat-dog (or maybe man-eat-dog) world sure, but chill out a little.
Still, a film with a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes can’t be all bad, can it?
The series’ third installment, Beyond Thunderdome, throws up questions and answers. Here’s two: Would there be any difference if it didn’t exist? No. Is it still at least halfway enjoyable? Yes!
Thunderdome lacks the ferocity of its predecessors. Although violence is not a requirement for A Good Film, parts one and two told tales of a world where brute force won the day. To degenerate into slapstick pan fights, with added BONGS, as the film’s third act does, is a strange curve to take. But then that’s the deal you make when a big budget demands big returns; keep it broad and approachable.
At 30 times the cost of the original movie, part three rolled out the big guns. A bigger cast, an entire town, and yes…Tina Turner. The dramatically loud songstress pulls a curious turn as Auntie Entity (which means…Anti-Entity…I guess?); leader of the usefully-named Bartertown.
Oh yeah. That bigger cast? It’s a huge gang of kids. A whole tribe of them living out in nature and fending for themselves. Sound familiar? Beyond Thunderdome eventually becomes Hook meets…erm…Mad Max. Except these post-apoc Lost Boys are well-trained fighters. Which helps.
It’s fair to say the franchise takes a twist into the realm of fantasy. The Never Ending Story with knives. Bartertown is under threat from Master Blaster; a symbiotic double-person thing (it’s a science term). A dwarf named Master is the brains, Blaster, the big lug in a diving helmet, is the brawn. Krang on crack. Awww yeah.
We get more than a glimpse of Bartertown’s insane concepts of justice. Not only do Max and Blaster face off to the death in the not-as-cool-looking-as-it-sounds Thunderdome, but Max then violates the law and faces the bizarre “Break the deal, spin the wheel” challenge. Maybe we should introduce that here too. The courts would be clear in no time.
But credit where it’s due. Despite the film’s increasingly silly plot, it plays it straight and remains better for it. As cool as another smash-em-up road movie would have been, it’s always encouraging to see artists try a new approach. Beyond Thunderdome isn’t the worst in the trilogy; it’s just the ‘least best’. Given the competition, that’s not too shabby. Plus, Roger Ebert gave it four out of four.
The run up to the release of Fury Road may well see most cable stations running the trilogy every so often. At best, it’s a tour through one of the most colorful and varied trilogies of all time. At worst, it’s survival tips for the impending apocalypse. See? Something for everyone. Just keep your eyes on the road.