Mad Max / The Road Warrior / Beyond Thunderdome May 15, 2015
When Mad Max roared onto cinema screens in 1979, nobody expected it to shake up the much-maligned action world. Made for only $400,000 in rural Australia, it was supposed to be an indie gem that made enough of a profit to make some suckers happy rather than stay with audiences for the long haul.
But unexpectedly, it grossed $100 million at the box office (standing in the Guinness Book of World Records as the industry’s most profitable film until The Blair Witch Project smashed expectations), made the then-22-year-old Mel Gibson a star, and kicked off a culturally significant franchise that introduced audiences to what critics now refer to as a new type of action movie.
New meaning barren, ruthless, dusty, incendiary; car chases and gun fights and crazed bad guys and leather exist because they have to, not because someone decided to throw a little carnage into a smoked out adventure romp. The films are set in a dystopian world of mayhem in which a small band of survivors kills each other for the remaining drops of gasoline. The Earth has become a desert — gasoline is important not for car chases (although it does come in handy), but for a small scent of hope regarding finding an oasis.
Each Mad Max film gloriously built upon the last, in terms of budget and in terms of plot. The first acts as a backstory (e.g.: how Max became so mad). Then, the world wasn’t so grimy and lost — governmental disarray, though not dwelled on, was more of an issue than a lack of fuel — and Max wasn’t a rugged loner. He was also a husband, a father, and a hardworking policeman. Then tragedy stuck: that’s when Max, previously a good guy, became the anti-hero.
Mad Max 2, subtitled The Road Warrior, is what most consider to be the franchise’s peak. The first was subtle, a hell on Earth waiting to cannibalize itself. Its sequel, though, embraces its insanity, transforming into a full-throttle actioner that would rather stab its prisoners than take them along on a hazy, lightning-quick ride. A plot is mostly nonexistent: the entirety of the film revolves around Max helping a community of marauders protect their oil refinery from a gaggle of thugs.
Most of the time is spent putting us through the motions of stealthy car chases and acrobatic fight scenes. The constant pulse-pounding isn’t a problem, however; the way George Miller, the head honcho of the films, arranges the technicalities is so impressive, sans CGI, that The Road Warrior outdoes its predecessor within a matter of minutes. It’s an action movie staple.
Then 1985 came along, added a welcome Tina Turner to the mix, and took the films in an entirely new direction. From the moment Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome begins, it’s clear that no longer present is the intimate batshit craziness of it all; replacing is an all-too blockbustery batshit craziness, some for the good and some for the bad. Given the biggest budget in the franchise ($12 million), the dusty setting is traded for ginormous apocalyptic structures, with set design so dizzying even Roger Ebert walked away stunned. Beyond Thunderdome begins with intrigue; it takes place some time after The Road Warrior, and finds Max in a town called Bartertown, run by the clever Aunty Entity (Turner). The town is powered by methane provided by an underground nightmare filled with pigs (and their fecal matter), relies on trading (human trade is as abundant as trinket exchanges), and finds its entertainment through a complex named Thunderdome, which sees fights to the death between a pair of warriors.
Thunderdome takes a turn for the worse, though, when it introduces its side-plot; as a punishment, Max is dragged out to the desert, barely surviving the ordeal, and is taken in by a group of children who can only be compared to Peter Pan’s lost boys. This “lost boys” feature is what makes Thunderdome feel like such an outsider compared to its predecessors. While the others thrive off a brutal, pessimistic energy, Beyond Thunderdome looks and feels like a fantasy blockbuster, mostly made up of filler with some fun to be found.
In hindsight, I don’t know how well the Mad Max series has aged. Granted, I’m part of a generation that considers The Avengers to be an action masterpiece, so something as small in its dimensions as Mad Max seems, understandably, small in comparison. But to enjoy yourself, you must rid yourself of what we’ve been spoiled with over the years. We’ve become tolerant of CGI, expectant of every adrenaline throttler to be massive. Mad Max gets down and dirty. That’s why it is such a quintessential franchise, even if Tony Stark's a bit more fun to chill with.
The films are succinctly delivered. They don’t have time for major character developments (that was all reserved for the first movie anyway), scenery chewing, or post-apocalyptic, thought-provoking questions. There is a strong feeling of this is the future and you’re going to like it! — a badass approach that allows for the characters to wear leather in summertime Australia and get away with it, drive bulky cars with roaring engines and get away with it, defend themselves with bows and arrows and get away with it, dress mostly in post-punk S&M material and get away with it.
And, of course, you can’t praise the Mad Max series without bowing down to the testosterone-fueled fury of Mel Gibson. He aged from 22 to 29 during the franchise’s formative years, sticking with it even after he became a bona fide star. When the films don’t work, Gibson does. Like Frank Bullitt and Harry Callahan, he doesn’t have to say much to turn our blood cold. His very presence is relentlessly ruthless, and though he’s the hero we’re supposed to be rooting for, we can’t help but wipe the sweat off our brow in relief that we aren’t standing in his way.
Mad Max: Fury Road comes out today, starring Tom Hardy as Max, and one can hope that it retains the same metallic grittiness of its ancestors. Because whether you like them or not, there is no denying what the Mad Max films did for action.
Mad Max B+
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior A-
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome B-