“Norris was of course supposed to land safely in the most reliable and advanced cushion yet devised…a huge mound of empty cardboard boxes.”
The first Mad Max film is something of an oddity. While it may have earned a reputation for being the kind of petroleum fuelled cinematic odyssey that might prompt rumblings in what one might imagine (if one were forced to – probably at gunpoint) to be the long dormant loins of Jeremy Clarkson, the actual vehicular action is kept to a minimum. What’s more the almost legendary post-apocalyptic setting isn’t all that apparent in the first film.
In fact, I wasn’t entirely sure if the first film was set after a nuclear war as, despite some allusions to the collapse of civilisation: people dressing in leather and listening exclusively to saxophone music, there are still vestiges of civilisation on display. People still go on holidays, visit bars and mechanics and have lawyers – though it’s possible that they, like cockroaches, are one of the few species to survive nuclear fallout.
The world isn’t particularly well defined in the first Mad Max film, either, which is compounded by Mel Gibson’s slightly wide eyed and wet behind the ears performance. Still, the character himself is a bit if a cipher and it’s not until he’s forced into revenge that Gibson and the film itself, to coin a fairly obvious parallel, switches into high gear.
It’s in these scenes of combat on the road that George Miller comes alive as a director. Like Sam Raimi’s first go at Evil Dead, you can almost feel Miller’s frustration when his creative instincts collide with the limitations of his budget. Still, despite constraints on ambition, Mad Max is wholly memorable with some preludes to things that really come alive in later films, such as creepy leather clad loonies, well-spoken but wholly psychopathic antagonists, innocents being slaughtered, practical stunts that look amazingly dangerous and Max himself dealing out cathartic retribution on the road.
Mad Max also boasts a fairly ominous ending, with Max retreating into the wasteland, seemingly abandoning humanistic traits like love, compassion and an unconditional appreciation of the saxophone, to be a vengeful force chasing down wrong-‘uns like a white-line vigilante. It’s a very effective prelude of bigger and better things.
Which brings us to…
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior
There’s no real clear through-line from the first Mad Max to The Road Warrior. The opening voiceover attempts to connect the two films, but when it never really dovetails. The world in part 2 has gone to shit a hell of a lot more than it had in the first film. I suspect it’s because the bomb went off between the two films, but the opening monologue makes it clear that that isn’t the case.
Perhaps the wasteland in which Max finds himself in part 2 is a more decimated part of Australia? But that makes you wonder why any civilised people would choose to set up camp there – as the poor buggers do in The Road Warrior. And if that is the case, why doesn’t Max advise them to drive a few miles east where they can enjoy diners, beach holidays and saxophone recitals to their hearts’ content?
It’s safe to say that the opening narration of The Road Warrior taxed my tiny mind a little more than it should. Thankfully, questions of logic are left in the dust as Max uses his wiles and his supercharged Interceptor to overcome yet more feral predators on the road in the first few minutes. It’s an incredibly effective opening and a bold declaration of intent from George Miller, who’s now fully confident in his abilities to tell a bloody good, action packed yarn.
The Road Warrior is essentially one long chase film. It’s stripped of bloat with a pared down storyline that doesn’t amount to much beyond Max helping some innocents escape from some very, very bad people. But what it may lack in plotting and character development it more than makes up for by being resolutely focussed and incredibly aggressive.
The colourful freaks of the first film have been replaced by an even more grotesque bunch of bondage-clad psychopaths, led by the memorably monikered and alarmingly large Lord Humungous, who, with his duplicitous nature, well-spoken ways, perfectly polished pate and predilection for creepy man-servants is perhaps a good advisement for keeping William Hague away from the weight-bench and/or post apocalyptic scenarios.
Humongous leads a rag-tag bunch of Manson family alike misfits featuring such notable luminaries as Arnie troubling (and idbuythatforadollar fave) Vernon Wells, whose fierce portrayal of the sexually liberated, Mohawk sporting, bum-cheek chafing ‘Wes’ was so memorable that he popped up again to cause terror in John Hughes’ Weird Science a few years later.
(Incidentally I once engaged in email conversation with Mr Wells in order to obtain his autograph for a friend who was getting married. It was quite odd and notable for the fact that he possessed possibly the largest email signature I have ever seen. Seriously, I had to buy a bigger monitor to read it. Find out more here).
Mad Max 2 still works wonderfully. It seems even more rough and visceral than I remember it, mainly because it seems that George Miller hates his stunt crew and devises innumerable ways to ensure they won’t be around long enough to appear in his dancing penguin film. In the modern age of green screen and compositing an actor’s face on to a computer-generated body, like Buffalo Bill with a mouse mat, it’s wholly refreshing to re-visit a time when if they wanted to film a car chase with people jumping between vehicles they got some vehicles and people and filmed them jumping between them.
More so than the other films in the series The Road Warrior covers some very dark territory, leaving you with a palpable sense of tension and dread. What’s more when it’s all over, and the dust settles, Max is pretty much in a worse position than he was when he started. You get a clear sense that he’d be much better off embracing nihilism and rejecting what’s left of his humanity. But it’s this conflict that fuels him as a character, and it’s a subject that is explored further in the glossier, big budget part three.
And if you needed proof of how ‘Hollywood’ Max is in part three check out its Tina Turner power ballad and Drew Struzan poster (below)
Max Max Beyond Thunderdome
By part 3 things a looking a little healthier in the world of Max. For one thing Gibson boasts a fairly lustrous sand-blown-mullet at the film’s opening, which also appears to have strengthened his charisma. No longer the acting ingénue, here he seems like a fully formed movie star. The budget’s also a little heftier, with Miller able to create the bustling Bartertown, which marks the first obvious difference from part 2.
Bartertown is something like a roadside café, or a post-apocalyptic Little Chef (and if you can tell the difference please post in the comments). So if the Mad Max trilogy has previously been a supercharged white-knuckle ride through Hell, the trilogy capper is essentially a chance for Max to stretch his legs and purchase some overpriced wine gums whilst avoiding a man selling RAC membership in the foyer. In essence, it’s still Hell; it just takes on a different form.
At the risk of driving this metaphor into the ground, the RAC salesman in Bartertown is Tina Turner’s Aunty Entity – ostensibly a villain, but with a slightly more refined manner and reasonable aims than either Lord Humoungous and The Toecutter from the previous entries. She offers Max a deal, and his end is to assassinate the problematic architect of Bartertown. This culminates in a duel within the Thunderdome, which, chronologically speaking, was probably inspired by TV’s Gladiators, but is a bit more engaging as it offers bungee ropes and chainsaws instead of a large man pretending to be a grumpy wolf hitting a swollen mechanic from Wallsall with a large cotton ear-bud.
Max’s inability to abandon his humanity, as hinted at in part 2, comes to the fore in the Thunderdome and results in him being ostracised from Bartertown wearing a giant paper-mache head and riding backwards on a donkey. It’s in this middle-stretch that sees Beyond Thunderdome enter its most thematically interesting patch. In the wasteland Max meets up with a bunch of children who survived a plane crash and essentially raised themselves in the desert in the absence of their guardian, the plane’s captain, who the children mistake for Max.
It’s here that the plot takes its foot off the accelerator. Max himself lies down and suggests that he’s reached the end of his journey, which is understandable, if not great news for the viewer. This apocalyptic anthropology whilst touching and – despite some rough performances from half of the cast of Home and Away – fairly engaging, is obviously not how people want a Mad Max film to play out, so, like Max himself, Miller is unable to leave his former habits behind and soon the film culminates in a chase involving leather, mohawks and petrol.
The final stretch displays other limitations. Whilst Miller obviously has a bigger budget, it has come at some cost. Beyond Thunderdome had a PG13 rating enforced at the time, which would probably a ‘U’ in today’s money. So whilst children getting chased by psychopathic adults who have a prevalence for violence, leather and cutting the seats out of their trousers, should be terrifying, the presentation is laced with slapstick pratfalls and bloodless action.
It doesn’t help that Miller is attempting to out-do himself and what is undoubtedly one of the greatest sustained chase sequences in screen history in Mad Max 2. You get the impression that his heart is not really in it, which is likely to be the case, since he only agreed to co-direct the film following the passing of his production partner Byron Kennedy while scouting locations for the film.
This leaves Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome with something of a bittersweet taste. While it strives and almost succeeds in breaking out of the formula that was undoubtedly perfected in part two, it loses its nerve part way and devolves into a more child-friendly rehash. That said, the ending is surprisingly tender and effective, placing our hero in what seems a highly appropriate position with promises of adventures to come but also serving as a form of resolution. If Max’s story ended here, it wouldn’t be a bad way to go out.
But the cinematic gods have decided that Max is too good a character to retire to the world of sexy fan-fiction, disappointing videogames and pub discussions about sequels that improve on their predecessors, and have given him his own bloody film again. Huzzah! In no small part is this down to the tenacity of George Miller whose attempts to reintroduce the character were thwarted by things like the invasion of Iraq (like we needed any more reasons to hate Tony Blair!) and Mel Gibson’s very public troubles.
Unfortunately, the conditions of Max’s return appear to be that, despite filming about 3 years ago, we’re still at least another year off seeing how good/bad/disappointing Mad Max: Fury Road is (if you’re visiting from the future, please delete as applicable) and whether or not Tom Hardy is going to bring his Bane voice to the table. Incidentally Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played the Toecutter in the first film, is back on villain duties bringing a wonderful synergy to proceedings and allowing me to use the word ‘synergy’ without looking like too much of a pillock.
I have a good feeling about this one. The Mad-Maxathon will be updated next year.
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