So it turns out I had not seen the original Mad Max, nor had I seen the third installment of the trilogy (although with its current infamy it seems like I have) and with the incredible Mad Max: Fury Road out in cinemas, I wanted to revisit them all.
Now for the purposes of validity, I wrote the reviews for Mad Max and Mad Max 2 before I saw 2015’s Fury Road. Due to computer problems these reviews were heavily delayed in publication, which I apologise for. Just so you know that these are not written in hindsight of Fury Road, but chronologically.
Mad Max (1979)
A story of revenge, a near-future police officer goes after a bike gang responsible for the murder of his partner, his wife and son.
At least, that’s what the IMDB synopsis says, it even goes so far as to say “post apocalyptic”, I… wouldn’t call this post-apocalyptic.
Mad Max is the first incarnation of director George Miller’s classic character that would go on to see two sequels and a reboot. I am a fan of Mad Max 2: Road Warrior but believe it or not I had not seen this film until now.
Well, I sort of wish I hadn’t.
The franchise of Mad Max to me is three things: crazy car chases, crazier characters and a lot of carnage. But the first film is virtually none of these things.
One may have to look at this film as an origin story for Max; he isn’t a lone, mysterious warrior yet, he is a husband and a father, has a home and a job in a police force. He even goes on vacation. The film follows the youthful Mel Gibson as Max, and initially his partner for the most part as they hunt down The Toecutter’s motorcycle gang who have been terrorising the roads.
The film does eventually get into the themes synonymous with the franchise, but it takes about an hour to get there, of a ninety minute film! The pacing is toe-curlingly slow and while I try to not beat on any film for being dated… this has dated. Not in a particularly “70s science fiction” manner as one might guess from the poster (in fact this film is barely science fiction at all) it has dated because it looks as apocalyptic as a 1970’s episode of Top Gear.
The film making itself is surprisingly weak too. For a franchise best known for being eccentric none of the characters here are memorable or remotely interesting, scenes feel badly executed and apart from the eventual revenge story in the final act, there’s nothing to give it direction.
It is apparent that George Miller loves his cars and his chases though. If one thing is done right here it is how the motorbikes and vehicles are shown and filmed, and the opening car chase (while a little boring in some instances) has a good old fashioned twisted metal feel to it.
I really don’t have anything to say about it, this is not the Mad Max I was always aware of. No post apocalyptic psychos, no barren wastelands, no crazy vehicles and insane car chases; it feels more like a 70s cop drama with all the emotion and intrigue sucked out of it.
Maybe had the revenge plot started in the middle rather than the end, we could have had an exciting movie?
Additional Marshmallows: Admittedly one can only be so harsh on Mad Max: its budget was a measly $650,000, compared to Mad Max 2‘s $2,000,000 budget. Even director George Miller made money for the production by working as an emergency room doctor!
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)
Now this is the Mad Max I know.
Finding himself alone and the world turning into a desert wasteland, Max encounters a settlement under attack from a horde of bandits. Enlisted to help, Max has to defend one of the last supplies of oil from the marauders.
There really isn’t a great deal to say about Mad Max 2, compared to the original film this is your quintessential action movie. While it does open with establishing what happened to Max and his family, this is a very different experience.
Unlike the original that exists in an unspecified time and place, The Road Warrior is definitely set in the far future when humanity have mostly become raging lunatics living in a wasteland and living off tinned dog food.
Mel Gibson returns as the quiet hero Max, who is now tormented after the ending of the previous film; he wants nothing more than to be left in peace and to have gas for his car. The survivors he encounters are peaceable and while they see him as one of the savages from the roads, they also know he could help them escape the bandits.
The bandits are insane. Raping and pillaging their way across the deserts, strapping their victims to the fronts of their cars, wearing bondage gear in the desert (these actors must be uncomfortable…!) and led by the hockey-mask wearing individual called The Humungus.
There’s a lot more style here than with the first film, certainly style over substance; the film is only ninety minutes long and has a host of characters, from Max to the Feral Kid, from the Gyro Captain to the crazed Zetta. There’s little to no characterisation outside of their actions.
But the action is incredible. Director George Miller clearly got a much better budget here and could actually go to town with the vehicle design and the carnage of the crashes. The Road Warrior inspired so many action movies in the 80s and 90s, especially the near carbon copy called Waterworld.
Unlike the first film, The Road Warrior has dated acceptably, mostly due to the film’s devastated setting. I would recommend anyone who hasn’t seen this to watch it at least once; this looks like the main inspiration for Miller’s 2015 reboot.
It is a mad world, just go with it.
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)
This is like the Batman Forever of the Mad Max trilogy. It has some good parts, but the tone is all wrong.
Coming straight off the back of Mad Max 2 (aka The Road Warrior) we find our silent protagonist Max alone in the desert wilderness. When his camels get stolen he finds his way to Bartertown, a town run by a woman named Aunty Entity and a duo called Master Blaster who are warring for control.
Thunderdome is one of those films that makes it hard to pin the plot down in a simple synopsis; the plot doesn’t know what it is doing. It is less than two hours but feels like an eternity as we see Max stumble from one random encounter into quite a different one without any rhyme or reason or design. This film is mad, but not in a good way.
Things don’t start off well as we are introduced with a song by singer and lead actress Tina Turner, which instantly breaks the tone of previous Mad Max films. You know this isn’t going to go well.
But there is some promise; Bartertown makes for some nice world building that keeps with the tone of the superior second movie. There are a lot of strange characters, but none of them are especially memorable asides Master Blaster; a hulking muscle man in a fully enclosed helmet called Blaster, with a midget on his shoulders named Master. And Tina Turner as Aunty Entity. Surprisingly, Turner isn’t in the film a great deal, appearing only at the start and at the end.
Even the titular Thunderdome does not feature particularly strongly. It isn’t especially enthralling.
What does feature prominently? Small children. The film takes a massive tonal shift. When we haven’t had any vehicles or chases or even carnage (like the first two films) we get… the Lost Boys from Hook. They are alone in the desert, wild children but not like Road Warrior’s Feral Kid these children are innocent and full of wonder, believing Max to be a messiah.
What hurts this film the most is (not Tina Turner, though she is random) its two separate storylines that have no cohesion at all. First we have a town that is powered by an underground methane farm, then we have kids wanting to fly in a crashed airplane. Max’s apparent lack of empathy towards any and all of these characters is the only thing I could relate to.
The ending attempts The Road Warrior’s chase sequence again, but replaces bloody carnage and death with… hitting people in the face with frying pans like a Looney Toons cartoon. There is little to no violence or gore here; it is massively toned down.
I don’t know what is worse; the first film’s lack of budget or this film’s lack of cohesion and tone.