Recently I had a chance to watch all four Mad Max movies, as they were on television in one form or another (the first two were uncut, the second two were on basic cable, but they don’t really need to be cut). It’s been a while since I’ve seen the first three, and as these movies form one of the best serials in movie history (inarguable!), I thought I’d lay out some random thoughts about them:
Mad Max (1979)
1. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen this movie before with the voices undubbed. The American release was famously dubbed because the stupid Yanks couldn’t (probably) understand Aussie accents, and that’s the version I remember seeing when I was young. Now, the original voices have been restored, and I wonder what all the fuss was about. The accents are fine; it’s the actual sound editing that isn’t great, as this was guerrilla filmmaking and it shows in the mixing. Often the voices are too quiet, which makes it hard to understand the actors. The accents are fine.
2. I’m not sure if this is supposed to be set “after” an Apocalypse, because everything seems pretty good, despite the decay obvious in society. I’ve looked in some places, and it seems that between this movie and The Road Warrior, the Apocalypse occurs. That seems logical, but I’ve also seen some people describe this as “post-Apocalyptic.” It’s very clearly not, although decay definitely has set in.
3. One reason for the “decay” was, of course, that George Miller was filming this in places on the cheap, so the police station, for instance, is an old pumping station, while the farmhouse at the end had been abandoned. It makes society look worse off, which is of course the point.
4. I’m not sure how I would have felt about this movie if I had seen it first. I saw it after I saw The Road Warrior, so I already liked the character and the world in which he lived. Because, let’s face it, the movie isn’t that great. It’s good, certainly, but it’s very rough. Low-budget movies are tough to completely love because of the deficiencies, but they are easy to love because they are, after all, labors of love.
5. This is Mel Gibson’s second movie, along with very few television appearances, and while he’s raw, too, he’s better than most of the cast and you can tell he has “it,” which would make him a star. Yes, he’s pretty, and he fits very well into those leather pants, but when he’s talking to his wife on the farm or when he expresses his dismay to his boss that he’s going to turn into those he hunts – which is almost, but not quite, borne out by the subsequent movies – are terrific moments. Mel had a really good run in the 1980s – this movie (filmed in 1977/1978, sure, but what the hell), Gallipoli (a classic, and Mel is great in it), The Road Warrior (see below), The Year of Living Dangerously (another classic, and another great Mel performance), The Bounty (I haven’t seen it, but damn, what a killer cast!), Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (see below), and Lethal Weapon (an absolute classic) from 1979-1987. He made some other movies during that time, too (I haven’t seen The River or Mrs. Soffel), but that’s not a bad run.
6. One thing I dig about the movie is how kind of ineffective Mel is when he gets revenge. He gets shot pretty quickly, manages to kill a few gang members, then gets lucky when he rams Toe-Cutter into the truck. Did he know the truck was coming? Beats me, but I’m going to call it luck. Then he simply happens to find Johnny in the vast wilderness after he went off the road, and he rigs the car to explode, even giving Johnny an opportunity to save himself (and very slim opportunity, of course, but still). Is this to show the randomness of nature, or that Max hasn’t completely lost his humanity, so he doesn’t kill in cold blood? I just find it funny that he’s not very good at, you know, killing.
7. Max’s wife, Joanne Samuel, was in The Wiggles Movie in 1997. I just find that humorous. A job’s a job, right?
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)
8. This is so much better than Mad Max it’s almost like someone else is making it, even though it’s clear that it’s a George Miller movie (at least an early career George Miller movie; the dude made Babe and both Happy Feet movies, after all). Obviously, there’s more money on screen, which makes a big difference, but the decision to turn this into a post-Apocalyptic series was a good one, as it allows Miller to move beyond the cops-and-robbers set-up of the first movie and more into the interior world of Max. Despite not saying much at all, ever, and despite seemingly living only for himself, Max’s prophecy in the first movie that he would turn into those he hunts is explored very well in the course of the series, without Miller ever making too big a deal about it. So a world with only one law – Only The Strong Shall Survive – is a perfect place to test that prophecy and what it means to Max and those he encounters.
9. Gibson was only 24/25 when he filmed this, but he does a good job playing the weary, grizzled veteran who doesn’t have time for your shit. This is supposed to take place five or so years after the events of the first movie, which is a bit ridiculous, but it does give us an idea about how much Max has aged since he was a baby-faced cop.
10. I read somewhere the Mohawk guy (Wez, although the names of most of the characters in these movies are meaningless because they’re rarely ever uttered) didn’t consider the blond man riding with him as his romantic partner, but as a son figure. Australians have, in the past (I don’t know about now), been notoriously homophobic, so maybe that the actor’s inclinations coming through, because it’s absolutely, 100 percent clear that Wex and the blond man (the “Golden Youth”) are lovers.
11. That metal boomerang is so metal.
12. Max never thinks too much, being a man of action, but trying to run the blockade after he gets his gas is beyond stupid. It gets him really fucked up and, worse than that, it gets his dog killed. I don’t know if the destruction of his car means that Fury Road (in which he still has the car) takes place before this movie, but I hope not. Maybe he managed to find a similar car somewhere?
13. The final car chase is still thrilling. Yes, the Golden Age of Car Chases in Movies was probably 1968 (when Bullitt came out) to 1998 (when Ronin came out)*, so this is firmly during that time, but even so, the chase is amazing, even today. The deaths, the tension, the suspense, and the final collision are terrific, and the final irony of the tanker being loaded with sand as a big distraction is great, especially because Max didn’t know about it. Perhaps that’s why he doesn’t join the caravan when it goes north at the end.
(13a.) * Yes, there are still great car chases in movies today, and one of my favorite movie series, The Fast and the Furious movies, has built its entire reputation on them. I’m talking about car chases without the aid of digital effects, which movies indulge in these days (not always to their detriment). I end the hypothetical “Golden Age” at Ronin – a very underrated movie, by the way – because when it came out, a point reviewers mentioned was the fact that John Frankenheimer didn’t use computer effects and how strange it was, so even then, we were in the twilight of actually smashing cars up. So that’s why I used that date.
14. Humungus is a great and weird villain. One reason why this movie works so well is because he’s so weird. He seems very kind to his followers, even as others in his clan laugh at them when they fail. We know he’s going to kill everyone inside the compound, but there’s also that hint of doubt that he would let them go, or at least let them join the gang if they so chose. Unlike Toe-Cutter, Auntie, and Immortan Joe in the other movies, we don’t really know anything about him. Toe-Cutter had that kind of odd affection for his gang members as well, but because he was unmasked, it was more human. Humungus seems almost otherworldly, and so his comfort of Wez, for instance, after the blond man is killed, feels bizarre even as it shows he’s capable of honest kindness.
15. The girl who kind-of falls in love with the gyro captain, Arkie Whiteley, died at 37 from adrenal cancer. She was 16/17 during filming.
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)
16. This is widely considered the worst of the four movies, but it’s not that bad, and when you consider that Miller wanted to make Lord of the Flies and someone suggested Max should be in it and Miller didn’t direct the entire thing (he stuck to the action scenes, I guess), it’s forgivable. Still, it’s definitely the weakest of the movies, even with the very raw Mad Max thrown in there.
17. I don’t know who decided to put Tina Turner in this movie, but once that happened, Auntie really couldn’t be a true villain, because I doubt Turner wanted to play her that way. She comes off as a bit mushy, not as villainous as Humungus in The Road Warrior or Immortan Joe in Fury Road, and not as charismatic as Joe or Toe-Cutter. Like a lot of the movie, she’s fine, but not terribly great. It doesn’t help that she’s wearing those chain mail shoulder pads. What the hell, 1985?
18. Mel is great, though, as he usually is. He’s older (he was 28/29 when this was filmed, but he’s playing a much older dude) and not as gung-ho, which is why he tries to keep the kids at the oasis. He knows what’s out there, and they’re just young and idealistic, like he once was. This is the first movie where seeing Mad Max might be a good thing, because in The Road Warrior, Max doesn’t really talk too much about his past nor even act like he has one, but here, he’s thrust into the role of father figure, and we remember from the first movie how much he loved his family, how hard he tried to protect them, and how it all went to hell. It makes his dickish attitude toward Savannah and the others very understandable.
19. That being said, why the hell did those kids want to leave the oasis? They had it all, man! At the end, in Sydney, it doesn’t appear that they have a better life at all. Kids are stupid, man.
20. The actual Thunderdome is awesome, though. And, of course, it has given us that word, which has a myriad of uses in today’s society. You shouldn’t trust someone who doesn’t know what you mean when you say something like, “I thought we’d decide this like Thunderdome.” They are not to be trusted!!!!!
21. Master is also a dick, yet for some reason he becomes a lot nicer once Blaster is killed. He got woke, as the kids say.
22. Bruce Spence is inexplicably a pilot, but not the pilot he played in The Road Warrior. That makes sense. I wish he had shown up in Fury Road as a completely different pilot, because then we would know that every pilot in Australia looks like Bruce Spence.
23. Part of the reason, I think, that people are a bit disappointed with this movie is because the chase at the end isn’t quite as good as the one in The Road Warrior. It’s not bad, again (it’s fine), but Miller repeats some of the beats that he used before, and the law of diminishing returns kicks in. Most notably is that in The Road Warrior, Wez gets stuck on the front of the truck and is killed when Max collides with Humungus. Wez wasn’t a good guy, but his obvious devotion to his dead lover (yes, I’m going with it) is nice, and while his death isn’t sad, at least he can accept that an actual human being has died. In Beyond Thunderdome, Ironbar never rises above caricature, and while he’s entertaining, when he gets trapped on the train’s front plow, it’s played for laughs. He dies giving the finger to the world (after getting off the plow and into a car, which is then smashed), and we chuckle. There’s not that twinge of feeling that an actual person died, because Ironbar is basically a joke.
24. Max’s “clearing” of the “runway” doesn’t make a ton of sense, either – it appears that the plane took off right at the spot where the convoy would have been anyway, but okay – but it does look cool. And Max, somehow, survives, although this doesn’t strain credulity as much as the sandstorm in Fury Road.
25. I read somewhere that Max went back to the oasis to live with the kids that were left behind. I’d like to think so, but Max doesn’t get happy endings!
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
26. After thirty years, and well after Brendan McCarthy took a crack at writing it (he does get a writing credit, but I remember him working on this around the turn of the century), we get Fury Road, and goddamn was it worth the wait. I don’t see a lot of Asian cinema, so I can’t speak to that, but this is one of the best English-language action movies of the past 20 years, I’d wager, and it’s still a hoot to watch. It was one of the few movies I really wanted to see in the theater (I don’t go to many movies anymore, because we just don’t have the time), and it was well worth it, and it’s still something I will stop and watch if I see it anywhere on the television. It’s phenomenal. I’m not quite sure if this or The Road Warrior is better, but they’re neck-and-neck. This might have the edge simply because of the spectacle and the better roles for all concerned.
27. Tom Hardy is an excellent choice to replace Mel. He was probably 35 when filming began, and he was 37 when the move came out. He’s as attractive as Young Mel, and he’s a slightly better actor, and his age is important, because his Max, like the ones in The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome, has been around a little bit and he’s become very hard. A younger Hardy was too pretty and callow to sell it, although I suppose he could have, given that Mel wasn’t that old when he made the earlier movies.
28. Everyone made a big deal about Charlize Theron being the true protagonist, as if that was a shock. It shouldn’t have been. The movies haven’t really been about Max since the first one. In The Road Warrior, it’s about the group in the desert trying to escape Humungus. In Beyond Thunderdome, it’s about the kids, Savannah and her group specifically. Max has always been the guy who just wanders into someone else’s story and helps where he can. In the case of Fury Road, he just happened to wander into the story of someone who’s marvelously capable. If Miller remade The Road Warrior, without the pressure to make Mel the star, it would probably be more obvious that he’s not the protagonist. In 2015, it’s not as big a deal to pin your hopes for a movie on one star, so Miller could make obvious what has almost always been the case with Mad Max movies.
29. Of course, the practical effects have a big part to do with the movie’s success. I don’t know if it’s just cheaper to do digital effects or if filmmakers are lazy, but it’s a shock to see something that mostly doesn’t use them. Even when Miller does use them, they’re pretty seamless. Even in movies I really like (The Fast and the Furious movies come to mind), you can see the digital effects fairly easily. In Fury Road, they’re harder to spot.
30. The whole cast kills it, too, which is crucial. Even people with minor roles do a good job with them. Hugh Kynes-Byrne doesn’t have a ton to do, but he gives Immortan Joe a kind of creepy charisma so it’s not inconceivable that he’d be the cult leader he is. Nicholas Hoult is great as the warboy who learns that love is stronger than war. Nathan Jones, an ex-wrestler (and convicted armed robber), is terrific as the childlike yet terrifying Rictus. The two other leaders – the fat dude and the bullet guy – are hilarious but also scary, especially the bullet guy. And the women Furiosa rescues are all great, but what’s amazing is that they’re great in different ways. Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, so bland in that Transformers movie, is the unquestioned leader of the group, and her defiance of Joe is what galvanizes them. Riley Keough believes in Nux, offering him the second chance he so desperately needs, and she sells the hell out of it. Zoë Kravitz is more pragmatic and tough as nails. Courtney Eaton appears to be the weak link, but she uses her apparent weakness to put the men off guard. And Abby Lee is the crazy one (she’s also the most interested in the older ladies), and her off-kilter performance is a highlight (she’s terrific in Office Christmas Party, too, although everyone is terrific in Office Christmas Party, which has gotten slagged for no reason, as far as I can tell). It’s pretty neat that all these roles were written for women, and each woman got to be a unique individual. How shocking!
31. Damn, the car chases are spectacular. The first one, with the porcupine vehicles, is notable for the dude’s Viking-esque suicide, but it’s great all around. The second, which is an extension of the first, is when Furiosa drives into the sandstorm, which is the one of the few times we can see the digital effects and also the one time I call bullshit on Max surviving – he’s chained to a vehicle that gets tossed by the raging wind and ends up, unconscious, face down in the sand. How does he survive?!?!?!? After that, we get the amazing fight between Max and Furiosa, with Nux kind of along for the ride (Max is still chained to Nux). Then we get the chase through the mountains, where the motorcycle dudes get to leap around and Joe gets to jump that amazing truck he drives and call Nux “mediocre.” Then we get the chase in the night with the bullet guy and the rig stuck in the mud. Finally, we get the final chase, which is one of the most exciting things on film in recent memory. The fact that we still get so much great characterization with all this chasing is borderline miraculous.
32. Miller cares not about timelines, so who knows when this takes place. Max still has his car from the first movie, which is blown up in The Road Warrior (and is famously called the “last” of the V8 Interceptors in the first movie), but perhaps it is a new car that he found somewhere (yes, I know I mentioned this above; deal with it!). I like to think of these as taking place in order, so this is after Beyond Thunderdome. In The Road Warrior, the group at the gas pumps is barely hanging on. In Beyond Thunderdome, Auntie has created a semblance of society, but it’s still obviously struggling. In Fury Road, Joe has water and farming. It doesn’t really matter, of course, but it seems like people are actually beginning to figure out to live again.
33. That being said, I do like how the world is getting worse. In The Road Warrior, the area around the pumps is still somewhat green. It was filmed in the extreme west of New South Wales, so it’s a desert, but it’s still close enough to the coast that it’s not a wasteland (it’s about 300 miles northeast of Adelaide). Beyond Thunderdome was mostly filmed around Coober Pedy, which is further into the Outback, and it looks it, as the desert has encroached even more (the kids’ oasis was filmed in New South Wales near the coast). Most of Fury Road was filmed in Namibia, so the desert is even more pronounced. It’s interesting tracking the slow degradation of the Earth in the movies. Depressing, but interesting.
34. It still bugs me that we don’t know who the little girl or the old man are in Max’s visions. Come on, George Miller!!!!
35. Anyway, Fury Road is a masterpiece. Fight me!
So those are my random thoughts about the four movies. If you’ve never seen them, you should, and it’s fun to watch them in sequence. If it’s been a while since you’ve seen them, especially the first three, here’s your chance to watch them again. One more thing: if you listen carefully, someone in the first movie actually does refer to Max by his last name, Rockatansky. I always thought it was just that Miller felt he needed a last name, even though no one says it. But someone does! Good for them!