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Looking Back at Mad Max!

I am in almost physical agony that I haven’t yet seen Mad Max: Fury Road.  I cannot believe that George Miller has returned to make another Mad Max film, THIRTY YEARS after the last film.  And what’s more amazing is how spectacular it looks.  I need to see this thing, and I hope to make that happen this week.

But, meanwhile, in the past month I’ve had a great time re-watching George Miller’s first three Mad Max films.  I love them all, even the hugely-flawed Beyond Thunderdome.  These were movies I watched a lot in high school with my friends, and re-watching them now they were definitely tinged with a pleasant nostalgia for me.  But more than that, there’s no question in my mind that Mad Max and The Road Warrior are truly great films, and important ones as well.

I’ll also comment that, re-watching these films for the first time in a while, it was interesting to watch Mel Gibson again.  I try very hard to separate a performer’s artistic work (behind the camera or in front of it) from what he/she might be like in real life, but for the past decade I have had a truly hard time bringing myself to watch Mel Gibson on screen.  I have found his Anti-Semitic outbursts to be so distasteful that they have colored my feelings about him to such a tremendous degree that I’ve found myself almost totally disinterested in watching him on screen any more.  Mel Gibson has made some films that I used to love — not just Mad Max, but also Braveheart and Lethal Weapon and others.  But it has been many years since I have gone back to watch any of them.  I don’t know if that’s right or wrong, but that’s just the way it’s been for me.  I simply haven’t had an interest in re-watching any of those films.  So it felt a little odd for me at first, re-watching these three Mad Max films, but for better or for worse I was pleased that I was very quickly able to forget about Mel Gibson the man and just relax into my pure enjoyment of these films.  (It probably helps that Mr. Gibson speaks very little, particularly in the first two films!)

Mad Max (1979) — I know that many people prefer The Road Warrior, but for me, the first Mad Max will always be the best (especially now that American audiences can enjoy it in its original, undubbed version).  George Miller’s film was made for almost no money by a bunch of inexperienced young men, and despite or perhaps because of that the film has a brazen, take-no-prisoners mad-cap ambition that I absolutely adore.  The film’s opening car chase is still, thirty-five years later, a spectacular declaration that this is a new kind of movie, a movie that will grab you by the throat and not let go.  The hair-raising car-stunts — performed by real-life hugely-talented and maybe-a-little-crazy stunt-men — combined with Mr. Miller’s camerawork that put the audience right in the middle of the action — are still extraordinary to this day.  You feel the speed in this film like almost nothing else I have ever seen.  Add onto that the visual cleverness (just look at that slow, slow reveal of Mel Gibson’s Max Rockatansky) and it’s immediately clear that George Miller had the skill of a master.  The entire film is a phenomenal visual masterpiece, a visceral thrill-ride from start-to-finish.  Many other action-adventure movies from the seventies feel goofy today, but the vast majority of Mad Mad remains powerfully effective.  (Even the slightly-silly brief glimpse of bulging eye-balls right before a character buys the farm are sort-of great.)  If the film has a weakness it’s the small streak of misogyny in the way that Max’s wife and child are reduced to a plot point to motivate Max in the final act.  I know that’s supposed to be the tragedy that the film is building towards, but it’s always felt a little callous to me.

When I think of Mad Max, I often think of the dystopias of the second and third films, but what’s interesting is the way that, here in the first film, civilization is still hanging on.  It’s definitely a terrifying picture of a future in which one can see the world’s begun to slide into anarchy.  But in this first Mad Max, there are still cops (crazy and disorganized though they may be).  There are still lawyers and judges (corrupt and ineffective though they may be).  There are still roads and stores and money.  The world hasn’t altogether collapsed yet, though it is teetering on the edge.

I am not really a car guy, but even I find something appealing about the car fetishism of this film.  The cars in the film are as much characters as the human beings.  It’s a perfect match of film-making style and story content, because the movie worships the cars and the speeds they can achieve and the damage they can do, just as the characters do — which makes sense when the film’s main character is a cop whose life or death can hinge on just how fast his car can go.

The Road Warrior (1981) — I’m such a stickler for calling movies by what I feel is their proper title (example: it’s Raiders of the Lost Ark and NOT Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, even though many official releases of that film have used the incorrect title on the cover art), so it’s funny that I’d totally forgotten that this film is really called Mad Max 2.  The Road Warrior was just something the studio came up with for the American release, since the first Mad Max was little-seen on these shores.  But this movie has always been The Road Warrior to me, ever since I was a kid, and I do think that is a superior title to Mad Max 2.  Getting back to the film itself, I adore The Road Warrior, and I can understand why for many people this is the high-point of George Miller’s series.  But though I love it dearly, I think that the film’s visual effects reach occasionally exceeded its grasp, and some of the dystopic sci-fi elements haven’t aged very well.  Lord Humungus and his metal bikini are, let’s face it, a little silly.  I found the Toe-cutter and his biker gang in the first film to be a far more threatening group of villains, probably because they felt more real to me.  Still, it’s interesting to see how, in this film, George Miller has taken the world into full dystopic mode.  As a result, we get some fascinating fantasy civilization-building in the film as we learn about this new world in which all civilization has collapsed.  Mankind is back in the dark ages and it’s every-man-for-himself… except there are also cars and guns.  That’s a great set-up and a great environment for an exciting action-adventure story.

One of my favorite aspects of The Road Warrior is that the film doesn’t try to sugarcoat the end of the last movie.  Max isn’t some happy-go-lucky wisecracking hero.  This is a man who has been broken by the events of the first film, and indeed the core story of The Road Warrior — far more important that the plot of how Max can rescue some innocents from the evil super-villain gang — is the story of Max himself and his journey back to some sort of humanity from the empty shell he is when the film begins.

For all that Max’s black Pursuit Special is such an iconic vehicle, I’d forgotten how little screen-time it actually gets in this series!  Max only gets that car for the final minutes of the first film, and he almost immediately loses it at the start of this film, never to get it back!  Funny.  Still, gotta love that car.

For all that Lord Humungus is a little silly, I do sort of love the way this film embraces the sci-fi weirdness of this broken world.  The film is filled with iconic imagery.  Lord Humungus is not easily forgotten, and I also love Bruce Spence as the Gyro Captain, and also that feral kid.  It all works.  And while I give a slight edge to the car-chase action from the first film, there is some seriously spectacular car-chase action in this movie.  That entire climactic tanker chase is just jaw-dropping.  Great, great stuff.

Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) — After two terrific films, the series went somewhat off the rails with this weak third installment.  After Beyond Thunderdome, it made sense that there wouldn’t be any more Mad Max films, which is why the existence of Fury Road is such a delightful surprise.  What is wrong with Beyond Thunderdome?  First of all, while the first two films felt like important stories in the life of Max, this film is fairly inconsequential to the life of our main character when all is said and done. As such, it’s more like “just another adventure with our hero Max” which immediately robs the film of weight.  Second, it’s bizarre that this film jettisons the series’ central element: car chases.  It’s as if George Miller set out to ask, is a Mad Max film still a Mad Max film without any car chases?  After watching Beyond Thunderdome, I’d have to say no.  There’s only one sequence that is even sort of a car chase, and we have to wait an hour and a half to get to it, and it can’t hold a candle to the intense action we saw in the first two films.  Beyond Thunderdome is shockingly devoid of almost any action at all.  The titular Thunderdome fight is OK, but it comes pretty early in the film and is over fairly quickly.  One would expect the Thunderdome to be the scene of important events in the film, seeing as it’s in the title and all, but no.  I don’t really understand that at all!  It’s so weird!

Speaking of weirdness, this film digs even deeper into the sci-fi weirdness of this dystopian, collapsed world.  If you thought The Road Warrior had a lot of cheesy/goofy sci-fi dystopic costumes, then get ready.  I love the attempt at world-building by Mr. Miller and his team, who were trying to create a futuristic society that existed after the end of the world as we know it, but a lot of that stuff looks pretty goofy today.  In a similar vein, I like the ambition of “Barter Town” but the reality of what Mr. Miller could pull off with his budget and the special effects of the time was limited.  I feel the limitations of the world-building, of the ways that the film’s budget could not achieve Mr. Miller’s vision, more in this film than the first two.

And let’s face it, Tina Turner and the “Master Blaster” are pretty weak as villains.

I still enjoy watching Beyond Thunderdome — it’s silly fun.  But it’s in no way a good movie like the first two.

The Mad Max series was already great, three fun films that felt like the work of an original voice and an extraordinarily talented visual filmmaker.  I love ’em.  And I am almost giddy with anticipation that Mr. Miller can return to this series so many years later with a new installment that actually looks good.  When has that ever happened before?  Believe me, I’ll be back here with my thoughts on Fury Road as soon as I see it…

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