“My name is Max and my world is fire and blood.” Oh boy if that line doesn’t get the gasoline flowing into the old V8 engine and have you reaching for the American Football shoulder pads, crossbow and leather chaps, then nothing will. Just in case you hadn’t noticed the new trailer for “Mad Max: Fury Road” staring Tom Hardy was unleashed on an unsuspecting public a couple of weeks ago and they went nutzoid batshit for the 2 minutes and 44 seconds of motorized mayhem.
So what still intrigues us about the “Mad Max” films after all these years? Why do they get our automotive juices pumping? After all, the original “Mad Max” was released in 1979, “Mad Max 2” also known as “The Road Warrior” in America smashed up the box office in 1981 and “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” in 1985. Their influence over post apocalyptic fiction is as culturally vital as George A. Romero’s “Dead” movies but “Fury Road” has spent some 25 years in development hell whilst director George Miller has been busy making “Babe” and “Happy Feet.”
Miller conceived “Mad Max” when he was still a doctor working in a hospital emergency ward witnessing first hand Australia’s alarming rate of autocides and horrific injuries suffered in road accidents. His co-writer James McCausland was heavily influenced by the 1973 oil crisis and explains, “a couple of oil strikes that hit many pumps revealed the ferocity with which Australians would defend their right to fill a tank. Long queues formed at the stations with petrol – and anyone who tried to sneak ahead in the queue met raw violence.”
“Mad Max” begins, with the legend, “A few years from now…” throwing us head first into a dystopian future where the few outnumbered police officers of the Main Force Patrol are fighting a frontier war against crazed motorcycle gangs. Essentially a brutal revenge flick, Miller ups the ante with his high-octane car chases and potentially lethal stunts. In one motorbike sequence the cameraman rode pillion without a helmet shooting over the shoulder of the rider as he hit 180kph. The blatant disregard of safety mainlines directly to the screen and the audience in a barrage of crushed metal and redlined engines.
For all the burning rubber and monkey grease Mel Gibson’s performance as Max gives the film a raw emotional heart. Swathed in leather, reputation still unsullied, his blue eyes will blaze a path to Hollywood. He’s a young Dirty Harry on wheels, unhinged at the loss of his wife and child. This is the Mel Gibson who made us cry in “Tim”, the same Mel Gibson who will be a few seconds later in “Gallipoli” the American masquerading as an Australian, then the Australian masquerading as an American. Here was a dangerous alternative to the Hollywood leading man, the Australian male at the mercy of lottery conscription to Vietnam and until 1996; mass shootings.
With “Mad Max 2” Miller and Gibson took the fender-bending madness of the first film to a level still unsurpassed in action cinema. Set a few years after “Mad Max,” Australia has been devastated by the nuclear apocalypse triggered over the energy crisis. Now marauding techno barbarians led by The Humungus, a Jack Palance snarl hidden behind a bodybuilder’s physique and ice-hockey mask, scavenge for fuel, raping and killing anything in their path. They surround a compound that is able to refine fuel, a Kurosawa siege that promises only hideous death for those unlucky enough to be caught inside.
This time around Mel Gibson as Max echoes The Man With No Name with only 16 lines of dialogue throughout the entire movie. Max is “a shell of a man, a burnt out, desolate man, a man haunted by the demons of his past, a man who wandered out into the wasteland,” perhaps undertaking his own motorized walkabout after the loss of his family. The blue eyes are now haunted, a mallen streak flashes against his temple, his leathers are torn and battered, fingers removed from his driving gloves so he can reload his sawn-off shotgun quicker. A lone wolf, Max only helps those in the compound for their gasoline. Later it’s for reasons we can only guess at.
Max now inhabits a world cannibalized to within an inch of its life. Every drop of gas is salvaged; every tin of dog food a banquet, any wrong move means certain death. The Iran-Iraq War looms in historical context just as the Islamic State’s bloody advance gives the film a new sobering resonance. Yet for all its allegorical designs, “Mad Max 2” like its cousin the zombie genre, is escapist exploitation that makes us secretly wonder how we would react in that situation. We ask ourselves these questions, “what would I wear to protect myself? What weapon would I carry? What would I drive? Where would I get them? Could I kill someone to protect myself?”
Over 30 years later “Mad Max 2” is still a nitrous oxide bully of a film that has lost none of its punishing pace. If anything it shocks even more due to the sheer audacity of its old fashioned stunts in an age of sanitized CGI thrills. Those motorbikes actually disintegrate under that truck’s wheels and men leap from vehicle to vehicle with reckless abandon and Miller kills off his good guys in the climax without ceremony, each dying an ugly, inglorious death. Only Max’s final act of sacrifice and his musical connection with the Feral Kid curtail to softer Hollywood sensibilities but actually are the first bloody steps to redemption found in “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.”
Now awash with American finance “Thunderdome” is bittersweet for Miller as his producer partner Byron Kennedy was killed in a helicopter crash 2 years before its release. Set 20 years after “Mad Max” Miller’s world is now so fully realized that we begin to see ingenious changes to the English language born out of the apocalypse and the gradual return to the oral tradition of storytelling to relay history and knowledge. The cars and motorbikes are now unrecognizable as they are converted to run on methane gas produced by pig shit under the savage civilization of Bartertown. Only “Thunderdome’s” contemporary “Blade Runner” can claim a milieu as equally immersive and impressive.
When we first meet Max he is shot as a down at heel Lawrence of Arabia with a flyswatter in hand chasing down his stolen camel train across the outback. Max tracks his possessions to Bartertown and is immediately embroiled in a plot to help rid its ruler Aunty of the arrogant genius Master’s hulking protection Blaster. Master created the methane plant known as Underworld and talks like an Indian in an old Western, “No trade! Do!” Blaster is a slab of muscle that is the terror of The Thunderdome, an iron caged arena where the combatants fight to the death tied to bungee cords (then only seen in footage of The Dangerous Sports Club) catapulting towards chainsaws, mallets and spears.
The Thunderdome sequence is as breathtaking and visceral as the car stunts in the earlier films are death defying. Roger Ebert called Thunderdome, “the first really original movie idea about how to stage a fight since we got the first karate movies.” Max is half Blaster’s size relying on his tricky ingenuity and musical ear to defeat Blaster’s unstoppable bulk. When he discovers Blaster’s hidden secret lurking under that deep-sea diver helmet Max’s honour and humanity creep back in taking us back to an earlier moment in “Mad Max.”
Banished by Aunty for breaking his deal Max is saved by a group of children who survived a plane crash. It’s tempting to say the film loses pace in the second act as Max recuperates in a hybrid world of “Lord of the Flies” and the Lost Boys from “Peter Pan.” The children see him as a messianic figure coupled together from their enclosed world and fading memories of their parents. For a “Mad Max” movie the action does stall but Max’s redemption through a belated return to fatherhood is as exhilarating and rewarding as any car chase. Miller and co-writer Terry Hayes dialogue in this sequence is masterful, communicating the children’s innocence, wonder and gradual realization that their prophecy is not going to come true.
Ultimately when compared to the previous films, “Thunderdome” feels somewhat sanitized, the stunts are still spectacular but the violence is more comedic, Miller’s lethal environment somehow less lethal, a wrong move isn’t as deadly. Mel Gibson as Max is on the cusp of Hollywood greatness, his redemption as Max complete, his own rise and fall is just beginning. Tina Turner as Aunty is magnificent, resplendent in chain mail and blonde wig and two great songs to herald “Thunderdome” as a bonafide 80s blockbuster. Maybe Aunty saw Mel’s demise coming as he lies surrounded by her men at the end of the film, “Well, ain’t we a pair, raggedy man.”
We’re mad about Max for so many reasons. Those stunts that threaten to kill us they’re so real, the kinetic violence that keeps Max in such bad shape and the kinky S & M outfits that seem so practical post apocalypse. We relish a world where familiar faces can come back as new characters in other films, characters with names like Goose, Fifi, Toecutter, Wez, Toadie, The Gyro Captain, Dr. Dealgood and Ironbar Bassey (even if he did sing the love theme from neighbours).
So when Tom Hardy finally becomes Max next year he has a lot to live up to in that trailer. The 80s video generation weaned on “Ozploitation” movies will want him to be a supercharged entity but a man always on the edge of defeat looking for redemption. We want to be able to pat him on the back at crossbow point paraphrasing Aunty, “Congratulations, you’re the second to survive the audition.”