As Mad Max: Fury Road roars into cinemas, let’s take a look at George Miller’s dystopian franchise, set in a post-apocalyptic Australia where all that survived armageddon is leather.
Mad Max (1979)
We first meet Mel Gibson’s Max as a cop on the trail of a vicious biker gang that makes the Hell’s Angels look like the Salvation Army. A stripped-down B movie, Mad Max moves at breakneck speed; the rip-roaring car-and-bike chases are driven by a sense of danger that can only be achieved by sending stuntmen flying through the air. Miller is already exhibiting his ingenuity for shooting action; we’re thrown headfirst into the chase, the camera so low that it’s practically grazing the tarmac.
All this heart-pounding action is emotionally anchored by mad Mel, in his breakthrough role as our enigmatic antihero. He starts out all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but by the end, he’s an empty shell of a man. Max has been compared to Clint Eastwood’s character in the Dollars trilogy (but in leather trousers), and Sergio Leone’s influence is clear. I was complaining recently about how Doomsday ripped off Mad Max, but Miller is himself influenced by Leone, who was himself inspired by Kurosawa, and so on until the big bang (which was itself based on a slightly smaller bang).
So it’s a punk-western, staging eccentric ultraviolence against the stark backdrop of the Australian wasteland. The film introduces the customised vehicles and feral villains that would come to characterise this idiosyncratic franchise. It has a vein of black (or possibly Aussie) humour, and a brilliant score by Brian May (not that one). Angry, volatile and visceral, Mad Max is a rage-fuelled and nihilistic picture, whose low budget is inventively used for maximum destruction. It’s a spitting engine of a movie, rigged to explode at the drop of a match.
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)
With civilisation now obliterated, bloody battles are fought over the scarce remaining supplies of gasoline. Kind of like the present day. This sequel impressively builds the Mad Max universe; a lived-in dystopia where you’re better off dead. There’s a bleak sense of logic behind the vivid design; survivors have built armour, weaponry and machines out of whatever (or whoever) they can find. It’s all animal fur (skinned by hand), scrap metal (salvaged from wreckage) and leather (indestructible, obviously). Miller’s vision is striking, anarchic and completely deranged.
The Road Warrior is often considered superior to its predecessor, by people who are wrong. It lacks the threat of the original, opting for an altogether goofier tone. The villains just aren’t scary, resembling as they do a dystopian version of the Village People (or Derek Smalls from Spinal Tap). With a bigger budget to play with, Miller’s approach is to throw everything at the screen to see what sticks. The result is decidedly camp, with a number of annoying characters (I’m looking at you, Gyro Captain).
But for all its pastiche, The Road Warrior delivers where it counts: the car chase. Truck chase. Whatever they are. By this point, the vehicles are Frankensteinian monstrosities; “a piece from here, a piece from there,” to quote the first film. Burnt-out chassis are fitted with deadly spikes, human skulls and, in some cases, living people strapped to the grill. There’s nothing quite like ’80s action, and there’s absolutely nothing like George Miller’s creative destruction. Mad Max 2 may lack the tension of the original, but as an insane action spectacular, it’s one wild ride.
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)
Now with long hair like an ’80s rock star, Max must escape from an evil queen, played by Tina Turner. Who else? Like the Scream quadrilogy, part 3 is a major misstep for the franchise. The great Aussie exploitationer goes Hollywood, and gets heavily sanitised in the process; something no Mad Max movie should ever be. The plot involves Max rescuing a bunch of children. Barf, as Greg Proops would say, and never stop barfing.
There’s still eye-popping action though, right? Not really. The chase sequences are as watered-down as the rest of it, the violent slapstick replaced by sub-Indiana Jones schtick. Characters hurdle obstacles when they should be smashing into them, the camera cuts away when it should be zooming in, stuntmen remain unscathed when they should be skidding across the road. Where’s the weirdness? Where’s the irreverence? Where’s the madness?
However, there are two referential points of interest (to me, at least). Firstly, Max is called “the man with no name” à la Clint Eastwood in Leone’s spaghetti westerns. Secondly, the line “no matter where you go… there you are” is from The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. Beyond that, Beyond Thunderdon’t is a conventional and diluted entry into the franchise, featuring more annoying characters, including Master Blaster; a dwarf sat on the shoulders of a giant (it sounds better than it is).
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Now played by Tom Hardy, Max joins a woman named Furiosa (Charlize Theron) as they flee the citadel of the warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). After the disappointing restraint of the last Mad Max movie 30 years ago, this reboot once again lets Max off the chain. And then some. Miller boils everything down to Mad Max at its purest; the film is one extended action sequence that really has to be seen to be believed. It sounds like an opera, moves like a ballet and looks like a bad acid trip. You can practically smell the gasoline and feel the dust on your skin. The design is tangible, breathtaking and totally deranged; massive war rigs hurtle across the lawless landscape, mounted by demonic warriors who swing uncontrollably on surreal, spindly poles. This is the stuff of nightmares. There are drummers pounding mercilessly from the top of the rig, not to mention a feral guitarist who blasts out metal riffs and shoots fire from his guitar. It’s so good.
Almost entirely free of dialogue and exposition, this is some of the most beautifully choreographed and heart-stopping action I’ve seen since The Raid. But that was just people; this is enormous vehicles driving, spinning and crashing at unfathomable speeds, on an unprecedented scale. It blows my tiny mind to think of how Miller envisioned this epic, let alone shot it with such stunning clarity. While 300 was also solely protracted action, the whole thing was CGI, right down to their six-packs. Here, Miller’s commitment to in-camera effects gives the relentless action (and it is relentless) a visceral, jaw-dropping, brain-melting quality. It’s like a rollercoaster, but one that flies spectacularly off the rails.
Miller has finally nailed the tone; it’s utterly demented, but grounded by strong characters and menacing villains. Hugh Keays-Byrne makes as terrifying an antagonist as he did in the first Mad Max film. His skeletal minions, the War Boys, are brilliantly designed, invoking the description from The Road Warrior: “Like angry ants, mad with the smell of gasoline.” As one of these War Boys, Nicholas Hoult gives the performance of his career, while a grunting Tom Hardy hardly says a word, but perfectly fits the picture’s muscular physicality. But this is Theron’s film, and Furiosa gives the feature a feminist twist that has pissed off so-called “men’s rights” groups; surely the sign of a good movie. But Fury Road isn’t just a good movie; it’s completely mad.
We’ve reached the end of the road for these reviews, but the future of Mad Max stretches wildly into the distance. With its stylised design, beautiful landscapes and jaw-dropping action, the cult franchise has grown into a box office behemoth. Not bad for a low-budget exploitation flick from Down Under.