Last week Milky and I decided to watch all three of the Mad Max movies. Some of the best of the post-apocalyptic genre, the movies that catapulted Mel Gibson to stardom, and some of the best car chases ever. However, it was a bittersweet moment. As a child of the ’80s, Milky was too young to watch the first two, and grew up on Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. He recalled it fondly, reciting Max’s line of “I’m the one who keeps Mr. Dead in his pocketses!” You could watch his heart break as his nostalgic memories crumbled. Unfortunately, they follow the Star Wars Trilogy formula of: First movie is fun, Second movie is brutally awesome, and Third movie is a cash-in to attract kiddie audiences.
Mad Max exploded out of Australia in 1979- a bastard son of the biker exploitation flick, violent cop thriller, depictions of society’s breakdown straight from the ’70s zeitgeist. It recalls such classics as A Boy and His Dog, which the creators cite as an influence, Electra Glide in Blue, the motorcycle cop character drama, Westerns and revenge films. It was shot on a budget so low that they kept repainting the same police cars- the Ford Falcon XB sedans, the “last of the V8 interceptors”- and only Mel Gibson, then unknown, actually got to wear a real leather jacket. The smaller cop parts got vinyl. The plot is simple- Max Rockatansky is the cool as Steve McQueen member of the Motor Police, as society breaks down and the roads become more and more dangerous, with roaming biker gangs and maniacs joy riding. After he takes out a psycho called the Night Rider, his friend Toecutter, leader of an outlaw biker gang, vows revenge on the police.
Toecutter and his fearful flunky Johnny the Boy trap Goose in his flipped truck and burn him alive, which sends Max over the edge. The cops have to play by the rules, and the bikers don’t. Rather than go psycho and become “one of them,” Max takes his wife and infant son on a road trip vacation, but Toecutter and company stalk them and take their revenge. Now Max has nothing to lose, and takes his V8 interceptor, a sawed off shotgun, and his wits to finish off the gang. The crashes are particularly realistic and brutal, owing to the remote stretches of Australian highway and some excellent or very lucky stunt work. We see cop cars explode through mobile homes, vans twisted like tin foil, bikers explode like meatballs against tractor trailer grilles. The infamous ending, where Max handcuffs Johnny’s ankle to a burning wreck and throws him a hacksaw, making him choose whether to cut steel or flesh before the gas tank explodes, is one of the most brutal and memorable avengings ever filmed.
Today, the low budget of the film is quite evident in some of the make-up effects, the sound quality, and how some scenes are edited, but it still holds up very well. First time actors abound, but they are among classically trained fellows. It takes time to introduce us to the character of Max Rockatansky, as if the film makers knew he’d be coming back. Sure, some of his cop pals like Fifi- a big bald guy who wears a silk scarf- evoke some chuckles, and the lawyers who get Johnny Boy off are hilarious stereotypes, but as a whole this remains one of the best revenge pictures of the 70’s. So much that it would be released in the states with an American overdub to save us from Aussie slang and accents! I urge you to watch the original, it’s available on the Special Edition DVD.
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior was inevitable after the success of the first film, and unlike most sequels, it is superior in every way. It’s a marvel of concise film making, depending on a short introduction with narration to recall Max’s tragedy in the first movie, and the complete breakdown of society that transpired shortly afterward. It’s intentionally vague: “two mighty warrior tribes went to war and touched off a blaze which engulfed them all.” It never mentions nuclear Armageddon, and I prefer to think that oil dried up and society devoured itself. We meet Max again on the road in his Interceptor, modified with huge gas tanks, booby traps, roll cage and supercharger; he’s got a Blue Heeler along side him. A Man and His Dog. With marauders in pursuit of his sweet ride and its tank of precious juice…
The bikers have gone full tribal, guns and ammo are scarce, so they wield bludgeons and crossbows. Reduce, re-use, recycle. A mohawked maniac named Wez gets shot in the arm by friendly fire, due to Max’s superior driving skills, and a silent feud begins between the two. They will meet again. The mood and theme of the story are told perfectly in this opening scene as Max faces off the wounded biker, antsy as he watches a bad guy’s car spilling fuel on the roadway. He’ll risk his life to sop up a few more ounces of the gas. For anyone who remembers the lines around the block at gas stations during the oil embargo, it hits home.
Max is as cool as they come, eking out a lone survival with his dog at his side. He barely speaks a word for the first half hour of the film. He comes upon a gyrocopter in the desert, with a poisonous snake guarding its fuel, but he’s fast enough to grab it before it strikes. Borrowing heavily from The Man With No Name of the Clint Eastwood-Sergio Leone films- he’ll actually be called this in the next sequel- Max is a little more human and vulnerable. It’s one of Gibson’s best roles, because he lacks that cocksure star power that sinks most action stars. I could recount every scene of the movie, because it’s that good, and so many are memorable. But if you haven’t seen this, it holds up incredibly well. Max takes the gyro captain prisoner, and they see the bikers Max fought earlier, surrounding a walled encampment around an oil refinery. They can’t escape, and the bikers can’t get the gas. Enter Max, who found a tractor trailer, that could haul their tanker of gas to freedom…
The leader of the bikers, The Humungous, is as iconic as they come. A masked, musclebound freak who looks like Jason Voorhees crossed with Arnold Schwarzenegger, his growled, Germanic taunts make him instantly fearsome. His men strap the wounded enemy to their vehicles as human shields. Inside the compound, the last vestiges of humanity are led by Papagallo (big chicken?) with flamethrowers, bow wielding warrior women, and feral children with razor-bladed boomerangs. Max is in between, mistaken for a marauder at first. He works a bargain- he’ll get the truck, for as much gas as he can carry. They want him to join them, but he refuses. Just the deal.
The set pieces with the tanker truck are still some of the best car chases on film. First, Max has to get the bobtail into the compound, and he plows through the biker camp like a juggernaut. Director George Miller- who’d oddly enough move on to 3D features like Happy Feet– inserts quick comic shots, like a tent being pulled away to reveal a naked couple, to keep the mood from becoming as brutal as the first film. He manages just the right balance. I told Milky that the Feral Kid isn’t annoying like Short Round because he can’t speak, and I hold fast to that statement. There’s a camp sense- one of the baddies drives a pink Chevy Bel-Air and has a pink beard- but it never gets smarmy or silly, as in the final chapter.
Once Max returns the truck he leaves alone, and loses everything once again- only the Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence, the Mouth of Sauron among many other roles) manages to save him. So he decides to join up and help them escape, driving the tanker. Why? Because it’s suicidal; Max doesn’t want to be human again, even if he’ll never sink to the lows of the Humongous and his ilk. But a last mad dash through a swarm of psychos appeals to him. And the final chase remains a thrilling, insane update to Buster Keaton’s locomotive stunt film The General and has yet to be topped. It may also have been inspired by Race with the Devil, where cultists chase Warren Oates and Peter Fonda in an RV, and countless Westerns where Indians chase stagecoaches.
The stunts were incredibly dangerous, and the infamous ass over teakettle biker flipping through the air was an actual accident that broke the stunt man’s leg. The driver of the tanker was told to not eat for 12 hours prior to the crash stunt, in case he had to be rushed to surgery. Some of the footage is sped up a bit, but most of the road chase is at good speed, and the tanker demolishes many, many vehicles. What’s surprising of Mad Max 2 is that no one is safe; nowadays you know the paralyzed mechanic, and the hot chick are going to survive. Nuh-uh! They die horribly this time. And our hero is gets a very cynical trick pulled on him. It makes for a very memorable ending, and a “second entry” that stands on its own.
The third time around they had a huge American-style budget and unfortunately, for the clumsily named Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, they tried to broaden the appeal by making it PG-13 and included a funny midget, a Lord of the Flies in the Outback, and Tina Turner as Auntie Entity, a name which makes no sense. The Humongous was obvious; he was … humongous! Toecutter, well I guess if you cross him, your toes would be cut. But Auntie Entity… say it three times fast, and if you’re a 12 year old boy you’ll be … tittering. Heh.
This one is half a reboot, because while Max is older with straggly gray hair, and a herd of camels are towing his truck, guns are more plentiful, radiation is mentioned, and when the Gyro Captain shows up, they don’t recognize each other! Oh, it’s infuriating. But the movie isn’t awful and does have its charms, especially if you fast forward from when Max is sent to the Gulag to the chase at the end. That leaves out the whole second act, the Lord of the Flies homage, which is utterly contrary to the mood of the series. The Airplane Kids are the Ewoks of the Mad Max world, and it’s a shame only one of them dies. It really would have been better if they all died in an explosion that sent Max into a murderous rage, but what can you do. It was 1985.
The Gyro Captain (cough, I mean “Jedediah the pilot”) steals Max’s caravan, so he tracks them to Bartertown- an aptly named place where people go to trade. Also, for the first time, Max encounters people without Australian accents. Must’ve been tourists before civilization collapsed, I guess. Max barters his skills as a killer, showing off his stuff by blasting the headdress off a knife-swinging tough with his sawed-off. Very Indiana Jones. The fat merchant who decides who can enter, The Collector, sees promise in Max for a sinister plan, and introduces him to the supposed leader of Bartertown: Auntie Entity. Played by Tina Turner in a chain mail dress, she’s actually believable and quite good. She shows Max why they need him by taunting the leader of the city’s underworld, Master Blaster, into putting the town’s pig-shit fueled power supply on Embargo, and her lip quivers with the sting of acknowledgement that she is beholden to the little man’s power. And she’ll kill to be free of his fetters.
To avoid strife, she wants a stranger to do it- so Max is recruited to pick a fight with the hulking two-headed behemoth, a helmeted giant with a midget on his back barking orders. Master is played by little person Angelo Rositto, who’d been in Tod Browning’s Freaks and the ’70s midget crime caper Little Cigars. Unfortunately, he speaks in broken English, spouting things like “him brain broken! my vehicle. You… pedestrian!!” This makes him a bit too twee for a guy who orders his giant to strangle people, and fight in the Thunderdome with chainsaws. But nevermind. Max wants his car back, and Master Blaster has it, so he picks a fight, and all disputes are settled in the Thunderdome. You know the story. Two men enter. One man leaves.
Max fights, and learns Master Blaster’s secret- that the murderous giant is mentally challenged. The score by Maurice Jarre swells with pathos as we look at his face, to make us forget that just moments ago, he stabbed someone with a spear and was trying to cut Max in half with a chainsaw! It does this twice, and it’s really sickening. Thankfully, Auntie’s men can’t hear the soundtrack, and shoot him with crossbows, put Master in tiny chains, and subject Max to the Wheel of Fortune. Break a deal, face the wheel. The possible outcomes on the Wheel are: – Death – Hard Labour – Acquittal – Gulag – Aunty’s Choice – Spin Again – Forfeit Goods – Underworld – Amputation – Life Imprisonment. I was hoping for “Lose a Turn” but no such luck. Max gets… Gulag.
Gulag is especially ignominous, because not only to they tie you to a donkey and shove you off into the desert, put they also put a humiliating Mardi Gras head on you. This way, if anyone sees you, they’ll be too busy laughing to rescue you. And it almost works. But as Max’s donkey dies of dehydration and is swallowed by quicksand, he is found by a wandering nomad. A child, who drags him back to her oasis. She thinks he is Captain Walker, the airplane pilot who abandoned them years ago. She and her Lord of the Flies tribe of cutesy-talking kids want him to take them to Tomorrowmorrow land, the place they’ll finded after the pockyclipse. Yes, they really talk like this. Between them and Master Blaster, there’s way too much baby talk in this movie for it to be a Mad Max story.
And this sequence drags on forever, as Max refuses to lead them, and they go off on their own, and he has to save them, and then they’re so close to Bartertown that they just up and decide to free Master. To be generous I’ll say Max wants to steal Master away to destroy the town’s power supply and stick it to Auntie for crossing him, and this leads to what should be the best car chase of the series, but it’s just a rehash of Road Warrior on train tracks. Not horrible, but we’ve seen it before. And guess who shows up at the end? Bruce Spence as Jedediah, who captains a little cropduster instead of a gyro these days. And he has a son like Feral Kid, except he talks. He lives conveniently at the end of the line, so they can escape on his plane. I could have forgiven this vegemite ex machina if Max and Jed recognized each other. He could have just said “You again!” but no, another opportunity lost.
Now, I’ve complained a lot but it’s not that bad, despite being overlong and toned down. The Bartertown sequence is quite memorable and has become part of popular culture, at least on the nerd quadrants of the internet. It’s not quite an offensive end to the trilogy, but like Jedi, seems crafted to appeal to kids. Vernon Wells, so memorable as Wez the mohawked marauder, was busy playing Bennett in Commando and the evil biker in Weird Science and did not return. I wonder if they asked. Other than Max, he’s the most iconic star of the series.