What a lovely saga!
One of the greatest, most iconic, most influential science fiction film series of all time. One that all started with a little, microbudget movie no less, that was released during the beginning of one of sci-fi cinema’s golden ages.
The first film was released in the spring of 1979, a first-time effort from doctor-turned-director George Miller, a film that paved the way for one hell of a career. With Mad Max‘s follow-ups, Miller continued to change the game for cinema – inside and outside of sci-fi, action, and the post-apocalyptic genre. Many films have taken cues from the 1981 sequel in particular, and several directors from James Cameron to Guillermo del Toro to David Fincher have been struck by it.
Miller’s series was for the longest time set to be a trilogy, but some thirteen years after the 1985 release of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, Miller had gotten the idea for a fourth installment. Numerous delays had occurred, but the madness was finally delivered to us last year in the form of Mad Max: Fury Road, yet another film that will be highly influential in the coming decades… Miller doesn’t plan to stop there either, so like many, I’m really excited to see what’s revving under the hood…
I’ll be ranking all four of the films in this series…
#4. MAD MAX: BEYOND THUNDERDOME
By the end of 1982, the whole world knew about Mad Max. Mad Max 2, released as The Road Warrior in the United States, was a good-sized success at the domestic box office. It had also lead some Americans to discover the first film, which had gone mostly ignored stateside. Couple that with how well the first two films did internationally – namely the series’ home, Australia – and Max Rockatansky was a hot commodity.
George Miller and producing partner Byron Kennedy went forward, planning the next Mad Max chapter. When location scouting in 1983, Kennedy had died in a helicopter crash, which I believe had seriously impacted what would become the third – and presumably last – entry in the series. Miller, in addition to writing the script with Mad Max 2 scribe Terry Hayes, directed the action sequences for the film, while George Ogilvie (The Place at the Coast) would handle everything else.
It feels as if two films were made here, and crammed into an 107-minute actioner. By this time, Hollywood wanted in on George Miller’s wasteland saga, so you can definitely feel a mainstream blockbuster vibe from what is otherwise a through-and-through weirdo post-apocalyptic adventure much like its predecessor. Many will often review Beyond Thunderdome by praising its first half, but trashing the second. At the very least, many will call the second half jarring.
I’m pretty much with them, for Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome loses my interest after Max is banished from Bartertown, where a majority of the early portions take place. Now, the Bartertown material is A-game work! This feels like the true successor to Mad Max 2, adding to what worked in that film and fleshing out a bigger civilization that is miles ahead of the tiny, fuel-guarding one that Max saved from the marauders. Worldbuilding is a big part of the Mad Max sequels, and Miller, Hayes, and Ogilvie completely deliver it in spades in their creation of Bartertown. Adding to this are the great performances from Mel Gibson, Tina Turner, and especially Angelo Rossitto. Rossitto plays Bartertown’s true leader, Master, part of a two-piece force. Master’s a dwarf, while Blaster’s brawny but has a mental disability, and does not speak.
Bartertown is run on the excrement of pigs, a process which Master has perfected. He’s in a power struggle with Tina Turner’s Aunty Entity, a more entertaining menace than a frightening one. She certainly has an onscreen presence, but isn’t as effective as The Toecutter or Lord Humungus. Regardless, the crew nonetheless draw you in with the setting and the build-up to the fight that takes place in the titular arena. The Thunderdome sequence does not mess around, perfectly matching the thrills of Mad Max 2‘s final chase, and Max’s rampage in the first film. One thing the Mad Max films specializes in is inventiveness. With each film, Miller and co. create all these cool little things and such, and the way the Thunderdome fight works is no exception – alongside everything else in Bartertown.
Instead of a typical match, Max and Blaster use bungee-like bands to fling themselves at each other, wielding various weapons. Miller dials up the suspense every time it seems like Blaster’s going to destroy Max, the whole sequence is ridiculously exciting. Everything that happens up until this point feels like a condensed version of what perhaps should’ve been the movie… Everything leading up to a final fight in Thunderdome.
Beyond Thunderdome ceases being the movie it is after the fight concludes. Max refuses to kill Blaster, discovering that he has a problem. Aunty Entity sends him out of town and into the middle of the desert, where he is rescued by a tribe of children from a plane that had crashed years and years ago. These children were left behind by their parents when they were all very young, who searched for civilization but never came back. They believe Max is the flight captain, and will be the one to save them…
We are now plunged into a completely different film, something that was right in line with the PG-rated family films of the 1980s. Beyond Thunderdome would be the first film in this series to be given a PG-13 rating by the MPAA, which was invented the year before its release. The previous Mad Max films carried R ratings, and sported more violence and grit than this film did. The tone lightens a bit, but that’s not the problem… The problem is that this half of the film feels undercooked, as a result I’m not as interested in the story. The pace loses it, and it becomes clear that they perhaps didn’t know which direction to go for the next half hour.
Max’s stay with the children in the oasis doesn’t add to anything, it just makes the story slow down. And slow down. And slow down… Till it’s time to go back to Bartertown, but our climax is really just a reheat of Mad Max 2‘s, where Aunty Entity’s goons pursue a train-like vehicle that Max, the kids, and Master use to escape from the town. While serviceable and abundant in cool stunts, it doesn’t bring the “wow!” punch that the truck chase did. It feels like a tacked-on attempt to repeat one of the greatest elements of Mad Max 2, not something fresh and new.
Perhaps Beyond Thunderdome‘s patchy narrative is the result of Byron Kennedy’s death in 1983. Perhaps George Miller really couldn’t bring himself to dive back into the wasteland without his partner, hence George Ogilvie handling most of the film. Prior to this film’s production, Miller had also kicked around a post-apocalyptic Lord of the Flies-type story. It feels like he wanted to tell both Mad Max 3 and the lost kids story in one film, but such care seems absent, the care that had made Mad Max 2 such an action masterpiece. Both stories do not gel, and the attempts at adding to Max’s arc with the kid story feel non-existent.
Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome doesn’t reach the heights of its two predecessors, or its successor, but it still successfully functions as a fun, at times very well-made adventure story that retains a lot of quirky worldbuilding and some ace set-pieces.
#3. MAD MAX
The madness all began with a tiny, homespun dystopian thriller conceived by a doctor who had tended to patients who had been through awful car accidents, his filmmaker friend, and an American journalist living in Australia. Mad Max was inspired by the times, the rough climate spurred by the mid-1970s oil crisis. The violence it entailed, and how people would assault and even kill each other at gas stations when lines got long. The trio imagined a bleak future where oil was in scarce supply, and how it would tear the world apart…
Mad Max begins with Australia’s police force, what’s left of it, pursuing a cop-killer down the barren highways of the countryside. They are, at best, quite weak at their job. The MFP’s best powerhouse, Max Rockatansky, quietly and carefully takes down the offender without flinching. A roughly ten-minute opening chase beautifully sets all of this up: The world that’s on the brink of collapse, the ineffectiveness of the police, and Max being what is perhaps the last hero…
Truth is, Max wants to distance himself from his duty. He fears that the craziness that ensues on the roads will consume him, as he feels he’s starting to enjoy all of it. Mad Max trades constant action for a slow-burn structure, using build up to its advantage and carefully laying the tracks for what’s to come. Max’s struggle and his fears are truly palpable here, while the slow degeneration of society produces a lonely, melancholy edge. With such a microscopic budget on hand, Miller and his crew took the wise route by shooting in the rural areas, abandoned sections of Melbourne, and such, perfectly making it seem like things are desolate. Its villainous biker gang alternates between goofball eccentric and frighteningly ferocious, lead by the unpredictable Toecutter.
That all being said, Mad Max‘s action doesn’t slouch. The opening car chase aside, the many speedy set-pieces kick things into high gear. If anything, most of the drama here is even more riveting. Mad Max is nothing like its successors, as it chooses to focus more on the state of the world and how it affects Max. Whereas the sequels would be about him being roped into other peoples’ situations, this film is about him, his relationships, and what he juggles with in such uncertain times. We see a decent man slowly get ruined and beaten into the ground by the ramifications of society’s demise.
Starting with the death of his partner Lt. Jim Goose, Mad Max starts to really simmer. Max suffers panic attacks and considers leaving, but by police chief Fifi’s suggestions, he goes on holiday with his wife and infant. Throughout this whole stretch, tension soaks each frame. Every sequence from the encounter at the ice cream shop up until the climactic death of his family is nerve-wracking. You know something bad is going to happen, and that Max won’t see the end of the Toecutter’s wrath following the death of one of their cronies. (The Night Rider, whom Max chases into an explosion in the opening sequence.)
It’s relentless, and soon after everything goes down, Max’s abrupt and subtle snap breaks the film into a wild and pretty brutal third act. Max kills every single one of the bikers, runs their leader into an oncoming truck, and gives the last surviving member a particularly sadistic offing. (One that would singlehandedly inspired the Saw series.) It doesn’t end on a heroic note, complimenting the film’s cold and grim feel.
Not all is doom and gloom, however. Mad Max may be a very dark ride down a desolate road, but it’s by no means joyless. Many modern action movies ought to take a page from Mad Max, which effortlessly keeps the tone consistent while having levity. Brian May’s score (not *that* Brian May) is consistent, knowing when to get moody and murky but balancing itself with less dour stretches. The story’s suspense draws you in, its humor is not out of place, characters get a lot of fun little quips and quirks. Jim Goose in particular is a lot of fun, as he seems to have a rather upbeat attitude. In the opening chase, after busting his leg and nearly crashing into a stalled truck, he responds to the concerned driver with “I don’t know man, I just got here me-self!”, guffawing away. Some little surprises here and there break up the mood a bit, one of which being wife Jessie’s elderly friend’s hidden badassness. For as scary as they can be, even the Toecutter’s weirdo gang can be fun to watch at times. (“Push me, shove you! Oh yeah? Say’s who?”)
Its only major shortcomings are in the pacing department. A good chunk of the first third tends to sag a bit, filling in some gaps to making the 90-minute runtime. Mad Max is admittedly a homemade movie, but that’s part of the film’s charm. That being said, when Miller gets it right, he excels, soars even. It was a precursor to his strong sense of pace, and how he used it for future films of his.
#2. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
I’m not going to lie. It was considerably hard to determine the best out of two equally amazing masterpieces. If Mad Max 2 changed action cinema, Mad Max: Fury Road changed it again in an era where a ton of action films seemed to learn little to nothing from Mr. Rockatansky’s second outing. It’s hard to believe that the fourth entry in a three decades-old series could innovate like this, and could influence the film world around it. Lo and behold, director George Miller, now in his 70s, worked his magic. It’s as if he honed everything he’s learned up until this point and blew it all out, with $150 million by his side.
Mad Max: Fury Road is gleefully anarchic yet so precise. At exactly 120 minutes long, never does it slow down and creep around like a weighty tank, but it doesn’t go too fast to the point where you miss so much. Mad Max: Fury Road is Mad Max 2‘s car chase on a triple-dose of steroids, and a lot of coke. Even before the mayhem unravels, the film is jumpy, jittery, and ready to pop. We already know so much about Max that we are retold his story in mere minutes, and very warped flashbacks give newcomers an excellent idea of who this guy is. So begins Mad Max: Fury Road‘s demonstration in how to tell stories by showing…
Lots of action films today are bogged down by needless exposition, long packets of words and babble. Fury Road‘s few detractors often complain about the film’s lack of “plot”… That’s exactly why the film succeeds. You absolutely do not need a plot in order to deliver an excellent story. Mad Max: Fury Road eschews careful plotting and needless subplots, it’s all just a big car chase with multiple little stories happening within it. Stories that you see, stories that aren’t spelt out for you. Max goes through yet another “lonely-wanderer-gets-roped-into-something” experience, there’s Furiosa’s bold escape from the clutches of Immortan Joe, and war boy Nux’s awakening and re-awakening.
Immortan Joe’s oppressive and deceptive citadel is so painlessly established with just a few scenes, and a few lines. You get the idea right off the bat. The cultish religion around him and motors, only one seconds-long scene of the war boys holding up steering wheels in a religious manner says it all, not to mention fun little details like them spraying chrome on their teeth. You get these characters, you get this world, you get all the things. Nux’s story is perhaps the most impressive of the bunch, maybe even more so than breakout Furiosa’s. Furiosa is a miracle of a character, a non-stereotypical modern action girl, a female character who just *is* awesome and powerful but also very three-dimensional. She’s just one of the many great female characters that have been prominent in the series.
Nux… He’s quite a character himself. Nux so desperately wants to be worthy of Immortan Joe, and he does everything he can to finally ride the “Fury Road”, so he can impress the self-proclaimed god. When that goes completely awry, we see his insecurities come through when being comforted by one of Immortan’s freed harem girls. To Nux, Immortan Joe is the real deal, and failing right in front of him not only takes a toll on his worldview, but also changes it completely. He realizes that he can be worthy in another way, and that helping defeat such a tyrannical menace is perhaps much better than riding to the gates of Valhalla. He completely transforms because of this.
All of this, plus so much more, just effortlessly shown while vehicle destruction and carnage happens nonstop. Miller managed to weave so many stories and textures into something so seemingly simple, Mad Max: Fury Road has done what many big blockbuster action films of the last five years haven’t even attempted. Even the very good-quality ones! Oh… The action… Oh goodness the action. Thought three was enough? Fury Road knows how to keep something fresh, and how! Gorgeous cinematography, refreshingly popping color grading, nutso use of speed-up, so many wonderfully designed vehicles. The Doof Wagon never fails to bring a smile. There’s almost an animated movie-style feel to it, as Miller had at one point intended to make this a computer animated film! Imagine how amazing that could have been! Even in live-action, it’s pure eye candy… Pure ear candy too, thanks to Junkie XL’s exhilirating score.
Mad Max: Fury Road not only reignites the series, but it was a much-needed boost to the modern action film. Warner Bros. let Miller go wild with such a huge budget, the kind of support he didn’t have for the previous entries in the series. So sincerely crafted and so much fun, it has it all and then some…
#1. MAD MAX 2
Did George Miller think for one second in 1977 – when Mad Max was being filmed – that his low budget dystopian revenge thriller about the last good cop in a tarnished world going rogue would see any form of a follow-up? Would he have imagined a vehicular, regressive, medieval world rising from the ashes?
Mad Max 2 is one of cinema’s greatest sequels.
Expanding on its predecessor’s setting, Mad Max 2 builds a whole new and totally unique world out of its post-civilization future. A world revolving around the need for fuel to survive, among other rare goods. Mad Max 2‘s future is leather-clad barbarians ravaging roads in armored vehicles of doom, peasant-like people hiding behind rows of heavy duty objects guarding their fuel source, and a brave knight like Max, prowling the roads in his amped up Ford Falcon XB and avoiding capture. It’s a motor oil-drenched medieval world!
Like its predecessor, Mad Max 2 (or The Road Warrior, which is the title it was given for its American release due to the fact that the first film went unnoticed there) is a bit of a slow-burn story that kicks off with an exciting car chase. George Miller quietly builds things up, re-introducing Max and getting an idea of what’s going through his head. Max is burnt out and without much emotion following the death of his wife and son, and he would prefer not to be close with anyone anymore, fearing that if he does, he’ll lose them.
With the help of a screwball Gyro Captain, Max locates a pint-sized civilization that’s guarding an oil refinery from marauders. Their leader, the metal-masked Lord Humungus, tries to coax them into giving up the refinery by telling them that if they concede, they’ll be granted a safe passage out of the area. Max is arrested by the group and his Pursuit Special is locked up, he strikes a deal with their leader: He’ll give them a semi that he came across in the opening sequence, and they’ll give him back the car and enough gasoline. Carefully structured and so well-paced, Mad Max 2 beautiful ties visceral storytelling with creative worldbuilding and such innovative action sequences.
I put it slightly above Mad Max: Fury Road. I kind of prefer the build up and simmer-to-boil storytelling of Mad Max 2. While Mad Max: Fury Road is already boiling by the ten-minute mark, Mad Max 2 is a gradual rise. A lit match that later becomes a forest fire when the climax revs up. Mad Max 2‘s car chase sequences still hold up today, and still thrill like no other. The stunts and staging are wild for 1981, and wild some 35 years later! Max hauling the truck from the desert to the safety of the refinery? Edge-of-your-seat excitement! The final chase? Perfection, not to mention the pay off!
Mad Max 2 also has one of my favorite set of seconds ever…
After the opening pursuit that introduces us to some of the Humungus’ goons, Max comes across a broken down rig. One of the items inside is a little music box, which he plays for a few seconds. While doing so, the straight-faced, burnt out man cracks a slight smile… A little moment that shows that despite all the roughness Max has faced in the span of roughly half a year, Max still has humanity and love within him. The whole film is about Max rediscovering that humanity and living again, when he ultimately agrees to help the villagers escape from the road ravagers.
It’s this beating heart that makes Mad Max so indelible as a series. Max is a hero, and with the two following installments, he does the same. He may not want to be involved with these other groups at first, but he then stops being reluctant and fights to save lives, no different from what he had done before losing everything…
Mad Max 2 fully established the series’ tone, style, and themes. On its own, it’s a masterclass in action storytelling. So fine-tuned, so well thought out, so balanced in its execution, and never short on the thrills…