Tuesday, May 12, 2015

A Look Back at the Original Mad Max Trilogy

Mad Max (1979)
Directed by: George Miller.
Written by: James McCausland & George Miller.
Starring: Mel Gibson (Max), Joanne Samuel (Jessie), Hugh Keays-Byrne (Toecutter), Steve Bisley (Jim Goose), Tim Burns (Johnny the Boy), Roger Ward (Fifi).

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)
Directed by: George Miller.
Written by: Terry Hayes & George Miller & Brian Hannant.
Starring: Mel Gibson (Max), Bruce Spence (The Gyro Captain), Michael Preston (Pappagallo), Max Phipps (The Toadie), Vernon Wells (Wez), Kjell Nilsson (The Humungus), Emil Minty (The Feral Kid).

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)
Directed by:  George Miller & George Ogilvie.
Written by: Terry Hayes & George Miller.
Starring: Mel Gibson (Mad Max Rockatansky), Bruce Spence (Jedediah the Pilot), Adam Cockburn (Jedediah Jr.), Tina Turner (Aunty Entity), Frank Thring (The Collector), Angelo Rossitto (The Master), Paul Larsson (The Blaster), Angry Anderson (Ironbar), Robert Grubb (Pig Killer).

This week, Max Mad Fury Road comes out – the first Mad Max film in 30 years – and out of all the big, blockbuster type movies of the summer, it is probably my most anticipated. Normally, I’m rather agnostic about remakes/reboots – I don’t see much of a point in them, but if done well, they can work, just like anything else. There is at least some reason to reboot Mad Max – and that is that the technology has come so far in the last three decades, that director George Miller can now do things he never could before – and from the looks of the amazing trailers, he does just that, utilizing more special effects than ever before, while still maintaining the series car chase/stunts roots. A director getting a chance to reboot his own franchise is rare. The Road Warrior, the second of the original trilogy, is one of the greatest action movies of all time – so it’s somewhat sad to me that in the decades since the third film, Miller has never ventured back into action filmmaking. Hell, he’s barely ventured back into directing at all. Fury Road will be only his ninth feature as a director (not including his segment of The Twilight Zone Movie, made between Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome). In the three decades since Mad Max ended he has only directed a handful of films – the special effects laden John Updike adaptation, The Witches of Eastwick (1987), the drama Lorenzo’s Oil (1992), the way better than the original (and I like the original) Babe: Pig in the City (1997) and the two Happy Feet movies (2006 and 2011). So Fury Road is a chance to see Miller in a mode he hasn’t been in for decades – and that’s exciting. Watching the three films over one weekend, it’s easy to see why the second film has such a better reputation than the first and third. The bookends of the series are fine, but most likely would have been forgotten (or at least half remembered) without the middle installment. But together, the series becomes more interesting than it does in individual installments. It’s a rare franchise that doesn’t rest on its laurels – and doesn’t repeat itself. Yes, all three film climax with chases and violence, but there is a progression - both in terms of its dystopian view of the future, and in Mad Max himself, from film to film.

The original, simply entitled Mad Max, was Miller’s debut film – made in 1979 with not a lot of money and an unknown Mel Gibson as the lead. The film plays like any number of 1970s set revenge flicks – with a seemingly normal guy who turns violent once his family is killed, and decides to seek vengeance for that crime. The difference between Mad Max and something like Michael Winner’s Death Wish (1974) with Charles Bronson is how late into the film the death of Max’s family comes – and how quickly he sets out on his path of vengeance. It’s really only over the last 20 minutes or so of the 90 minute where that happens – the rest is all buildup.

There is no doubt that the second and third installments of the Mad Max series are dystopian/post-apocalyptic movies – set in a world ravaged by drought, gas shortages and war. But the original Mad Max hasn’t gotten to that point yet, but it’s on the way there. It’s the near future, and lawlessness is starting to take over in Australia (and apparently elsewhere). Here, that lawlessness is represented by a motorcycle gang headed by the awesomely named Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who along with his group seems to have watched The Wild One (1953) a few too many times. They aren’t the cool rebels of Brando and his ilk however – but basically a gang of hooligans who rape, murder, rob and do pretty much whatever they want – and everyone decides to cower instead of stopping them. Max (Gibson) is a cop who actually does try, and in the film’s opening scene (after a tremendous introduction) does indeed stop the group’s then leader in a very long car chase sequence. He’s warned that the gang may come after him – which, of course, they eventually do. Miller doesn’t paint a rosy picture of the police in this movie either – they are borderline fascist, and like the gang itself, holds itself above the law they are supposed to preserve. All except Max, of course, who eventually gets tired of the whole damn thing, and quits – taking his wife and infant son away from it all. But, of course, that doesn’t happen – the gang catches up, his family ends up dead, and Max goes on a killing spree.

Much of the original Mad Max is actually kind of slow. The entire first hour, after the car chase sequence that begins, is setting everything up – the gang, the police, Max, the near future society going to hell, etc. These scenes are punctuated with some action – but not much. It’s a rather slow, rather repetitive buildup – which is why at the beginning of The Road Warrior, the whole movie can be summarized in about a minute with some grainy footage. In the last half hour, when Max and his family are in a secluded, small town and the gang starts terrorizing them, Max makes one bad decision after another – it’s not his fault his family is killed, but dammit, he would have had a chance to save them if he didn’t act like an idiot. Yet, while Mad Max is hardly what I would call a great movie – it still works. Miller spends too much time world building to be sure – but the near future world he creates is still an interesting, appropriately depressing place – enough like our world to seem believable, with just a few touches that bring it further into a dark future. And once Max does indeed go Mad, the film really works well. Gibson is certainly more at ease playing the vengeful Max rather than the man trying to be normal – and he fits the movie well. The last shot – the whole last scene really - is among the most memorable in the series.

When Max rides away at the end of Mad Max, it is into an uncertain future – both for society and himself. If the
story ended there, you would probably guess that Max would end up a hollow shell – a violent, vengeful, depressed loner. That is pretty much the person he has become at the beginning of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. Society has crumbled in the time between the end of the first movie, and the start of the second. If Miller was drawing comparisons between the cops and the gangs in the first film, all barriers now are completely gone – there is no more police, no more government, no more civilization really – everyone is in a gang now, roaming the streets looking for gas and trying to stay alive. Max travels in his supped up car -his lone companion, a dog. He doesn’t trust anyone he meets – and he doesn’t want to meet any of them. He wants to be alone. But then, Max ends up in a compound with perhaps the last decent people left in Australia. Their compound is really an oil refinery – so they are sitting atop the most precious commodity there is. The folks there are still idealistic and naïve – not real fighters, although they’ve had to fight to keep what is theirs. But what they really want is out – they have a destination in mind, some 2,000 Miles away. A paradise. But in order to get there, they need a truck able to transport all their precious gas, and a way to get by a violent gang of motorcycle riding psychopaths, led by a freak in a hockey mask. Max needs fuel – the group needs Max to help them. A bargain is struck.

The Road Warrior is heavily influenced by Westerns – with Gibson’s Max playing the type of role that John Wayne or Gary Cooper may well have played at times (in The Searchers and Man of the West respectively). Max is a man who seems unsentimental – like he doesn’t care about anyone, and doesn’t fit in with the rest of society. He almost seems like he would belong with the bad guys instead of the settlers. But Max still has a code – and he is moved to help those who cannot help themselves. At the beginning of the film, Max looks like he has lost his humanity – but it’s there, even if it’s tattered. By the end, he has regained it – even if he is still alone.

Everything about The Road Warrior has been amped up from the original film. This time, Miller had more money – and it shows. The trademark crazy cars and demented costume design is really in the series for the first time here. Gibson, who at times seemed ill at ease in the earlier film, here is perfectly cast as a man who slowly rediscovers his own humanity. His scenes with a young boy – appropriately called “Feral Kid” in the credits, are the heart of this. Is he seeing his own son in the kid – or at least what his son may have become had he survived whatever happened to the world? While his other major action franchise (Lethal Weapon) better tapped into his inherent, dangerous charm – some of his best roles seem closer to Mad Max than Martin Riggs – stoic, quiet men driven by an inner humanity they didn’t know they had. Not even the realization, decades later, that Gibson is in fact a horrible person can dim just how good he is in films like this.

But it is the action that truly makes The Road Warrior into a masterpiece. The film came out in Australia the same year as Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (it hit American screens the next year) – and to me, the films are equally great in terms of action filmmaking (in fact, I prefer The Road Warrior). There are multiple, mind boggling chase and stunt sequences in the film – like when Max has to try and get that truck inside the compound, and of course, the iconic finale which is as exciting as any action sequence you will see. 

The finale of The Road Warrior is both tragic and hopeful. Max has shown a willingness to re-connect with humanity – something unthinkable at the end of the first film, which is at least a little bit hopeful. But he is also betrayed – or at the very least used – by those who sought to help, which reconfirms his dim view of humanity itself.

Four years after The Road Warrior came the third, and final, installment of the Mad Max series – Beyond Thunderdome. Apparently, Miller lost interest in the project after his producing partner, Byron Kennedy, died while location scouting. He did agree to come in and direct the action sequences however – which is probably why they are far and away the best thing about the movie. Miller still co-wrote the movie, and helped shape it – but it doesn’t surprise me that he didn’t direct the entire movie, and also that the film itself started as a different project, and became a Mad Max film later on in development. Of the three films, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is probably the most “flawed” – even if what works about the film is wonderful.

The film picks up on Max a few years into the future after his adventure in The Road Warrior. He is still alone – and now even his car doesn’t work – he is walking across the desert wasteland with his car being towed by camels. He is robbed – and ends up heading to Bartertown to try and get what is his back. It’s here he meets Aunty (Tina Turner) – the leader of Bartertown, who wants Max to kill someone for her. In return, he’ll get what he wants. The first act climaxes with the fight to the death in the “Thunderdome” – a brilliantly choreographed sequence involving Max and an enormous man bouncing around on giant rubber bands, while they are cheered on from all sides. If that sounds silly – well, it is, but it’s also brilliant. Act II involves the now exiled Max coming across a society of children, living on their own, with barely any knowledge of the time before the war. They are, in their way, not unlike the settlers in The Road Warrior – they dream of going to a place they have never been, where they are sure everything will be great. They see Max as their savior, and perhaps he is. Eventually, we know, that these two radically different worlds are going to collide – the youthful, naïve, idealistic society of children, and the cynical, dark and violent Bartertown – with Max at the center of the conflict.

The finale of the film, which brings the two sides together, really is the best part of the film. While the car chase, stunt extravaganza may not be quite up to standard of The Road Warrior – it’s as close as you are likely to get. Miller ups the ante this time – a real plane is involved, not just a gyro-plane – and the film ends with a satisfying bang. It also begins with one as well – as the setup of Bartertown is promising – the character of Aunty played by Tina Turner is the most articulate villain Max has faced yet (that’s not much competition, considering the other two were Toecutter and Humungous). The aforementioned Thunderdome sequence is brilliant as well.
The problem is the movie grinds to a halt when Max meets the society of children. I understand why the story takes this turn – the trilogy is ultimately about Max first losing and then regaining his humanity, and he needs a reason to do so, and children are a way to do it (also, the project apparently started out about a group of children in a post-apocalyptic wasteland discovered by an adult – which Miller decided should be Max). Still, this band of children isn’t really well thought out as a group – and they don’t really do anything either. This is the longest stretch of the movie without any action – meaning the longest stretch not directed by Miller – and the pacing flags, and the movie slows down to next to nothing, until we finally get to the finale.

None of this ruins Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome – but it does downgrade it a little (how Ebert saw this as superior to The Road Warrior is one of those things I will never understand). What is interesting about the film is what it repeats from The Road Warrior – and what it changes. The world that Miller and company has built certainly changes from film to film – as society keeps falling further away from where it began. Here, even the roads from the previous film seem to have been swallowed up by the sand, and things are even more desolate than before. Yet, there is also societies being formed – in perfect and imperfect models. Bartertown is a masterwork on primitive Production Design – the type of place that really may spring out of nothing. Thunderdome has a very impressive name – but it’s basically a large birdcage. When Max gets a weapon for his fight – it’s a chainsaw, but it doesn’t work. And the whole place literally runs on shit. But just when it seems like everything is doomed, that is where the kids show up – and hope comes with them.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is imperfect way to end the series – but a fitting one. At the end of the film, Max is where he was at the end of both previous films – but this time, he actually seems to be heading somewhere, and humanity may be coming back with him. While you likely could have made a fourth film in the series, this was the proper place to stop – Max has come full circle.

What this means for Fury Road, who knows? It’s more a reboot than a remake (you can tell from the more plot oriented trailers that it has a completely different story than any of these three films – although perhaps Max’s backstory is the same). In Tom Hardy, I think Miller cast a seemingly perfect modern Max. Up until now, the Mad Max series has produced one action masterwork, and two flawed, if still quite good films in their own right. There is no reason to reboot the franchise – it’s still quite well remembered as it is – but if Miller wants to, then I’m on board.

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