On Friday, George Miller‘s legendary Mad Max series returns to cinemas. The original trilogy, full of high throttle action, burned rubber and harrowing stunts, was a classic staple of ’80s action cinema. It’s taken well over a decade for Fury Road to reach production, and while it’s not entirely clear, the film seems to take place after the original trilogy. This messes with the timeline, considering Max is younger and is played by Tom Hardy (replacing Mel Gibson). Fury Road also stars Charlize Theron and Nicholas Hoult. Now that the Fury is about to be unleashed, let’s look back on the original Mad Max trilogy.
Mad Max (1979)
Either by virtue of its low budget, intentional use of broken-down locations by director George Miller or both, the original Mad Max has the rare virtue of being a dystopian film that shows the world in the process of “ending.” Civilization barely hangs on by a thread, and even the local police station, known as the Halls of Justice, is in an abandoned, dilapidated building.
“Mad” Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), a member of the Main Force Patrol, or MFP, is introduced as the coolest of the cool cops, the best of the best, a man who keeps his head even in the worst of situations. With the MFP in hot pursuit of a cop killer known as the Night Rider, its almost impossible to tell who is crazier: the cops or the fugitives. Once the Night Rider escapes, Max is called into action. He calmly sits in his car, waiting for the chase to come to him. He’s the epitome of the strong, silent type. Then, Max proves himself to literally be the maddest of all, playing a game of chicken with the Night Rider, leaving the murderer in such a fright that he dies in a fiery crash soon after. The Night Rider’s gang, led by the Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Bynre), are thirsty for revenge, and hunt down Max and his best friend, Goose, the two main MFP officers involved in the psychotic’s death.
The first Mad Max holds up surprisingly well. It could stand to have one more car chase somewhere in the middle, but even shots of cars speeding down the highway provide an adrenaline rush, with the shaky picture making it seem like even the camera is afraid to go that fast. While it doesn’t provide the pure visceral thrill of The Road Warrior, by 1979 standards, and even today’s, it comes pretty close. The best part? No CGI! Take that, Fast & Furious.
The Road Warrior (1981)
In The Road Warrior, five years have passed since Mad Max, and the world has most definitely ended. A brief prologue introduces the film’s dystopian nightmare, with oil reserves running out, forcing people to go to war over what little of it remains. Max begins the film as a nomad, or as Samuel L. Jackson describes it in Pulp Fiction, he’s walking the earth, “like Kane in Kung-Fu,” except Max is, obviously, driving. After a run-in with the Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence), Max learns of a nearby oil refinery, and hopes to get his hands on some gasoline. It’s an easy enough plan, except the refinery is being terrorized by The Humungus, a giant of a man who wears a mask and has a bald head, courtesy of radiation fallout.
Max isn’t exactly a bad guy in The Road Warrior, but compared to the rape, murder and pillaging Humungus’s crew commits, he’s an angel. He helps an injured man who lives in the refinery’s camp, but only after making a deal for some “juice.” Once the man dies, everyone in the refinery, recognizing Max for the scavenger he is, voids the deal and seem more than happy to keep Max’s ride.
Despite fighting Humungus, the refinery’s citizens want to leave and head north where it’s supposedly safer, but they need a rig big enough to transport the gas required for the trip. Wouldn’t you know it, Max knows exactly where to find one. After delivering said rig (with help from the Gyro Captain), Max takes his gasoline, that snazzy V-8 Interceptor, and his dog out into the wasteland … for about five minutes, before Humungus’ gang catches up with him. His car destroyed, his dog dead, Max volunteers to drive the rig, because “he’s got no other choice.”
The Road Warrior is one of the purest, most stripped-down action films ever made. The dialogue is at a minimum, especially for Max. Everyone else may talk, but he acts. The chase scenes are even more fantastic, and adding the Gyro Captain’s helicopter into the mix adds an aerial view that shows off just how amazing Miller’s direction is, both technically and creatively. The film’s climax, a 20-minute chase as the gang tries to take down Max and the tanker, is to this day, one of the most exciting action scenes captured on film. Here’s a snippet of that amazing sequence:
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)
An air of tragedy looms over Thunderdome, who lost producer Byron Kennedy in a helicopter crash while scouting locations in pre-production. Miller was so distraught, he opted to only direct the action scenes, leaving the rest of the film in the hands of George Ogilvie. Fifteen years have passed since The Road Warrior. Max is graying, rides in a camel-drawn wagon, and has fully adjusted to life after the apocalypse. He carries all kinds of weapons on his person, and even has a Geiger counter for measuring radiation (especially useful when thinking of drinking some water). Thunderdome is unique in the Mad Max universe, providing a look at people trying to rebuild civilization in a post-apocalyptic wasteland…and it’s as corrupt as you can imagine. Bartertown, a place where people from all over come to trade goods and services, is run by Aunty Entity (Tina Turner…wait. Tina Turner? Yes, Tina Turner) above ground, and the Master Blaster combo below ground, where Master (a dwarf) has figured out how to get methane out of pig waste and convert it to electricity.
After Jedediah (Bruce Spence, playing a different pilot from the one in The Road Warrior) and his son steal Max’s camels and wagon, he strikes a deal with Aunty to kill Blaster, the masked beast of a man that Master sits on top of, leading to one of the coolest inventions ever: Thunderdome.
Two men enter. One man leaves.
How cool is that? Seriously.
Beyond Thunderdome is a solid, though flawed, capper to the trilogy. The movie suffers from a terrible case of Part 3-itus, something the film may have actually pioneered (this was 1985 and not many franchises went to Part 3 at that time). The first two Mad Max films were rated R, but not Thunderdome, which comes with a more kid-friendly PG-13 rating, which forces the movie to avoid the dark, desolate feel of the first two, opting instead for comic relief whenever possible. It’s all Thunderdome can do to keep from becoming a spoof of the first two films. Max has a pet monkey (!!!) that proves ever helpful, Maurice Jarre‘s blaring, overwrought score is distracting, sometimes even under-cutting what’s happening on screen, not to mention the film opens with a horrifically ’80s Tina Turner song, and Aunty’s right-hand man, Iron Bar, is “that bad guy” who always winds up with mud on his face, coming close to dying in all kinds of humorous ways before, you know, dying for real. That’s not even mentioning the whole “Lost Boys” segment, which sort of works. It’s more interesting in concept than execution, but it at least helps set up Max’s redemption at the end of the movie.
Oh. Also, there’s another fantastic car chase in the climax, albeit a shorter one than in The Road Warrior. It’s a shame, because it’s clear how much Miller’s grasp of action and speed has advanced in the four years since The Road Warrior. One can only imagine what the past 30 years have done for Miller’s expertise. We’ll all find out on May 15, when Mad Max: Fury Road opens.