As Mad Max roars back to the cinema, the second of Jokerside’s glimpses back at the original trilogy. As the gas ran out on the Road Warrior he reluctantly found himself in the middle of a highly influential, lean second film and then an extraordinary stab at Hollywood excess. (Like the man himself, a few mild Fury Road spoilers fade into the mix near the end).
SO RAN A TAGLINE FOR MAX’S RETURN TO THE BIG SCREEN IN 1981. IN SO MANY WAYS THE FIRST FILM WAS PERFECTLY SELF-CONTAINED… BUT IT ALSO LEFT A WIDE OPEN ROAD IN FRONT OF THE ROAD WARRIOR. And George Miller, feted by a Hollywood that offered him the reigns to films like First Blood, couldn’t resist exploring that world with a higher budget. The first part of this retrospective looked at the essential Max Factor, those crucial bits of legend that feed through the entire franchise. It took an extra-long look at that opening 1979 film, an extraordinary piece of revenge with a proud place in the grand tradition of the Australian road movie. That first film could have gone anywhere, where it went was beyond expectations.
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)
“Only One Man Can Make a Difference”
This is it, the film that all other Mad Max pictures need to live up to. It set the template from the middle of the trilogy, the leanest and most influential of three different visions… Remember we left him a broken man without hope? Now, he’s fully set, cold and survivalist. This is the cue that Fury Road picks up, rewriting the second instalment more than others. Like the James Bond comparison that keeps coming up, Max can lose his Interceptor twice in part two and four, just as Bond meets Blofeld twice in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and You Only Live Twice. And if there’s any part of this diverse trilogy that Fury Road should mimic it’s the second one.
This is the film that makes the favourites list of directors like Fincher, Del Toro, Cameron and Rodriguez. A film that followed one of the greatest budget-to-box office success stories of all time, and somehow managed to extend the story, drama, depth, action and potential of the franchise. It had a budget 10 times the original, built the biggest film set Australia had ever seen and managed to film its script in order. Oh, and only gives its leading man 16 lines of dialogue.
Here Max comes into his own. Gibson cuts an iconic figure in the Frankensteined leather, cuts and mismatched clothing explained by the injuries that concluded the first film. Striking, solitary, threatening, stunning. It’s a deep, dark study of a man with heart-felt character touches. The film raises its game to match, allowing not just for broad sweeps of the desert outback, but the mass of converging vehicles the original couldn’t stretch to. Chasing, sparring and locking spoilers. It all creates a heady mix revolving round the impassive Max.
The Silent Type
“If you had contract it was with him – and he died with it”
The dark figure of Max has been condensed, and the film feels no pressure to recap the events that created him. Very few concessions are made to explain his actions and general self-serving, self-survivalist nature. But there are sparing and effective glimmers that play with it. One of those comes with a music box mechanism, much like one that was set to appear in Fury Road but seems to have ended up on the cutting room floor. Left alone, after watching quietly main villain The Humungus articulate his offers to the refinery outpost at the heart of the film, Max passes the mechanism to the Feral Child who had inflicted the most damage on the marauders though secret passageways. Resolute for much of the film, Max doesn’t show emotion at thee death around him, nor even at the loss of his Falcon later on. He’d equipped it with a booby trap, so would never have let him become too attached to even his precious wheels. But when he impassively considers this Feral Kid and passes him the mechanism he took earlier from a crashed gang member, he almost manages a smile – albeit a mirthless one. It’s superbly carried by Gibson, taking a firm grip of one of cinema’s great men of few words. But it’s also so much more. Set five years after the first film, the Feral child isn’t far off the age his own child would have been. And like Max, the child’s left without anyone – although lucky enough not to be saddled with the knowledge or tragedy of the previous world. And tellingly, this scene comes just after Feral Kid has inflicted the kind of emotional trauma on villain Wez that helped to create Max. So the tragic cycle of this world keeps turning.
Yes, it’s five years later and society has moved on, even if not up. But also, Max is far from the urban decay and loose infrastructure of the first film. In that time, deep in the outback The Humungus has amassed a gang of berserkers. A far more formidable crew than Max encountered half a decade before.
“The humungous rules the wasteland”
There’s intriguing possibility The Humungus is in fact Goose, old pal of Max from the first film whose hideous burn injuries started the protagonist’s quick mental descent. He takes special care of a gun similar to one wielded by the MFU and his ranks are swelled by police cars adding weight to the idea that this is these remnants of the unit Max left. We never see his face, but his hideous scars show he’s suffered major burns. Truth be told, the original idea that The Humungus was Goose fell from the script before production, although the hints were left. It’s also true that the huge bulking presence, powerful rhetoric and Bane-style eloquence The Humungus demonstrates doesn’t fit with the Goose we left. It’s far more likely, and dramatically satisfactory that he’s an ex-military former team-mate of Pappagallo, the leader of the refinery colonists. And that puts Max in polar opposition to The Humungus’ chief lieutenant Wez, the tragedy-motivated wild card whose chained and controlled until unleashed.
“Be still my dog of war”
There are incredible stand out scenes in Mad Max 2. One of the best is the dawn escape from the oil refinery under siege from Humungus’ crew. Multiple cars set off in different directions, dust wakes billowing as they seek to evade the aggressors.
Max, his dog and the captive Gyro Captain have sat atop the hill studying the base, while Miller makes great use of the stunning vistas, day and night. It’s an impressive and imposing fortress in the context of the wasteland. As the cars roll out, there’s a spot of telescope comedy and then the horrific reminder of what these lawless tribes can do. Like the first film, but writ larger. And so Max sets off, as always not altruistically, but when he sees the best opportunity to gain access to the refinery. It’s a brilliantly orchestrated sequence, sitting in the middle of Brian May’s magnificent soundtrack that verges between Hermann and Wagner. And it’s all dialogue free. A sand ballet.
Short and sharp scenes then propel us to the inevitable end, almost deconstructing the legend of Max that the opening took great pains to paint (although with a voiceover omitted from the Australian release).
“All that remains are memories…“In the roar of an engine he lost everything”
It’s a rather creepy voiceover that kicks things off, setting Max, the Road Warrior, in the stone of legend while adding the backstory of a world powered by the black fuel that saw two tribes go to war and ultimately resulted in global destruction… This is now definitely post-apocalyptic, and the use of black and white newsreels to show this “firestorm of fear” are effective as they’re so defiantly 20th century. They evoke real fears, setting this universe up as not so much the future but the warning of a real and possible alternate reality.
The sequel repeats the opening trick of the first film. Launching Max and us into a blistering car chase. While it lacks the build-up of the first film it immediately reasserts the iconography and horror. Max takes the role of Nightrider here, still in his classic souped Interceptor but this time with a cattle dog at his side. While the first film’s plot hinged around the death of Nightrider, this sequence ties into the plot with fewer consequences. Some of what we learn are The Humungus’ gang are killed and Wez is injured but left free to wail inhumanely while Max desperately tries to scrounge some gasoline. The cab we see will become important, and Wez was always going to return… But most importantly the road battle is a high budget and dialogue free statement of intent.
Max’s first line comes on meeting Bric Spence’s Gyro Captain: “Booby trap. Touch those tanks and BOOOOOOM”. Instantly bumping into the Captain triggers a welcome change of pace. He’s comic relief, but more crucially a narrator who can explain the refinery under siege plot while events keep rolling. He’s certainly not as taciturn as Max, and his presence is a large reason why the film is more dramatically satisfying than the first.
“We’re still human beings. You’re out there with the garbage. You’re nothing…”
And against that beginning, the later deconstruction is stark. Following the damaging but successful requisitioning of the tanker cab the colonists so desperately need Max’s job is done and he duly departs to continue his lone quest for survival. Pappagallo’s frank reality check earns a punch… But it turns out all the warnings were right. That huge mistake, based on an ignorance of the nitro (something that would become ever more important in the film as the stakes raise), doesn’t cost his life (saved in a deliriously surreal fashion by the Gyro Captain) but does cost his dog and precious car. In Humungus he’d someone more souped than him. Someone who could touch him more than anyone in the first film (and later, that same ferocity would prove The Humungus’ downfall).
“If it’s all the same to you, I’ll drive the tanker… I’m the best chance you’ve got”
Forced back to the refinery Max is presented with the closest thing to redemption he ever has. Although in truth it’s because he has nothing left. A refusal to get involved will always make you the victim of circumstance, although perhaps not as prone to the extremes of comedy and tragedy that comes with it. The Road Warrior plays fast and loose with this idea. Max’s involvement in the refinery that sits at the heart of the story is driven by demand rather than good will. He simply wants to reclaim what’s his: the last of the V8 Interceptors – “a piece of history” as Steve Spear’s Mechanic puts it.
“Got yourself a deal”
Miller’s debt to Kurosawa isn’t hidden. Max is the distilled Seven Samurai or Magnificent Seven descending on a desperate town. And as with any great action film, it’s all powered by a simple plot. A frayed and infighting community defending the fuel they seek to take 2,000 miles to the Promised Land. There’s siege, break-in, mass devastation all before Max decides to leave. And that and his inevitable return is of course about building up the last 20 minutes.
“You can run, but you can’t hide”
The finale’s a roaring rampage… And almost all of it goes against expectation. Packed with blood, crashes, fire and futility, just think what it could have been had the film been as bloody as was first intended… The slight chiding glance from Pappagallo to Max in the tanker cab is priceless, as is the Wez lounging on a hood before he’s released from bondage, Mechanic’s fiery incompetence, Warrior Woman’s weak exit and Feral kid and Max bonding in the cab.
It’s pure and utter, genre-defining catastrophe, with Miller pouring all his speeding up and disorientating tricks into the mix. Although he opts against the bursting eyeballs this time. Fortunately those do make a ‘reappearance’ in Mad Max Fury Road, just as they should.
And after it all that – the tanker was just a ruse. Of course, a distraction with huge human cost, but one that allows the founding of the Great Northern Tribe. And Max is left, this time with even less than he had before, and no consolation or knowledge about what he helped make happen. Not that he’d take that anyway. He becomes a memory in a solemn, solid, great ending.
Where could he possibly go next?
Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985)
“A lone warrior searching for his destiny…a tribe of lost children waiting for a hero…in a world battling to survive, they face a woman determined to rule.”
With that fuller explanation on the poster Thunderdome is unsurprisingly a trickier proposition. It doesn’t lack confidence or imagination, but it doesn’t possess the simple plot propulsion of the first two films. For one, as Mel Gibson remarked, Max regains some compassion and more dialogue with it. For another, the franchise is knocking on the doors of Hollywood and while the part of Aunty Entity may have been written for Tina Turner, her and Maurice Jarre’s arrival mean no momentous score from Brian May. The accompanying American funding necessarily dilutes a universe that was already fast-imploding. It’s the one film that everyone remembers, thanks to its later release, soundtrack and craziness… But also the one where the extraordinary punk aesthetic of this dystopia became an unbalancing distraction. Or, as some might say, a joke. It didn’t help of course that Thunderdome fell in the mid-80s, where big hair could only get bigger.
Boom. From the off the typical white text credits are backed by Tina Turner’s vocals. Just as unexpectedly, Miller has a co-directing credit. Things were bound to be different, and it’s a challenge Thunderdome takes on in typically uncompromising fashion. As well as beating its way to Hollywood’s door proper, this film is also the quest to uncover and explore the mythology after the second part had surprised its creators by appealed to all cultures.
Set some 15 years on from Road Warrior there’s never any doubt that that the camel convoy that Bruce Spence’s Jebediah successfully abducts belongs to Max. Now on four feet rather than four wheels, and wrapped against sand storms in heavy Arabian gowns. Of course, as the didgeridoo creeps into the score, a surely displeased Max is as impassive as ever.
The New Economy
“What’s a bit of fall-out, eh?”
On arrival at the ethnically diverse and impressive set of Bartertown we find Max carries a detector to test water for radiation, a far more explicit indication that there was nuclear conflict. Away from the gas-grabbing of the second film, cars and general tech are sparse, while the quest for new types of energy like the methane farm powering Bartertown is the future.
While Max is more open to talk this time round, he’s no less a victim of circumstance. And soon this “raggedy man” falls into her employ as a way to break the conflict between her and Master Blaster who control Undertown. What’s become the new civilisation has a new energy and economic system to fuel it.
“I was a cop, a driver”
“But how the world turns”
Thunderdome unravels faster than the first two films, but sacrifices mystery to do it. When it comes to the end-game of Aunty’s plot in the fabled court of law, the Thunderdome, it’s clear that this void will be filled with visual flourish and Miller’s exploration of this crazy new world and the creatures it throws up. Yes, it’s certainly a film of imagination.
“Two men enter, one man leaves”
This law is little different to that death-race concept found in science-fiction, from The Running Man to The Hunger Games. The Essential Max Factors that closed the opening part of this retrospective identified The Collector as Aunty’s speaker, but there’s also the catchy portrayal of the camel-trading-salesman/MC played by Edwin Hodgeman: the fantastically monikered Dr Dealgood.
“Welcome… to another edition of Thunderdome… By the dust of them all, Bartertown’s learned”
The Bungee duel action though is wonderfully attention grabbing and kinetic. This is where law and entertainment meet, with masses of spectators and catchphrases to please them – oh, and the odd comedic slaying of a spectator to remind us all that even fun in this world carries risk. By this time, the franchise had whittled down to a PG-13 rating, so violence like that is hard to come by. Max was never the most physical, often coming off badly from his scrapes, and here he has to rely on strategy albeit with the slight help from spikes and a chainsaw on the way.
And then there’s the reveal, just before the killing blow. Blaster is no giant brute, but a man with Down Syndrome, as the newly sympathetic Master runs out pleading that he has “the mind of a child”. Master and Blaster were another one of those Mad Max combos; a name and position only possible from the world’s condition. In this franchise this kind of figure exists to be subverted, and sure enough, after Blaster’s tragic death, Master switches to becoming one of the good guys. Max’s unusual compassion, another of those greying hesitations from the antihero means he’s chosen his side.
To the Oasis
“Bust a deal and face the wheel”.
But as he’s banished in a repurposed oversized Auton Head, Max’s journey takes the most unexpected twist of all. Surviving the treacherous sand and Sarlacc pit of the desert, Max come across a tribe of lost children. This is peter Pan country – and a strange side-step in the films as it draws liberally from Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, a post-apocalyptic book that was published a year after the original mad Max film came out.. These waiting ones hail Max as the mythical Captain Walker, recounting their tales every night in their new English. Max awakes in this paradise as he did in the refinery of part two. But instead of one Feral Kid, he finds an army. Max is unpredictable here, showing off Gibson’s comic ability is. What’s least unexpected is the Road Warrior’s ease at disappointing. Even with the children silhouetted against the huge passenger plane that brought their ancestors, Max rejects their pleas and walks away.
Taking Hoban’s lead, we hear far more about the myth of this world. We hear how society has unravelled so quickly into tales of the Highscrapers” and “Pocky-Clypse” as Max sees the jarring images of the old world on a View-Master.
“Some had been jumped by Mister Dead”
Max preaches reality and tries desperately to break the kids hope until he’s painted himself as villain more than ever before. He deals gunfire and even hits the lead girl, storyteller Savannah. But it’s the escape of her and others still desperate to believe that there is a Tomorrow-Morrow Land that draws him back to Bartertown. Their walk across the desert, a landscape where any roads have long gone, sees the return of birds, circling the pilgrims as they travel. And that signals a conclusion less well plotted than the previous two films. The bizarre rescue of Master where comedy takes a greater hold in the Undertown, from pig herd and a Han Solo and Stormtrooper homage.
If anything Mad Max likes to subvert, and the real formula breaker in Thunderdome is that no transport appears until 75 minutes in. And of course, perversely, it’s an old train rather than a rig this time round. The hint of the old rail tracks adds an extra dimension to Bartertown’s existence, while their escape’s devastating effect on the community seems quite unfair. In one shot, it looks like the Collector has simply expired along with his town.
“Plan? There ain’t no plan”
After motivating her people, Aunty Entity sets off in pursuit of the terrorists who took her little man (master means power, means control). The transaction here is simple, but the ending refuses to be. If the second film was a Western, Thunderdome is the real Corral moment. The train under assault, Master in his dandy 19th century clothing. And in the cab Pig Killer means there’s someone even madder than Max driving the show. Inside there’s just time for some freaky throwbacks, including the gramophone on relating French lessons to the lost kids; seeing the old world through eyes that have never seen it.
“Where you gonna run? Where you gonna hide?”
Outside these new gang members are beyond nuts, hitting each other – a sure sign that the art of the Road Warrior has been quickly forgotten in this part of the world. But it’s not long before Max is back in a car. The gang attempt to get airborne thanks to bumping into and threatening Jebediah (simply Spence playing a thematic repeat of the last fil’s Gyro pilot), and perhaps one of Max’s neater moments. Ensuring just enough runway for the plane to take off, Max remains on the ground in the middle of crashed vehicles as the airborne survivors head to their future. Once again, the legend is left hanging and seemingly a dead man. And then the biggest subversion of all. With a smirking farewell of “Goodbye soldier” Aunty leaves Max alone in the desert, her prize possession gone, her pursuit cancelled.
As Max fades to legend once again, the survivor’s plane visits the production’s rather nifty 3,000 square foot city model. With dilapidated Highscrapers and… Opera House. This generation settles down in the ruins of Sydney where they shine a continual light for the man who allowed their escape. But true to form the last shot is Max back where he was, nowhere near a distant light and this time on foot in the sand.
Road to Fury
We haven’t heard the last of the First History Man…
Each film gives a different perspective on destruction. Each a different spin on Max himself, the only constant character. Sure, the first film establishes that there’s a chronology. But Mad Max Fury Road find the Road Warrior with more of a twitch, distant and clearly not used to human company and not obviously between part two and part three. A full look at Fury Road will come to Jokerside, but it’s certainly a worthy addition to the canon. And through its simple plot it seeks to subvert just as much as the other parts.
Furiosa shares much of the role Max previously had to himself, including the extreme injury, and in doing so pushes the film rightly into the world of women – a timely twist away from the kids of the last film and the male gangs of the first two. She is clearly the main protagonist, as befits a tale that would be handed down post-events. Max is simply the presence that comes in to help her up to the top of the Citadel’s elevator and take the place of Immortan Joe.
Immortan Joe, may rightly recall the first film’s Toecutter (both imperceptively played by Hugh Keays-Byrne), survey the scene from the field as The Humungus and control his people like Master, but the comics reveal him to be an ex-military Colonel. Another rogue forced out by a world gone mad. Around him, the Mad Max universe twists even more, from the breeding women and War Boys, to mother’s milk, blood banks and the shrine of steering wheels. Those War Boys recall Scrooloose from the third film, pale and affected, with limited half-life while Joe’s countless children are just trials on the way to him achieving a perfect heir. Picking liberally from previous instalments, the 30 year break adds weight to Fury Road not fitting with a set chronology.
The Road Warrior himself therefore, is timeless. And in that timelessness, the horror of Max’s past is has now become more real – although an ambiguous, haunting, walking nightmare that can simultaneously motivate and save him if needs be. In a far faster film, chopped down from an epic production, the manifestation of madness is far more tangible. The long rig chase, effectively running the whole of the film, draws heavily from The Road Warrior, while the Green that Imperator Furiosa seeks is gone, unlike the Shangri-La’s the colonies of the first and second films seek. Instead, the future lies where the film starts. Back home. In Fury Road, it’s all cyclical.
At the end Max makes his least impressive bow, dissolving into the hordes of Immortan Joe’s people. But this is another slice of legend and it seems we’re only at the start of the whole new cycle. Fury Road film may not end with the legend “Mad Max will returns” but it may as well have done. I suspect we haven’t heard the last of the First History Man…
“Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland, in search of our better selves.”