Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)

★★★★

Mad Max The Road Warrior PosterDirector: George Miller

Release Date: January 19th, 1982 (UK); May 21st, 1982 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science fiction

Starring: Mel Gibson

When it comes to writing, you get the sense George Miller (and co-writers Terry Hayes and Brian Hannant) can’t wait to put pen to paper. It is an eagerness that translates across the whole Mad Max franchise, one that permeates each film from the word go. The Road Warrior begins in much the same vein as its predecessor, with lots of revving and car acrobatics and dodging and crashing.

Only this time Max (Mel Gibson) is the hunted and not the hunter. Nightrider has nothing on Max’s new curtain-jerking nemesis — a sign of crazier things to come. The red-Mohicaned Wez (Vernon Wells) and Max race to a stalemate (there’s that western influence again), which sees the former pull an arrow from his injured arm and evoke an unmoved screech.

This local impasse is indicative of a much grander one to which the film builds. The world has emerged from its process of environmental, political and economic degradation and is now in a state of total desolation. Max, alone following the tragic events that went before, must decide whether or not to assist a similarly cut off community in their fight against an oil-hungry motorcycle cult.

The former patrol officer runs into another drifter after his aforementioned interaction. The drifter, therein known as the Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence), exclaims: “You’re quick, very quick! Never seen a man beat a snake.” That’s where Max is now, instinct fully developed, greatly skilled in the art of survival. He is the road warrior. Max’s only companion is a scruffy dog, who amusingly entrusts with the Gyro Captain’s life — a scene involving an errant rabbit is absurdly hilarious.

As opposed to phones or wallets, people carry around spoons in the hope that they will find some leftover food rotting away in a tin can. The enforced partnership between Max and the Gyro Captain — the latter’s existence in exchange for direction — offers a bout of light relief from this demoralising and harsh landscape. Spence’s character is a sort of Ragetti figure (or perhaps Ragetti is more of a Gyro Captain), which is a welcome contrast to Max’s more sombre, uptight self.

Miller incessantly plays up his anti-hero’s transformation. Later in the film, Michael Preston’s settlement leader Pappagallo laments Max’s lone wolf status: “You think you’re the only one who’s suffered? We’re still human beings with dignity. You? You’re out there with the garbage. You’re nothing.” While his words ring with truth, we still feel compelled to sympathise with Max given his unfortunate past. The character’s evolution, or devolution, from a wholesome upholder of law to a lawless, fractured outcast is believable not only in accordance with society’s lack of structure, but more so because both Gibson and Miller consistently afford the character thoughtful consideration.

Marauding car sequences come with extra bite. At one point we see Max and the Gyro Captain peer through a telescope at a grisly runaway attempt. We become part of their distance spying, which adds a sense of realism to an otherwise unrecognisable world. The telescopic view carries the same rawness as modern amateur news reporting. In a way there is more at stake now that the landscape is completely barren; everyone is out for themselves, there is no more justice via the Main Force Patrol and instead barbarity is fought with barbarity. This shift towards more brutal action is a lot like shift in tone from The Terminator to Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

Classic genre tropes are at large, including a classic Mexican standoff that sees an invading army attack the resource-rich town where Max ends up stranded. When guns are unavailable, blunt arrows and skull-cracking headbutts take centre stage, emphasising civilisation’s retreat back towards more archaic times. A finger-slicing boomerang finds its way into a brilliant scene, compounding the unadulterated madness of Miller’s film which, despite his no-nonsense approach, is thankfully still around.

Lord Humungus (obviously) is Max’s new nemesis. He dons a Jason-esque hockey mask and exudes the soothing pitch of an experience cult leader. “There has been too much violence, too much pain… just walk away and there will be an end to the horror,” Humungus decrees to the people defending their refinery. Kjell Nilsson is great to watch, sounding like an enigmatic overseer who has all the answers and looking like a monster who could do serious damage. He adopts Hugh Keays-Byrne’s intellectual Toecutter vibe but matches that with brute strength and sense of imminent physical threat.

One of The Road Warrior’s more abstract moments is a distorted scene which resembles something out of a Cecil B. DeMille horror flick: a loud brassy score with shots overlapping one another as enemy characters wail and gesture violently. There are aesthetic echoes of Charlton Heston’s Moses presenting the stone tablet to his followers in The Ten Commandments, oddly. Here, Humungus appears to take on the mantra of Hades, vehemently spouting threats as he stands before what appears to be the fiery pits of hell. It’s a bizarre scene, but the film’s genuine self-awareness justifies its inclusion.

Since release, The Road Warrior’s many admirers have catapulted the film into cult status. It is more aloof and less predictable than Mad Max. But it also favours simplicity in the right areas, affording more time for the development of its central character who is now a very different person. Just as Max has changed through circumstance, the world has changed with him. The symmetry is admirable, if expected. The execution is expectedly excellent.

Mad Max The Road Warrior - Max

Images credit: IMP Awards

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros.

Mad Max (1979)

★★★★

Mad Max PosterDirector: George Miller

Release Date: December 10th, 1979 (UK)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science fiction

Starring: Mel Gibson

Mad Max roars into life in the midst of an increasingly tumultuous car chase. Nightrider, a crazed gang member, is on the run from a group of police officers seeking justice for the murder of one of their own. The cops — or Main Force Patrol (MFP) — aren’t the most skilled highway cruisers, bumbling in nature and even more so in execution. All except one. Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), the definition of poise, is the key player in a rather lousy team. We only see his grazed cowboy boots and chiselled chin to start with.

Max enters the vehicular fray, rampaging down an otherwise barren motorway — George Miller took inspiration from the 1973 Australian oil crisis, and this certainly looks like a region in need of basic resources. The director acknowledges the absurdity in what is occurring, and in what is set to occur, by introducing a plethora of slapstick obstacles: a stranded caravan, a barrage of road works, and a road-crossing baby. The pursuers crash, but the maniacal Nightrider cackles his way past each distraction in his “fuel-injected suicide machine”. Of course, Nightrider eventually crumbles at the sight of cool Max. He should have frenzied at dusk instead.

The screenplay never really deviates from the antics relayed above. It turns out Nightrider was part of The Acolytes, a motorcycle gang cut from the same cloth as Alex and his droogs. Their ultraviolence really is ultra-violent; from smashing up towns to off-camera rape to fiery murder, The Acolytes are a bad bunch. In line with Miller’s preferred tone there’s also an unconventional aura to the troupe, whose members would rather roly-poly back to their vehicles than walk.

Droogs they may be but unlike Kubrick, who liked to slow events down to a thoughtful meander, Miller takes an all over the place approach, with David Eggby’s cinematography zipping around and refusing to linger. This unholstered style greatly heightens the film’s prevailing intensity. The closest we get to an extended shot is during car chase scenes, at least when vehicles aren’t flipping on their head or exploding into pieces.

An apt description of the film might be ‘western on motorcycles’. But instead of galloping into town, characters rev. Said towns are often dusty, laid back communities where every day is Sunday. We are privy to a world where civilisation is in the process of falling, where chaos is a wrongdoer’s prime weapon and justice is in tatters (the latter, visually represented by the worn-out Halls of Justice sign). Trial attendance is low thus criminals walk free, devoid of lawful comeuppance, leaving only one form of comeuppance left to dish out. It doesn’t resemble the dystopian landscapes prominent in modern outings such as The Hunger Games or Oblivion, but instead a future that still bears familiarity, in that sense more aligned with a Blade Runner.

Droves of faceless characters are the product of a relentless mindset, and as such it can be difficult to clearly distinguish who stands on which side and why. Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), leader of The Acolytes and definite villain, is how you would imagine Russell Brand if Russell Brand was the leader of a post-apocalyptic motorcycle gang: speaker of intellectual gibberish; British accent; hair all over the place; wearing a lot of leather. Keays-Bryne successfully balances oddness with menace and is particularly effective when conversing. “That man is Cundalini and Cundalini wants his hand back,” is one of his numerous uncouth and brilliantly delivered lines. Every time he appears on screen the film instantly spruces up. Toecutter is a bit like Heath Ledger’s Joker in that sense — irresistible to watch, utterly deranged yet eternally composed.

Gibson’s Max isn’t a hard-nosed or rugged vigilante, but in fact baby-faced and emotive. He spends his evenings listening to soothing saxophone melodies and having his hair washed by his wife Jessie (Joanne Samuel). At one point the job becomes too much for him and he opts to spend more time with his family, which means lying in wheat fields and Tarzan-ing into springs. But Max is “a winner”, he’s “on the top shelf” according to his MFP overseer, Captain Fifi (Fifi in name only), portrayed solidly by Roger Ward.

This overly righteous version of Max works because it highlights the character’s purity in a bad world, and underscores the endpoint of his arc. Miller’s decision to purposefully emphasise the familial side of Max — the side pre-Mad — before entering into the final act is a simple-yet-effective ploy that makes us sympathise with greater heft.

Miller spreads his OTT prerogative across all aspects of the story, not stopping short simply at action sequences. Corny music plays over loved-up scenes between Max and Jessie. Brassy cacophonies of sound are present during dramatic moments too — for example, a gruesome hospital bed scene. Elsewhere the pillaging score is constant and somewhat overdone but, again, is a key part of the director’s ethos.

A middling lull is unfortunate, where contrivance seeps into the narrative (somehow Max and The Acolytes keep wheeling into each other) however proceedings soon pick up again and build to a gratifying conclusion. This isn’t Mad Max yet, not the iconic manifestation of the character as moviegoers know him, but it’s a superbly crafted worldbuilder.

Mad Max - Max

Images credit: IMP Awards

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

★★★★★

Mad Max Fury Road PosterDirector: George Miller

Release Day: May 14th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science fiction

Starring: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult

Vehicles have always played a huge part in the Maxverse and veteran director George Miller decides to hammer this point home in Mad Max: Fury Road. Various characters are seen to cherish steering wheels, hauling them around in the same way Bruce Spence’s Gyro Captain clung onto a spoon in Mad Max 2. His spoon could pick at leftover tinned food, a novelty apparently long gone. Small-scale scavenging is out. This is a world dominated by distance, by grandeur, by gasoline. The spoon has become the steering wheel.

Or, maybe such pensiveness doesn’t exist within these characters. Maybe they just love to thunder across the desert. Maybe they can’t wait to get on the road. Miller certainly can’t.

After a brief prologue from Max explaining his post-apocalyptic mantra (“A man reduced to a single instinct: survive”) we hurtle into a half hour opening sequence that obliterates anything remotely resembling action we might have seen in previous films. These thirty minutes of total carnage, of collapsed worldbuilding, shoot past in an aluminium whirlwind, leaving your eyes watering and heart bellowing. It’s almost as if Miller has been waiting three decades to get something off his chest.

The plot is simple but by no means inadequate: Max (Tom Hardy) finds himself in an unlikely partnership alongside Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) as the pair attempt to evade the monarchical clutches of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a slave-keeping cultish leader. The destination, or “Green Place”, dreamt up by the formerly shackled wives of Joe, is unknown. It is more or less a mystery, the characters unable to shed much light and, as such, we are left in the dark. This doesn’t matter, the journey does.

The best thing, unquestionably, about the franchise has always been Miller’s ingenious and realistic-looking action sequences. They are here in abundance, bearing the hallmarks of even greater ingenuity and somehow appearing just as authentic. Oil trucks are christened “War Rigs” and subsequently live up to the name. Amazingly, the majority of effects are practical, in line with the director’s penchant for traditional movie-making. As such, praise should be heaped upon the many stunt performers whose death-defying efforts play a key role in raising the stakes.

We are constantly reminded of the urgency facing Max, Furiosa and company: as the camera pans back towards the chasing pack, all we can see is an ominous mirage, a giant metallic silhouette in the distance. The threat is real and incoming, energised by a booming score that carries more than a hint of Brian May’s earlier franchise work. Other throwbacks to past films include: Master-Blaster-esque siblings (one of whom is former WWE wrestler Nathan Jones), and the occasional lower front bumper camera shot. There’s even that familiar feeling of disorientation, where the screen is so rammed full of carnage that deciphering who is fighting who becomes a task.

Of course, absurdity is tossed around like a hot potato. From vehicles in the form of mechanical hedgehogs, to an electric guitarist who looks like a cross between The Silence from Doctor Who and Klaus Kinski’s Nosferatu, Miller has all bases covered. This includes humour: “Of all the legs, you had to shoot the one that was attached to his favourite”. Nicholas Hoult’s Nux is the ideal amalgamation of odd and funny, his obsession with the Gates of Valhalla both amusing and touching. Hoult absolutely throws himself at the role, which is arguably the best of his career.

Probably for the first time, Max truly is mad. He’s no more than a splash of white body paint away from being one of Joe’s skeletal followers, growling incoherently and shifting his gun aim maniacally. Hardy sometimes deviates verbally back into Bane-mode, but he is mighty impressive as the iconic loner. The Welshman is gruff, a far cry from Mel Gibson’s portrayal in the inaugural instalment and possibly more interesting too.

Hugh Keays-Byrne, the man behind Gibson’s nemesis in Mad Max, returns as new villain Immortan Joe. Perhaps it is not by coincidence that Joe’s world-weary appearance could very well be that of Toecutter after toiling for decades in the scorching desert. Imagine the sunburn? “Do not, my friends, become addicted to water,” Joe preaches to the subservient crowds upon affording them momentary respite from thirst. His voice croaks like the Uruk-hai from The Lord of the Rings, and he is almost as scary too.

In a film overflowing with eccentric and domineering characters, Imperator Furiosa is two things: a warrior and a realist. She handles herself in battle while aiding the escape of five enslaved wives, who are also each pretty handy when it comes to fighting and smarts (and who all somehow manage to keep their white clothing miraculously clean). Rosie Huntington-Whiteley is especially good, steely and determined, as Joe’s pregnant prized possession. The women drive this movie; Max is along for the ride through coincidence, but it is the female characters who initiate the chase because they value life.

“Out here everything hurts,” Furiosa states bluntly. Crucially, Theron does not play her as totally wound up — she is reasonable, and willing to work in a team because it is the right course of action. As a result, the relationship between her, Max and the rest of their ragtag band imbues believability. Some might accuse these characters of being too cordial too soon. They are all survivors though, in a harsh world, with a common enemy.

Without trying to sound overly hyperbolic, Mad Max has hit a new stratosphere. You can just about see Beyond Thunderdome — a perfectly fine outing, by the way — squirming in the corner. The direction, how the film has been pieced meticulously together only to then be blown apart, is all a work of art (in many other genres this would likely demand awards recognition). John Seale’s cinematography is wonderful — a night assault has the dreading echo and gloomy manifestation of something straight from Saving Private Ryan.

A Furiosa moment towards the end should, in time, cement its place in action movie lore alongside the likes of “Yippee-ki-yay motherfucker” and “Hasta-la-vista baby”. This is seminal cinema. The 80s had Die Hard. The 90s, Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Give it 20 years and we’ll be talking about Mad Max: Fury Road as the go-to action jaunt of the early 21st century.

Mad Max Fury Road - Hardy and Theron

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros. Pictures