Weekend Retrospective - Wasteland

MAD MAX 1979 - 1985

I remember a time of chaos.
Ruined dreams. This wasted land. 
But most of all, I remember the Road Warrior

Mad Max, what a title. It's punchy with just enough alliteration to make you stop and look. But what of the original trilogy itself? Beyond the status it holds as a quirky '80s action series that started a thousand copycats and changed everyone's idea of what transport in the future could be like, what are the films themselves really like? People remember all the boomerangs and that hockey mask wearing villain. They remember that two men enter and one man leaves. And to think George Miller could have been a doctor instead of the creator of a pop culture favourite. But let's take a look at all of this craziness and see why certain things are still stuck in everyone's imagination years later.

George Miller's original biker gangs thriller come dystopia chase movie is a curious piece of work. The well staged car crashes are here, the oddly charismatic psychos are entertaining, and the downbeat revenge notes are eventually played out. The opening is a great piece of independent vehicular action featuring dangerous looking stunts and a bad guy called the Night Rider declaring that he's a 'fuel-injected-suicide-machine'. It hits your right in the chops and delivers the classic eye popping crash gag that would appear later in the other films in one guise or another.

But one the whole just as a film it's not a tightly wound story. The pieces are here, but in general it's a little baggy, and a bit sloppy. It has a kind of relaxed pacing during the non-action sequences that make it feel too relaxed considering the potentially pre-apocalyptic nature of the story. There's a certain amount of undeniable cult movie charm about the original Mad Max which is still enjoyable. The scenery chewing is fun, and all the sequences involving bikers and police interceptors are slick. But there a few things which make it less than great, highlighting why it's not remembered clearly by people - if they watched it at all before seeing part two.

The music for once thing is oddly out of place in a number of scenes. The rousing chords and romantic themes by composer Brian May (no not that one) feel as if they have been taken from another soundtrack in some cases. You'd be forgiven for thinking it's stock music. It clashes with the brutal tone of the story which involves so much darkness. While it kind of matches the world we see as average people go about their usual business, the rise in gang activity is still a worrying sight that could have been accompanied by something more menacing.

There are of course a few elements hinting at a society on the verge of breaking down, but it's vague and ill-defined. Day to day life is going on in many places, business are open and Max (Mel Gibson) takes a holiday at one stage to relax. The subtle hints of a fascistic police force using leather clad enforcers and souped-up day-glow vehicles are here. But they still have to arrest people and deal with outraged lawyers and red tape. They even talk about doing paperwork.

On the whole it's all a little too green and pleasant and Max is an average, undefined character who doesn't event take centre stage until half way through. It's still likeable and there are memorable moments like the comic style editing and the eccentric gang leader Toe Cutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne). But it tends to drag in places with some of the material feeling like it could have been trimmed so it can all moved on to the final scenes of vengeance and fiery death. The film makers were still finding their way but they'd get there soon enough, and it would all come along in leaps and bounds.

*  *  *  *  *

If the original opened with a good slap to the face, the first sequel opens with a cannon blast. After a short but sweet mythology building narration, Max's classic V8 Interceptor roars onto the screen in new found wide screen glory. The monochrome news reel footage is blown away by the spectacle of the machine in action, setting the style and tone for what is to come. Mad Max 2 (aka The Road Warrior) has an immediate new level of confidence. It's brasher, louder and more vibrant. It's also more of a Western, or a throw back to lone wanderer stories like Yojimbo. The police work clichés and family melodrama have been stripped away so it can focus on wasteland survival.

The reasons that the second film had a such a lasting impact on pop culture are very apparent with just a few minutes. The make shift vehicles, the barren landscape, all those oddball raider outfits and mohawks; the influences can be found every time you see a post apocalyptic story in any medium from film to videogames. The plot itself may be overly simplistic but the idea that this is just "a day in the life" works beautifully. It's one random adventure during the travels of a scavenger who could be pushed into selfishness or heroism depending on the circumstances.

Of course the popularity of this instalment also comes down to two main ingredients - the colourful characters and the hair raising death and destruction of the car chases. Between the boomerang throwing Feral Kid, Bruce Spence's twitchy Gyro Captain and the strangely Scandinavian villain 'The Humongous' the screen is never without a certain level of intrigue and entertainment value because of this assortment of caricatures. The villain in particular stands out because of his black emotionless shark eyes and his huge biceps contrasting with his calm speech giving skills. All the despotic body language helps of course, as do his minions who revere him as 'the Ayatollah of rock and rollah'. With no real back story or build up, all of this stuff just kind of of exists in a pre-arranged world. Which mean its easy to go along with it all in anticipation of what will happen next.

Mel Gibson in the title role is far better this time around as a tired, cynical anti hero. He's visibly worn down, and a much better fit the bike leathers which have become ragged with time. When the action set pieces come along you're along for the ride, no questions asked. It helps that they're all pretty nail biting thanks to some intricate camera work and plenty of real stunts, some which are as dangerous as the look. The level of carnage is eye watering as vehicles are destroyed and stunt performers spin through the air. It's all pushed to new extremes and new heights, and even Brian May (no not that one) puts in a solid musical score to accompany the mayhem, adding rhythm and tension. Everything works, and it thunders along like the fuel tanker at the centre of these events. It's a taught, relentless and pitch perfect chase movie. Unlike the third entry in this series...

*  *  *  *  * 

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome was intended to be a stand alone film, an original Lord of the Flies type story aimed at children. Nobody needed to be thrown under the wheels of a speeding truck, and we could all relax. However it was not to be, there were changes to the idea and there was tragedy as George Miller's producer and friend Byron Kennedy passed away. So when things go off the rails and the plot begins to follow a group of "lost boys" style kids, there's a few reasons it all feels a bit off. The makers took parts of their first idea decided to combine it with a plot about Max. A tale where he comes out of the wasteland to find a town ran by... Tina Turner.

It's a really odd film even when you know what's coming. It just feels messy and inconsistent. It's a big departure from the slick, back to basics approach in part two. It's all so awkward despite the obvious budget increase and some imaginative ideas. None of the elements feel like they belong in the world that was established, it veers into fantasy instead of a twisted vision of a possible future. Even the first act set in 'Barter Town' is way too busy, with a focus on big crowd scenes and detailed costumes rather than just getting the story told. There are mad cap ideas about methane fuel being farmed from pigs, and there's a dwarf overlord riding about on a muscle bound servant. It pushes things too far outside the established tone.

As a results it comes across as something from another genre entirely, the sort of thing you'd expect from a kids adventure story made in this era. When they actually get to the lost valley it goes to pieces entirely as (normal healthy) children start talking about a nuclear holocaust and cave paintings. The subtle references to the decline of society hinted at in that succinct Road Warrior monologue are forgotten. Even the apocalypse is retconned, since in the previous film it was brought about by wars over more mundane needs such as water and gasoline. Eventually things go off the deep end completely when a race involving a steam train begins. It's really only worth a look if you have serious patience.

Decades later the promise of a new reboot actually bore fruit as the release of Fury Road came and went. It's interesting to consider that this was such a worry at the time. The remaining creators of the series were older and wiser, which sometimes has an adverse effect on the resulting action movies. They needed to be raw, vital and gritty, it's what made them work. However certain elements were at least taken back to 1981 with proper physical effects and a simpler, vehicle chase style plot. Everything else was ramped up to new extremes that a lot of viewers didn't even knew they needed until it arrived. It might have lost a few of its teeth and the results were brighter and less gory. But at least they didn't give us any more of Master and Blaster...

*  *  *  *  * 

Mad Max   3/5
Mad Max 2   4/5
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome   2/5