This week’s double feature is one that really works together for obvious reasons. While they are the second and third parts of the Mad Max trilogy, these two films both take place after the apocalyptic collapse of society and thrust Max into battles for survival in the savage wasteland the Australian Outback has become and feature him regaining his humanity as opposed to losing it to the tragic events of the first film.
THE ROAD WARRIOR aka MAD MAX 2 (1981)
Road Warrior is simply an action classic and one of my all time favorite movies. It still holds up today even after over 30 years and is still better then most of the CGI filled action flicks that get churned out today. I was stunned upon leaving the theater after first seeing it at the Stanley Warner in Paramus, N.J. in 1981 and the film still has it’s magic when I watch it all these years later.
The film is set years after the events of 1979’s Mad Max and takes place after an apocalyptic collapse of society triggered by the drying up of fuel sources and the resulting panic. It follows ex-cop Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), who we last saw avenging the murder of his wife and child against a savage biker gang, and now wanders the wasteland fighting to survive amidst the scavengers, a once loving family man transformed into a ruthless survivor who looks out only for himself. Max stumbles across a small desert community that is manufacturing fuel but, is also battling a large gang of thugs who want to take the gas and slaughter all those inside. Max’s need for fuel leads him to align himself with the embattled village but, is it something more that makes him risk his life as the villagers make a desperate attempt to escape the ‘vermin on machines’ and find a better place to start a new life.
The Road Warrior is simply a great movie. One of the greatest action films ever made, the film that turned Gibson into a star and launched dozens of cheap imitations and still inspires filmmakers today (I recommend Neil Marshall’s outrageously fun homage Doomsday). George Miller creates a world that is an apocalyptic Sergio Leone western in S & M gear and features some of the most furious action/chase scenes ever committed to film. He populates this world with a cast of eccentric characters from the bizarre and whimsical Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence) to the equally surreal gang leader Lord Humungus (Kjell Nilsson) and his mohawked henchman Wes (Vernon Wells). But, beneath all the leather and carnage the film also has a heart and a soul and that’s what sets it apart. Ultimately it is about clinging to and regaining one’s humanity in the face of adversity. Not only is Max rediscovering he has a heart underneath the bodies of all those he has killed and all that he has lost but, civilization as well is struggling to regain what’s been lost against those who would take advantage of it’s ruin. Amidst the bone-crushing action and blood-spattering violence there is a message of hope and that is really what makes this film so special and gives it so much substance. And director Miller mixes in his message perfectly with the action, offsetting the brutality with a quirky sense of humor so, the bleak nature of the film never wears you down. A perfect blend of elements if there ever was one. Miller also gives the film a look that would make Leone and Kurosawa proud and Dean Selmer’s cinematography brings it to life along with Norma Moriceau’s inventive costume design and, of course, all the amazing stunt work and action choreography. Wrap that up in Brian May’s pulse pounding score and you have a cinematic experience that is just as effective today as it was over 30 years ago. Miller co-wrote the script with Terry Hayes and Brian Hannant and the film was produced by Miller’s friend and Mad Max producer Byron Kennedy, who would tragically be killed 2 years later in a helicopter crash.
The cast really are perfect, especially for bringing such colorful and strange characters to life. Gibson is both samurai and gunslinger as the iconic Max, portraying a man who is deadly, cunning but, still has a heart buried deep down that enables him to become a hero when there are those in need. His actions may seem selfish at first but, the cop and family man is still in there needing a good reason to re-emerge. Bruce Spence is a delight as the goofy Gyro Captain, a bizarre individual who flies a gyro copter over the vicious inhabitants of the wasteland and survives by his wits and the help of his pet snakes. A truly endearing and memorable character. Nilsson and Wells create formidable villains becoming the signature template for all the bad guys in practically every post apocalyptic action rip-off that arose after this became a sensation. They are both oddballs and nut jobs but, very lethal characters with Wells’ Wes practically stealing the show as the loose cannon, psychotic henchman. We also have Michael Preston who is a noble leader as the in-over-his-head Pappagallo, a man who believes civilization is not lost and plans to start again. Young Emil Minty is a hoot as the Feral Child, a stray dog of a little boy who communicates in growls and is quite resourceful and scrappy in a fight and Virginia Hey is noble and strong as the simply named Warrior Woman, who fights just as hard as any man. There are many other supporting players and they all do well in establishing personalities for their offbeat characters. An almost perfect cast for a film masterpiece.
What else can I say. This film is a masterpiece of action and storytelling and is one of the most influential films of it’s time. It is one of my all time favorites and a film that is just as effective today as it was in 1981. It is a clear example that action movies can have a story and a soul and still deliver mind blowing sequences without a lick of CGI. Often imitated but, never equaled. A classic in every sense of the word.
4 warriors of the wasteland!
MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME (1985)
Second sequel to Mad Max brings a much lighter tone and a surprisingly tame PG-13 rating when compared to the brutal violence that earned a hard R rating for the previous films. As this film involves a tribe of wayward children, that isn’t too hard to understand, though was a bit hard to swallow for hardcore Mad Max fans. But, the story does make sense as the film brings Max a step closer to regaining his humanity and the world is getting closer to regaining it’s civility… though there still are some obstacles.
Set about a decade after The Road Warrior, the film picks up with wandering nomad Max (Mel Gibson) having his caravan stolen out from under him by the pilot Jedediah (Bruce Spence) and his pursuit leading him to a city in the desert called Bartertown where barter and trade is the way of life and energy is supplied by methane gas made by pig poop. To get his belongings back, Max gets in the middle of a power struggle between ruling matriarch Auntie (Tina Turner) and the duo known as Master Blaster (Angelo Rossitto as the diminutive genius Master and Paul Larsson as the muscle, Blaster) who provide Bartertown with it’s electricity. Max’s task to kill Blaster in the gladiatorial Thunderdome goes awry and he is expelled into the desert to die. But, there he meets a tribe of lost children who mistake him for “Captain Walker”, the pilot of a crashed plane they prophesied to take them to “Tomorrow-morrow Land” a paradise far away. And when fate leads these kids back to Bartertown, Max once again finds himself facing Auntie and her army of thugs. Now he must somehow get these kids to safe place while keeping a vengeful Auntie from taking his head.
I’ll admit I was initially disappointed with a much lighter tone for the third Mad Max film… there is still plenty of action, just not the bone crunching kind… but, once I got past that, I realized that it makes sense as this is about the further regaining of humanity and the children represent a fresh start. Post Road Warrior, Max’s path back to being more humane is further along and while he is still dangerous, he is also more compassionate then when we last saw him. The film’s slightly fairy tale-ish story also makes sense as the last film saw a world that was more of a nightmare… a nightmare the world is slowly waking up from with new hope and signs of a return to order. The film also accents this with a slightly broader sense of humor and little or no actual bloodletting. George Miller, who again co-wrote with Terry Hayes, mirrors the world’s healing in the character of Max as the former husband and father becomes slowly protective of this group of orphans and comes to risk life and limb to see them safe. The Max we saw at the beginning of Road Warrior may not have done so unless it directly benefitted him. Over the course of the three films Miller has taken Max from good man to killer and from killer to savior, and that is what makes this trilogy work so well as a whole, as well as, individually, as each film differs distinctly from the last and yet they all fit together. Thunderdome has a brighter, more colorful look too, as it is a brighter film and Dean Selmer returns to brilliantly photograph it, recreating the Leone-esque landscapes of the previous films but, with stronger hues and deeper colors to illustrated this is a somewhat better world then the one we last saw Max in. The music score by Maurice Jarre is also fuller and far less savage sounding as Brian May’s perfectly fitting score in the last installment. Unlike the previous films, this film was co-directed by George Ogilvie but, the result is seamless.
The cast is again excellent with Gibson in top form as Max. He really convey’s the character’s slow growth back to a compassionate human being and gives us a perfect lone gun/samurai type that has made this character iconic. Tina Turner surprises with a nice over the top Auntie. She is having fun with the role and it shows and she also provides two strong songs for the soundtrack. Rocker Angry Anderson brings piss and vinegar as well as a touch of comic relief as Auntie’s lead henchmen who is constantly thwarted and embarrassed by Max and the kids. Rossitto makes Master both arrogant, when with the massive Blaster, and sympathetic when he is without his muscle and at Auntie’s mercy. Paul Larsson is imposing as Blaster but, has no dialog but, still is an effective presence. And rounding out the main cast is Helen Buday, who is strong and determined as the leader of the children’s tribe, Savannah and Bruce Spence again plays another eccentric pilot in his oddball Jedediah. The supporting characters are equally colorful and effective as always in these movies and many, like Pig Killer (Robert Grubb), are as memorable as the main cast.
So, while it’s not quite the masterpiece that is it’s predecessor and the lighter tone and more audience friendly action may be a bit off-putting for hardcore fans of The Road Warrior, this sequel is still highly entertaining and does fit in with the series very well. An excellent cast creates another assortment of memorable characters and Miller and Gibson successfully take Max on the next step in his journey to rediscovering the man he once was. There is also plenty of action to punctuate the story and a couple of now classic Tina Turner tunes as a bonus. A really good movie and a fitting entry in a classic trilogy.
3 and 1/2 warriors of the wasteland!
AND HERE IS A BONUS MUSIC VIDEO FROM THE THUNDERDOME SOUNDTRACK!…