Thursday, September 1, 2016

Mad Max Series (1979-2015)

Inspired by both my great love for the recent Mad Max: Fury Road and the fact that I had never seen the original Mad Max, I was taken by the urge to go back and watch all four films in the series again. Here's how I felt about them, all directed by George Miller:

Mad Max (1979)

My full review is here. This movie was one of the finest examples of brilliantly minimalist world-building, and it introduces the iconic Max Rockatansky, who is as human as he has ever been in the series. Gritty, raw, and not exactly the prettiest of films, but a ground-breaker nonetheless.

The Road Warrior (1982)

An amazing step forward from the already-impressive first film. With a significantly larger budget (though still puny by modern action movie standards), George Miller and his team tell a small-scale action story set within an evokative, apocalyptic world.

The story picks up an uncertain amount of time after the events in Mad Max. Max is drifting through the blasted wasteland that has become the world, due to nuclear war springing from conflicts over oil. Max drives along with his dog, scavenging for food, weapons, and the most precious commodity currently on the planet - petroleum. After thwarting an attempt to have his vehicle stolen by a fellow drifter who pilots a gyro-copter, the two come across a compound in the middle of the desert. The compound is built around a functioning oil derrick and is maintained and defended by a relatively peaceful group. However, they are under siege from a savage road gang led by The Humongous, a muscle-bound mutant who wants the  compound's oil for his gang's vehicles of war.

According to the movie notes, The Road Warrior was written after Miller had discovered the works of Joseph Campbell on the history of human stories, myths, and hero construction. This is clear when one sees how Max's story plays out in this movie as opposed to the first film. In Mad Max, the character was much more human and empathetic. In The Road Warrior, he follows the more abstract arc of the reluctant hero, as also exemplified in Leone's Man With no Name series or its antecedent Kurosawa samurai movies like Yojimbo. Max tries desperately not to care enough to help the compound defenders, and there is some solid drama that arises from his struggle.

The Road Warrior was when Miller's talent as an action director truly hit you with 300 horsepower. It could be seen in the first movie, but with greater financial resources for this second, it was abundantly clear that he is a master of the high-speed action chase. I'm usually fairly apathetic about such chases in movies, but I find Miller's coordination, fight choreography, and editing captivating. He would bring this to a completely different level with the much more recent Fury Road, but it was masterfully done in this much earlier effort.

The Humongous, a frighteningly imposing and intelligent
adversary for Max and the keepers of the compound.
In a more general sense, there are so many wonderful details to be detected or inferred from the world that Miller created here. This was present in Mad Max, but there are so many more eye-catching, imaginative additions in The Road Warrior. The vehicles are more creatively assembled into machines of war. The survivor's costumes are distinctive and memorable. The Humongous, imposing physical specimen that he is, has an eerie intelligence and articulateness. There are so many things that grab the attention and also raise fascinating questions about how exactly the world and these characters got to the states in which we see them. The answers would spoil the fun of imagining what they are, and I greatly appreciate this.

Modern action movie fans might balk at how stark and relatively simple much of The Road Warrior seems by the standards set in the last two decades. But this would be a mistake. This movie is an all-time great, and it holds up extremely well, just as I expect it to for many, many years to come.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)

A curious viewing experience, but one which ultimately felt exactly how I had expected.

I estimate that, between 1985 and 1989, I probably saw this movie on TV no fewer than 10 times. Being between 10 and 14 years old during those viewings, any movie watched so often is bound to leave an indelible impression on me. When that movie features some of the most unique, bizarre, and eye-catching visuals you are likely to see, then it becomes unforgettable. This is definitely the case between Beyond Thunderdome and me, for better or worse.

As a refresher for those who have not seen the movie ever or in a long time, the story on Max Rockatansky's journey into, out of, back into, and back out of the post-apolcalyptic Bartertown. Bartertown is a small way-station city of sorts, where various survivors and scavengers gather to trade their goods and services. After Max arrives to track down a thief who stole his camels and other goods, he finds himself face-to-face with Auntie Entity (Tina Turner), founder of Bartertown. Auntie offers to procure and return all of Max's stolen goods in exchange for his disposing of her prime rival, Master Blaster. Things end up going right for Auntie but not for Max, who gets exiled into the surrounding wastelands. He is found and rescued by an enclave of children ranging from newborns to late-teens, all of who believe Max to be a prophesied savior. After a few bouts of odd confusion and attempted escape, Max has to rescue a handful of the children from Bartertown while also taking the fallen Master to use his smarts to help them rebuild a civilization. Their escape leads to a massive chase across the desert, with Max and the kids riding in a train, with Auntie and her soldiers pursuing them in various high-powered vehicles of war.

It had easily been over 25 years since I had watched this movie, and yet I remembered a surprising number of details. This speaks to the impressive visuals, costumes, sets, and situations in the film. Even now, three decades later, references to Thunderdome are understood by many people. Roger Ebert was right when he opined that the Max versus Blaster fight sequence in Thunderdome was one of the most innovative executions of movie fighting in several decades. That fight is still a really entertaining watch.

Max and some of the rebel kids, perhaps a misguided attempt
to appeal to slightly younger viewers at the time. Their
presence waters down much of the power in the rest of the film.
Unfortunately, that fight is one of the few things that still holds up well in the movie. The first act is still great. Max's approach into Bartertown, our learning just what it is and how it functions, and the grand fight are as thrilling and engaging as any adventure movie, old or new. But then come the children. In ways that evoked some of the sillier, sappier elements of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom or even Return of the Jedi (both released within the two years before Thunderdome), this third Mad Max movie seemed to target a slightly younger audience. It feels even stranger after the far stronger, far grittier first 30 minutes of the movie. The entire storyline with the kids drags on a bit, and it only picks up once the chase finale kicks in. Of course, the chase is phenomenal, as George Miller simply does not do road chases that are anything less than amazing. But it only goes so far in erasing the half hour of drudgery preceding it.

While I'm picking on the kids, I'm not sure who was responsible for writing their odd, slang-infested dialect, but I found it an utter nuisance. Everything about the world of this film suggests that the Juves have been on their own for no more than ten or maybe fifteen years. Yet in that time, they seem to have developed an intricate, singular culture, complete with their own creation myths, rituals, and a bizarre dialect. Maybe it's just my knowledge of basic anthropology, but it simply doesn't wash. Rather, it merely comes off as contrived and artificial.

I can't help but feel like Thunderdome was a missed opportunity that was almost taken properly. The bookends of the movie are up to the standards set by the first two films, but the entire thing is bogged down by its middle section. It's still worth watching if you haven't seen it in a while, as it's only about 105 minutes long, but I can't help but feel very lucky that this is not how the series ended. Thanks to...

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

The most metal movie ever. Full review here. It was awesome then. It is awesome now. It will eternally be awesome.

Final Thoughts: The Max series is a unique animal in so many ways. The original concept was a total game-changer, with the sequel only building on its potential. While the third movie saw a dip in consistent quality, I hardly expected it to signal a 30-year departure from the series.

And what other film series has had a 30-year hiatus, only to come back with the same director to make a film that completely blows away viewers all over the world? I can't think of one. It's only been after Fury Road that I realized that I had never given George Miller enough attention or credit as a film genius. I can hardly contain my enthusiasm about the planned sequel to Fury Road, but I also plan to track down the other Miller films which I haven't seen (like Babe, of all movies).