27 March 2010

The Mad Max Trilogy

Mad Max (1979)
Directed by George Miller. Starring Mel Gibson, Steve Bisley, Joanne Samuel, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Tim Burns, Roger Ward, Geoff Parry.

The Road Warrior / Mad Max 2 (1981)
Directed by George Miller. Starring Mel Gibson, Michael Preston, Bruce Spence, Vernon Wells, Kjell Nilsson, Virginia Hey, Max Phipps, Emil Minty.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) (Longer Review)
Directed by George Miller and George Ogilvie. Starring Mel Gibson, Tina Turner, Bruce Spence, Frank Thring, Angelo Rossitto, Robert Grubb, Helen Buday.

I’ve idolized the Mad Max films (the first two, anyway) for years, but last night was the first opportunity I’ve ever had to watch all three of them in a row in a movie theater. Any triple-feature is a trippy experience—a weird fatigue and exhilaration sets in around the last movie—but when dealing with the classic Aussie trilogy of motor-mayhem and post-apocalyptic weirdness, it’s a helluva a head-trip.

On top of the blunt effect of all three movies, I had the strange experience of walking out of the Egyptian Theater and right into downtown Hollywood at 1 o’clock on Saturday morning. It was like I left the movies and accidentally walked right back into them. Tina Turner’s Bartertown isn’t so strange as Hollywood and Highland on the weekend nights.

The three Mad Max films are vastly different beasts, which is one of the reasons they make such a fascinating trilogy. Seeing them in close proximity makes the sharp dividing lines between them all the clearer. It started with a low-budget biker flick, and somehow turned into Spielbergian fantasy six years later. Let’s drive along this 293-minute road trip into the bleak future. . . .

The original Mad Max is not a genuine post-apocalyptic film at all, but rather a dystopian one. Actually, it’s really a biker/revenge exploitation flick with a slight futuristic element. People in this world still live in homes, have jobs, watch television news, go to bars, take vacations, etc. Civilization exists, but entropy has started to set in and the infrastructure is getting more anarchic, principally on the roads, where motorcycle gangs are becoming dominant. (“On the roads, it was a white-line nightmare,” the narrator of The Road Warrior tells us. It’s not quite that bad in the original movie; the budget wouldn’t permit it.) The later films would erase this, and while I was watching Max flip around on a bungee cord fighting an armored giant with a chainsaw in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome at the end of the night, it seemed crazy to think that a few hours previous Max was taking his wife and son on a beach trip in the family station wagon. This shows what a transformation the series underwent, and that the films might as well take palce in different universes.

Even for a low-budget exploitation movie, Mad Max was made on the pretty darn cheap: $350,000 raised independently by director George Miller (a former physician) and producer Byron Kennedy. Cars were repainted multiple times so they could be reused, often sent before the cameras with wet paint. Miller wrecked his own van in a stunt instead of buying one. Except for Max, the actors had to wear vinyl as a substitute for leather. Approximately 20% of the scripted action never got shot as the money ran out. Kennedy and Miller edited and did post-production on the film from Kennedy’s house. But they were rewarded with the highest-grossing Australian film up to that time, a worldwide smash and arguably the most famous biker flick ever made. Yes, more famous than The Wild One and even Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.

And it all looks reasonably good considering what it had to go through to get made. Mad Max still feels like a grindhouse flick, but I can’t hold that against it—that’s what it is. But it’s a great example of the genre, with the SF catalyst helping to gear it up into the classic category. Its biggest problem is that the next film is even better—an ultra classic.

Mad Max does have a few inherent problems, one of which is the pacing. After the thrilling opening, where the Main Force Patrol pursues the fanatical “Nightrider” and concludes with the first reveal of Max, the movie slows down while it introduces Max’s domestic life and work troubles, and then segues into the crazy gang of bikers under the Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) that will propel the story. The movie builds up to a second peak with the death of Goose (Steve Bisley), Max’s partner on the force. This is one of the best put-together scenes, with wonderful blacktop-level camera work. But Goose’s death doesn’t throw Max into vengeance, but onto vacation. This relaxing at the beach comprises the slowest section of the film and it comes at the wrong time. Once Max’s wife Jessie (Joanne Samuel) and infant son gets chopped down by Toecutter and Co., the film at last grabs the vengeance reins and shoots into the exciting climax where Max takes the suckers down. These final fifteen minutes are what knock the movie over the top—the audience last night applauded as Max marched into the MFP garage and then came charging out in the murderous black V8 Interceptor.

Gibson would get better in the role, but at only age twenty-one he already shows great screen presence. The film is packed with extremely odd characters, which makes Gibson’s acting as the straight-laced figure that much tougher. The collection of trained Shakespearean actors and actual bikers who compose Toecutter’s crew make up one odd assortment of nutty guys. Keays-Byrne gives the most memorable turn in the film as the exuberantly theatrical Toecutter (his delivery of the line, “I hate guns!” is a classic moment). Tim Burns is also good as the mentally ill (a relative term in this movie) Johnny the Boy, who gets consigned to one of the best revenge deaths ever . . . and which closes Mad Max on an audience-cheering high.

When Mad Max was released in the U.S., distributor American International Pictures decided that the Aussie accents were too heavy and decided to dub the film with domestic actors. Some bits of dialogue with Aussie slang were also altered. It can’t quite ruin the film, but it sure as hell makes a go for it. The actor voicing Max is decent, but Tim Burns’s performance is pretty much decimated when dubbed. Unfortunately, this version was the only one available on video in the U.S. for years. It turned increasingly hilarious to listen to this dub as Mel Gibson became an established superstar in North America. MGM’s current disc restores the original Australian English dialogue track (although it still has the AIP dub as an option for humorous comparison), and the print I saw on Friday is part of the MGM Repertory and also uses the original track—with the AIP “Round Guy with Surfboard” logo still at the front.

Mad Max was a huge global hit, cornering $100 million and setting a record for the biggest gross-to-budget ratio in history. A sequel was almost guaranteed, although nobody could anticipate what would arrive two years later, with a budget ten times that of the first and George Miller interested in exploring hero archetypes. Who would have expected to see an S&M fetish road show assaulting a compound of people in hockey and football gear? And that it would be so damned awesome?

Oh, what a beautiful wonderful bloody joy of a film is The Road Warrior (released in Australia and most of the world under the far less grabbing title Mad Max 2; this was the title on the print I saw on Friday). A Joseph Campbell festival of Western jubilation in the guise of a post-apocalyptic John Ford film with a leather fetish. Weird and wild and archetypal. It’s one of greatest action film ever put before a camera.

And what a camera! Photographer Dean Semler became one of Australia’s most valuable exports, and his widescreen compositions of the desert land around Broken Hill, New South Wales, are legendary and compare well with anything from a David Lean film. Semler has gone on to a distinguished career and won an Oscar for his work on Dances with Wolves. David Eggby’s photography on Mad Max is fine and gives the movie a professional sheen despite its poverty, but it’s Semler who opened up the vision we have of Mad Max’s world—and that of all post-apocalyptic stories to follow. It’s literally a re-invention of the classic U.S. Western for a new era.

This is a key part of The Road Warrior’s success. It is a Western. Knowingly so. George Miller consciously took the John Fordian tale of settlers vs. outlaws, the lone gunman, and plot elements from Shane and placed them in the context of a ruined, lawless world. It isn’t a far leap to make, and The Road Warrior’s popularity stems in part from how it filled up a gap in the film-going experience that appeared when the Western started to go out of style. Viewers didn’t quite realize it, but they needed the Western, and George Miller provided it, equipped with a perfect loner hero transported from a low-budget biker flick.

I believe that Mad Max and The Road Warrior take place in different realities. Seeing them back-to-back only solidifies my opinion. The montage that opens the second film, shown in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio so the screen can “explode” into Semler’s widescreen camera when the prologue ends, tells a different story of the past than what the first film indicated. The slow entropy of civilization in Mad Max is now a full-scale conflagration between “two warrior tribes” over a global fuel shortage (something that felt eerily possible during the oil crisis of the 1970s). Civilization utterly crumbles. Cities are gone, with only pockets of settlers remaining. The settlers fight a constant war against marauders, which are no longer motorcycle gangs but bizarre vehicular cultures of violence that combine fetish leather gear with Native American chic. Max’s family gets worked into the prologue via footage from the first movie, but even that is nearly irrelevant to the story. All we have is Max, his V8 Interceptor, and his dog as the movie begins. Forget all else you know from here on.

It’s apparent in the opening twenty minutes of The Road Warrior how much Miller and Gibson advanced in their craft over three years. The first film has pacing problems and doesn’t get to full speed until Max’s vengeance quest. The Road Warrior is tight and perfectly structured from the moment it starts, and the screen always has something interesting going on. Miller’s confidence in his material, his star, and his skills has increased near four-fold. Gibson is magnetic; even though The Road Warrior gives Max less “character” moments than the domestic parts of Mad Max, he’s far more fascinating here. Gibson’s physical expression of Max makes him command the screen; this is one of the great film heroes, an idea only nascent in the first film. The character scene that stands out for me in particular is Max’s confrontation with Pappagallo (Michael Preston), the leader of the settlers, when he tries to convince Max to drive the tanker on their bid to escape the Marauders. Gibson hardly speaks in this scene, but doesn’t need to—we find out more about Max in these three minutes than in all eighty-eight minutes of the previous film.

The script and the actors double down on the “weird” from Mad Max, with loveably cracked performances like Bruce Spence as the Gyro Captain, Vernon Wells as the crazed and vengeance-minded Wez, Max Phipps looking like an apocalyptic rendition of Paul Shaffer as the Toady, and eight-year-old Emil Minty as the Feral Kid, a little scene-stealer who grunts and howls and throws a mean razor-edged boomerang. It’s bizarr-o stuff, and I love it.

The tanker chase finale. . . . What more can I say about this that a million other critics haven’t already said? It’s one of the top action sequences ever put on film, an ecstatic ballet of stunt work and pacing. I’ve listed it before as a scene I use to inspire myself when I’m about to write. I’ll never tire of watching it.

The Road Warrior’s success meant that George Miller would have U.S. studio cash for the next film. It arrived three years later with Tina Turner and a second director installed.

It’s difficult to follow-up something as flat-out killer as The Road Warrior, and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome started out production with a serious strike against it. You can tell from the opening credits that something had gone wrong, since George Miller shares the director’s credit with George Ogilvie. What happened was the tragic death of producer Byron Kennedy in a helicopter crash while doing location scouting for the movie. This undercut Miller’s enthusiasm for the project. He went through with the movie anyway, but only directed the action sequences, leaving the rest to Ogilvie.

[My thoughts on the film have changes since this was first written. Here’s my review of the film upon its first Blu-ray release.]

Given this shaky start, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is better than it has any right to be, although it’s nowhere near the level of the first two. But just as The Road Warrior is a substantially different film that Mad Max, so does the third installment drive off in a radically different direction: a family film! As long as you don’t mind your kids hearing some mild profanity, you can show this to the ten-and-over set without fear.

Previously, I’ve only watched Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome in isolation from the other pieces of the trilogy. The comedic, youth-friendly feel of it comes through strongly when viewed in a triple feature. It’s so… cute… a film, really. Max is hardly “mad” any more, and he’s helping out a group of Lost Boys (and Girls) against Tina Turner, who really isn’t that bad of a bad girl. The violence is toned down significantly for a more general audience, with minimal bloodletting and a cartoon essence. The whole enterprise begins to feel as if some of Steven Spielberg rubbed off on George Miller after working with him on his segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie. (Miller directed “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” easily the best part of the film.) I have no idea how much co-director George Ogilvie has to do with this change in tone, but Miller has his name on the film as the producer, so the shift must have his stamp of approval.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is the most overtly fantastic of the trilogy, with an epic set-design that feels closer to the two recent Conan movies than the rags-and-leather apocalypse. This is the first time that the end of civilization is connected to a nuclear holocaust, yet another significant change to the history of the setting and an excuse to rev up the post-Armageddon design. Bartertown, the thriving desert community ruled by Auntie Entity (Tina Turner) and a consortium of pig feces farmers under Master Blaster (Angelo Rossito and Paul Larsson), might have popped up from any number of sword-and-sorcery novels, with only a few nods to technology and vehicles. The main set piece, the duel in the giant birdcage Thunderdome, is a classic gladiatorial fight with the addition of combatants flipping around on bungie cords.

The Thunderdome contest between Max and the armored Blaster is the action highlight of the film, and Miller (who I assume directed this part) devised a clever variation on the movie fight for it. But this is the highlight, unfortunately for the rest of the film. The vehicular thrills of the first two movies are mostly gone—camels are the new V8 Interceptors here—and only get pulled out for the train chase finale, which is a good bit of action, but pale as an attempt to whip together an imitation of The Road Warrior’s masterpiece tanker climax.

Tina Turner was the focus of much of the film’s publicity, but her costume upstages her. Oddly, she isn’t bizarre enough for a film series that already has no end of complete weirdoes packing it from wall to wall. She’s got too much competition from Angelo Rossito, a dwarf actor and newspaper vendor to the stars from the Hollywood Golden Age, and the tribe of lost children, who are make an appealing ensemble. I’m surprised how much I enjoy the scenes with the children. It would seem the biggest sell-out point to have Max helping out idealistic youngsters, but these kids who have developed their own language and myth cycle are presented with great conviction and a sense of the legendry. If this is Ogilivie’s doing, I applaud him for it.

A major change in the creative line-up is the replacement of Australian composer Brian May with Frenchman Maurice Jarre, composer of Lawrence of Arabia. Jarre’s score is the complete opposite of May’s “killer brass and percussion” approach, going for a lush sound that adds to the sense of fantasy. I love his “Thunderdome Fanfare,” but otherwise don’t count myself a fan of what Jarre does here. Brian May’s scores for the first two films are too iconic and attached to Max in my mind for me to get used to an opposite approach, even if it fits the style of the film.

But Dean Semler is still on camera, and his images are as beautiful as ever. His vistas of sand dunes, the tribe standing atop a wrecked Boeing 747, and the approach to the canyon of the lost children are some of the most arresting visuals in the trilogy.

As the tail end of a massive triple-feature, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome whimpers out at the conclusion. The action climax isn’t intense enough and Max seems to twist in the wind once its over. The final moments, shot through models of a ruined Sydney beneath Helen Buday’s “speakin’ and tellin’” narration, have power to them—but not enough for this trilogy. It needs a fourth film, and perhaps we will get it eventually (it’s had some close calls and is supposed to start shooting at the end of 2010).

In conclusion. . . .
  • Mad Max: Works even better on the big screen. It’s a mean little movie and one of the best of the biker exploitation genre.
  • The Road Warrior / Mad Max 2: Oh man, this thing brings tears to my eyes. It’s just so damn beautiful. . . .
  • Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome: Gather the kids, it’s family hour!
Okay, bring on Mad Max 4: Fury Road! Please let it happen this time.