Retrospective: The MAD MAX trilogy | Casey's Movie Mania | Movie Reviews, Features & Others

Monday, 11 May 2015

Retrospective: The MAD MAX trilogy


Thirty years after the supposedly final chapter of MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME (1985), Australian director George Miller finally returns to his original root of post-apocalyptic genre that made him famous in the first place. Scheduled for nationwide release on May 14, the fourth instalment -- titled as MAD MAX: FURY ROAD -- stars Tom Hardy, who replaced Mel Gibson as the new Max Rockatansky and Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa.

In conjunction with the upcoming release of MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, let's take a look back at the retrospective of the original MAD MAX trilogy during the late '70s till mid '80s period:


1. MAD MAX (1979)


Released in 1979 and made on a shoestring budget, MAD MAX marked the directorial debut of certified emergency room doctor-turned-filmmaker George Miller. A cinematic milestone that gave birth to the post-apocalyptic genre, this Australian-made movie was also known for launching the career of then-unknown 22 years old Mel Gibson in his first starring role as Max Rockatansky. Despite all the fresh-faced talent involved in the production, MAD MAX proved to be a notable success for an independently-made picture where it raked US$100 million at the worldwide box office.

The plot, written by first-time screenwriter James McCausland alongside Miller himself, was actually simple and straightforward in its execution. Set in "a few years from now" (as described in the movie), the post-apocalyptic Australia countryside was dominated by a ruthless motorcycle gang led by Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne). At the beginning, Max was depicted as a law enforcer of the Main Force Patrol (MFP) who happened to be the best driver in the force. But after the violent death of his friend and fellow MFP officer Jim Goose (Steve Bisley), he wanted to resign but ended up taking a long break instead with his wife Jessie (Joanne Samuel) and their baby son, Sprog (Brendan Heath). Things gone awry when the same motorcycle gang reappeared and terrorised Max's family to their eventual death. Max went completely berserk and became a vigilante armed with a shotgun and a souped-up black Pursuit Special a.k.a. V8 Interceptor to hunt down the gang on his own.

Frankly speaking, the storyline wasn't the biggest asset in this movie. At times, it was too melodramatic especially during the slow-moving middle section that focuses on Max and his family. But MAD MAX was better known for Miller's impressive technical skills. For instance, the opening high-speed car chase between the MFP officers and the crazed couple, led by Nightrider (Vince Gil), was particularly exhilarating. The car crash sequences, such as one of the MFP patrol cars rammed through the mobile home in the middle of the highway, were expertly staged with such visceral impact that you'll be amazed the way Miller could pull that off with a limited budget.

2. MAD MAX 2 a.k.a. THE ROAD WARRIOR (1981)


Otherwise known as THE ROAD WARRIOR for the North American distribution, MAD MAX 2 was highly regarded by fans and critics around the world as the best movie in the series. Whereas the first movie was more of a character-driven revenge western, this superior sequel was akin of a stripped-down version that mirrored Sergio Leone's famous "spaghetti western" trilogy for turning Max into Clint Eastwood's "Man With No Name" character. The plot was also minimal, but wildly cinematic in its execution when comes to the vivid display of practical action and graphic violence. With a bigger budget at his disposal, George Miller managed to surpass himself in the technical department with more breathtaking stunts and elaborately-staged action set-pieces that set a high bar for future action movies.

The now-legendary tanker chase in the climactic finale was the major reason that made MAD MAX 2 such an enduring classic. The set-piece alone, which lasted about 15 minutes long, was often hailed by many critics as one of the greatest chase scenes ever made alongside the likes of BULLITT (1968) and THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971).

MAD MAX 2 was more than just a genre classic about how an action-packed sequel should be done. Over the years after the sequel's release in 1981, it served as a mass influence for many up-and-coming filmmakers including James Cameron, David Fincher, Guillermo Del Toro and Robert Rodriguez.

3. MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME (1985)


Unlike the first two MAD MAX movies which were more gritty and violent, MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME -- the third and (supposedly) final entry of the post-apocalyptic fantasy franchise -- took a detour from the R-rated territory and paved way for a more kid-friendly, PG-13 genre picture. In fact, the radical change-of-pace proved to be successful at the box office and even became the highest-grossing entry in the MAD MAX series. On top of that, the Golden Globe-nominated hit single "We Don't Need Another Hero" by Tina Turner was one of the most memorable theme songs in the '80s.

While it's good to see something new for a change rather than sticking with the same old formula, the LORD OF THE FLIES-like hybrid genre felt odd and disjointed. But the first 45 minutes or so was actually promising. The Bartertown scene was blessed with great production design, and the movie peaked at the creatively-staged Thunderdome scene. Here, Max was to engage in a deadly battle against the hulking Blaster (Paul Larsson) inside a spherical arena (think post-apocalyptic version of gladiatorial arena) while both of them were suspended by a harness. As the fight began, they have to swing their bodies around while trying to reach out whichever weapon they could get inside the dome. No doubt the fight scene was one of the best action set-pieces ever choreographed in the MAD MAX series.

Then came the aftermath of the scene. Once Max was exiled to a desert wasteland, the movie began to nosedive. Midway through, the kids were introduced and all of the sudden, MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME became more of a Disney-like commercial product. Although I understood the intention of the filmmakers (this time the third entry was handled by two directors -- George Miller and George Ogilvie) to make Max a sympathetic character in front of the kids, the result remained felt awkwardly misplaced. Yes, it's true that prior to the lone wolf character we came to love so much about Max, he was actually a caring family man in the first movie. However, the thematic value of redemption to bring Max into full circle with a sense of closure that made him a changed person after meeting the kids was too cheesy.

The separate directing duties also posed another significant problem in this movie. George Miller took more responsibility in the action and stunts department, on which he did them very well. Apart from the Thunderdome scene, the elaborate chase scene in the desert towards the climactic finale was equally spectacular (even though it was pale in comparison with the legendary finale in MAD MAX 2). George Ogilvie, in the meantime, handled the rest of the directing duties. If this wasn't a MAD MAX movie, it would make an exceptional family-friendly picture. No wonder MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME was ranked as the weakest entry in the series.

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