Beyond Thunderdome: Rethinking the Ugly Stepchild of the Mad Max Franchise

In one particularly snarky corner of the blogosphere known as “film journalism” there are a few movie tentpoles that draw particular ire from the shlubby masses.

Some of these films are flatly terrible, others border on great yet seem misunderstood … and some like Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome are simply shrugged off as unimportant, maybe because the two previous flicks in the franchise were arguably better.

But while Thunderdome lacks the gritty gusto of Mad Max or the sublime balance of world-building and plotting that made The Road Warrior a classic, it’s a shame to ignore a movie that — if taken on its own merits — might be one of the better and more unique Hollywood films of the ‘80s.

(and yes, I know it’s not technically a Hollywood movie, but with the Tina Turner stunt casting and Spielbergian vibe it’s totally a Hollywood movie)

Though while it’s got a lot of great things going for it, unlike its predecessors, it’s a bit harder to pinpoint those things that make Thunderdome work.

This is due in part to its split narrative. Much like another maligned third-installment, Return of the Jedi, it spends about 40 minutes being one movie and then abruptly shifts to another that connects on a narrative level yet feels different in terms of tone and theme.

Thunderdome4Have to fight! Have to crow!

When the film opens we find a far more ragged and long-haired version of Max Rockatansky. He’s shed his badass leather attire for desert robes, his scruffy dog for a mischievous monkey, and his supercharger has been replaced by a camel-pulled wagon, creating an aura of mystic wander instead of the brutal avenger that’s been the character’s trademark vibe since the intense finale of the first film.

This is usually strike one, two, and three for a lot of fans. The movie was released just four years after The Road Warrior and yet seems to take place quite a few years into the character’s future. For example, it’s the first movie where radiation is mentioned, indicating that a nuclear holocaust occurred between the second and third films, and this means Max has been through a lot of character changes that we haven’t been privy to.

Nolan and Goyer made a similar misstep years later with The Dark Knight Returns, which opens eight years after the events of The Dark Knight with Bruce Wayne having quit his mission and transformed into a total recluse.

In the case of The Dark Knight Rises this was far more jarring because the franchise had a much tighter narrative through-line. Wayne’s transformation not only happened offscreen, it also felt out of character and also out of alignment with the final moments of the Dark Knight which ended with Wayne as Batman running straight at camera in a newfound commitment to his mission.

In the case of the Mad Max franchise, the linking narrative tissue was always treated as myth or legend. Each sequel (and this is also true of Fury Road) basically retcons the mythology of its predecessor in much the same was as the Evil Dead films. This leaves a lot more narrative leeway for its protagonist’s journey.

Still, it’s a lot to ask an audience to accept from their hero, though in the case of Beyond Thunderdome the character transformation isn’t nearly as jarring as the Dark Knight films, partly because Max was always an anti-hero and because Max really never had an ethos besides avenging his dead family. With that already resolved, why shouldn’t he wander?

In this regard the film works well in its first half, as Max is pulled out of complacency when his wagon is stolen and he travels to a twisted village known as Bartertown to get it back.

This section of the film seems to work best for the fans, as George Miller and his talented crew take time to let the world sink in. It’s the details that make the Mad Max films a cut above other b-level apocalyptic adventures and with Beyond Thunderdome we’re treated to a fascinating look at a proto-civilization starting to pull itself from the ashes of a holocaust.

Max quickly makes a deal with Bartertown’s figurehead Aunty Entity, played by Tina Turner in one of my favorite pieces of stunt casting ever.

Thunderdome_MaxAunty

I’m sure Turner’s presence seemed far more distracting in the mid-80s when she was at the peak of her career, but looking back as a child of the ’90s she’s perfect as the larger-than-life villain. A little wooden, maybe, but much like Dwayne Johnson’s entire career she makes up for it with sheer charisma and screen presence.

After the wanton insanity of Toecutter, Wez, and Lord Humungus it’s fantastic to see Max up against someone more civilized … and it makes sense that the inherent politics that come with even a fledgling civilization get Max intro trouble, since it was that same bureaucracy in the first film that ultimately lead to Max’s soul-damaging revenge spree.

thunderdome_MasterBlaster

The first half of the film culminates when Aunty Entity hires Max for a political murder. This sets up the most memorable scene in the film, Thunderdome!

thunderdome_audienceYay.

In addition to being flat-out awesome (and one of the few sequences in the film directed by Miller directly), this sequence also gives us Dr. Dealgood, one of the best characters from the entire franchise. Evil and unabashedly vaudevillian, he struts around with a cane and spits out some of the best dialog ever.

Thunderdome_drdealgood“Right now, I’ve got two men, two men with a gut full of fear.
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls… dyin’ time’s here!

This sequence is so memorable that despite mediocre boxoffice for the film as a whole, the Thunderdome idea saturated our culture to the point that in the late ’80s my friends and I would play a game called Thunderdome without even knowing about the movie (true, it involved pillows instead of chainsaws, but still).

It’s even became a staple at the Burning Man festival, although much drunker and way less cool:

It’s during this thunderdome sequence we hit our first hiccup in terms of Max’s character development. When he discovers that the man he’s hired to kill has a mental disability, Max refuses to make the kill.

Of course the filmmakers weren’t going to tell us a story where Max would knowingly murder someone with a mental handicap, but as a result they reveal that Max has a conscience and a soul.

This is troublesome because not only was this already established by the end of The Road Warrior, the filmmakers also spend the rest of the movie giving Max a redemption arc … even though he’s obviously already redeemed. He’s a man who won’t kill the innocent, forced into violence only when he’s attacked. Doesn’t seem like such a bad dude to me.

It’s this core character vagary that eats away at the narrative. I really believe it’s part of why the film didn’t resonate with audience like the first two, leaving them room to nitpick the far less important flaws.

And those perceived flaws start in earnest after Max is banished from Bartertown and the second movie begins.

Thunderdome11
Max survives his forced trek through the desert and ends up with a tribe of feral children who are the sole survivors of a jet crash during the unseen nuclear “Pockylypse.”

Wild, dirty, and speaking with their own makeshift vernacular, these characters tend to make or break the film for most viewers. Personally, I love it, though my reaction might be biased by the fact this was the first Mad Max film I ever saw. They are certainly a tonal departure from the first two films, but this is mainly due to the overall PG-13 quality of the film.

Where The Road Warrior had a feral child brutally murder men with a sharp boomerang, the children in Beyond Thunderdome are, like all the deaths in the movie, completely bloodless.

thunderdome_lostboysThis might be what lead to the common critical battlecry of “those kids were just too cute!” (again echoing the trite critiques of Return of the Jedi, this time in regards to the Ewoks) but ultimately it’s an unfair accusation since they fall in line with the whole tone of the film.

The more valid critique might be the strong “lost boys” vibe they have. Not only could  you easily cut and paste scenes right into Spielberg’s Hook and not even notice, this section of the film takes a very magical turn that, while cool, seems out of place within the context of the whole franchise (or, at least, until Fury Road came along).

For some reason, Max oddly resembles the tribe’s prophesied savior and then ultimately fulfills that prophecy to leading them to freedom (ala the entire third act of The Road Warrior).

This “hero’s journey” is a little forced but makes sense. This film made just seven years after George Lucas inadvertently turned Joseph Cambell’s work on comparative mythology into a paint-by-numbers screenwriting guide.

Also, Miller spent the years between the second and third Mad Max films over in Los Angeles, cutting his Hollywood teeth on Spielberg’s Twilight Zone anthology.

Thunderdome8This “Spielbergian” grandeur is evident not only in the broader strokes storytelling but also in every frame and edit of the film. It’s noticeably more “refined” than the first two films, with more intricate camera staging and character blocking. Compare the perfectly timed orchestration of the Bartertown intro to the first assault on the oil refinery in The Road Warrior, which was rough and messy and in many ways far more real and visceral.

Thunderdome10As a huge Spielberg fan this is probably why I love Thunderdome, but it’s easy to see the stylistic shift that might have bumped a lot of people, and there are certainly other odd choices that make watching the film a little confusing.

For example, the re-casting of Bruce Spence as Jedidiah. Not only is Spence a very recognizable character actor, but his Gyro Captain from The Road Warrior also traveled around in a flying machine … yet he’s obviously not playing the same character because the Gyro Captain escaped to the coast at the end of The Road Warrior.

Thunderdome6Now with 50% more sidekick …

Also, in Thunderdome Max travels around with a mischievous monkey, ala Raiders of the Lost Ark, even though it never effects the plot and is seemingly there just to be adorable.

Thunderdome7And the finale on the train, while stunning, is far too reminiscent of the tanker truck chase at the end of The Road Warrior. It feels like a “bigger and better” version of the previous film’s finale, ending with Max flat on his back at the mercy of Aunty Entity and her gang … only to have her let him go free for absolutely no good reason.

Thundersome2Well. That was a freebie.

Placing such a huge flaw in character motivation at the very end of your film just to get the hero out of danger is an enormous crutch that rings false, leaving only the end credits and a Tina Turner song to win back the audience. It’s definitely the weakest moment in the film.

Looking back at Thunderdome it’s hard to really gauge audience reaction at the time. Over the years the film has been labeled as “bad” even though the few critical reviews that survived the digital boom over the past few decades are generally positive.

There aren’t many people that would claim Thunderdome works on the same level as its predecessors, but it’s a far cry from being a “bad” movie (whatever that means). The fantastic dialog alone justifies the film’s existence, not to mention the set design and amazing stuntwork that are, judging by Fury Road, a lot closer to what George Miller was striving for all along.

And while it may pale in comparison to all the others, it’s definitely worth a watch if you’ve never seen it and certainly should be considered “canon” by all the know-it-all shlubbs like me.

Next Stop FURY ROAD – Part Two: The Road Warrior

I moonlight as a writer over at Movie Moron, and when I found out my pal and fellow writer David Williams (DNWilliams) hadn’t seen the original Mad Max trilogy, I shot him in the heart I insisted that he watch them so we could geek out together.

Now he’s racing to finish them before the fourth installment FURY ROAD (all CAPS mandatory) hits theaters this Friday. This is the result. Enjoy!

(for part one of this series, CLICK HERE)
RW_epic
DJ:  Still waking up.
(Sent at 5:04 AM on Sunday)

DNW:  I’m not a morning person, I sympathize.

DJ:  Plus I’m doing a diet so I’m calorie starved and grumpy as hell.

DNW:  I should be watching my food right now, trying to hit the gym a bit, I suck at it.

DJ:  Gotta be lean and mean when the Pockylypse happens (a reference you’ll get when you watch Thunderdome).

DNW:  Pockylypse sounds pretty freaky

DJ:  You know who doesn’t diet? Mad Fucking Max.

DNW:  Everything is pretty scarce in his world as it is.

DJ:  In the space between movies they’ve gone from “terrible recession full of nutjobs” to “scavenging in the desert for oil” and they justify it with a little intro montage with voice-over.

DNW:  That info dump is perfect.

DJ:  It’s a jump that confused me a bit when I was younger, honestly, but that’s because I saw Thunderdome on TV first then went back and watched the first two. But yeah, I love the idea that each time you tune in to a new Mad Max film you’re going to see the next stage of a falling society.

DNW:  If it weren’t ostensibly a sequel they could dump you right in, but they have to present that connective tissue really, because it is quite a departure. Like I mentioned last time around though, the expository montage at the beginning really helps The Road Warrior to work as a standalone movie.

DJ:  But yeah, Road Warrior reminds me of Evil Dead 2 in that regard. They have that great intro to catch you up … and flat out lie to you about the first one to retcon the details. I wonder if that’s a bit what happened here. “I wonder if we can sell them on the fact this is the same world …”  They do say in the intro that Max wanders into the desert, so maybe the original idea was that the desert was worse and it was hard to travel into the city areas.

DNW:  I feel like with Mad Max, because of how self-contained they seem to be, you can pretty much get away with it. But yeah, the tonal shift and the change of setting makes The Road Warrior jump up notch right away.

DJ:  Instead of slight western influence they almost go full Western. After the intro we jump into the story mid-chase, which is great.

DNW:  Speed! Dog! Coolness!
roadwarrior
DNW:  I really like Max’s character design, we’re getting the Asymmetrical 80s to the max.
(that to the max pun was unintentional, if you can believe it).

DJ:  Keep it. Own it.

DNW:  And you’re right, there’s the sense that what happened in the previous movie has had a lasting effect. I also enjoy the fact that he’s picked up a dog, not just because dogs are great, but because the fact that he lost everything and picked up a companion signals that he’s that same guy, somewhere.

DJ:  Yep. It’s a simple, subtle stroke of genius. He wants to be good. You also see it later with the feral kid … he shows compassion but in a  gruff way … so I was looking up the mohawked villain’s name on IMDB and I found this DVD cover photo with the dumbest quote line ever:

RW_dvdApocalypse … POW!

DNW:  Brilliant. “Apocalypse Wow” was right there, but this guy was like “no, I’m better than that.”

DJ:  Hahahaha, villain’s name was Wez, by the way.

DNW:  Not as great a name as Toecutter, is it?

DJ:  But Wez is basically Toecutter on crack, with an ’80s punk hairdo, and Max just stands up to him like he’s nothing. It’s Miller going “trust me, this ain’t the same movie, shit’s gonna go down before that last fifteen minutes.”

DNW:  I love his look. My appreciation of these films is mostly on a visual level, and whoever decided a mohawk, part of an American Football uniform, and feathers was the way to go has my respect.

DJ:  Wez backs down while Max collects gasoline in a bike helmet that failed to save anyone’s life. I love the stories and character work in these films (surprisingly subtle and done with absolutely no back story which is astonishing)  but yeah the look and general vibe really make them the most memorable.

DNW:  It’s a bit New Romantics as well, like if Adam Ant and Tim Tebow had a baby. Probably not a great reference, but he’s one of the few American Football players whose name I know.

DJ:  And I only know his name and there was some controversy that he prayed or something like that … I have no idea what he did or who he plays for. Also, I have no idea what New Romantics is or who Adam Ant is … so pretty much total fail on my part to get that reference. And you tried so hard!

DNW:  I think these films live and die on their worldbuilding and atmosphere, which I’m totally cool with. The plots are minimal, but that minimalism works with the right approach, and this film is more interested with capturing your imagination than anything else.

RW_wez in compound
DNW:  I think it’s great that on the one hand you’ve got these crazy, wild thugs, but they care a lot about their appearance, and there’s a degree to which it’s pretty flouncy.

RW_Wex n blonde
DNW:  Sorry if I’m derailing the convo: but they contrast incredibly well with the mostly-white and tan clad good guys too.

DJ:  Agreed on the color contrast with the good guys. I think the wild costumes are an outpouring of the craziness. They’re similar enough that it’s kind of tribal, but different enough to know they put a LOT of thought and effort into how they come off to new people. Mostly to strike fear … but also bright and colorful and kind of dandy-ish almost.

RW_amazon
DNW:  Really sells the tribalism, yeah.

DJ:  So after the Wez confrontation, we follow Max to meet another iconic character: The Gyro Captain. Who is so awesome and iconic, when the same actor shows up in Thunderdome, also with a flying machine, but playing a completely different character you’re going to be VERY confused. I sure was.

DNW:  Max does the impressive snake-snatch thing, and then yeah, we meet this guy. I love him, he’s such a zany presence. I retroactively recognized him as The Trainman (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xGl_W_7tfNI) from The Matrix – he’s WAY too distinctive to play multiple roles

RW_Gyro
 DJ:  He’s also the Mouth of Sauron in the extended version of The Return of the King. And they actually CGI’d his mouth larger.

DNW:  Dude was also in Star Wars, so you know he makes a mint signing a whole bunch of stuff on the convention circuit. The Gyro Captain owns though, not to harp on the costumes again but he has a very iconic look. Also, he manages to stand out as the guy that looks like he walked in from a cartoon in a movie filled with characters that seem to have walked in from a cartoon. The lankiness, the goggles, everything.

DJ:  Yep. And even though he’s kind of a buffoon you also get a sense that he’s smart enough to survive. The snake thing would work with anyone but Max.

DNW:  You just have to assume that everyone in this movie has a a skill set of some kind, or else they’d be dead or will die.

DJ:  And I love that Max treats him like a dog, even putting him on a leash, but treats his dog more like a friend.
RW_gyro and dog
DNW:  That dog is cute, man.

DJ:  So cute, it has to die.

DNW:  Didn’t even have a name, poor thing. It’s so weird that I saw The Rover before either of these films, because the Mad Max influence is so strong.

DJ: Yeah, pretty much all Ozploitation owes something to Max, especially ones about a rogue dude in a post-apocalyptic world.

DNW:  Right, I can’t claim to have been exposed to that sub-genre really, but it’s striking how much that movie is like Mad Max 2.5.

DJ:  Then we get a long sequence where our hero camps out on mountain and watches a new movie unfold on the valley before him, with huge well-orchestrated action scenes that we see in wide screen that makes me shudder when I think about what a nightmare it must have been to organize for those filmmakers.

RW_on hillside
DNW: I like the bit with the binoculars and the telescope in that scene.

DJ:  It’s surprising that it works at all, to sideline your hero like that … but it does. And these character moments like the binoculars and the tin of dog food are totally part of the reason why.

DNW:  I like that Max can be along for the ride, as opposed to always the driving force. It seems like Fury Road is going to be that way to an extent. It’s also a smart thing to do, the crazy world Max lives in should throw him into situations.

DJ:  Even though he’s so capable he’s still out of his element.

DNW:  Is there anything better than a hero being in over his head? Indiana Jones style.

DJ:  I was just gonna say Indiana Jones

DNW:  So there’s this post-apocalyptic gated community that Max finds himself in, are we there yet?

DJ:  Yep. And shit is so terrible that Max is willing to make a run for it through all that insanity just go fill up his gas tank. And his mad dash gets some folks killed. No one trust him of course. Not even the hot Amazon lady.

DNW:  This whole setup is not like anything you’d have seen in the first movie.

DJ:  It feels right but it’s a whole new plot structure.

DNW:  It’s a strikingly different vision of the future that feels like it was borne out of what was setup previously, but when you think back to Max’s virtually contemporary home life in the last movie you realize what a strong move away from that all of this is.

DJ: Around here we get our first close up look at Lord Humungus, who is just so freaking awesome, and the first of the masked villains (who we’ll see again in Thunderdome and Fury Road).

MSDROWA EC016
DNW:  I think they went a bit too Sex Dungeon with this guy, if I’m honest.

DJ:  NO. UNACCEPTABLE.

DNW:  😦
Bellflower

But he’s so iconic he inspired glorified fan films!

DNW:  I was more impressed with the stuff around him than I was by the character himself. the people-strapped to the front of cars, the weird and wonderful gang members…

DJ:  The bean-counter dude who gets his fingers sliced off by the Feral Kid and everyone laughs at him.

DNW:  Yes, that! What a dumbass. The boomerang was lodged in someone’s head MOMENTS before.

DJ:  I love the sex dungeon vibe though … there is a sexual undertone to all of these hyper violent male tribes though (hence why Miller is addressing it head on in Fury Road): Toecutter gets super touchy feely, Wez has his bleached blonde boy toy, Humungus has his tight abs and leather speedo.

DNW:  Maybe I shouldn’t have said “too Sex Dungeon”, but more “only Sex Dungeon”. It’s the range of influences working together that makes the other stuff work for me, whereas this wouldn’t feel out of place in a gay panic scene from a 2000s teen sex comedy, it’s Sex Dungeon and only Sex Dungeon.

DJ:  I can see that. But it also makes him stand out. Everyone else is eclectic, he’s a single driving force of muscle and greased-up sex.

DNW:  Right, he needs to be separated in some fashion, sure.

DJ:  Just watching that clip it’s easy to see what makes this movie stand out. The plot is so simple: 1. good guys have oil, bad guys want it. 2. Max can help them escape with fuel. 3. Max helps but gets wounded. 4. Max helps them escape again. END. But all the moments are stretched out and filled with little beats.

DNW:  That’s part of the reason I find it hard to talk about in anything other than aesthetic terms. The plot is 100% in service of the vibe.

DJ:  When Humungus threatens them you’ve got the little bits where Wez kills a rabbit for no reason. Then the feral kid kills Wez’s boy toy, which leads to this little dark comedy break where the bean counter gets his fingers cut off and everyone takes a break to laugh at him … including himself. This is a lived-in world, with all these character dynamics behind the scenes.


Uh oh. Someone took Mel Gibson’s rant and put it over Lord Humungus’s dialog. And it’s creepy how well it works.

DNW:  Of course they did. It’s actually a better villain speech. “THE GAME IS OVER, LET THE NEW GAMES BEGIN!”

DJ:  So Max sneaks out of the compound to steal the tanker truck he found earlier, returns, and there’s a big battle where Wez gets trapped in the compound and no one is able to kill him. A scene that was totally stolen by Waterworld. Then Max tries to flee (again, a more brutal version of him fleeing his destiny with his wife in the first one) and gets his ass kicked and his car blown up. Then the cool helicopter shot.

DNW:  The “Max gets wounded” part gave me my favorite part of the whole movie, which is that shot of him flying with the landscape moving beneath his head. It’s SO cool, it’s artistic as hell in the midst of all this straight-forward action stuff, you’ve got this really abstract moment, it’s portraying the reality of the situation, but it reads like a dream sequence.
 
DJ:  Yep. And it works because he’s so dazed. And the audience is taken aback because he’s been so capable up til now and just got his ass handed to him.

DNW:  Rock bottom for Rockatansky.

DJ:  He’s got no other play. He’s forced into being a hero.

DNW:  I’m re-watching it now, it’s really great. Miller really isn’t a afraid of having a lot going on visually, it’s the polar opposite of what he’s doing with narrative.

road-warrior-mad-max-2-car-chase
DJ:  It takes all the brutal real crashes from the first movie and throws more money at them.

DNW:  Trucks, bikes, flying machines, explosions, crashes, feral kid having to grab a bullet from the front of a vehicle…

Mad Max 2  Chase
DJ:  He keeps plot simple and goes deep into the design, character moments, and weirdness. It’s all the brutality of the first one with a lot of grandness added.

The Road Warrior_7
DNW:  Doesn’t get more ostentatious than this.

DJ:  The real reason all the action works so well is that they carry through the character stuff. When the feral kid is going for the shotgun shell, that’s not just a random plot moment, it calls back to the music box when he’s scared of it. He’s a wild child, buthe’s totally still just a kid.

DNW:  The 80s loved that kid sidekick thing. Newt, Short Round…

DJ:  There’s like ten kid sidekicks in Thunderdome.

DNW:  Haha. George “Double Down” Miller.

truckaerialview

DJ: Then we get the final chase scene to end all chase scenes. How do you feel about the final reveal at the end. The “ole switcheroo”

DNW:  The reveal that the kid is the narrator you mean?

DJ:  That the oil was in the school bus.

DNW:  Oh, that was of less consequence to me, the oil is the MacGuffin here, I’d stopped worrying about it by that point.

DJ:  But it plays into Max’s character, right?

DNW:  How so?

DJ:  I mean, if he knew about it than he’s super selfless and a “good man” again. If he didn’t, they totally screwed him over. I think the idea is that he knew about it (it’s been a while since I’ve seen that part).

DNW:  Huh. I’d need a re-watch to look at it from that perspective, I think. Either way, he’s putting himself out there to help these guys, I don’t think his heroism is in much doubt.

DJ:  It’s got some issues plot-wise for sure (why replace it with sand when that would just make them go slower … but that cinematic reveal of the sand pouring out is fantastic). But he could just be putting himself out as a Hail Mary. What else choice does he have, to sit there while they leave and let Humungus come get him?

DNW:  Fair point.

DJ:  I need to watch it again, but that’s been my take on it for years, that Max knew about it and it was sort of his redemption. I’m totally gonna watch all three again this week before Fury Road. Best week ever.

DNW:  I’m glad I’m catching  up on these, because I’d probably have skipped Fury Road in theaters otherwise, and it looks like a treat.

DJ:  Yay! I’ll take the honor of forcing you to watch them.

DNW:  Haha, it’s one of those List of Shame movies that I feel like I should’ve checked out long ago. But yeah, credit goes to you for kicking it up to the top of the list.

DJ:  Any final thoughts?

DNW:  Well I kind of ruined my take on these films up to this point by opening with it in the last recap, but this works for me as a film all on its own, with or without being part of a series, and it’s a notably stronger vision from Miller, who had a pretty strong vision to start with. It’s also the movie I wanted/expected the first film to be. It’s almost the sequel to a film we didn’t quite see.

DJ:  Yep, I think that’s the general take from most audiences as well. And it looks like Fury Road is the movie we’ve all built Road Warrior up to be in our nostalgic minds in a lot of ways.

DNW:  Excellent dude, thanks. Will let you know when I’m beyond Thunderdome.

Next Stop FURY ROAD – Part One: The Original Mad Max

I moonlight as a writer over at Movie Moron, and when I found out my pal and fellow writer David Williams (DNWilliams) hadn’t seen the original Mad Max trilogy, I shot him in the heart I insisted that he watch them so we could geek out together.

Now he’s racing to finish them before the fourth installment FURY ROAD (all CAPS mandatory) hits theaters this Friday. This is the result. Enjoy!

MMfinale
DNWilliams:  Hey dude! I didn’t get a chance to check out Beyond Thunderdome yet.

DalmatianJaws (me):  No worries! That can be its own thing or we’ll make a joke about refusing to talk about it.

DNW:  I actually watched a little clip or two, and I really like the aesthetic progression of this series based on what I saw of Beyond Thunderdome, but we’ll get to that. It’s a shame to hear it doesn’t quite deserve to look so good by most people’s estimation.

DJ:  Yeah, I actually love Thunderdome, it has some flaws that people cling to because they stick out in comparison to Road Warrior, which is nearly flawless. But taken on its own it’s quite good. I have theories about why it is the way it is, but that’s down the road.

DNW:  Okay, interesting. There’s every chance I might like it quite a bit then.

DJ:  It’s this franchise’s Return of the Jedi. Amazing parts strung together in a clumsy way. Still awesome, but not as finely tuned as the first two. And all the fans hate the cuter aspects of it.

DNW:  I’m down for some cuteness after the harshness of these first two! Hopefully I haven’t spoken too soon…

DJ: You ready to talk about Mad Max … who doesn’t become Mad Max until the last fifteen minutes of the movie?

DNW:  Yes, let’s talk Mr Rockatansky. I feel like the name of the character is a pretty clear indicator of the kind of movie Miller is interested in making.

DJ:  Yep. Right away this movie is set in a world that makes no sense to the audience’s real life experience, but makes sense in its own right. People call this a “post-apocalypse” movie but it’s not. It’s a world on the brink of apocalypse, and society is fraying so everyone’s a little bit bonkers.

DNW:  That term rarely makes sense, we should really be calling them “apocalyptic” movies for the most part, but yeah. We’re immediately greeted with a bunch of weird stuff, which is the kind of plunge-you-right-in world-building I tend to enjoy. There’s just a barrage of off-key things that pretty much no other movie would present you with unexplained: Anarchie Road, a sniper looking at a couple having sex in public, and then there’s the police. These are like no police you’ve ever seen in anything, ever. I mean, I’m sure it has its influences but these are like … how would you describe them? Biker-gang/greaser cops? Sorta?

MadMax_GooseDJ:  It’s weird, but weird in a way that feels purposeful so you trust the movie knows what it’s doing. It’s not just that the world is weird and the cops are weird, you get the feeling the cops are that rough in response to the roughness of the world, so you sense a cause and effect. Helps you accept it as real. At least it seemed that way to me. To an Aussie audience it probably felt less sci-fi. In an interview, Miller talks about how the movie was inspired by all the brutal road fatalities in Australia at the time.

 DNW:  What you’re saying regarding “it seems like a dystopian future, but also kinda just…Australia”, I totally see where you’re coming from.

DJ:  Haha, yes. There’s a brilliant Australian movie called Wake in Fright that feels like it could take place in this first Mad Max movie almost. During the first screening someone stood up and yelled “that’s not us!” And one of the actors stood up and yelled back “shut up mate, it IS us!”

DNW:  That recent Guy Pearce movie The Rover went for the same thing, where it evoked a hellscape by just finding the most dilapidated and unwelcoming things that exist today and portraying it as the totality of society. It’s something similar to what I love about Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, where his version of this shiny awesome future is just all of the most modern buildings in Paris.

DJ:  That’s a great comparison!  And just as you’re going “WTF is going on!?” then we get the wonderful, controlled calmness of Max’s intro. Don’t worry audience, here’s your hero. Who we are going to totally destroy at the end of the movie.
MadMax_Nightrider
DNW:  He gets the long, extended, mysterious figure that you know is cool and important intro too. Very Bond. It did surprise me watching the film just how functional “Mad” Max was.

DJ:  Very sure of itself considering it came from a young filmmaker too.

DNW: And Mel Gibson sounds Australian, which is just surreal. He doesn’t even sound Australian in real life anymore.

DJ:  Yep. This movie did well internationally, but in the States it didn’t do so hot. They dubbed over all the Australian accents to make them sound American. I’ve seen clips of it, it’s awful. Anyway, two years later that’s why they took the “Mad Max 2” title and turned it into Road Warrior, because of us dumb Americans. Everyone went nutso over Road Warrior but never saw the first one. Years later home video goes boom, people rent it, and go “what the hell is all this lovey dovey stuff with the wife and kid?!”
MadMax_JessieDNW:  The Road Warrior deserves its own title honestly.

DJ:  DISAGREE

DNW: It doesn’t rely on the original movie to be enjoyable at all.

DJ: Well, enjoyable … I can totally get that. But there is a LOT more emotional resonance if you know what he used to be and what he lost.

DNW:  I dunno, it feels almost like a prequel, it’s backstory stuff for a character who’s cool in the next movie because of this aura around him. We know everything has been taken from him in that movie, but I don’t feel like it’s necessary to have seen it all unfold. The Road Warrior is fairly standalone, and Max in that movie is very reminiscent of The Man With No Name.

DJ:  I was just about to make that reference!

DNW:  This first film is more Mann than Leone, with a protagonist that’s a gruff beast of a man when he’s out doing his thing, but he has this really stable home life that anchors him. Until, you know, it doesn’t.

DJ:  But I still think you’re wrong. It couldn’t be a prequel, otherwise why is he soft in Mad Max? The greatest thing about the two is that you start him off a softie, make him hard and brutal … then in the next movie he’s gone too far down that road and by the end he’s redeemed himself by helping strangers.

DNW:  He’s not really soft through and through though, there’s just a duality that evaporates.

DJ:  This is one of my favorite franchises because the character evolves but the plots are totally new. But I agree on the duality.

DNW:  I get that. I’m not claiming there’s no benefit to having both movies exist the way they do, but it doesn’t surprise me at all that people were satisfied by The Road Warrior alone. The Road Warrior is more immersive too, in that it’s even less recognizable as our world than Mad Max is.

DJ:  Absolutely, you’re totally right about that. It obviously did just fine on its own. In talking about this it’s so clear to see the Western influences on these movies. Mad Max has a lot of High Noon, Road Warrior has a lot of Sergio Leone.
 
DNW:  The impression I have of this series (having seen half of it, and seen footage from the next two installments) is that George Miller made Mad Max and was like “well, I can do that better”, so he had a sequel that refined what made the original work, and did it with more flare. The visuals of Beyond Thunderdome signal the same approach, whether he was successful or not. The steps moving from the overcast skies, green roadsides, Hot Wheels-looking cars and tarmac roads of Mad Max to the arid landscapes, ever-more outlandish fetish gear and monochromatic production design of Fury Road make it seem like Miller treats each Mad Max movie as some kind of do-over.

Mad-Max-Fury-Road
DJ:  Absolutely. Things get bigger in each one. And they actually acknowledge the evolution in the story directly, because in each one the world gets harsher and deeper into the apocalypse (nukes go off between Road Warrior and Thunderdome, for example).  So I’d say less of a do-over and more of “how can I get this next one closer to what’s in my head?!”

DNW:  Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m trying to get at.

(*Editor’s Note* So was Miller, per this interview in Heavy Metal back from 1985.)

DJ:  Maybe that’s why Fury Road looks like the Mad Max we made up when we played with our G.I. Joes after watching the first three movies. He’s finally got the things he needs to get to that absolute HOLY SHIT stuff he’s been building towards.

DNW:  It’s interesting, because it’s within the one franchise. It’s like if the Wes Anderson of Grand Budapest Hotel were still telling stories about the characters and situations of Bottle Rocket.

DJ:  Yeah, totally! So after that great slow reveal of Mad Max we get more awesome crashes. Let’s talk about those crashes a bit.

DNW:  There’s some really good stunt work at play here.

DJ:  Yeah, they’re so small by today’s standards, but so obviously real that they’re way more gripping in a lot of ways. It might be later in the film, but at one point a biker eats it and his bike rolls over him in slow motion and he bashes his head on a curb … watching it bend his neck and knowing it’s real … just so intense. You can’t fake that.

DNW: Because this movie doesn’t really live or die on its plot. It’s very streamlined.

DJ:  So, after this opening where Max and his crew take out this nutso driver called Nightrider, we’re treated to a little break with our friend Toecutter, the first of incredibly memorable Mad Max villains.

MadMax_Toecutter1
DNW:  One-eyebrow dude.

DJ:  Played by Hugh Keays-Byrne, who is also Immorten Joe in Fury Road only with a mask on so we don’t recognize him.

immortan-joeDNW:  You know, for a guy with one eyebrow to be called Toecutter, and for the name to stick, there’s got to be a serious story there because surely the go-to would be Left Brow or something similar.

DJ:  I love character names like that, especially when the go unexplained. Even if it’s not a name … I love the idea that Brad Pitt’s character in Inglorious Basterds has a noose scar on his neck but never talks about it. Anyway, Toecutter and “The Acolytes” come riding into a railroad town to get the dead body of their friend Nightrider … it’s right out of a Western!

DNW:  Totally.

DJ:  They see a young couple drive away because they’re scared and the gang goes after them. Almost like wild animals. Move slowly you might be alright, but if you run it triggers their chase instinct and they take you out. SO TENSE!

DNW:  It’s the logical extreme of these leather-clad gangs that have been seen onscreen since at least The Wild One.

DJ:  Yep.

DNW:  The results of this pursuit though… I feel like the narrative doesn’t really take care to address it, it just kind of happens and is horrific.

DJ:  Isn’t it a major plot point though? They rape the girl, the cops arrest the guy … but the town is so scared that no one shows up for his trial so they let the rapist go? And this sets the cops off on their mission on the roads to take the gang out?

DNW:  That’s what I mean, it’s a motivating factor for our heroes. When something this brutal is used in a story, it’s just more palatable when it’s not presented so graphically.

DJ:  That’s why Max’s cop buddy (named Goose in a prescient steal from Top Gun) pulls out the Supercharger! Iconic ride, yo!

MadMax_gifDNW: When something like this is presented graphically, I feel like it needs to be more than a plot device.

DJ: So you mean it needs to create a thread that carries through the movie? Like the movie becomes about avenging the girl?

DNW:  It’s not just a gender thing, they rape both of them, right? Or at least I thought that was implied when the guy was running away with a bloodied rear (hope I’m not confusing scenes). But yeah, there’s something inherently more personal about this kind of of thing when depicted to this extent. It’s the face vs statistic thing. I think this is why Miller pulled in Eve Ensler of Vagina Monologues fame to consult on Fury Road, because he’s concerned with things like this, but I don’t know how naturally handling it all comes to him as a storyteller

DJ:  That’s a fascinating point, actually. If it happened off screen it’s kind of like marking it off a list, but by making it more personal it’s more powerful, but somehow feels off when they just move on from it? I have to say I agree, even though it didn’t bother me when I watched it. Although using rape (especially the rape of women) to motivate men to action is bothersome.

DNW:  Coming at it with fresh eyes, having little idea about the content of the movie doubtless had an effect on my perspective.

DJ:  Absolutely. Then we get into this back and forth between cops and gang … until the gang sabotage’s Goose’s motorcycle, which leads to his terrible disfiguring death.

DNW:  Some of the lead-up to that is my favorite stuff in the film. There’s the line “so long as the paperwork’s clean you boys can do what you like out there” which is so defining of the whole status quo, I love it. Then we get that pier scene with the gang that’s just chilling. When the camera is looking out over the water it feels otherworldly. Goose gets that nightclub scene too.

DJ:  Yep, this movie slows down for tone, tension, and world building. It’s not all adrenaline. This whole sequence leads to that powerful scene where Max looks at the disfigured face of Goose.

DNW:  The Max looking at Goose in the hospital thing is over the top in the best possible sense.

DJ:  Then he totally runs away! And then quits his job! And then runs away even more to get ice cream with his wife!

DNW:  That sequence of events totally deserves an exclamation point after each moment. It’s the not unfamiliar “you killed my partner” moment (though I struggle to think of where I’ve seen it elsewhere, it’s just ingrained) amped up.

DJ:  How about that scene where he quits? Staging it in that rotting stairwell, with his boss shirtless and watering tiny plans while that music plays … so genius. So weird. I’ve heard a lot of conversations about whether or not his boss is gay, and I just read online that his name is Fifi … so I think that decides it. But I love that they never talk about it, it’s just there (and the actor talks about the audience reaction to that scene in this reunion video).

DNW:  His orientation never occurred to me. There’s just so much fetish and sado-masochistic iconography in play I didn’t really think of it in terms of character as I probably should have. I just figured it was era-appropriate.

           MadMax_Fifi “They say people don’t believe in heroes anymore.
Well damn them! You and me, Max, we’re gonna give them back their heroes!”

DJ: Amazing line of dialog. And he’s totally right and totally wrong at the same time.

DNW:  That line – you mean he’s right and wrong in terms of the lack of purity/righteousness in the hero, or something else?

DJ:  They totally give the world a hero, but he’s damaged and terrible and not heroic at all at the end. And in terms of cinema as a whole, the movie starts out building a true hero and then totally blow him up into cinema’s most iconic anti-hero. I think it’s why the ending is so powerful and spawned three sequels spanning decades. The irony is that Max totally wins and finally defeats the gang, but the world totally wins because it destroys him in the process.

DNW:  He’s a terminal crazy with a bronze badge to say he’s one of the good guys.

DJ:  So the rest of the movie is pretty simple. Max sees where his life is headed so he quits and runs off with his wife.

DNW:  Having him quit is an interesting move.

DJ: He doesn’t feel like a coward, he feels smart. But at the same time you want your action! But that sequence works because you know all that time that something’s gonna happen. Something terrible.

DNW:  Really reminded me of Michael Mann’s Thief, where James Caan has this dream life for one brief sequence. It’s a departure from the story that’s been told in a way that makes it foreboding.

DJ: I haven’t seen Thief, if you can believe it, but that sounds about right.

DNW: You’d love Thief. Have you seen Manhunter? There’s commonality with the beginning of that film too. Only without the tragic element.

DJ: All this time with the wife works for me too. There’s good chemistry. It’s super hokey and a little dated … but let’s face it most guys want this at the end of the day. It’s totally not true to life (she’s always happy and gorgeous, the kid’s never crying) but with all the talk of heroes and all the nutso stuff we’ve seen out in the world, you know it’s all just glamor.

DNW: Max’s wife, Joanne Samuel, is pretty good. The ‘crazy about you’ callback works, and the fact that they went with the word crazy there is cute.

DJ: And I love that instead of just running afoul of the gangs, she encounters them, gets away, and THEN they track her down again. They just keep ratcheting tension.

DNW: Fills you with dread, for sure. It makes the “victory” feel so hollow too, with the loss coming so late in the game. It’s so brutal.

DJ: Yeah, it’s really not a revenge film, it’s a weird mix of Western, cop drama, and action flick that coalesces into a fifteen minute revenge film that everyone remembers. I love the shot when they kill Max’s wife and child …

MadMax_wifedeathDJ: … but it makes no sense that they could do that on motorcycles without falling off. Also, why didn’t she run into a field where she’d have a better chance.

DNW: Yeah, I think they abandoned logic a little there, but it’s an okay point to abandon it at. Like we said, the focus is already on the dread of the situation, how it’s executed is less consequential, at least for me.

DJ: Agreed, it was powerful when I first saw it and it’s only on re-watches that you think about it.

DNW: Right, I can’t claim either was a concern for me having only seen it once. And it’s so late in the story, there’s not really anything left afterwards for it to undermine.

DJ: After that I love  just how dark they go and how clever they get. Max just destroys this gang in a long sequence. And Toecutter’s not last either. He goes out with a great eye-popping moment …

MadMax_eyesLiterally.

DJ: … but the last and most brutal death is at the end with Johnny.

DNW: The hack-through-your-own-leg-or-explode kill?

DJ: Max could just kill him, but instead he gives him a “choice’ which really isn’t a choice at all. He just gets the dude to torture himself before the car blows. Freaking incredible scene. It would fit right in with Road Warrior.

MadMax_Johnny
DNW: I don’t have a huge bloodlust or anything, but I could watch a whole movie of Max just giving scum horrible ultimatums like that. And it’s not something they had to show to sell. It’s damn gruesome in my mind alone. The finale of this film is essentially an extended prologue to The Road Warrior.

DJ: I think it sells because of how much time you’ve spent in the world and with Max and family. A lot of people call this first film “boring” until the end, but don’t realize the whole ending works because of all the “boring” stuff.

DNW: I see where people are coming from though, just looking at the poster for Mad Max – that could be a poster for The Road Warrior rather than this movie.

MadMax_posterDNW: It looks like it’s going to be a more Awesome with a capital A film than it is. JJ Abrams had a similar feeling about the Escape From New York poster- that film never shows you the Statue of Liberty’s head in the middle of the street despite the really iconic imagery the movie was sold on, which is why Cloverfield gives us that visual. I think if you saw The Road Warrior first as well, that would mess you up. Mad Max is so procedural by comparison.

DJ: I can totally get that. I had a similar issue with Escape from New York … only I thought it wasn’t just misleading but also boring (there’s that word again).

DNW: It’s like the poster artist got closer to where Miller’s head was at than Miller did, but like you said, this movie functions

And that’s about it! Later this week I’ll post our conversation about The Road Warrior.