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!
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?
DJ: 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.
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?!”
DNW: The Road Warrior deserves its own title honestly.
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.
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.
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.
DNW: 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!
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.
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!
DNW: 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.
“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 …
DJ: … 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 …
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.
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.
DNW: 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.