Greetings from The Humungus! The Lord Humungus! The Warrior of the Wasteland! The Ayatollah of Rock and Rolla!
No, actually it’s me; Airman Xley – the loveable rascal! The above quote was merely a test I devised to test your preparedness for the awesomely apocalyptic force that is Mad Max: Fury Road roaring into theaters May 15th.
By my calculations, there are three weeks until the release of Fury Road and three previous installments in the Mad Max franchise. So starting today, I’m going to get you in a mindset for mayhem and revisit each of these films (one a week) so as to properly introduce you to one of my all-time favorite series. Be on the lookout for other recommended post-apocalyptic films as well since yours truly is a huge fan of the sub-genre.
Hopefully by now you’ve watched the latest trailer for George Miller’s fourth installment AT LEAST a dozen times and know that it is nothing short of colossal. It has a phenomenal cast in Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron and Nicholas Hoult, and literally everything else that I know and love about the series looks as though it’s on steroids. The vehicles are more ridiculous, the chase scenes more elaborate, and I’m pretty sure I came a bit when I saw the dude with the flamethrower guitar. In short: the movie looks fucking amazing in every possible way and you should see it without hesitation.
Yes, that was a sight unseen recommendation, but one that’s supported by evidence in the trailer of director George Miller preserving and enhancing the rich mythology that he created nearly four decades ago. Believe it or not, fans of the series have been waiting 30 years for the continued adventures of Max Rockatansky after the third installment – Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome – came out in 1985. Sure this new film is a reboot in principle – ohne Mel Gibson – but one that I have the utmost faith in to engage a whole new generation of Mad Maxians.
There’s a pretty common misconception folks have that Mad Max 2 (AKA The Road Warrior) was actually the first film in the series released in 1981. Sure, there’s the opening montage that paints a bleak and desolate future while also adding some exposition as to Max’s origins, but to truly appreciate the mythos of the character, we have to travel all the way back to 1979 to the original Mad Max film.
In a dystopian Australian future, society is in the throes of collapse and highways have become the breeding ground for vicious gangs scavenging for gasoline and supplies. There are a few pillars of civilization that still remain – namely the MFP officers that try and maintain some semblance of order and combat the violent criminals. Max Rockatansky is one such officer that must seek vengeance against the maniacal Toecutter and his gang after his wife and child are brutally run down on the highway and his best friend is burned alive. Spoiler alert: the villain doesn’t actually cut any toes, though the actor is going to play the villain – Immotan Joe – in Fury Road.
Upon its debut, there were a couple of factors working against the film that ultimately would leave it as a product of obscurity for many years to come. For starters it had a very limited release outside of its native Australia, and for whatever reason American film executives thought it would be a good idea to dub over the all the dialogue with American accents. Remind you of another poorly marketed Australian film? Yeah we’re still upset about that awful opening monologue in Dark City too.
For those rare few that did manage to catch its international theatrical release, they were introduced to the supercharged hallmarks that would later fuel the success of The Road Warrior. Fast cars, death-defying stunts, and ridiculous, over-the-top villains – yes Mad Max had it all (though Toecutter and co. are more silly than anything). More importantly, this first film in the series would launch legendary action actor Mel Gibson to stardom through his portrayal of the often mysterious hero Max. Hmm…kinda like another man with no name played by Clint Eastwood huh?
Gibson allegedly was approached to audition for a role as an gritty extra after he was spotted waiting for his best friend and costar Steve Bisley (who plays fellow MFP officer Goose). Despite initially being bruised, beaten and slightly hungover, Gibson would return to the audition several weeks later as a strikingly beautiful man with his hauntingly blue eyes and the physical package of a then destined-to-be action hero. His good looks and charming disposition ultimately would land him a costarring role as the title character.
George Miller, aware of the marketability of Gibson, meticulously crafted the first scene where we are introduced to the character of Max so that, by the time we finally see his face, we’re already well aware of the mystique of the character and his dominant presence as hero. Clad in a dark, leathery uniform, we’re treated to Max’s divine introduction through a series of teasing cuts spliced into the opening chase scene involving MFP officers and the absolutely ridiculous escaped convict ‘The Nightrider’ (Vince Gil). When they fail to apprehend the maniac driver, Max makes short work of the would-be criminal by being the superior driver and chasing The Nightrider to a fiery end.
This brings us to the second most important takeaway of Mad Max, as it earned its ranks among the most influential car-chase movies of all time through its breakneck speeds and vehicular carnage. Sure you have other classics that preceeded Mad Max by a few years like Bullitt and The French Connection, but our story of wasteland warriors is iconic because for the first time both the road and cars became characters in the story.
We’ll talk much more next week about how Fury Road seems to be expanding more on the chase scenes of The Road Warrior, but for now the important thing to focus on is Miller’s approach to filming these high-octane sequences. Miller is quoted as saying ‘the chase is an essential part of the heroic development’ and it is quite evident as early as this first film that he truly wants to make the car an extension of its driver’s psyche. The highways of South Eastern Australia also take on a personality of their own, and the audience is able to live vicariously at high-speed through the camera down these endless, barren roads.
This is one of those films where what you see is exactly what you get, as pretty much everything on screen as far as ‘stunts’ is actually happening. The film had an incredibly low budget, so most of those violent crashes you see are the product of the fearless stuntmen that could have just as easily been killed were it not for their driving skills. In the Goose crash scene for instance, the stuntman reportedly flew 87 feet through the air!
I encourage you to find some behind the scenes stuff for this film, as there’s a slew of production stories that sound absolutely unbelievable, but are comically and amazingly true. Paying extras with beer, staging ‘lookouts’ for real life cops who wanted to shut the production down, other broken laws – these are the things that will make you appreciate this low-budget classic all the more.
Now I don’t want you to think this movie is without its flaws of course – trust me it has a lot of them. Part of Miller’s style during the chase scenes involves the use of quick cut montages that often create continuity errors. In one scene for instance, a car might be right next to another, then in the next cut it has magically fallen behind. Additionally, when Toecutter meets his gruesome end, the truck that barrels over his motorcycle has a laughably painted false-front so as to not damage the truck. These are little things that you probably wouldn’t notice at a casual glance, but ultimately they make the movie even more enjoyable as individual idiosyncrasies. Also that scene where Toecutter’s eyes literally bug out of his head is an instant classic.
Arguably the worst part of Mad Max though is its confusing narrative. The first half of the movie is more focused around the character of Goose who is evidently the angrier of the two officers. For a film titled Mad Max, the character of Max has little if any anger until the last third of the movie. Goose is a loose cannon up until his death, and even then Max’s solution is just to quit his job. You gotta get angry! You gotta get mean!
It’s bizarre to say the least! The movie also confuses its own logic on multiple occasions claiming to be a ‘dystopian future’ only to devolve into a lengthy revenge story. For instance, in this supposed decaying ruin of a society, one of the bikers is brought to justice by the officers only to be released on a technicality by a lawyer. Why are there fucking lawyers in the wasteland? If you have an organized protection force, doesn’t that preclude the society from being in anarchy? What happened to ‘lawless’?
Despite some of the more disjointed elements of the story, Mad Max is still sure to hold your attention—even four decades later. The pacing is perfect and the soundtrack is unparalleled at setting an engaging tone. If you’ve never seen the film, it will probably be the most unrecognizable by the Fury Road trailer’s standards, as the landscapes haven’t quite descended into taking on a true wasteland feel. SE Australia definitely fits the bill for post-apocalyptic scenery, but it wasn’t until The Road Warrior that a more familiar setting for Max’s adventures would come to be.
I’d argue that you should without a doubt see this film first, but you won’t miss much if you’re want for time and looking to start with the second installment. See the original if you’re more interested in the character of Max and his archetypal struggle of good vs. evil. You’ll see a loyal friend and family man evolve into a nameless and vengeful scavenger with a fetishistic approach to his wardrobe. Oh and mayhem. Lot’s of mayhem. Like sawed-off shotgun mayhem.
The Bottom Line:
The movie that started it all – the myth, the man, the madness; Mad Max will go down in film history as one of the greatest renegade car chase movies ever and the introductory chapter to a franchise that would serve as the inspiration for countless other action films. At its heart, it’s an apocalyptic anti-establishment film that literally broke its fair share of laws during production. In addition to pioneering the high-octane car chases and developing a rich mythology, Mad Max would also be the breakout role for Mel Gibson and one that would propel him to international stardom.
One closing fun fact I’d add is that the gripping end-scene where Max offers the villain the choice of sawing off his own leg or exploding violently would later serve as the direct inspiration for James Wan and Leigh Whannell in their horror classic Saw. The more you know right?