*** stars (out of four)
Revisiting 1979’s Mad Max after seeing all of the other films causes a couple of things to stand out. First, how relatively normal the world is. Yes, it’s a futuristic dystopia, but there are still recognizable things like stores, a police force, and towns. The second is how normal Max (Mel Gibson) is. He’s a loving husband, father, and hardworking police officer.
It’s not a spoiler to say that things go badly for Max. While chasing two members of a gang in the opening, the crooks die in a fiery wreck. Their leader (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who also plays Immortan Joe in Fury Road) vows revenge and terrorizes Max the rest of the film. It’s a fairly conventional storyline - a cop finds everyone he loves (partner, family) endangered by a ruthless criminal. But knowing how it all ends for Max lends the film a retroactive sadness and weight it might not have had during its initial release.
The original Mad Max may not be a great film, as the 2nd and 4th installments are, but it’s a solid, entertaining one by a filmmaker who was just beginning to master his craft (director George Miller was originally a doctor).
The Road Warrior
***1/2 stars (out of four)
In this film, the world has devolved into an apocalyptic wasteland. Max, devastated by the loss of his wife and son, wanders the world alone. But he soon crosses paths with a community being terrorized by the evil warlord Humungous (wearing a hockey mask before Jason in Friday the 13th did) and his minions.
Much of the film is a classic reluctant hero tale. Max doesn’t want to get involved, but he eventually comes to the aid of those in need. What makes the film stand out is its final act, a protracted chase involving an 18-wheeler and all manner of vehicles. The stunts were so dangerous that on one day during the climactic scene, several crew members refused to show up. But the final result is breathtaking, one of cinema’s iconic action scenes that still holds up wonderfully today.
It’s a classic action film - a charismatic lead (with all of his offscreen troubles, it’s become easy to forget what a commanding screen presence Gibson was), terrifying villains (Vernon Wells, who plays the mohawked henchman Wez, would be the lead heavy in many films), and jaw-dropping stunt work.
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome
**1/2 stars (out of four)
The third film, released in 1985, gets off to a strong start, as Max finds himself in a desert town ruled by a dictator (Tina Turner), who’s involved in a power struggle for control of her fiefdom. That setting is a change of pace for the films, and the first half of Thunderdome is highly entertaining.
But once Max gets beyond Thunderdome, so to speak, the film peters out as he stumbles across a group of children surviving on their own in the wilderness. There’s a big chase in the finale, and it’s competently staged, but it feels like a warming over of previous action scenes in the series, as opposed to something new and exciting like Fury Road. There are stories that Miller’s heart wasn’t entirely in the project as he was grieving the loss of his close friend and series producer Byron Kennedy, who died in a helicopter crash while scouting locations.
Thunderdome has its passionate defenders (Where Y’At’s David Vicari is among them), and it’s not a bad film, but it’s the weakest of the series.
Mad Max: Fury Road
***1/2 (out of four)
Watching the fourth film, it seems like Miller spent the 30 years after Thunderdome collecting ideas to make the craziest chase movie in cinema history. The movie has been universally praised for everything from it’s amazing practical stunt work (I would pay to see a two-hour documentary on the making of the film) to its feminism (Charlize Theron is an utterly convincing action hero) to its sobering portrayal of a world whose resources have been sucked dry. Tom Hardy does fine work as Max, but the film as a whole just clicks on every level.
A true consensus is rare in the world of criticism. Usually, the best movies have a few detractors, and even the worst ones have defenders, even in the world of hardcore film buffs. But Mad Max: Fury Road seems like the rare movie that everyone likes, if not loves. And everyone’s right.