Mention Mad Max to most people below a certain age – okay, let's say 40 – and they'll think of the Tom Hardy-starring endless chase movie that was Fury Road. But way back in the mists of time, Australia's foremost mad genius director George Miller made three Mad Max films in quick succession, between 1979 and 1985. They starred Mel Gibson – a man who continued to be synonymous with the word 'Mad' for many years afterwards – and they were outrageous. These post-apocalypse movies are perfect for cyberpunk petrol heads, action movie buffs and anyone who loves the sight of muscular men with mohawks riding souped-up superbikes in ass-less chaps. Strictly speaking, all chaps are ass-less, but you know what I mean.
All three of the original Mad Max movies dropped on to Amazon Prime at some point fairly recently – I am not sure precisely when – so I rewatched them all. To my considerable amazement, they seemed even better than I remembered them being when watched illicitly on VHS tapes from the local newsagent, while I was bunking off school. That's partly because the image quality is 1000x better and partly because they are way weirder, deeper and funnier than they appeared at first glance. Dumb action flicks these are not – although they sure do deliver a lot of dumb action.
All three films have good to excellent critic ratings on Rotten Tomatoes and excellent to fairly terrible audience ratings. Which just goes to prove that sometimes the critics know just what they're talking about, and everyday folk are dumb-asses who don't know a great movie when they see one.
Mad Max. The original film may come as a surprise to anyone who's only seen its sequels and the quasi remake/reboot Fury Road. Set in late 70s Australia, it finds Mel Gibson as Max Rockatansky, a highway patrol cop policing the mean, sunbaked and practically endless roads of the Aussie outback. Needless to say, he does this in an absolutely bitching muscle car whilst wearing unnecessarily tight leathers. The car is a Ford Falcon XB GT with a HUGE super-charger on the front, and it sees plenty of action during the film's tight, 93-minute run time.
The film firmly establishes the themes of the Mad Max series, despite being rather dissimilar to the others in terms of plot and setting. Max is mad as hell, the villains he faces are ridiculously over the top and the tone is so macho that it becomes decidedly and knowingly camp. Can we talk, for instance, about Max's boss? This hulking, shaven-headed muscle Mary doesn't appear to own any shirts and he is decidedly over-intimate with the cops under his command, if you ask me. Like the similarly homoerotic Top Gun, Max's best buddy is called Goose, too. Coincidence? You decide.
Critic score 91%, audience score 70%, my score 95%
Mad Max 2 aka The Road Warrior. Here the series hits its stride. Like all the best sequels, Mad Max 2 is just like the first film, but more so. However, George Miller came up with one absolutely brilliant way to develop the series. Where Mad Max is set in a society breaking down, its follow up – given the much more evocative title of The Road Warrior in the US – is set after an actual nuclear apocalypse. This immediately raises the stakes and puts anyone who isn't a heavily armed punk in a futuristic motorbike gang at a decided disadvantage.
Mel Gibson looks considerably more gnarled here, which is good makeup and hair work, since in reality only 2 years had passed since his much more boyish appearance in the first movie. Roaming the wastelands, he comes to the aid of a group of suspiciously clean-looking people who are holed up in, wait for it, an oil refinery. Some even more outrageously camp villains in bondage gear and ice hockey masks are, needless to say, trying to steal all the black gold. The result: edge of the seat chases, extreme violence and dark humour.
For me, this is the high point of the entire series, and one of the greatest action movies ever made. The HD restoration job that's been done on it is absolutely revelatory, particularly since my memories of Mad Max 2 stem very much from the VHS and DVD eras.
Critic score 94%, audience score 86%, my score 96%
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Yeah, so audiences hated this movie and so did I at the time, but there is much that is great about the third Mad Max film. There's Tina Turner's performance as the ruler of 'Barter Town', a Mos Eisley style hive of villainy and scum, but seemingly the only 'civilisation' left functioning in all of Australia, by this point. There's a fight between Max and a huge brute called Blaster, conducted with big spears and clubs while they fly around the titular Thunderdome on bungee cords – no really. And there's a final chase that is, to be truthful, a little too close to the climax of the second film but is nonetheless pretty enjoyable in its own right.
The reason most viewers disliked Beyond Thunderdome on release is partly that it is more 'Hollywood' than the first two movies. But what people really didn't like is a lengthy section where an exiled Max is holed up with a bunch of weird kids. They have set up their own society following an outback plane crash that killed all the adults, and are awaiting the return of a 'Captain Walker' who will fly them to safety in the ruins of the plane. At the time I found this whole bit really draggy and verging on corny compared to the edgy, violent and hilariously camp first two films. Watched now though, it's a really moving section of the film and all the child actors are remarkably good, as is Gibson, who really raises his game in this movie in general.
The drastic change of pace during this part of the film is a good example of how original and eccentric George Miller's direction often is. Another strange thing about Thunderdome is that it features a character who flies a small plane. In Mad Max 2 there is also a character who flies a small plane. And he is played by the same actor. But it is not the same character. I expect it made sense at the time.
Critic score 81%, audience score 49%, my score 90%.