If anything can strike the proverbial chord of the Eighties it’s a little “Oz-ploitation.” That’s the term used to describe the glut of Australian movies that permeated the North American landscape beginning in the late 1970s. It lasted a good 10 years. And it wasn’t just movies; Australian culture became a global bastion of celebrity, with music (INXS, Icehouse), models (Elle MacPherson), and TV personalities (Paul Hogan – he began his career with the long-running comedy show The Paul Hogan Show, and his tourism ads prior to Crocodile Dundee launched the phrase “shrimp on the barbie.”)
Despite the schlock-filled nature of the Australian New Wave of cinema, several releases went on to become critical classics. But no other film’s legacy is as indelible as Mad Max. Showcased in a golden age Retrobacktive entry, George Miller’s first three Mad Max films sparked a worldwide fascination with dystopian cinema, and the iconic image of leather-glad bikers roaming through wastelands established a zeitgeist not seen since Spielberg’s Jaws kept everyone from going into the water a half-decade earlier.Therefore it was only a matter of time before Max Rockatansky got the re-imaging treatment.
Unless you’ve had your head buried in the Outback, you may have noticed Hollywood ran out of original ideas sometime around 2001. Virtually every blockbuster released now is a re-imagining or re-tooling of some film/tv/theater/literature (yes, comic books count) relic. And the big hit this summer was Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth installment in the Mad Max series. Not only lauded as the summer blockbuster of 2015, it’s been called one of the best action movies of the last 15 years. So ever the contrarian, Retrobacktive wants to know: is the praise worthy? Does Mad Max: Fury Road stand up to its predecessors, or has the melted attention span of a digitized world fallen deeper into ambivalence, satisfied with any route bearing resemblance to former greatness?
If you will, a Retrobacktive breakdown.
Max v. Max: The Production
To be fair Mad Max: Fury Road is not a re-imaging in the truest sense. First, the film was written and directed by George Miller, the original creator and director of the first three Max films. Typically a re-imaging denotes a new production company and director coming on board to present their vision of a previous work. When the work fails to recapture the fervency of the original (almost always), it’s usually blamed on the new director’s artistic deviation from the source material. Mad Max: Fury Road was initially in good hands with George Miller at the helm. No one can argue his vision as it is his intellectual property… seemingly; we will delve further into this detail shortly.
Another element in Mad Max: Fury Road’s creation was its legendary languish in development hell. An astonishing thirty years passed since Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, the last of the original three films, was released. When a studio re-images a film it’s usually because the source material was long abandoned (“long” = a couple months) or far passed its glory days. Miller never intended for a thirty-year Mad Max absence. Preliminary concepts for a fourth installment even included Mel Gibson reprising his signature role. But a number of setbacks, including the September 11 attacks and the deflation of the Australian dollar, stalled production. By the time Miller settled on a script Gibson’s age and controversial persona caused the two to part ways. It was inevitable that a new Max would bring a new quality to the series, and thus the illusion of a pure “sequel” was shattered.
Conversely, the first three films in the franchise rolled out smoothly, save one tragic exception. During pre-production for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Byron Kennedy, the series’ original executive producer and ultimate champion, died in a helicopter crash while scouting film locations. The death shook Miller irreversibly, and he nearly abandoned the project.
When MMBT was released, however, it met with critical praise and further cemented the legacy of the series. As a whole the first three films were released within a span of six years, lending each other a certain relevancy. The biggest obstacle in creating a coherent storyline thirty years after the last installment is the loss of a built-in audience. With a worldwide gross of over $374 million it’s clear Mad Max: Fury Road found new patronage, but how many even knew Mad Max was already a franchise? Or that Mel Gibson rose to fame through his role as the Road Warrior? Unfortunately if something looks like a re-image, and works like a re-image, it probably is a re-image.
Max v. Max: The Story
Here is the eloquence of Mad Max: it’s a simple story. It takes place in the near future. The world has gone to hell after running out of fossil fuel. The highways have become wastelands, home to bands of sadistic thugs who live beyond reason and mercy. A thin semblance of order is maintained by the Main Force Patrol, whose top pursuit man, Max, kills a notorious gang leader during an escape attempt. The gang’s surviving members exact revenge by killing Max’s wife and son (“son…” this is important). Overwhelmed with grief, Max goes “mad,” steals a Pursuit Special, hunts down the gang members and kills them all in some egregious manner or another.
Of course he finds no solace in retribution, leaving the door open for sequels and a lot of philosophical insight into the concept of vengeance. But overall, a fairly straightforward theme. Mad Max 2 (aka The Road Warrior) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome play further upon the notion of redemption, namely Max’s…because, you know, the story is about Max. It’s his name in the title.
Mad Max: Fury Road, however, is left in limbo. Going back to the misguided premise of a re-imaging, the events in Fury Road seemingly take place after Max’s wife and daughter… wait, what? That can’t be right! Max didn’t have a daughter. He had a son. His son is an actual character in the first movie. That’s quite a gaffe in the storyline! And what makes it so mind-boggling is that it’s not some new director/writer with nonexistent research skills who made a critical error. It’s George Miller, the original director and writer! How could he have missed this? If it was intentional, what are we, the audience, supposed to make of it? So there’s problem number one.
Number two: at the beginning of Fury Road Max still has the V8 Pursuit Special… but this car was destroyed in Mad Max 2. Now if Max kept the vehicle for the entirety of the new film then we could infer the events took place between Mad Max and Mad Max 2. Except they destroy the car within five minutes of the movie’s start (a shame in and of itself). So this movie doesn’t even really exist within the timeline of the original character? To hell with continuity? The first three films followed a fairly well-structured trajectory. This gave the sensation of a greater opus. The non-linear construct of Fury Road makes the film feel non-canonical.
The story isn’t all bad, though, but not entirely great either. As the actual plot of Fury Road goes it has a character wrench working for it…and against it. As opposed to focusing on Max’s continued despondency (to Miller’s credit, it’s time for something new), we have a story about a world devoid of water (though the battle for gasoline had a much more relevant tone given the mechanized fall from grace in the initial entries), where women are valued as material goods. A lieutenant for a local warlord steals his harem of women, ultimately defecting in search of vestigial signs of humanity. Under fire, Imperator Furiosa finds aid in her mission by allying with Max, also an escapee from the warlord’s prison. They work together to save as much of the harem as they can, but it’s Furiosa who takes the lead in much of the organizing and fighting. It might be unfair to say Max is secondary, but his role is far more restrained than before. While this does steep the film in realism (it’s absurd to think one man would consistently find himself in one violent encounter after another and never play second-fiddle; no one is Superman all the time), it still is slightly misleading. Again, it’s Mad Max: Fury Road. We bought tickets to see Max, thus Max ought to be front and center. Unless, of course, George Miller is using Mad Max as a springboard to launch an Imperator Furiosa franchise. In which case, touche.
Max v. Max: the Man
There’s no use in analyzing flavor. And that’s what we would be doing here attempting to argue who plays a better Max Rockatansky. Purists will advocate for Mel Gibson. Anyone new to the franchise – which is to say anyone under 25 – probably isn’t even aware Mad Max was the movie that launched Gibson into international stardom. Tom Hardy has become Hollywood’s fair-haired child since his breakout role as Bane in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises. Given the impressive 30-year gap in the series, it’s nearly impossible to codify all the small, and timely, intricacies each actor brings to the role.
But everyone has an opinion.
Mad Max is an original story – believe it or not that used to happen in cinema. There is no source material outside of the film to draw inspiration upon. Gibson’s portrayal is wholly original. Comparing Hardy to Gibson would be like asking “who is the better inventor of Basketball: Michael Jordan or James Naismith?” Well, Naismith is the one and only inventor; Jordan is just a skilled player of Naismith’s game. Tom Hardy may be a talented actor, but he is only playing Mel Gibson’s role in a movie. The better question: is Tom Hardy the best actor to replace Gibson?
The strength Hardy brings in his performance as Max reflects the actor’s earnestness; he never appears to be posturing and maintains a sense of calm that Gibson himself provided effortlessly in Mad Max 2. But Gibson also had an aloofness that personified Max’s despondency. Gibson often didn’t seem to know what he was fighting for, whereas Hardy comes off a bit more calculated.
Despite any perceived shortcomings, Hardy did a fine job filling in Gibson’s shoes…or boots in this case. And are they good boots? Good, but different. In discussing Mad Max: the Man, one can’t leave out the look. Max’s iconic image owes as much to Gibson’s portrayal as it does to the uniform. Sadly, Mad Max: Fury Road is lacking here.
Throughout the first three movies Max’s wardrobe changes to accommodate the character’s arc and existence over time. The definitive image, however, belongs to Mad Max 2. Here we have Max in his battered, former MFP pursuit uniform. It’s been customized (and damaged) to facilitate utility in a degenerating world. It’s functional. It’s symbolic. And it’s black. And black is always kind of bad-ass. In contrast, Hardy’s wardrobe is bland. It maintains a sense of realism; it’s gray, and dusty, and looks desert-worn, but it’s missing the rock-star accessories Gibson’s had. In Mad Max 2 they called the main antagonist the “Ayatollah of Rock n’ Rolla.” That’s really Max. His look anticipated the music video age and inspired many of the fashion trends that found prominence in the 80s. The new Max’s appearance is workable, but unlikely to spark any new look.
Overall, Hardy’s version of Max is akin to Pierce Brosnan’s portrayal as James Bond; it’s solid and enjoyable, but not as enduring as the original.
Max v. Max: The Villains
Every great story needs an antagonist, and the villains in the Mad Max franchise are some of the most colorful ever created for the screen. A ruthless collection of muscles, leather, and masks, many of Max’s opponents are only thinly separated from the hero himself, and Max often struggles in discerning his own motives from theirs. The most iconic of these characters is Lord Humungus, the hockey-masked behemoth played by Swedish weightlifter Kjell Nilsson in Mad Max 2. Humungus was aided by Wez, the mohawked biker with a crossbow attached to his wrist played by Vernon Wells; Empire magazine voted him the greatest movie henchman of all time.
In Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome fans were treated to a vicious screen turn by Tina Turner as Auntie Entity, the conniving leader of Bartertown. It remains Turner’s last movie performance save a bit part in the 1993 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Last Action Hero.
So what about the villain in the first Mad Max, the Toecutter? And what about Immortan Joe from Mad Max: Fury Road?
It’s the same guy! Despite 36 years separating the films, the two characters are both played by actor Hugh Keays-Byrne. And to his credit, Keays-Byrne does a remarkable job disassociating the two bad guys; Immortan Joe is a megalomaniac with a severe god-complex. The Toecutter closer resembles The Joker, a sadistic wanderer who more inspires than leads a pack of similarly sadistic wolfhounds.
Immortan Joe has all the grandeur of Lord Humungus, but he’s missing a key ingredient in a good henchman. Toecutter had Bubba Zanetti; Humungus had Wez, and even Auntie Entity had Ironbar Bassey doing most of the brawling with Max towards the end of MMBT. The antagonistic lieutenant is one of those oft-overlooked cinematic additions that typically augments a story’s depth and provides additional insight into the mindset of the villains. It’s in virtually every James Bond film, and is played to near perfection in George Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy thanks to Boba Fett and arguably the most complex henchman of all time, Darth Vader (think about it). It’s possible George Miller was trying to avoid the glut of villains that often appear in, and plague, the Marvel movies, but the absence of a henchman in Fury Road dulls the plot and keeps the audiences reliant on the action, which brings up the final point…
Max v. Max: the Action & Overall Feel
You can call them what you want; post-apocalyptic sci-fi films, Australian new wave cinema, dystopian road movies. At the end of the day Mad Max is literally and figuratively about high-octane action. This is what Mad Max: Fury Road excels at. It easily outguns the first and third films. Many will argue the action in Fury Road tops Mad Max 2, but such a subjective claim is likely rooted in relevance – excitement favors freshness and if one were to critically examine Fury Road and Mad Max 2, side-by-side it ought to be obvious that the latter borrows too heavily from the former to explicitly discern itself as the more kinetic installment.
But credit where it’s due, Miller does an impressive job eschewing the ubiquitous CGI that has become summer blockbuster de rigeur. He needle threads his action into Fury Road seamlessly with a fine, if not simple, plot. There may not be as many memorable characters as the previous films, but Miller’s tone and frenetic pacing are there. It’s enough to make Fury Road a commendable entry, but also serves as a reminder that some milestones are a gift of time. The series can live on, but likely in perennial comparison of the original three. Perhaps, like Miller, the audience is better off embracing a new Max that exists for a new generation.
“As for the Road Warrior, that was the last I ever saw of him. He lives now only in my memories.”
…and on DVD. And any other number of streaming services.