George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road officially hits theaters today. It’s about as triumphant a return to post-apocalyptic form as you could expect, catapulting the franchise forward from the wasteland of Thunderdome.
I’ve come a long way with the Mad Max movies. In 1980, when I was in the 7th grade, we got cable television for the first time. HBO was starved for content at the time, and ran every cheap movie it could find. That fall, it ran the Australian film Mad Max, dubbed for American audiences that had no hope of deciphering the thick, Australian accents of the actors. I must have watched it a dozen times that fall, once sneaking down from my bedroom to watch it when it ran at 2:00 a.m.
The next year, we got The Road Warrior. It was Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior everywhere else, but since so few people saw the first movie, the American distributors decided to drop the Mad Max title. I saw it the first time in the theater at a crappy little movie house in a strip mall in Reading, Massachusetts, because it never reached the bigger theaters.
Anybody who remembers either of these two movies as blockbusters is misremembering history. They were cult movies that had very little appeal for a wider audience. The Road Warrior made $2.5 million in its opening weekend, opening at around 700 theaters around the country. As a comparison, Ishtar — widely considered one of the most spectacular flops in film history — made almost twice that figure its opening weekend. Mad Max and The Road Warrior were cult movies that depended on cable television to achieve the kind of popularity they eventually received in the later 1980s.
It was Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome that was going to be the summer blockbuster. It hit theaters in 1985 and it received the kind of marketing that neither of the previous two movies could hope for. It was still Australian, filmed there and populated with Australian actors, but it inexplicably had Tina Turner in it, and featured two songs from the “actress,” who had never acted in any movie other than musical performances in Tommy and the hilariously awful Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
It was a disaster, literally. Producer Byron Kennedy, who had written on both Mad Max and The Road Warrior, was killed in a helicopter crash scouting locations for Thunderdome, and as a consequence, Director George Miller backed away from the project, shooting only the handful of action sequences.
The rest of the movie was a 90 minute train wreck. I saw it it’s opening weekend in July of 1985, and I literally couldn’t wait for it to be over. In the intervening years, I’ve come to appreciate the Bartertown sequences, but the rest of the movie is unwatchable. By the end, any hope of a sequel augured right into the desert.
Thirty years later — a dozen jobs, three houses, a marriage and two kids later — I’m sitting in a theater hoping that Mad Max: Fury Road can somehow redeem George Miller as a filmmaker and re-energize the story.
What was missing from Thunderdome were the cars. One quick sequence toward the end of the movie was all you got. If you watched the trailer, you saw about 60 percent of all the car scenes in the movie. Fury Road looks like George Miller sat with pen in hand and said “OK, you want cars? I’ll give you cars.” In just over two hours, I counted five sequences that didn’t take place either inside or within sight of a vehicle.
And those vehicles are incredible. Unlike the phony chase sequences you’re used to now, from movies like the Fast and Furious franchise and the James Bond franchise, the key to Mad Max and The Road Warrior was the basis in reality. When some post-apocalyptic biker went under the wheels of a tanker, it really looked like he was going under the wheels. That sense of reality in the chase sequences is still there. Miller hasn’t lost a step in making them look like an accident you’d witness on any interstate in America.
Reality doesn’t extend as much to some of the characters, which is really the only thing keeping me from making this my favorite action movie of all time. The characters in The Road Warrior were over the top, too, but remember that in 1981, the Sex Pistols were only three years gone and kids in every city in America were walking around in full view with bright orange mohawks and safety pins jabbed in their faces. The extension of those characters to what you see on the screen in The Road Warrior wasn’t that big a leap.
What redeems Fury Road from its over-the-topness is its sense of humor. Keep an eye on the guitar player, for example. He’s ridiculous, and Miller knows it. There are a dozen little fragments where Miller pokes fun at the film he’s making, and you’ll laugh out loud when it happens.
The masses of extras in Fury Road are legions of humans loyal to Immortan Joe — played fabulously by Hugh Keays-Byrne, returning to the franchise after his starring role as Toecutter in the original Mad Max. They’re mindless automatons, either fixated on driving Interceptors or turning a giant iron crank.
Charlize Theron is terrific. I had my doubts whether I could buy her performance as Max’s female counterpart, but she dove into the role completely, and she’s absolutely believable.
Tom Hardy is a credible successor to the role of Max. Mel Gibson is Max to me. Always has been, always will be. But he’s too old, too booze-soaked, too crazy to fill the role now. If I want to see movies like this, I have to accept that somebody else is going to fill them. What’s interesting is that he really plays almost a support role to Theron, which has a lot of right-wing whack-jobs foaming at the mouth.
The standout performance was Nicholas Hoult, who plays the crazed War Boy Nux. Early on you’re going to hate him, but trust me, his performance is what holds the entire movie together.
The capper for me is that this is a stunningly beautiful movie, with jarring transitions between monotone darkness and the saturated blues and oranges of the desert in full sun.
Mad Max: Fury Road fixes the problem I had at the end of Thunderdome. Instead of hoping I’d never have to see another movie like that again, I’m hoping instead that we get to see another Mad Max, and we can all chalk the third movie up as an anomaly.