“All those a**holes make are unwatchable movies from unreadable books. Mad Max, that’s a movie. The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, that’s a movie. Rio Bravo, that’s a movie.” – Clarence Worley True Romance
One of the more charming assets of Tony Scott’s True Romance is that, like George Miller’s Mad Max movies, it’s a story about people racing toward a spectacular crash. The inevitable collision that pulling out of the assembly line life of paychecks and 401K plans to set sail on the petulant winds of fate for a location much more precarious and lucrative – namely freedom – will bring. Freedom and a finale worth ending it all for.
In True Romance’s instance, it turns out to be a great ending. In the case of George Miller’s original Mad Max film – at least as far as his titular character is concerned – not so much. But to both films’ credit, it’s their shared reckless drive forward and total escape from law and order that are appealing to a certain type of fringe audience.
On cursory examination Miller’s Mad Max films are simple films. Mad Max is a revenge flick. The Road Warrior is a (thermonuclear) western. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome isn’t a movie so much about redemption as it is reconciliation. As far as the upcoming Fury Road is concerned, George Miller keeps relegating it as a “chase movie.” Which, maybe they all are. Just because they happen to take the direct approach with their storytelling doesn’t nullify any of the strength of their images. There’s something immediately digestible and impactive about the Mad Max films. Mad Max Fury Road has been developed not through a writing process, but through 3,000 storyboards sketched out over a decade of pre-production work. George Miller understands that man started communicating his imagination through drawings. Miller’s films celebrate that basic premise. They also seem perfectly resolute to toss fashion and function into a fighting pit, drop in a couple spiked baseball bats, and let the two fight it out for supremacy.
Mad Max, The Road Warrior, and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome are insular entertainment experiences. Because of their uncomplicated format you can view these movies in any order, or you can choose to ignore entire chapters altogether. The Max movies are their own stand-alone properties. No membership program required.
The two year gap between the original Max film and The Road Warrior is one of the greatest divergences in cinema. In Mad Max we have a society on the verge of collapse. In The Road Warrior we have the wasteland. I’ve always thought – quite mistakenly – that the apocalypse must have happened between the first and second film. When the camera first pulls out of the howling blower of Max’s Pursuit special in the opening of The Road Warrior I had assumed I was riding with a newly Christened nuclear holocaust survivor. Not the case. Or at least, put into context, recently.
Mad Max opens on one of the last vestiges of government, an aesthetic insurgent called the “Halls Of Justice.” The only information the audience is given after this is that these events take place “A few years from now…” At the time Miller left the guesswork up to the viewer as to how society ended up in this wretched condition. We later learn in the opening prologue of The Road Warrior: “For reasons long forgotten, two mighty warrior tribes went to war and touched off a blaze which engulfed them all.” After which we get a summarization of the events of the original film indicating that the story for Mad Max happens after a global catastrophe – not before it.
The bridge between films isn’t one created by the bomb after all, but by simple geography.
The society of Mad Max – with its radios, televisions, ice cream parlors, muscle cars, court systems, and kitschy discotheques – exists on the borders of a great wasteland of horrors. Or… once existed. The battle for civility seemed to be a losing proposition in 1979’s Mad Max. In an interesting aside, Miller originally intended society’s collapse to be more economical and ecological instead of one created by an exchange of ICBM fire. It’s only in Beyond Thunderdome, with its radioactive water, Tina Turner’s speech about becoming a somebody on “the day after,” and an aerial shot of a torched-out Sydney, does George Miller commit to his world being a post-nuclear-event population.
In Mad Max’s opening chase sequence – indeed, one of the most thrilling and certifiably insane openings in cinema – the Main Force Patrol dispatcher lists some of the chase protocols of the MFP and she explicitly mentions that the Pursuit officers: “Must not compromise territorial range.” It seems the MFP’s job description mostly entails manning blockades and protecting the territory from the vermin hordes (the Bronze call them “Scoot-Jockeys” and “Nomad Trash”) tearing through the wasteland on Sun City’s borders. The MFP Pursuit cars tag the intruders and lay the heat on – maybe in an effort to push them out of this small piece of civilization back into the wasteland. If that attempt fails, they call Max’s Interceptor in for vehicular assassination, which he does on two occasions in the opening ten minutes of the film. The first when he plays highway chicken with the Nightrider and sends the cop-killer and his old lady careening into some road working equipment, and a second occurrence a few minutes later where we see bent metal and heads mashed into windshields in what must be the aftermath of one unlucky outlaw’s run-in with Max’s car.
Max is an extermination unit. One that functions so well he decides to quit the force. His reasons? “Any longer out on that road and I’m one of them, you know? A terminal crazy. Only I’ve got a badge to say I’m one of the good guys.” After Toecutter’s gang kills Max’s son and cripples his wife (another interesting tidbit – Jessie Rockatansky survives, which means Max abandons her at the end of the film, an interesting facet to the pain the Road Warrior carries with him) Max steals an MFP black Pursuit special. In my favorite shot of the film, Max walks away from the camera into the dim garage of the Halls of Justice, his image dissolves till he fully disappears from the picture. Then the Pursuit special – the last of the MFP’s legendary V8’s – engine guzzles fuel and fires into life. The man and the machine are now a single organism.
The script for The Road Warrior calls this entity Black-On-Black.
The film ends in a crash (every Max movie ends in a skull-splitting collision, my favorite being where Max and Ironbar collide at the end of Thunderdome) and Max Rockatansky then chooses to leave civilization – the world of the MFP and their border barricades around the sectors of Sun City – behind, and he drives out into the wasteland where Mad Max II’s prologue tells us that: “He learned to live again.” The wasteland is Max’s bed of resurrection, much like the Colosseum becomes the source of Maximus’s resurrection in Ridley Scott’s Academy Award winning film Gladiator. These men – both named Max – who have lost families discover that the best reason left to stay alive is through the repetition of violence. Too exhausted to commit suicide – at least by conventional methods – and too lost to pick a new direction to go toward, they simply choose to become part of the problem that landed them alone in the first place. To join the cycle of violence, this time as an alpha perpetrator. The difference between Mel Gibson and Russell Crowe’s characters being that Max Rockatansky chooses to live in his arena. The consummate loner, his life simplified into a single, outstanding objective – to keep the car fueled up. To keep moving. Because, in the wasteland, to stop is to die. And death out here comes with some severe side-effects.
One of the oddest dichotomies about the Max films is that, while they don’t shy away from graphic violence and the implication of sexual violence (whether that be heterosexual or homosexual) they seem to veer away from what your mother may have termed “bad language.” There’s very little swearing in Mad Max’s world. I’ve only counted two uses of the F-word in the original trilogy, (looking at the reasons the MPAA gave Fury Road an R-rating language isn’t listed – intense sequences of violence and disturbing images being grounds for the final rating) and one of those was in the PG-13 film. It’s as though profanity would somehow remove a layer of dignity from the ceremony of car crashes, rape, and carnage. These people may behave like animals, but when they speak, they speak as choirboys.
I doubt Quentin Tarantino would have exercised the restraint Miller did when he had Lord Humongous tell the refinery populous: “What a puny plan.”
The effect being caught between clean speech and vicious, feral behavior is disconcerting. It could be that George Miller wanted to adhere to the old Hollywood standard of proper speech, or it was a conscious decision on his part to inculcate his films with an odd content imbalance to keep the audience off center, or it could be as simple as a seven-foot tall man in a mowhawk and bondage gear packing a meat cleaver doesn’t need to curse to reinforce the strength behind his intentions. Whatever the case it lends a reverence to what these films are built to do – which is to constantly move.
There’s a tiny clip in a Fury Road trailer that shows a collection of what can only be described as apocalyptic warrior-monks – painted in shaman’s white – performing a ritual in front of an idol shaped like a giant steering wheel. The Max films have always displayed an affection for the road – there are entire sequences of the 1979 film of white highway lines strobing under the camera lens like tracer fire – so it isn’t such a surprise that in the new movie the road has now been boosted to the throne of needy deity. This shouldn’t be mistaken for the love of the car that American films like The Fast And The Furious movies, and classic car films like Two-Lane Blacktop and Vanishing Point, have. Although I’m positive George Miller must have an affinity for cars, his films share more of an appetite for them. As in to chew them into pieces and spit their ashes out all over the holy blacktop.
This idolatry of the wheel we see in the advertising of Mad Max IV, The Road Warrior’s endless pursuit of the precious juice, is based purely on the pursuit of speed. In a beautiful bit of perpetual-paradoxical philosophy the chase exists to keep the chase going. The reward being gasoline to fuel the flames of the pursuit to the next tank of gasoline. In fact, I’m positive if you put this arid setting and these characters in the hands of any other filmmaker other than George Miller, the fight for survival would be over drinking water. Instead, The Road Warrior opens with Max sponging a pool of petrol off the highway, as if quenching the car’s thirst is much more key to his continued existence than quashing his own dehydration might be. While one of the more prevalent elements of Fury Road seems to be water, we don’t really see it become a legitimate resource in the original trilogy until Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.
Because two nations decided to burn most of the planet in a nuclear holocaust, that act sort of set the standard of what human life would retail at from that point forward. The only resource of any real value is the ability to go fast. At the beginning of Mad Max the Nightrider declares himself: “The mighty hand of vengeance sent down to strike down the unroadworthy!” The road is everything in the Max films. If you haven’t earned the right to be on it, you won’t be on it for very long – which feeds the terminal ideology of the road war. When the only reasons to persist are rape and gasoline… why feign sanity? Why use your brake pedal? Why put on a seat belt at all? Why not go as fast as you can whenever you can? When you’re numb from the heart in the thrill of existence is distilled down into the rise and fall of a person’s stomach as they take flight in a vehicle, or hit a wall at 130mph.
What else is there?
Even Charlize Theron got a taste of road dementia during the seven months of Mad Max Fury Road’s principal shooting in the Namibian desert. She had this to say about the experience of making her first Max feature film: “It was like a family road trip that just never went anywhere. We never got anywhere. We just drove. We drove into nothingness, and that was maddening sometimes.” Welcome to wasteland living Furiosa.
By the time we get to Beyond Thunderdome it’s obvious that an older Max Rockatansky has decided to retire from the pavement life and live something slightly resembling a pastoral existence. When we first see him he’s driving a team of camels through the desert. Of course, to be stationary means to be vulnerable, which is why this Max packs so many more weapons on him other than the sawed-off shotgun he carried in the first two movies. If there’s a spark between Max and Tina Turner’s Aunty Entity it’s because they immediately recognize that in a fight or flight world they’ve both grown strong enough to choose something else. It doesn’t mean that Max won’t have to spill blood to keep this remnant of life he’s managed to carve out for himself.
It isn’t any wonder that when he stumbles across a tribe of orphans with fresh water and food he makes the easy decision – much to the chagrin of fans across the globe – to go native. To pursue, not gasoline or revenge on Bartertown, but some level of happiness. Of course, this isn’t that story, and Max is soon forced to sacrifice his prospective existence in the clouds for his old life of being the Road Warrior. In this act he does redeem himself a bit by giving the orphans a shot at something better, but mostly it’s in this decision that Max finally reconciles with himself that his fate isn’t in Never-Never-Land – it’ll always be in the wasteland with the cars, cutthroats, and the carrion.
Whatever your personal opinion of Beyond Thunderdome and its deliberate change in tone might be, there are some nice nods to the original films in the movie. Outside of Bruce Spence returning to play a doppelganger of his Gyro Captain from The Road Warrior, (Miller has stated that Spence plays two completely different characters Max fans) there’s the moment when Aunty chooses to tell Max the story of her life before the apocalypse, (“Play something tragic Ton-Ton…”) the sound of the saxophone recalls Jessie Rockatansky playing the same instrument for Max before tragedy uprooted him from his life as a family man and sent him reeling out into the wasteland. It’s another note Miller plays to tip us in on the fact that Max and Aunty are kindred spirits. Later, after he defeats Master in Thunderdome and discovers that the brute has Down Syndrome, we may recall the character Benno, an associate of the Rockatanskys, who also had Down Syndrome. When confronted with this disability the Max who has, up until this moment, been fully capable of killing to get what he needs, the same Max who forced the Feral Kid to climb out onto the hood of a speeding semi-truck to retrieve a lost shotgun shell, (“Kid… get the bullet. The bullet!”) is instantly replaced by the Max on Mae’s farm from the first film. The guy holding on to the threads of a functional conscience. He refuses to follow through with his objective and suffers the consequences for breaking Thunderdome’s single rule.
Two men enter. One man leave, and all that.
We can only speculate where in Max’s timeline the events of Fury Road occur – George Miller hasn’t said too much on the subject of canon. We can assume that this new story takes place in the fifteen year gap between The Road Warrior, where Max is out mixing it up in the diesel fumes with the mutants and mental defectives, and the events in Beyond Thunderdome, where he’s taken up camel husbandry and lives a more nomadic existence. What we can be assured of, looking at Fury Road’s three theatrical trailers, is that we haven’t seen a road war on this kind of scale before, nor have we seen one reach this level of spectacle. Fury Road certainly appears to be a Max film culled from a decade’s worth of Dr. Miller’s worst daydreams.
By no small amount of effort on his part, not to mention a series of spiritual and secular miracles, Mad Max Fury Road arrives in theaters a full thirty years after the release of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.
Mad Max: Fury Road will be released in theaters all across the country on 05/15/15. Because this franchise is pliable, and seems tailor-built for the medium, Mad Max: The Game will be released on Playstation 4 and Xbox One on 09/01/15.