ey everybody, how’s it going? Anything new in your life? Yeah, me neither. Unless you count that terrifying, life-altering global crisis, of course. Other than that, not much to report.
In times like these you gotta take comfort where you can get it. For me, and some of you, I figure, that often means movies. They’re not real life, but they are made by real living people, in my opinion, and they’re a good way to transmit truths from farther than six feet. I hope we — you, me, the human race — will get through this crisis in as close to one piece as possible, so for inspiration today I’m looking to one of cinema’s greatest survivors, “Mad” Max Rockatansky (aka The Man With No Name, Raggedy Man, Bloodbag), played by Mel Gibson (times three) and Tom Hardy (once) in director George Miller’s incredible Mad Max series.
Because Max is such an archetype of top-shelf, post-apocalypse cinema, it’s easy to forget that in 1979’s Mad Max, he was still a pretty regular dude living in something resembling civilization. He’s not yet a legendary wanderer. He still has a job as a police officer. He has a partner, a wife, a kid. There are still houses and bars, picnics and vacations, and of course, highways. Lots of highways. Sometimes, his wife cheers him up by playing saxophone for him. He’s still able to laugh.
But as the crooked letters on the Halls of Justice sign hint, shit is getting crazy. Or at least people are. The highways are plagued by maniac drivers with nicknames like The Nightrider (Vince Gil) and The Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne).
Miller’s work as an emergency room doctor influenced the intensity of the car crashes and bodily injury. But he set out to make a movie that worked primarily on visuals, an approach he would refine and push further throughout the series. Though the story of the first film is somewhat standard in its depiction of a hero being pushed to vengeance by sadistic biker types, it was a revelation in its depiction of intense car chases and crashes. From the very beginning, Miller’s camera angles and editing were fine-tuned for the depiction of propulsion, impact and geography, and his stunt teams were dedicated to one- two- or three-upping what has been done before. When it comes to the construction of action sequences, he’s a grand master. And it could be argued that he’s even better as a storyteller or myth maker.
That became evident in Mad Max 2 (or as we call it here, The Road Warrior). By 1981 Miller had become enamored of heroic archetypes, so he set the sequel after a nuclear war and made it more of a western or wandering samurai movie. As far as fashion goes, mostly biker and S&M gear seems to have survived the blast, and spikes, mohawks, face paint and codpieces have gone mainstream.
Guys like Max and his enemies spend their days driving around looking for crashed cars, or causing cars to crash, so they can steal their gas and use it to drive around more looking for more crashed cars, to steal more gas. The big boys travel in packs, working together to find the most “juice,” which they then piss away driving around doing donuts and wheelies.
In rolls Wez (Vernon Wells, later of Commando), with his mohawk and football shoulder pads, post-apocalypse life partner “The Golden Youth” (Jerry O’Sullivan) straddled behind him on his motorcycle, wearing a leash. Wez is the kind of guy who, if he gets shot in the arm with an arrow, pulls it out and saves it for later. But maybe everybody left is that kind of guy. You gotta conserve resources. (Except gas.)
There are long stretches with little or no dialogue. Max finds out about some settlers who built their own wild refinery — the Fort Knox of the wasteland — and studies them through binoculars. But before he makes a move, up rolls Wez’s boss Lord Humungus (Swedish weight lifter Kjell Nilsson) and posse, male sex slaves chained to the front of their vehicles as human bling. His boot-licking hype man (Max Phipps) introduces him as “the ayatollah of rock ’n rolla” before he takes the CB microphone to give his (surprisingly well-spoken) 24-hour leave-or-die notice.
The settlers have a good life and good resources. But they’re pretty normal, bland people suddenly having to deal with this guy who thinks he’s King Shit and never takes off his goalie mask or covers his glistening bodybuilder physique. I don’t envy them. But being on his team would be even worse. When the fiercely loyal “Toadie,” the guy who kisses the Humungus’ ass before his speeches, loses his fingers in a boomerang-catching accident, his cohorts laugh at him. He looks around and, perhaps feeling the pressure to fit in, chuckles a little, too. Like, Ha ha, yeah, I guess that is kind of funny. Reminds me of some modern-day political party or something, can’t quite put my finger on it.
I believe the children are our future, and the one we find out will grow up to be a leader (and narrator) is a non-verbal feral child (Emil Minty) who runs around wearing furs and a tail, grunting, doing backflips and throwing a bladed boomerang at people. So, that’s what you got for hope in this sick world. And also you got Max.
At first, he’s out for himself. When he sees the gang attack a couple from the settlement in a way that mirrors what happened to his own family, he only rescues the man in hopes that he can get some gas as a reward. But trying to be neutral gets him stuck between the settlers and the marauders, and in a classic formula that will repeat itself in subsequent adventures, his true heroic nature will win out.
Agreeing to drive a gas tanker for the settlers, he leads the gang in a masterpiece of a 15-minute high-speed chase with people climbing on vehicles, shooting bullets, arrows and grappling hooks, breaking off doors, smashing through windows, crashing, flipping, catapulting, exploding.
One very satisfying thread woven through this very elegant skeleton of story and action is Max’s ongoing rivalry with a weaselly, unnamed one-man helicopter pilot (Bruce Spence). They threaten each other with knives and snakes. Max chains the pilot up and eats a can of delicious dog food in front of him. The pilot sounds wounded — “That’s dishonest. Low!” — when he figures out Max has been threatening him with an unloaded shotgun the whole time.
When it’s all over and they realize they’ve been tricked by the settlers, but helped them to achieve their goal, they’re able to smile at each other. That’s progress.
The third in the series, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), gets a bad rap in some circles. Coming along in the Steven Spielberg/George Lucas era, it’s the only one that’s below an R-rating, and since Max finds himself helping an all-child tribe of pidgin-speaking “poxy-clips” survivors, it’s the only one that could ever be accused of being saccharine. Perhaps some of the tonal difference comes down to Miller, who was grieving the death of his producer Byron Kennedy in a location-scouting helicopter crash, co-directing with theater and television veteran George Ogilvie. But in many ways, it feels like a prelude to the world-building and playful language of the Babe and Happy Feet movies Miller would make in the decades to come.
I think Thunderdome deserves credit, not derision, for taking the most unlikely of turns: turning Max into a pedestrian! His vehicle is stolen in the opening scene, and this is the adventure that rises out of trying to get it back. Don’t worry, it still culminates in an all-timer of a set piece with dune buggies chasing a jet-powered truck on train tracks. But the best part of the story is when he’s on foot in Bartertown, a settlement as baroquely detailed and interestingly populated as anything in the Star Wars saga.
I don’t know about you, but I have no choice but to love a movie where Tina Turner rules the city, has an entourage that includes a personal sax player (Andrew Oh) and feuds with a little person (Angelo Rossitto) over control of a methane-producing pig shit supply. That’s not to mention the titular form of dispute-settling, bungee-suspended cage fighting. It’s a system of law built on violence and simplistic, chanted slogans like “Two men enter, one man leaves!” and “Bust a deal, face the wheel!”
Like some bizarre post-nuclear noir, Max is hired by Turner’s Auntie Entity to commit an assassination. He balks when he realizes the target is mentally disabled and is sentenced to “gulag” in the desert, where he passes out and is found by the aforementioned tribe of lost boys and girls who treat a Viewmaster and a talking Bugs Bunny doll as sacred relics. They mistake him for their prophesied savior, the airline pilot who left them there.
So as civilization is beginning to rebuild itself from the debris into a new and even more corrupt form, the seemingly-amoral drifter once again chooses the side of hope, helping a bunch of innocent children find their promised land. (Even if that means moving from a literal oasis to the bombed-out ruins of Sydney.)
It seemed premature at the time, but after nearly five years of watching and rewatching Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), I stand by my initial feeling that it’s my favorite of the already A+ series. Its world is even more teeming with lively detail, its rich characterization and story fits onto an elegantly streamlined chassis, and the majority of its run time is dedicated to phenomenal, precedent-smashing chase scenes with a sophistication of choreography, stunt work, FX and camera movement that make Road Warrior’s classic finale look like a home video of a go-cart race. Even before the pandemic, I felt sure I’d never see another new movie I loved more than this one.
We find Max now magically transformed into the shape of Tom Hardy, having lost his mind from long-ago traumas, but somehow possessing his trusty Interceptor again. For the opening scene, anyway. Then he’s bombed and enslaved by War Boys, the body-painted minions of Immortan Joe, a fragile, monstrous, fake-muscled authoritarian who lords over the poor and sick from atop his Citadel.
Joe’s empire is the next step up from Bartertown. His power comes from control of a water source, but he has partnerships with gas and ammunition manufacturers, raises children as soldiers, enslaves women for breeding and even milking. But his precious harem of “wives” flee in the back of the “war rig” driven by Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a disloyal henchwoman who takes a sharp left on her drive to Gas Town and makes a run for it.
With their mantra of “we are not things,” the wives reject being Joe’s property. And Max, too, must escape objectification. He joins the pursuit muzzled and racked on the front of a car, his veins tapped as a human IV drip for radiation-sickened warboy Nux (Nicholas Hoult).
Furiosa, my choice for the most potent pop-culture icon of the 2010s, steals the movie. But Hardy’s endlessly captivating squints and grunts (not to mention willingness to be swung around on a giant bendy-pole) make Max interesting in a different way than Gibson did. And once again he slides from selfish goals (steal a truck to escape) to helping others (accompany Furiosa and the wives as they turn around, drive right through Joe’s armies and conquer the Citadel, not to mention transfuse his own blood into her). After Furiosa rips off her tormentor’s face, drives up to the Citadel, flops his limp body into the dirt in front of his men and demands entrance, she and Max just exchange slight nods of respect, and he disappears into a crowd. Off to another adventure, as Furiosa and company turn on the waterfall, spreading the wealth to the masses.
So these are some of our our lessons for these trying times: Courage, ingenuity, cooperation and optimism are our fuel. Medical equipment will be needed. Resources must be shared. Music will help. Cunning and tenacity, even ruthlessness are valuable, but they’re not everything. Hoarders, exploiters, toadies and power grabbers are the worst. Even loners, cynics and raggedy-men should protect the vulnerable and fight for a better future, for others if not for themselves. We can make it through this, and we don’t gotta be assholes about it.