Striking Down the Unroadworthy


Wrote this last year after enjoying MAD MAX: FURY ROAD — we watched all the previous MAXES, I wrote this, and then forgot to publish it. Now I’m thoroughly sick of staring at it in my Drafts section, I’ll finally punt it out there.


So, we finally watched all the MAD MAX films, in the wrong order. Fiona hadn’t seen any, and I had seen MAD MAX II: THE ROAD WARRIOR on VHS and the first film at my school film society when I was 17. FURY ROAD got us all pumped up and fuel-injected and we thought it was time to catch up. Oddly enough, my teenage self hadn’t been all that taken with the first film, so we left it to last. But in the interests of clarity, I’ll take them in order here.


MAD MAX — first seen at my school film society — has all the strengths and weaknesses in position already. The action is hairy and scary and impressive and the ruthlessness is total. The movie menaces a child in the first reel and kills one to motivate the last-act carnage. Max’s wife isn’t killed, just horribly wounded, and then allowed to completely disappear from the movie, and the series. Maybe he likes Charlize Theron in the latest film because she reminds him of his wife’s missing arm?

Throughout the action the movie contrasts Max’s heteronormative family values with the rampaging psychopathic polyamorous biker gang led by Toecutter (Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall Keays-Byrne) who are equal-opportunities rapists. “A woman! My favourite!” remarks one. Director/doctor George Miller takes a bully’s gloating delight in their depravity and laughs along with their jokes, which I think is what I disliked about the film first time.


Max and his sex-sax-playing wife actually play at Tarzan-and-Jane, and like that previous screen couple, they have an unimaginative way with baby names: their’s is called Sprog.

I don’t remember the cartoonish eyeball-bulge moment, played twice in the film. Either it was censored from our UK print or it went by so fast I convinced myself it never happened. Or I suppressed the memory and Miller should start paying my therapist bills.


The second film is an exponential leap in budgetary terms, and also in bringing in the self-consciously mythic aspect of the series. The ending is particularly fine in this respect, unearned by the preceding action — the Gyro Captain’s going to make a terrible tribal leader, obviously. The weird lack of continuity between films — no series save THE PINK PANTHER has survived so much surreal garbling — already creeps in, but is less overt. Miller’s skill with actors seems to have actually regressed, with this movie brimming with lousy supporting players cast for their appearance. Emil Minty as the Feral Kid is good though.

Isn’t he YOUNG? Mel Gibson is actually too boyish in the first film, struggling to appear bad-ass enough or convincingly tormented until his descent into nemesis mode at the end. He has just enough gravitas by the time of the second.

Once more, though, the film is far more in love with its bad guys, and can’t quite bring itself to give the hero much to do or say — only at the climax is there a clear imperative to get his arse in gear.


The third film is probably the most dated, since its budget now allowed Miller and his co-George to really indulge themselves, so we get more sex-sax, Tina Turner, some dubious hair for Max, and a bit of a Frankie Goes To Hollywood vibe. Everything at Thunderdome is a bit confused, with baddies who aren’t bad enough, fighting other baddies, and Max stuck in between without a clear role. Once we get to the “Jesus in leather” part, the high concept that made the film worth making to Miller, with Max as messiah leading a tribe of semi-feral children from the wilderness, things pick up. The Riddley Walker devolved dialect of the kids is inspired, and it’s only when you start picking at it that you realize the whole thing makes no sense at all — how long have these kids been here?


So the third film is the least satisfying and most naff, but also has a lot of the best bits of the series, with the epic, mythic ending of film 2 extrapolated out so as to occupy considerable screen time. In the first film it’s a really cool grace note at the end of a silly, nasty romp. Here, it’s almost substantial. The post-apocalyptic poetic is a major thing in literary sci-fi, but rarely gets a look-in at the movies. Surprising that the most brutal, comic-book and nonsensical post-apoc flicks should also approach the sublime most nearly.

11 Responses to “Striking Down the Unroadworthy”

  1. You have to see Mad Max 2 on the big screen, preferably in 70mm with 6 track (I know. I don’t know about Scotland, but Belgium doesn’t even HAVE any 70mm cinemas any more and even if they did there aren’t any projectionists left who would know how to project 70mm). That bit at the beginning where it opens out from Academy to widescreen with the accompanying roar of the engine is a thrill like no other. I’m surprised you didn’t mention the insanity of the stunts, the 20(?) minute car chase, the thinly disguised cowboys & indians, the Australian in-jokes or Achilles/Patroclus allusions, or the sheer kinetic energy of the thing. It doesn’t matter that Gibson doesn’t get much dialogue – “heroes” don’t need dialogue, and he’s a symbol AND a patsy. And I don’t think Miller’s interest in his bad guys is allowed to swamp the fact that they ARE bad – VERY bad and quite scary. There. My two pennyworth. (I love this movie – can you tell?)

  2. The first was jaunty little Z movie. The second really good. Dr. Miller (he has an identical twin brother who is also a doctor, you know. But he stayed with medicine and never entered The Cinema) is a superb action director. The third, however was bloated and slightly tired — despite Tina Turner (who always jazzes up the mise en scene) The fourth? Well I’m turning 69 this month and am therefore an Old Fart At Last. Wisely Mel Gibson was replaced as Max by Tom Hardy. I doubt the film could be sold any other way. Mel’s only friend these days is Jodie Foster. And did you see her Mel-starred The Beaver ? No, it wasn’t Mel as Simone de Beauvoir.

    Desert dystopias do nothing for me, as the waste and ruin I’ve faced since the 1980’s proceeds from the AIDS pandemic which killed off well over half of my nearest and dearest.

    Maybe Mel should consider making a comeback with Charlie Sheen.

  3. As far as I know Gibson’s fascist dad is still alive — I’m wondering if, once pops is safelt buried, Mel’s entire cognitively-dissonant belief system will come crashing down, and if so, if anything of the man will be left. He’s apparently a delight to work with on a shoot, but clearly a living nightmare in private, and from that long, grotesque and hilarious Joe Esterhaas open letter, seems like a seriously tortured individual who would love to be able to let go of this hatred he feels, but can’t acknowledge.

    Edinburgh does just about have 70mm facilities, but they aren’t used much — my next opportunity will be with The Hateful Eight this month, if I force myself to go.

  4. There’s nothing of him left right now.

    Meanwhile, off-topic: Outing Sergei Eisenstein

  5. annebillson’s comment on the screen expansion was VERY cool in the theater way back then…”the cartoonish eyeball-bulge moment” also shows up in Miller’s “Nightmare @ 35,000 ft” episode of Twilight Zone The Movie with John Lithgow

  6. John Lithgow can bulge his eyes without the aid of SFX.

  7. I can confirm that Lithgow’s eyeballs do in fact inflate to explosive levels in the TZ movie–I remember him being led, as if blind, to the (amazing) set with those balloons on his eyes, which puff up in near-subliminal closeup during the climax– Just like Vernon Wells (who I worked with on Innerspace), before his demise in The Road Warrior.

  8. Fitting JL with inflatable eyeballs still feels like an exercise in redundancy! Like that story about Christopher Walken taling to the guy positioning a reflector at his feet. “What are you doing?”
    “We’re just bouncing some light up into your face, make you look scary.”
    “You don’t need to do that.”

    Can’t think how I forgot the eyeballs, I love that episode of TZ:TM. Maybe Miller’s best work in America?

  9. I just finished watching the whole series! I didn’t like the first film very much and preferred the outright craziness of the 4th and 2nd. I loved the newest one- I put it in my Top 10 of the year here:

    My review of the third is out soon too if you have time to check it out!

  10. kevin mummery Says:

    Not much to add here, except to say I saw the original “Mad Max” in Honolulu in 1982 or 1983, and it was dubbed into American English because apparently the American distributors found the Australian accent incomprehensible.

  11. There might be bits that are hard to understand, but I think a deeper reason is that since the film could be made to seem American, it would obviously improve its commercial prospects to pretend it was. (The resistance to subtitled films has more to do with their foreign status than their language — so subtitled films by Mel Gibson can be big hits.)

    Thanks, Jo, I’ll add your blog to my blogroll!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: