It’s been 30 years since the “Mad Max” series has had an entry. In a lot of ways, the new “Mad Max: Fury Road” can stand on its own: All you need to know is it’s the post-apocalypse and reluctant hero Max Rockatansky — now played by Tom Hardy, taking over for an old/disgraced Mel Gibson — doesn’t like people and is very good at beating them up/driving vehicles. That said, with only four films, it’s one of the most singular franchises, and one that can shape-shift while still expanding its unique world. Here are some ways it impacted movies and culture, and some ways it should have impacted it more.
Let’s get this out of the way. Terrible people can be great artists, and no matter his deep, numerous personal demons, Mel Gibson is a great actor and was, when he was on top, a great movie star. Thing is, he broke through with a series that didn’t exactly play to his main talents: his personality, which is better melded with the action genre in “Lethal Weapon.” But he’s also great at withholding said personality, bottling it up so that he may go nuts on those who’ve wronged him. Max is just that man, so traumatized that he’s a single-minded avenger and loner whose innate goodness has been buried deep down by rage.
Next level automotive mayhem
Car movies were a huge deal in the 1970s, with speed junkie classics like “Vanishing Point” and “Dirty Mary Crazy Larry” clogging drive-ins. What they didn’t often do is destroy the cars. Starting with its first but stepping up even more with the second, the “Mad Max” series introduced not just speed but spectacular wreckage. John Landis may have technically beat “The Road Warrior” to the punch with “The Blues Brothers” from the previous year, but that didn’t feature people flung like boomerangs from jeeps or cars blown into tiny bits by rampaging trucks. The outsized climaxes of “The Road Warrior” and “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” look like they were exhausting to film. It was worth it.
A new kind of post-apocalyptic cinema
Obviously, there were plenty of post-apocalyptic movies before "Mad Max." But "Mad Max" was one of the first to introduce action to the equation. The first “Mad Max” is not just a post-apocalyptic movie; it’s a car chase picture, a gang film and a revenge grinder. Its sequel is a Western crossed with a car movie. “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” is more of an adventure. It’s a series not afraid to mash up genres, and not afraid to shape-shift as it gets bigger budgets. And the first even offers an unusually unique dystopia: A vision of society that, in the wake of its mystery apocalypse, still barely exists, complete with a police unit, staffed by no less than the pre-mad Max.
A new cinematic language of action movies
Along with the Rube Goldbergian set pieces in early ’80s Spielberg films, the chase scenes in the “Mad Max” films set the template for how mainstream, Western films could construct the most dynamic action scenes. In fact, Miller and Spielberg both wound up directing a segment each in 1983’s ill-fated “Twilight Zone” movie, in which Miller stole the show. (Granted, he nabbed the keyed-up “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” while Spielberg went with the sentimental “Kick the Can.”) Miller’s shots and edits work in harmony to create a sense of kinesis and clean spatial relations; whereas many of today’s action films favor sensation over coherence, Miller did both.
Australian cinema in America
It’s not that “Mad Max” put Australian movies in American minds; “Mad Max” was even barely released in America, to the point where its sequel, “Mad Max 2,” had to be called “The Road Warrior” when it hit these shores. But it did make it more exportable. Till then the continent-country had been known for its art house cinema, like “Picnic at Hanging Rock” and “My Brilliant Career.” “Mad Max” exploded the idea of “Ozploitation,” their numerous genre entries that had thrived for a decade before Max Rockatowsky came along.
Tina Turner: action star
By “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome,” the franchise was big enough to attract international attention, but not big enough that it didn’t need to succumb to corporate synergy. In its case, it got a bigger budget as well as a soul goddess, whose career had just been reignited with the album “Private Dancer.” She became the third film’s villain: Aunty Entity, the dictatorial ruler of a junky oasis town that out-creeps Mos Eisley. She has what looks slinkies in her hair and rides around on swing chairs. And by the end she’s part of its wonderfully OTT chase climax. How did no one capitalize on this?
Speaking of no one stealing a great idea, Roger cited the threequels’ gimmicky bout as “the first really original movie about how to stage a fight since we got the first karate movies.” Granted, any film that steals two men entering a steel dome decked out in weapons, only one of them leaving is going to be accused of thievery. But it’s amazing that, in the wake of all the cheapie European “Mad Max” ripoffs that came in its wake — including this MST3K classic — none just put people in a straight-up Thunderdome, forced to battle with spears and chainsaws to the death. It’s not too late!
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge