With director George Miller rebooting his leather clad hero Max Rockatanksy (and actor Tom Hardy taking over for original Max Mel Gibson) in the new MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015), I thought this would be a good time to compare the best of the three MAD MAX films THE ROAD WARRIOR with the new film as FURY ROAD will be compared to THE ROAD WARRIOR, even if the timeline, according to Miller, is a couple of decades apart. For those unfamiliar with the series, the MAD MAX trilogy is made up of the original, low budget MAD MAX, Miller's first feature film that introduced us to Police Officer Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) who loses his family to a motorcycle gang and chases them down for revenge in his V-9 Interceptor (actually a Ford Falcon). Then, came THE ROAD WARRIOR which is set about 25 years after MAD MAX. The third and least satisfying film although very different is MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME (1985), set farther in the future for our wandering hero.
In MAD MAX, society was on the verge of anarchy. In THE ROAD WARRIOR (written by George Miller, Terry Hayes, and Brian Hannant), nuclear war between nations has destroyed cities and sent survivors out into the Australian wastelands to fend for themselves. Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), former policeman, is now a burnt out shell of himself, driving the endless white line highways in search of food and gas while trying to evade the scavengers that prey on the weak. After coming across the crazy Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence) and his Rube Goldberg gyrocopter, the Gyro Captain takes Max (and his loyal Australian cattle dog) to a rocky outcrop. He shows him a ragtag group of survivors led by the swaggering Pappagallo (Mike Preston) defending an oil refinery from a horde of marauders commanded by the muscular Lord Humungus (Kjell Nilsson), "the Warrior of the Wasteland, the Ayatollah of Rock and Rollah" and his blood thirsty henchman, the red mohawked Wez (Vernon Wells).
After an ill-fated attempt from some of the survivors to hunt for a rig that can haul their prized oil tanker to a new paradise, Max brings a wounded man back to the compound with the hope of receiving some gas for his good deed. But the man dies. Before Pappagallo can discard Max, Humungus and his gang return, promising the survivors safe passage if they give up the oil refinery. The Feral Kid (Emil Minty), a young wild boy, kills Wez's boyfriend the Golden Youth (Jimmy Brown) with his boomerang, enraging Wez. Humungus takes out his rage on his captives at night, torturing and killing his prisoners while Max, Pappagallo, and the others watch in horror.
Max tells Pappagallo that he saw a truck a few days away that could haul their tanker full of fuel. He makes a deal to bring back the truck. Max sneaks out at night beneath the vigilant eyes of Wez and Humungus. On his way to the truck, Max comes across the Gyro Captain again. Working together, Max and the Gyro Captain run the gauntlet of vehicles, bullets, and murderous outlaws camped out and bring the truck cab back to the compound. The survivors are ecstatic and see Max as their savior for getting out alive. But Max is a loner. He passes on a new deal to drive the tanker away to a new home, choosing to take his chances on his own against Humungus. At dawn, Max speeds off into the outback, chased by Wez and his thugs.
Wez along with the Toadie (Max Phipps) cause Max to have a terrible crash down a ravine. Max barely crawls to safety before his car explodes, booby-trapped, killing Toadie trying to siphon his gas. Wez takes off, thinking Max is dead. Seeing the smoke from the compound, the Gyro Captain flies off to investigate. He finds Max half dead and flies him back to the oil refinery. Pappagallo and his people are ready to leave. Max has no choice but to drive the tanker. He has nothing else to live for as his car and dog are both gone. Pappagallo balks at first but Max insists. And so begins one of the great finales (and chase scenes) in film history as Max, Pappagallo, the Warrior Woman (Virginia Hey) and a few others break out with the oil tanker chased by Humungus, Wez, and a bunch of hot rods, tow trucks, motorcycles, dune buggies, and police cars in hot pursuit.
When THE ROAD WARRIOR first came out, I remember critics calling it a post-apocalyptic western, comparing it to SHANE (1953) with Mel Gibson's Max the equivalent to Alan Ladd's lone western hero Shane. It wasn't until I began watching a lot of westerns that I saw that THE ROAD WARRIOR was a futuristic western. Max is the lone gunslinger, devastated by the loss of his wife and son, trying to live on his own and not get attached to any one person, group, or cause. But circumstances pull him into a hero role he tries to avoid. The band of marauders on motorcycles and souped up cars are the Indians, exemplified by the mohawked Wez and his war paint. When they chase Max and the tanker at the film's climax, it's like the Indians pursuing the stagecoach. And the group of survivors behind their fort, guarding and protecting the gasoline are the homesteaders or wagon train fighting off the Indians. Besides the Warrior Woman and Pappagallo, the settlers are not very strong. They're mostly made up of women, old men, and children. Most of the younger men are either meek or crippled. Only Max can lead them to safety.
So why is THE ROAD WARRIOR my favorite film of all time? Let me count the reasons. First, never had cars crashing and windows smashing, metal grinding against metal, and bodies somersaulting through the air or tumbling like rag dolls looked so beautiful on film. Director Miller and Cinematographer Dean Semler's every camera angle and movement is perfect from high angle and aerial shots to up close with the scorched highways and burning rubber hitting the pavement. Some films are glorious to look at but lack a story. Not the case with THE ROAD WARRIOR.
Then, there was my man crush on Mel Gibson who plays Max. THE ROAD WARRIOR would turn Gibson into an international star. He's a baby faced boy in MAD MAX but in THE ROAD WARRIOR, Gibson's the embodiment of cool, decked out head to toe in black leather with that cool Australian accent and spiky hair. I wanted to look and be Mel Gibson as Mad Max. I tried to catch every film that Mel made after ROAD WARRIOR including THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY (1983), THE BOUNTY (1985), and AIR AMERICA (1988). I develop these man crushes from time to time. Mel was my first. Harrison Ford, Ray Liotta, and Ralph Fiennes in their early years come to mind as other crushes. Ironically, my latest man crush is on Tom Hardy, the actor who replaces Mel Gibson as Max in FURY ROAD. Ever since I saw Hardy in Christopher Nolan's INCEPTION (2010), I'm his biggest fan.
When we choose our favorite films, there are reasons why we love this film or that film. It might be the actors in it or the story or the genre. Those are the big things that make us love a film. But it's also the little things, small visuals that resonate for me in my favorite films. In THE ROAD WARRIOR, it's Max's cattle dog sniffing a dead kangaroo lying next to the rig or low angle shots of the automobiles or the white lines on the highway racing by or a cobra snake insignia on the side of a tow truck chasing Max. Max's loyal dog almost steals the film in the first half of the film, its reactions so human like. And the end of THE ROAD WARRIOR with Max standing alone in the middle of the endless highway as the Feral Kid and the other survivors caravan away, the camera pulling away on the lone hero as he grows smaller and smaller, is priceless and perfect. It's the visual equivalent of the little boy Joey (Brandon De Wilde) in SHANE calling "Shane! Come back!" as Shane rides off only without any dialogue.
Mel Gibson's performance as Max in THE ROAD WARRIOR is more mature, nuanced as he's grown more comfortable in the role. For THE ROAD WARRIOR, director Miller drew inspiration from author Joseph Campbell's book The Hero With a Thousand Faces (more on that later). In the first MAD MAX, Max became a vigilante only after his wife and son are run down by the Toecutter and his motorcycle gang. But by the time of THE ROAD WARRIOR, Max is a loner, a survivor, his loved ones but a distant memory. When Max finds a toy musical box that plays Happy Birthday, a shadow of humanity returns to his face. The song reminds him of his child, a happier time. The Feral Kid will also remind Max of his son, his family. Max will give the music box to the Feral Kid, the most poignant moment in THE ROAD WARRIOR. But Max has no time for love or a relationship anymore. The closest Max gets to a woman is when the Warrior Woman apologizes to him.
The villains in THE ROAD WARRIOR are key ingredients to the film's appeal. The Lord Humungus is mysterious and a bit disappointing as the main heavy. Played by Swedish weight lifter Kjell Nilsson, Humungus looks like a WWE wrestler with a hockey mask that hides scars that may have been caused by a fire or radioactive fallout (we never know). He pontificates a lot to the survivors but his main weapon besides an antique pistol is a sleeper hold that he uses on Wez when the mohawked madman disobeys him. Like Max, Pappagallo, and the others, the Humungus is aware that everyone has lost someone. He tries to be humane, offering Pappagallo and his people safe passage if they'll just give up the oil refinery. But circumstances won't let peace happen, not with a dog of war like Wez around. When Pappagallo refuses the offer and disobeys the Humungus's orders, the real Humungus is revealed, a Humungus that takes no prisoners and intimidates with shock and awe.
But Wez, played by Vernon Wells makes up for the Humungus's shortcomings. Wez is terrifying, relentless, and fearless (he even wears cheekless leather chaps). His weapon of choice is a metal crossbow attached to his wrist. He's Geronimo or Crazy Horse to Max's Shane. Wez, Humungus, and the other scavengers stand out in their quirky wardrobe that's one part Hell's Angels, one part S&M, and one part Nazi storm trooper thanks to costume designer Norma Moriceau. Actor Wells would also appear as a bad guy in John McTiernan's PREDATOR (1985) and spoof his ROAD WARRIOR Wez character in John Hughes's comedy WEIRD SCIENCE (1985).
Director Miller wisely throws in a comic character with the Gyro Captain played by Bruce Spence to give THE ROAD WARRIOR some humor during all the action and chase scenes. Spence is a tall, gangly actor, his appearance resembling a tall bird like a crane or heron. No wonder he likes to fly. He's the closest thing that Max will have to a friend (or "partner" as the Gyro Captain keeps telling Max) since Max and his police buddy Jim Goose from the original MAD MAX. The Gyro Captain waxes nostalgia for the good old days. "Remember lingerie?" he asks Max as he carries gas cans for Max. Spence would make another appearance as a different, shadier pilot in MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME. More recently, Spence (almost unrecognizable) played an alien in George Lucas's STAR WARS: EPISODE III - REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005).
After THE ROAD WARRIOR, George Miller would make the final Mad Max movie MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME (co-directed with George Ogilvie) in 1985 and then completely switch gears. Not many people might know it but Miller would move into children's films and create two very popular children's film franchises about a pig (BABE and BABE: PIG IN THE CITY) and penguins (HAPPY FEET). As for CrazyFilmGuy, I would take a hiatus from my all time favorite film. I decided I wouldn't watch it again until Warner Brothers released a DVD version of THE ROAD WARRIOR jam packed with extras and special features (I'm still waiting Warner Brothers).
In 2001, word leaked that George Miller had a new Mad Max script called MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. But the journey from script to finished film would have as many obstacles as one of Max's incredible adventures. Miller would endure delays due to 9/11 and then the 2006 U.S. invasion of Iraq halting any chance of making the film in the African desert country of Namibia due to safety reasons. Then, plans to film in Australia were halted by Mother Nature who turned Miller's dusty landscape into a green oasis. Lastly, original star (and my former man crush) Mel Gibson would have a career meltdown. By the time the world had calmed down and Miller and company were finally ready to try again in Namibia, Gibson was too old to play the part of Max.
Thank the movie gods for George Miller's perseverance. 34 years since THE ROAD WARRIOR and 30 years since THUNDERDOME, director Miller along with co-writers Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris have given us a new Mad Max tale titled MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. Set several years after THE ROAD WARRIOR but a brand new story, Miller had a bigger budget ($150 million dollars), new technology, and a new Mad Max (Tom Hardy) to throw his creative energy at. FURY ROAD is not a remake but a reimagining of Max Rockatansky to entice a new generation and please us old die hard MAD MAX fans. Although a different story, FURY ROAD has elements, motifs, actors, and scenes that hearken back to the earlier MAD MAX films while taking us on an adrenaline charged new journey of the lone hero, the road warrior known as Max. Welcome back Max. We missed you.
Director Miller steps on the gas pedal right from the beginning in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD and never stops. Immortan Joe (Hugh Keys-Byrne) is a warlord who rules over the Citadel in this toxic, arid dystopian wasteland. Joe controls the water, the gasoline, and the people. His War Boys, painted white young soldiers, idolize Joe like a god. Immortan Joe keeps five wives ("my property") as prisoners and to produce healthy offspring through rape. Into this maelstrom comes Max (Tom Hardy), living out in the fringes, haunted by the deaths of his wife and daughter. He's hunted down and caught by a War Boys scout party and brought back to Immortan Joe's kingdom where he's hung upside down and hooked up to War Boy mechanic Nux (Nicholas Hoult) as a human blood bag, providing strength to the poisoned, sickly youth.
But Imperator Furiosa (Charlene Theron), a War Rig operator with a mechanical left arm, enslaved by Joe, plots revenge against the evil tyrant, liberating Immortan Joe's five wives and hiding them in her war rig as she makes a run across a hostile environment to bring these girls back to her homeland called the Green Place where she was stolen away as a child. Immortan Joe discovers her treachery and with his gargantuan son Rictus Erectus (Nathan Jones) and his army of War Boy warriors including Slit (Josh Helman) by his side, they pursue Furiosa's vehicle with an armada of monster trucks and supercharged machines. Nux, wishing to gain Immortan Joe's favor, rides with the armada, bringing his blood donor Max with him, stuck on the front of Nux's roadster like a Roman shield.
Immortan Joe and his War Boys race to catch Furiosa while fending off other tribes in the region with just as crazy vehicles (like a dune buggy resembling a porcupine) as them. Furiosa drives into a gigantic sand storm, momentarily losing her pursuers. Nux and Max get separated from Joe's war party. Max attempts to free himself from Nux's chains and finds himself near Furiosa's war rig. Furiosa and Max square off with each, almost killing one another before they realize they both have a common goal - to escape Immortan Joe's tyrannical reign. Max joins their righteous cause as Furiosa brings her war rig into a canyon ruled by a Rasta-looking Rock Rider tribe. She tries to cut a deal with the bikers as Immortan Joe's fleet draws closer but the deal backfires.
With Max's help, Furiosa and Immorten Joe's stolen harem of Toast the Knowing (Zoe Kravitz), Capable (Riley Keough), the Dag (Abbey Lee), Cheedo the Fragile (Courtney Eaton), and the pregnant Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) outduel not only Immortan Joe's army of tricked out trucks and cars but a two other baddies who have joined Joe: the Bullet Farmer (Richard Carter) and the People Eater (John Howard). Nux, left for dead, stowaways on the oil rig and becomes an ally with Max and Furiosa. Furiosa reaches a band of mostly older women called the Vuvalini or Many Mothers from where she was born. This matriarchal motorcycle tribe led by the Keeper of the Seeds (Melissa Jaffer) and the imposing Valkyrie (Megan Gale) have dire news for Furiosa. It's up to Max to rally this ragtag band of mothers, daughters, wives, and outcasts and take the offensive against Immorten Joe.
With 20 plus years to contemplate a new story for his Lone Wolf, anti-hero Max, Miller delivers, conjuring up a hallucinatory, over the top, crazy post-apocalyptic new world for Max to inhabit. FURY ROAD introduces us to the War Boys, kamikaze-like warriors slavishly devoted to the god-like father figure Immorten Joe, willing to sacrifice their lives for the warlord in hopes of reaching Valhalla. But the War Boys and War Pups are sickly, poisoned by their environment, many with tumors on their bodies, destined for short life spans. Blood transfusions from prisoners like Max and pumped mother's milk from Joe's pool of obese wet nurses help keep the pale young men strong and ready for battle.
We're introduced to the villainous Immorten Joe who governs the Citadel with an iron fist, branding all his human property with his death's head insignia on the back of their necks. Five beautiful wives are kept in captivity, iron chastity belts attached to them. They are sex slaves to Immorten Joe, fertile women he will rape so he can breed a stronger brood and one day, a healthy heir.
Miller gives us our first female road warrior in the series in Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). With her head shaved and a bionic left arm, Furiosa proves herself to be every bit an equal to Max. Even Furiosa's cargo, the five young maidens are more than just Victoria Secret eye candy (even if a couple of the actresses actually were Victoria Secret models previously in real life). Each young lady plays a part in their race to freedom, fighting off Immorten Joe's War Boys, reloading Max's shotgun, or aiding Furiosa as she drives.
MAD MAX movies are always about the cars and car crashes and Miller goes steroid in both instances in FURY ROAD. THE ROAD WARRIOR had a small army of vehicles but FURY ROAD brings an armada of war machines with monstrous tankers and rigs, hybrid hot rods and muscle cars, Immortan Joe's Gigahorse (two Cadillac Coupe de Ville's welded on top of each other), killers on giant bending poles called Pole Cats, and even a trailer pulling a death metal guitar player spewing flames from his double necked instrument known as the Doof Warrior (Iota) and four behemoth drummers pounding away on their enormous war drums. FURY ROAD is an assault on your senses.
Although MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is a reboot of the MAD MAX trilogy, Miller draws inspiration from the first three films, filtering past ideas and images into FURY ROAD. The War Boys with their ghostly white skin and black, hollow eyes seem a homage to a minor character from MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME called Scrooloose, a mute, eccentric boy who was part of the tribe of kids Max stumbles upon. Scrooloose had the same chalky skin and raccoon eyes as the War Boys.
THE ROAD WARRIOR'S Warrior Woman hinted at the possibility of a strong female character and THUNDERDOME'S Aunty Entity (Tina Turner) had her moments. In FURY ROAD, Miller unleashes a full feminine fury starting with Furiosa, the bad ass War Rig driver for Immortan Joe's empire who betrays him. There are other empowered female protagonists in FURY ROAD like the raven haired Valkyrie. Both women could be offspring of the original Warrior Woman from ROAD WARRIOR.
The music box that Max finds on a dead body in THE ROAD WARRIOR makes an appearance in FURY ROAD as Toast, one of the wives, plays with a similar music box. The musical toy reminds them of a simpler, less violent past and hope for the future. Max's V-8 Interceptor makes a brief appearance in FURY ROAD but the car figured more prominently in both MAD MAX and THE ROAD WARRIOR. Unfortunately, there's no Australian cattle dog or much of any animal to be found in FURY ROAD unless you want to count the two headed lizard that Max munches on at the start of the picture.
The most significant nod to the old MAD MAX films is the return of actor Hugh Keays-Byrne as the evil Immortan Joe. Keays-Byrne started it all in 1979's MAD MAX as Toecutter, head honcho of the motorcycle gang that maims Max's friend Goose and murders Max's wife and son. As the aging Immortan Joe, Keays-Byrne still has a crazy head of hair and scary eyes but he's almost Darth Vader-ish with his breast plate adorned with war medals and a gruesome breathing apparatus and horse teeth mask. Keays-Byrne has come full circle in the MAD MAX pantheon of bad guys. Both Toecutter and Immortan Joe belong in the Mad Max Villain Hall of Fame.
Tom Hardy as the new incarnation of Mad Max in FURY ROAD doesn't make us forget Mel Gibson's Max but Hardy puts his own stamp on the MAD MAX franchise, showing he's the right guy to take over the role. Gibson's Max may have been ever so slightly more vulnerable and humorous. Hardy's Max is indeed a little mad, tormented by nightmares of his dead daughter. Hardy's Max is on the brink of insanity, wrestling with demons inside his head even before he becomes Immortan Joe's captive. But just like Gibson, Hardy looks kick ass in leather as the stoic wasteland wanderer. And his humanity will slowly return over the course of FURY ROAD.
In Imperator Furiosa as played by Charlize Theron, Miller has created one of the strongest female action characters since Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in ALIENS (1986) or Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) in TERMINATOR II: JUDGMENT DAY (1991). Stolen possibly by Immortan Joe as a child and imprisoned, then discarded when she may have been infertile and unable to bear children, Furiosa has plotted for countless years to get back at Joe. Theron plays her as empowered mother figure to the five young women. Max reluctantly becomes the big brother to Furiosa and the brides. Even though FURY ROAD is a sci-fi action film, the film's theme of oppressed women, white slavery, rape, and human trafficking are taken from today's headlines and atrocities occurring in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and by a terrorist group known as ISIS.
Just like THE ROAD WARRIOR had humor with the Gyro Captain, comic relief in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is provided by Nicholas Hoult as the War Boy Nux. Enamored by his idol Immortan Joe, Nux aches to impress Joe. But Nux is a failure. He starts out as a bad guy but turns good when surrounded by all the women of FURY ROAD. Nux is like a teenager hitting puberty. Hoult gets all the best bits of what dialogue there is in FURY ROAD and he makes Nux very sympathetic and ultimately heroic.
The MAD MAX films are not necessarily known for their music but music has played a role in all the films. In MAD MAX, the Night Rider quotes from AC/DC's song Rocker. It might just be me but in THE ROAD WARRIOR, I always thought the Mechanic looked like the lead singer from Air Supply and the Gyro Captain's Girl with her headband and ponytail sort of looked like Australian singer Olivia Newton-John. MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME cast singer Tina Turner as Aunty Entity and featured two great songs on the soundtrack by Turner. But MAD MAX: FURY ROAD goes full throttle with a traveling rock guitarist and drummers following the chase, providing musical inspiration. FURY ROAD is a rock opera during the almost full length chase with Immortan Joe the mad rock star. Miller even casts the offspring of rock legends in key roles. Zoe Kravitz who plays Toast is the daughter of rock musician Lenny Kravitz. Riley Keough who plays Capable is the granddaughter of none other than the King -- Elvis Presley. And kudos to FURY ROAD'S composer Junkie XL whose music adds to the film's tension and action immensely.
Besides director Miller, compliments to the entire producing and production team behind MAD MAX:FURY ROAD. Miller coaxed veteran Australian cinematographer John Seale (THE ENGLISH PATIENT) out of retirement and the results are stunning. Seale's color palette of burnt orange for day scenes and cold blue for night scenes are magnificent. Editor Margaret Sixel's cutting of FURY ROAD is impressive and may win her an Oscar. And let's not forget production designer Colin Gibson who's insane array of cars and trucks lives up to the MAD MAX tradition.
I've always been surprised that there weren't more post apocalyptic films after THE ROAD WARRIOR and THUNDERDOME. I think ROAD WARRIOR definitely influenced some of the crazy characters in the Coen Brothers RAISING ARIZONA (1987). THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS franchise owes its car chases (no matter how unbelievable) to the MAX films. Kevin Reynold's WATERWORLD (1995) was a water version of THE ROAD WARRIOR (and even had the same cinematographer Dean Semler). Neil Marshall's DOOMSDAY (2008) mixed zombie plague, King Arthur, and a ROAD WARRIOR like car chase finale. The closest film to the MAD MAX series I've seen and liked was the Hughes Brothers THE BOOK OF ELI (2010) with Denzel Washington. But Miller's MAD MAX films are tough to top. And Miller has added to the series with maybe his masterpiece in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. I dare another filmmaker to top FURY ROAD (and if they do, then it will be a good thing for moviegoers).
|Director George Miller (center) surrounded by Mad Max both past and present: Mel Gibson on the left and Tom Hardy on the right.|