Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, the third entry to George Miller’s Mad Max franchise, begins with Max having now abandoned his old shining high throttle V8 Interceptor to trudging through the wastelands of the desert in a camel-drawn wagon. In the middle of his travels, though, he suddenly finds trouble once more when an AirTruk driven by a guy named Jedidiah (Bruce Spence) who resembles The Road Warrior‘s Gyro Captain in all ways (including being played by Spence) except having a son (Adam Cockburn) jacks his shit and takes it all the way in the distance for Max to chase after them.
The hunt leads Max to a thriving and kaleidoscopic place that resembles a pulp bazaar in all fantastical ways except with more dirt and dust to brown up the imagery. This place is known as “Bartertown” and is at the center of a power struggle between its founder and ruler Entity (the legendary Tina Turner in absolute scenery-chewing yet funky glory; she’s undoubtedly tuned-in to the craziness and I love it) and the head foremen of the pig feces refinery that provides power to the town – “Master Blaster”: a duo between the intelligent dwarf Master (Angelo Rossito) and his giant strongman valet Blaster (Paul Larsson) who know that the Bartertown’s survival rests on the refinery still running.
To throw this in her favor, Entity arranges for Max to be able to legally kill Blaster as according to the rules of Bartertown so that Master can forever be in her mercy and unable to threaten revolt or embargo ever again. This goes according to plan until a sudden revelation about Blaster as a person makes Max have a change of heart and break his contract. As a result, “Master Blaster” meet an unfortunate fate based on the laws of the Thunderdome in which they fight and Max is exiled back into the wasteland, only to be found by a primitive group of kids living in an Oasis and basing their cultural beliefs on the results of a Boeing crash where they were among the survivors. A belief that leads their leader Savannah (Helen Buday) and the rest of them into thinking Max is the prophesied pilot to fly them back home.
And here’s why I not only stop giving a synopsis of the movie but also where the movie outright stops it’s shit… taking forever to move on for the rest of the movie’s 107-minute runtime (I believe we get to this point in the premise at around the 50-60 minutes mark). So… yeah…
This is maybe a good time to note that the children is exactly where George Miller was apparently leading the story, even if it takes a while to actually get to the point. At the beginning of the project, it was not conceived as Mad Max film (The Road Warrior intended to be the end of that) but as a post-apocalyptic adaptation of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (though the boys themselves seem to resemble more the Lost Boys in the end than the children from Golding’s novel). It was only after some discussion that the movie was agreed upon to have Max turn out to be the man who found the children and from there the rest of the project developed itself.
But that still doesn’t answer for the leaden and slow approach to the story that sort of starts well before we even get to the children and only becomes absolutely damning once we actually meet the children and have Max juggle between their dilemma, Jedidiah’s theft, and the power struggle in Bartertown. And the explanation for that happens to be a little bit more depressing.
Since they met in 1971 at Melbourne University, Miller (studying medicine) and film student Byron Kennedy had been close friends and filmmaking partners. Together, they made a notorious cult short Violence in the Cinema, Part 1 (a film that is actually near impossible to find apparently, as I’ve really wanted to check it out) and Kennedy became producer for Miller’s films since the first Mad Max.
In 1983, Kennedy suddenly died from injuries incurred by a helicopter crash and Miller was still grieving over his friend when he decided to go through with the project. In order to keep from overwhelming himself though, he had George Ogilvie, who had directed a miniseries in Australia The Dismissal which Kennedy and Miller produced and Miller co-wrote, take over the majority of directing duties. Miller instead opted simply to handle the action scenes, while Ogilvie took over everything else.
And the thankful thing is that, unlike something like Dracula (a movie which also suffers from a director’s grieving disinterest in a project, but much more severely to a point that it’s kind of a shit movie), Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome still has a lot of thunder inside it to keep me interested and catching up with it (or given the pacing change – it catching up with my interest), even if it’s not going flowing as quick as its previous two films were. For one, both of the two major action setpieces Miller directs are still exciting and fun. The Thunderdome battle between Max and Blaster is quite frankly wacky in the best way possible, with a literally off-the-walls approach that reminds me of all those Nickelodeon Game Shows I watched as a kid. The two of them bounce around on bungee cords slamming into each other, grabbing whatever weapon they can and gleefully chasing each other up and about, without ever feeling sloppy or amateur. It’s still perilous and deadly, but this is probably the way I’d expect such a death fight adapted for a children’s film and it does so in a manner that the gleeful chaotic fun can be enjoyed by adults in that same juvenile manner.
The other big action setpiece – a finale vehicular chase once again – is not entirely original. In fact, it’s very clearly the movie remembering why we loved The Road Warrior and while having to force us to compare it to one of the best actions scenes ever made is quite a self-damning task, there’s at least one aspect of which I can give the chase scene here a one-up than The Road Warrior. This movie’s chase scene is shot better in a wholly superficial way. The horizons melting with each other, the Bartertown settings given more license to feel full now that we’re zipping through them like The Rules of the Game zips through La Coliniere… Dean Semler is clearly able to give Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome a more polished (but thankfully never clean) look to it than the previous films, but it is the final chase where it absolutely pays off.
Beyond that, we still have a very functional movie still. Ogilvie is thankfully no slouch when dealing with the different cast of characters that live in and beyond Thunderdome, even if he’s not as married to the characters as Miller was when he was interested. Between that and the still interesting touch of civilisation building within Bartertown (production designer Grace Walker and costume designer Norma Morriceau seem to have approached building life within the setting as a more Western version of The Road Warrior without this time needing to raid BDSM and Sports stores), it’s still doable to slog through what’s left of the movie between Thunderdome’s battle and the chase into the sky.
But it is still a slog and it’s a painful one to go through after having lived through stories so easily and simply realised within Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome‘s predecessors. And witnessing this movie’s fall from the heights of The Road Warrior put me in a final more cautionary stance for Mad Max: Fury Road as I finished this film just in time to leave for an stage audition and then go to the theater to finally watch what was one of my most anticipated films of the year… now having seen how low the franchise has gone and hoping that this movie wasn’t going to be worse…