Mad Max (George Miller, 1979). Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (George Miller, 1981). Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (George Miller and George Ogilvie, 1985).Will Mad Max: Fury Road – the year’s other much-anticipated sci-fi reboot – be a futuristic story actually set in the past? George Miller’s cheap, brutal original appeared in 1979 and was set “a few years from now”. Which was when? The 1980s or, at most, the 90s? On depopulated roads outside Melbourne, leather-clad road cops driving Ford Falcons battled Droog-ish motorcycle gangs, but nothing about the action or locations actually suggested a futuristic setting. Max Rockatansky seems initially to be the meekest rather than the maddest of the cops and for most of the running time, future star Mel Gibson is the youngest and most innocent-looking grown-up on screen (Joanne Samuel, who plays Max’s wife, was just a year younger but a more experienced actor). The domestic scenes are mostly excruciating and the Ocker humour is not integrated as seamlessly into the Roger Corman-ish action as it would be in Miller’s second and best Mad Max film, but the absurd and daring car scenes were already the selling point and Miller demonstrated that he immediately a rare knack for the choreography of action (before dabbling in cinema, he trained as a doctor which reportedly gave him an insight into how car crash victims look). The creation of Max as a western-style avenging hero late in the second half is also the creation of Mel Gibson as movie star, mirrored perhaps by the creation of George Miller, versatile director. Audaciously, it was a debut film that presented itself as a prequel.
Over time, the films became more cluttered and the back story was extended. The bikers in the relatively minimal first movie were just rough sketches of the bikers in the much more ambitious and sophisticated second, which pushed Max deeper into the desert. A newsreel prologue and voice-over sets out the legend, a long story to do with wars and oil shortages, but when are we? The famous black V8 Interceptor is now dusty and beaten-up, Gibson’s leather outfit is in tatters and there seem to be no other cops left anywhere. Gibson looks more than two years older, but still he barely speaks. In Gibson’s acting, speech has usually revealed an underlying vulnerability or insecurity, or is Max’s near muteness in this film really a symptom of his lasting trauma? But then, what does he need to say? Either way, the film is effective enough, and elemental enough, to communicate almost without dialogue.
Did any other action trilogy ever drift so far from its initial premise? So maybe it does need a correction or adjustment, back to Max 2.0. Along those lines, some Beyond Thunderdome dialogue leaps out. Aunty Entity (Tina Turner): “What did you do before this?” Max (Mel Gibson): “I was a cop, a driver.” How long ago all that seemed by 1985.