Long before there was The Fast and the Furious, there was the fast and furious “Mad” Max, who kept law amidst the car-crazy disorder of apocalyptic Australia in the near future. His tragic story unfolded in Mad Max (1979)—a hit abroad, though not widely distributed in the U.S., it caused a sensation among HBO viewers of a certain impressionable age (like this one) when it debuted on cable, which aired little but movies back in its prehistory.
Broadly distributed Stateside, Mad Max 2 (1981), aka The Road Warrior, roared into the summer movie season of 1982 and quickly established itself as a classic in action cinema. (“Apocalypse…Pow!” raved Richard Corliss, late of Time magazine, summing up critical and audience reaction.) With Max (Mel Gibson) now a bankable Hollywood star, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) showed there was more gas in the tank. Thirty years later, the director of the original trilogy (George Miller) and a new Max (Tom Hardy) rev up for Mad Max: Fury Road, which opens this Friday. Let’s get up to speed.
Max Rockatansky (yes, he does have a last name) is a member of Australia’s “Main Force Patrol,” a combative driver whose skills are vital in suppressing violent motorcycle gangs as an energy crisis saps Australia of “the precious juice” of fuel. The vengeance-seeking Toecutter, one of many punkishly outlandish villains in the series, kills Max’s wife and infant son in the course of the first film, setting up his nomadic desert wanderings in the sequels as petrol becomes more prized and human life gets cheaper and cheaper.
“We need freaks,” Gibson recalled the film’s casting agent telling him when he turned up for his audition with fresh battle scars from a barroom brawl the night before. It was the 22-year-old’s second movie, which was dubbed with American accents for U.S. audiences. (Current DVDs and Blu-rays reinstate the original soundtrack.) Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played Toecutter, returns as another bad guy, Immortan Joe, in Fury Road.
The Doctor in the House
It’s no coincidence that wounds and carnage are so grisly in the Mad Max movies. Miller was an emergency room doctor in Sydney, who saw many automobile injuries on his rounds. (Three of his teenage friends died in car accidents.) While his twin brother John continued as a doctor, the success of early short films and Mad Max, his first feature, propelled George into movies. Off road, Miller, who received an Oscar nomination for writing Lorenzo’s Oil (1992), adapted from a true-life medical drama, and Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay nominations for the popular children’s film Babe (1995), won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature for 2006’s Happy Feet.
The Cars are Stars
In the first film, Max’s yellow “Interceptor” was a 1974 Ford Falcon XB sedan with a V8 Engine. His “Pursuit Special,” modified from a 1973 Ford XB Falcon GT351, saw double duty in The Road Warrior and is currently on display in a Miami museum. Fourteen cars are totaled in Mad Max, in crash scenes all shot in one take. Eighty vehicles were used in The Road Warrior, which climaxes with a tanker roll so hazardous its driver was forbidden to eat for 12 hours before filming, in case surgery was required immediately afterwards. Production designer Colin Gibson customized about 150 vehicles for Fury Road, including the Gigahorse, a double-decker fusion of two Cadillac Coupe DeVilles, and the returning Interceptor, “the last of the V8 engines.”
Character names in the Mad Max series include Mudguts, Grinner, Diabando, and Sprog (Max’s baby boy) in Mad Max; The Humungus (“the Ayatollah of rock and rolla!”), Wez, Toadie, Warrior Woman, and the Feral Kid in The Road Warrior; Aunty Entity, Master Blaster, Blackfinger, and Scrooloose in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome; and Imperator Furiosa, The Splendid Angharad, Toast the Knowing, and Rictus Erectus in Fury Road.
What’s Tina Got to Do With It?
By and large unknowns who bring outsized personalities to match their fashion risky wardrobe populate the Mad Max movies. One exception is Fury Road co-star Charlize Theron, an Oscar winner for Monster (2003). Another was the unlikely Tina Turner, who steals Thunderdome as the commanding Aunty Entity, ruler of the barbarous Bartertown. When the first two films were released, Turner’s recording career, hindered by weak material and her failed marriage to Ike Turner, was in an equally apocalyptic state. But the Grammy-winning megahit album Private Dancer (1984) turned the beat around for the singer, and Miller, attracted to her “vitality and intelligence,” cast her. (In her only other significant film role, director Ken Russell had her perform a scorching rendition of The Who’s “Acid Queen” in Tommy a decade earlier.) Turner, who later sang the James Bond theme “GoldenEye” (1995), had two hits off the Thunderdome soundtrack, “One of the Living” and “We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome),” which reached No. 2 on the U.S. singles chart.
Meet Max V.2
Thanks to his roles as a Star Trek villain in Nemesis (2002) and the hulking Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Tom Hardy has a higher profile than Gibson did when he played Max. But this will be the breakout starring performance for the 37-year-old Brit, who is known for edgy indies like last year’s The Drop, where he played a sympathetic Brooklyn bottom dweller, and Locke, as a troubled Welch businessman who spends the entire film behind the wheel of a BMW X5, talking on the phone to other unseen characters. With three more Max sequels planned, Hardy best get used to the driver’s seat.
Keeping it Real
The planning and production of Fury Road proceeded in fits and starts for 25 years, with Hardy and Theron (who reportedly clashed during shooting) cast in 2010. Much had changed in film technology since 1985, but for what he calls a “Western on wheels” Miller put the brakes on digital effects, preferring stunts, pyrotechnics, and mechanical effects achieved on site in the deserts of Namibia to CGI. Striving for acute emotions, he brought in Eve Ensler, the creator of The Vagina Monologues, to school the actresses in the real-life indignities suffered by women in cultures dominated by men, as in the movie. Once again combining the fantastic with the realistic, look for Fury Road to be a ride as wild as its predecessors.