“They say people don’t believe in heroes anymore. Well damn them! You and me, Max, we’re gonna give them back their heroes!”
This quote from the 1979 classic Ozzie action extravaganza Mad Max should be the official motto of director George Miller, at least for the next year while he reboots his own franchise with Mad Max: Fury Road. There are plenty of parallels to modern society for the new film to draw on—namely the oil crisis—but perhaps the most relevant is the absence of a purely cinematic hero. Today’s film landscape is as apocalyptically desolate of action icons as the barren wasteland depicted in Mad Max was absent of, well, anything.
Don’t say we’ve got superheroes. Captain America, Iron Man, even Batman have limitations. They wear costumes, use gadgets, or with Cap’n, they don’t do anything particularly heroic despite being “superhuman” (“Ooooh! Look at him run behind that car going 20 mph!”). There’s nothing that courageous about them, especially when you compare them to the heroes of yesteryear who performed the impossible without aid. I’m talking about John McClane, John Matrix, and John Rambo, and, of course, Mad Max.
But now we need a hero. A real one. We need the new Indiana Jones, John McClane, and, yes, Mad Max. We need a legend to appear on screen as if from nowhere. Give him some credence, or at least the appearance of legitimacy. Unveil him with a proper mystique. Perhaps a shot of his boots, worn and weathered next to a striking muscle car. Then he dons his leather jacket, sliding it casually on as if its a requisite he abides by his choice only. Finally, we see him slip his dark aviators over his eyes and turn dramatically to face his eager audience.
OK, we don’t need to be introduced to the new Mad Max exactly as we were to the old one, but we’ll know if the new picture is doomed pretty quickly if Miller doesn’t give Tom Hardy a proper star turn. The one he gave Mel Gibson in 1979 rivals every hero I’ve ever been presented with via slow reveal. It’s iconic, extremely cool, and actually vital to the story. Introducing Max in this way let’s the audience know right away what he’s capable of—an idea important to remember when we see him as an occasionally jokey family man soon after.
Vernon Wells in Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)
More importantly, though, this method of introduction helped establish Gibson as an iconic actor (even if American audiences initially rebuffed the picture). Without it, we would have never made it to The Road Warrior, and without The Road Warrior, we would have never made it to Beyond Thunderdome. Without Beyond Thunderdome, the world would’ve been a better place, but we run the risk of missing out on Lethal Weapons 1-4—a tragedy I refuse to dwell on for fear of becoming suicidal.
While the star turn is an essential element to creating an action star, what he does after is obviously kinda important, as well. Luckily for Gibson, his director has crafted an obstacle course of fast cars, wild characters, and legitimately high stakes for his lead to cunningly navigate. Bouncing back and forth between Max’s initially mundane activities as a police officer and the wild antics of the motorcycle gang hunting him, Miller sets a path for his hero we don’t necessarily want to watch unfold. Tragedy will befall poor Max. We knew that the second a toddler ran out on the road in front of two fast-flying cars in the film’s opening sequence. This was not going to be your safe and easy action flick. This would get dark. And fast.
Helped along by a giddy performance from Hugh Keays-Byrne as the Toecutter, Mad Max revels in its own insanity. After all, this is the apocalypse. Wouldn’t you be driven a bit mad as well? It progresses from one slightly off-kilter beat to the next, each somewhat more crazy than the last. The film could serve as a how-to guide for filmmakers looking to make a dark-but-enjoyable apocalyptic action movie, even if Leonard Maltin claims its pseudo-sequel The Road Warrior is the rightful action writer’s bible in his three-minute introduction to the film.
The Road Warrior is an interesting creation mainly because of the background Maltin provides. After American audiences balked at the original Mad Max, the sequel’s distributor faced a unique challenge in marketing its film to the same audience. To do this, they cut Mad Max 2 from the title and sold it as a new, standalone film. It worked, at least financially, but it’s impossible for me to imagine watching The Road Warrior without the context of the original as a backdrop. Gibson’s Max is now without hope. Gone are the jokes, gags, and even the smiles. He’s hardened into a loner willing to do anything to keep on living, even if he’s not sure why he wants to keep going at all. He starts the movie without a larger purpose, and that’s exactly how we leave him.
That said, The Road Warrior is a remarkably compelling adventure. It features the series’ best stunt sequences and car chases while holding fast to its hero’s mentality. It’s a bleak affair. Yet what carried me through—other than the amazing action—was the attachment I formed with Max in the original film. This idea cannot be overlooked or overvalued. Forming a bond with our hero is essential in making him (or her, obviously) the iconic aspect of the film.
Imagine the Fast and Furious franchise for a moment. Our hero is arguably split in two with both Vin Diesel’s Dom Toretto and Paul Walker’s Brian O’Conner handling lead duty. The films have proven immensely successful, but neither star has been able to transfer that success to other films. Why? There’s no personal attachment between the audience and either character. Sure, we like seeing them in those movies because that’s who we know in those movies. They’re the two we expect to see behind the wheel and the ones we know can outrace anybody. Yet there’s nothing strongly identifiable about them.
The same cannot be said for Gibson’s Max, a distraught family man whose journey in the original film gave us an insiders’ knowledge into his pain. That understanding rooted us in his plight. It makes us his sole sympathizers since he never talks about it again. We know who he was and want him to get back to it so badly it’s all we’re interested in throughout The Road Warrior—even when he’s just driving like a madman.
I’ll be sitting on the edge of my seat for Mad Max: Fury Road waiting to see how Miller handles his new lead. Technically, we don’t even know if he has only one lead. The film stars Tom Hardy as Max Rockatansky, but it’s also got up-and-comer Nicholas Hoult. The biggest name on the cast list, though, belongs to Charlize Theron. How all of these highly-touted actors will be incorporated into what was a one-man show (+ one nasty villain…Charlize?) will be one of the new challenges facing Miller. I don’t doubt the man behind Babe can handle it, but I hope he doesn’t sacrifice any of his efforts to make Tom Hardy our new action hero. Between Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, and most evidently, Warrior, we know he can make the leap. He just needs someone to show us the way…star turn!
Tina Turner in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)
Oh, if you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, it’s because it shouldn’t be brought into the discussion. It’s an abysmal film with an atrocious diva getting in the way of everything with her awful opening credits song and worse acting. Also, there are zero special features with this disc, making the third part in the trilogy utterly without relevance. The other special features—a 25-minute making-of from 2001 titled “Mad Max: The Film Phenomenon”, and a commentary track for both Mad Max and The Road Warrior—were recycled from earlier video releases, but at least they were included in the set for anyone needing these two fine films on Blu-ray.