I’m really, really mad at myself: if I’d been up to speed with the three others when this came out, I’d have seen it in theatres, and I’d have gone back to see it as often as I could. And then again for the black and white version.
It’s an adrenaline-charged epic, so cinematic there’s literally a version where they’ve removed the dialogue entirely. The villain (a wonderful Hugh Keays-Byrne—also Toecutter in the original) is Palpatine and Vader in one. And the machismo takes a back-seat to a femme-led fable three years before #MeToo enabled, say, anti-misogynist Gillette ads.
Much has been made of the fact that Max isn’t actually the lead character, that honour going to Charlize Theron’s marvellous Furiosa, but it’s a wonder anyone was surprised: this is how these films go, at least since Road Warrior. Max helps other characters achieve their goals, but he never shares those goals. In the lauded Mad Max 2, he discovers that he’s actually the decoy in the plan, rather than the heroic custodian of the “guzzoline”. He takes no shelter with the resulting Northern Tribe, or in the ruins of Sydney after his dalliance with Thunderdome. The flicker of empathy still within him is only ever briefly rekindled; he always chooses to revert to the lone scavenger, nursing his demons.
It’s great for a franchise, because he’s a character that can continually reset. Unlike Bond, Max can convincingly play out the same transition, from selfish loner to selfless hero, in every film. He gets to be Rick from Casablanca again, and again, and again.
Brilliantly, this one also makes clear that, in addition to the Max of films 2 and 3, where the viable pockets of civilisation he’s helped establish revere him in legend, there have been groups he’s tried to help, but failed. “You left us for dead!” one memory incessantly tells him. It explains both his need for “some kind of redemption” and his unwillingness to commit to the current cause beyond its immediate crisis.
It’s really the only thing that makes him “mad”: being a loner in a world where even the other loners jump at any chance to band together. It’s also what lets him help so many people, even if they get to be the real protagonists.
All this is happening so effortlessly, many have assumed the plot and characters are thin, and it’s only the monstrously brilliant action that sustains interest. People originally made the same mistake with Star Wars, assuming all you needed to recreate its magic was some spaceships. Just see the miserable failure of all its imitators to give the lie to that. Nope, there is depth here—it’s just not explained to you in dialogue like you’re an idiot. And it’s told through, yes, the greatest action ever filmed, period. I bet the Michael Bays of this world assume that no one can do carnage and mayhem like them, but here’s a real filmmaker (just about everything Miller has touched since Thunderdome, from Lorenzo’s Oil to Happy Feet, via Babe, has been recognised at the Oscars) beating them hands down at their own game. It’s an astonishing film just to look at. And look at again. And again.
This is next-level stuff. Visceral. Primal. Essential. I’m buying it.