The Mad Max trilogy has had a tremendous influence on action cinema – and next week, the series resumes. © Warner Bros.
The term “reaching the max” means to reach the top end or the final limit of something; it means to lie on the precise threshold between the possible and the impossible. Beyond this sublime tipping point lies the post-pleasure principle; the death drive; the burnt-out car at the bottom of the rocky cliff.
The philosopher Gilles Deleuze once reflected on how the alcoholic drinker is actually always on the look-out for the second-last or “penultimate drink” rather than the final drink that will lead to unconsciousness or obliteration.
The character Max – played by Mel Gibson in the original Mad Max trilogy (1979-1985) – literally pushes to this penultimate limit, almost to the brink of annihilation. Hence the “madness” and insanity that is attached to his name.
Perhaps it doesn’t really describe a man’s name so much as it pronounces a quality or a value, even of the style of the films themselves. Next week, after a 30-year hiatus, the series soon will be joined by a fourth film – Mad Max: Fury Road.
The birth of the blockbuster hero
This paradoxical idea of the (usually male) star moving “beyond” the max while still managing to succeed against the odds has become the parodied mainstay of the high concept and hi-tech Hollywood blockbuster that was rising alongside Max in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
To win you must be prepared to “die hard”, and to be “faster and furiouser” than all the others. It was also the moment when the antihero of the road movie genre was starting to turn into the hero – especially one spied through the graphic gaze of Hollywood.
[embedded content]The Road Warrior (1981) trailer.
Much has been written on the way that the Mad Max movies managed to blend high-concept mythic and epic narrative with daggy snatches of local humour and down-to-earth dialogue to appeal to both national Australian and overseas audiences.
It is easy enough to see why Mel Gibson’s Max on his legendary suicidal missions serves as a cipher for both the international hard-boiled hero and for the American Western hero.
In local contexts he’s an expression of the taciturn “bush legend” hero, or the Anzac legend. Don’t forget that the fresh-faced Gibson also starred in Peter Weir’s Gallipoli in 1981, a representation that, culturally, fed back into Mad Max and quite blatantly into considerations of national identity and character.
As I watched the films again recently on crisp Blu-Ray transfer, it was clear that despite the era’s kitsch style markers such as high ponytails, saxophones, punk mohawks and mullets, all three of the films have aged remarkably well, certainly a lot better than the romantically-infused Crocodile Dundee (1986-2001) series, Australia’s other high-concept success story of the 1980s. Why is that so?
Perhaps like the latest “cinema of attractions” we are constantly exposed to today – think online imagery, moving gifs, YouTube and vines – the trilogy’s heavy focus on pure movement and sensorial tension in place of complex narrative has worked in its favour.
After the first film, Max doesn’t go so far as think about the possibility for further romantic attachment, so focused is he on mere survival.
The reduction of story into pure sight feels modern. In all of the films, there are large passages of time with almost no, or else very limited, dialogue.
[embedded content]The first truck chase from Mad Max 2: Road Warrior (1981).
In the chase scenes of all the movies, we find the driver Max sensorially matched by the cinematic mechanics. We watch them now nostalgically as the last actions of a pre-digital filmmaking landscape sputtering gasoline onto the screen.
The brush stroke sketches of character read like cartoon panels; the films take us through impressionistic sequences where we ourselves are taken for a ride.
The limits of the spectacle
The pleasure of the crowd – and hence the film audience too – finds a commentary in the most recent film, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.
Here, crowds in Bartertown – a place that seems almost radical today in its representation of post-national multiculturalism – go to the spherical Thunderdome to watch death duels. It’s often not safe to do so and accidental deaths in the crowd from the fighters are normal.
[embedded content]Beyond Thunderdome (1985) trailer.
Max is called to kill the powerful Master Blaster in a duel and is confronted with the Blaster’s humanity. He refuses to kill his opponent and is booed by the crowd. Here is the moment where Max reaches a moral limit. It is a limit that the spectators in the Thunderdome cannot fathom, so insatiable is the desire for graphic violence and visual entertainment.
Max is no longer “mad”. It is the audience in the Thunderdome – and perhaps us in the cinema – who are shown to have no limits, searching beyond the penultimate for the money shot of spectacular annihilation. So the idea of “reaching a limit” is something that is reflected upon critically within the narrative universe of the film series.
Yes, this is a grandiloquent, over-the-top message, but in Australian cinema it is actually quite rare to find such bombastic and epic pronouncements (the only other recent director to try this form has been Baz Luhrmann).
I am looking forward to what lies in store for Max in the new film, and hope it continues along a similar trajectory, in medias res.
Mad Max: Fury Road opens nationally on May 14.