More mildly eccentric than Mad, but still worth your time.
I’ve been rewatching the original Mad Max trilogy around the release of the splendid new fourth entry, and while films #1 and #2 have stood up tremendously well and are just as great as I remembered them, I sat down with apprehension towards Beyond Thunderdome, which I recall being a film of two halves, which is appropriate given that this one has two directors. It’s not a neat, slice down the middle set of halves either. I remember loving the first and third acts, the middle one not so much. Too much of a Hollywood influence, a seeping in of sentimentality, a blunting of the hard edge that made the first two so good… how does it stand up today?
Pretty well. It’s still the least effective of the series, and that middle act does slow things down badly, but George Miller’s wild streak hasn’t been wholly diluted. After the lethal, uncertain and foreboding mood of the second film, hope and salvation was the order of the day for film #3, and hope can sometimes bring sentiment, mawkishness, all that. I wouldn’t say that this film suffers from those things entirely, but I suppose any film featuring a tribe of lost children does suggest otherwise. Actually, we are spared things like Max learning how to be human again through the wonderful innocence of children, and the whole ‘Max is Messiah’ revelation is not taken too seriously. What Beyond Thunderdome does very well is continue to take the series in new directions – Mad Max 2 was a departure from the relatively low-key drama of the first film, and the third opens up the action considerably, with its very impressive opening section taking place in Bartertown, a so-called civilisation that operates on trade and gladiatorial combat for the masses, run by Aunty Entity (Tina Turner), whom Max encounters when he arrives in town in search for his recently stolen transport. Max can get his stuff back providing he enters the battle arena that is the Thunderdome, where a policy of ‘two men in, one man out’ operates. His nemesis? The Blaster, one half of Master Blaster, who literally consists of a little genius on top of a brawny behemoth, both of whom run the pig-shit fuelled power station of Bartertown. Max and Blaster’s confrontation is the culmination of a lively, hustle-bustle crammed first act – both fighters are suspended within the Thunderdome on elastic wires which help them soar over each other and pick up weapons stored high above. It’s a thrilling fight – original, exciting and surprising. After that comes the middle act, where Max discovers a new society who think he’s The Chosen One, and I suppose after the high-velocity thrills of its predecessor, this slowing down to a crawl might prove unwelcome, yet despite being far from profound, it’s great to see Miller take the Mad Max universe into new territory. Yet this detour also feels like a Hollywood influence has seeped in, compounded by the film’s notable PG-13 rating, the Brian May-free score (Maurice Jarre is an inferior replacement) and blockbusting pair of theme tunes (sung by Turner, natch) – okay, so we had The Feral Kid in the second film, but that little brat was about as far from Hollywood as you can imagine, esepcially that bit when he launched a razor sharp boomerang into someone’s head, whereas the kids presence here sometimes feels like an attempt to cute up the series. Trust me, it’s not Robocop 3, far from it, but you definitely feel the edges have been softened here. Saying that, after the brutality of the first two films, a little kindness turns out to be welcome.
Gibson continues to exude all the necessary presence as Max – a strange kind of hero who everyone believes in, despite his cynicism, but whose good-naturedness makes him a great team player and ultimate pawn in the bigger game. I’m glad he gets a hair cut halfway through – one thing I don’t want to see in a Mad Max film is the post-apocalyptic take on a mullet. Turner isn’t at all bad in the chief villain role – a little awkward now and then, but a strong presence. Her two songs which bookend the film are brilliantly big and fun, and ‘We Don’t Need Another Hero’ does indeed feature Timmy Capello (he of The Lost Boys‘ super-saxy beach concert)!The problem is, Aunty Entity is not really that evil, and when you think about it, the ending’s dramatic stakes aren’t that high. Still, I don’t care when Miller delivers another cracking high-speed finale – maybe not as magnificent as Mad Max 2’s, but still inventive, exciting, funny and spectacular. So all in all, a step down from Mad Max 2, but a distinctive, entertaining and often inspired treat in its own right.
PS: Bruce Spence, who was the Gyro Captain in Mad Max 2 but appears to be a completely different character here, looks an awful lot like The Police’s Stewart Copeland.