Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is the most expensive, most idiosyncratic and most-mocked film of George Miller's dystopian action trilogy. It's a far bigger film than its predecessors (the budget was three times as large as that of The Road Warrior and 25 times as large as that of the original Mad Max), but also a much messier one. Director George Miller lost his passion for the project when producer Byron Kennedy was killed in a plane crash while scouting locations for the film. Miller decided that he would direct the film's action scenes himself, but give George Ogilvie control of the rest of the film. The end result is a fairly disjointed viewing experience, but an undeniably distinctive one.
The Max (Mel Gibson, Maverick) of this film hardly resembles the Max of the earlier films. His hair is now a long, flowing mane (early shades of Braveheart), he's much chattier than he was before (which is to say he actually speaks every now and then) and he seems to have put his personal tragedy well behind him. Alas, his life is disrupted once again when his belongings are stolen by a rogue pilot (Bruce Spence, who may or may not be playing the same character he played in The Road Warrior). Max follows the pilot to the city of Bartertown, which has established a thriving economy by using pig feces to power a crude methane refinery.
Two major figures are competing for power in Bartertown: the imposing town founder Aunty Entity (an effectively grandiose Tina Turner, Last Action Hero) and the conniving dwarf refinery owner Master (Angelo Rossitto, Freaks). Master is protected by a gigantic figure named Blaster (Paul Larsson), who just so happens to be the reigning champion of the Thunderdome – a gladiatorial arena of sorts fueled by a single rule: “Two men enter, one man leaves.” Aunty Entity is eager to regain control of Bartertown, and she hires Max to take out Blaster in the Thunderdome. Max agrees to the proposal, but eventually finds himself morally conflicted about carrying out the assassination.
The first forty minutes or so of Beyond Thunderdome are terrific, as Miller and Ogilvie establish Bartertown as an instantly memorable cinematic location. Its bustling, overstuffed, humor-filled design is worthy of comparison to the more memorable worlds created by Terry Gilliam, and every nuance feels fresh. The citizens of the town are bloodthirsty sheep easily swayed by cheap sloganeering, and both Master and Aunty Entity are experts in manipulating public opinion. The actual Thunderdome battle is the film's finest and most inventive action sequence, finding the exhilarating halfway point between an epic Roman-era swordfight and a Ringling Bros. circus.
Then, out of nowhere, Beyond Thunderdome evolves into some sort of strange YA novel, as Max encounters a community of children and teens who survived a plane crash years ago. The children have built a mythology of sorts around the details of the crash, and have been waiting for the return of the legendary Captain who will take them to the wonderful world of Tomorrow-morrow Land. They believe Max to be the Captain despite his claims to the contrary, and eventually our rugged warrior finds himself playing babysitter.
This material isn't bad, exactly, but the tonal shift is undeniably difficult to swallow. It feels out of sync with most of what came before, and it definitely feels out of sync with the rest of the series. One wonders whether this material might have played differently if Miller had overseen it, but Ogilvie plays these scenes with a semi-Spielbergian sentimentalism that feels like a pleasant melody being played at the wrong moment. Gibson is quite good during these scenes, but there's a sense of deja vu – didn't we watch his heart slowly soften the last time around?
Speaking of deja vu, the movie finally gets around to delivering a big car chase during its final twenty minutes or so. It's a bigger chase than the one offered by The Road Warrior in terms of scale, but it doesn't quite recapture the relentless energy and exhilarating choreography of that legendary sequence. In contrast to most action scenes in most action movies, this one ranks rather high. Alas, it's part of a series that previously set the bar entirely too high. It's a fun way to conclude the thing, but again, one can only imagine how good it might have been if Miller had managed to retain his passion for the film.
Objectively, I can see all of Beyond Thunderdome's weaknesses, failings and disappointments, but I never grow weary of returning to the film. Its great moments are so memorable that they define your overall impression of the film – months after seeing it, you've forgotten about the saggy midsection and still vividly recall Aunty Entity's marvelous laugh and “WHO RUN BARTERTOWN!” and that Thunderdome fight and that last-minute flight to freedom and The Wheel and Maurice Jarre's thrilling score and “We Don't Need Another Hero (Thunderdome)” and that delightfully surprising final bit of dialogue. It's sort of a terrible Mad Max movie, but I love it, anyway.
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 107 minutes
Release Year: 1985