Even today, it’s hard to overestimate the impact of the Mad Max trilogy. They made a star out of Mel Gibson, brought Australian filmmaking to the States and set a standard for vehicular mayhem that may never be matched. Even now, thirty years later – with all that road behind it and its star now in a state of permanent disgrace – their power remains intact. The new Blu-ray collection lets us see them with a newfound clarity… though it doesn’t provide much in the way of extra features. Hit the jump for my full review.
The original Mad Max was not well-known in the U.S., thanks to its low budget and in ill-conceived effort to redub the soundtrack using American accents. It wasn’t until The Road Warrior – basically presented as an original film in the U.S. – that the trilogy hit critical mass. The keys to its success are easy to spot. Director George Miller gathered a team of fearless stunt performers to stage some of the most spectacular chases and crashes ever seen. At times, we almost feel like we’re watching a snuff film, so convincingly do the bodies skitter across the road. The intensity of such sequences is matched only by their simplicity. Miller rarely invents elaborate choreography for them. He simply points the cars in a straight line and hits the go button, then throws a few immovable objects in the path of their irresistible force. You can see it most tellingly in Mad Max and the Road Warrior, but even the maligned Beyond Thunderdome shows flashes of it from time to time.
To that, Miller added a thick helping of Joseph Campbell, reimagining the Hero’s Journey in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. His protagonist, Max Rockatansky (Gibson), matches the lone outsider tropes of everyone from John Wayne to Toshiro Mifune. Battered and broken by the savagery surrounding him, he emerges reborn again and again to save the wavering light of civilization from a darkness that seems insurmountable. Through his sacrifices, humanity limps on towards the future, and though he never tastes the fruits of those efforts, his world would never survive without them. Miller keeps the larger themes appropriately subtle, letting the action speak for itself and the implications bubble to the surface as time goes on.
It also makes for a proper cycle through the three films, covering the end of the world as death and rebirth. The original Mad Max – low budget and scruffy around the edges – gave us a world in decline, but still trying to function. The character still watched television. They still went on vacation. And though murderous biker gangs ruled the streets – one of which murders Max’s family, sparking a brutal spate of revenge – a police force still endeavored to keep them in check.
With the second – and still the best – film, that pretense has vanished. There’s nothing left but rats fighting in the ruins, and civilization hangs by the thinnest of threads. A jaded Max returns to aid an embattled enclave hoping to escape the savagery, and in the process discover what’s left of his own soul.
The third film posits the return of … well not civilization, but something other than total barbarity. A new city rises, a new order forms, and to paraphrase the late Roger Ebert, mankind has embarked upon a new game. Widely maligned as too soft and commercial for the saga, it holds up just as well as its predecessors, though admittedly the adrenaline levels are much lower. Max tangles with Tina Turner’s despotic Auntie Entity, helping to rescue a tribe of lost children in the process, and perhaps sending them on the road to a brighter future. It makes a fitting end for the saga, especially since Miller’s longtime partner Bryon Kennedy died before the production was completed.
Film lovers of all stripes are familiar with the trilogy’s pleasures, marking them as classics alongside the likes of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. After thirty years, we know what to expect. The question becomes, is this the set to own? Well, yes and no. After waiting many years, it’s gratifying to see the clarity of sound and image that comes with Blu-ray. Few films merit the treatment more, and the visual quality here is worth the modest price alone.
If you’re looking for more than that, however, you’re probably out of luck. The three films come in an elaborate metal box that holds one single plastic case for all of them. Mad Max has been available on Blu-ray for some time, and the new set simply repackages the old discs (complete with 20th Century Fox logo in the intro). A solid retrospective featurette caps a very thin array of extras, with only a pair of trailers and audio commentary ported all the way from the DVD included in the set.
The Road Warrior is a remastered version of the Blu-ray released in 2007; it improves a bit on the sound and image, but regurgitates the 2007 version’s shockingly bare extra features (even thinner than Mad Max’s, with one trailer, Miller’s audio commentary and an introduction by Leonard Maltin). The big prize is Beyond Thunderdome, available for the first time on Blu-ray. Sadly, the disc gives us just the film itself and the trailer, a major disappointment considering how long fans have waited for its release.
It’s pretty bare-bones, though frankly only the films themselves matter, and in that sense the set does right for itself. It makes an easy way to pick up the trilogy in one fell swoop and those who already own the first two on Blu-ray can grab Beyond Thunderdome separately if they wish. Just don’t expect anything beyond the films themselves. Considering Warners’ propensity for double-dipping – and the trilogy’s exalted status – I wouldn’t be surprised to see some future version armed with a lot more bells and whistles. For now, though, we’ll have to make due with this, a stripped down version of a series that deserves a lot better.