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Ranking the Mad Max Franchise

May 19, 2024
Tyler Banark
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In 1979, George Miller crafted a micro-budgeted action film that would eventually spur three more iterations, each evolving in terms of scale and iconism. Always leaving more to discover, even if some of the ideas on display can be absurd, the franchise refuses to back down on the chaos factor from technical and writing standpoints. With the upcoming Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga, the franchise looks to shift gears by focusing on the titular origin of one of the best-written heroines. Here’s a look back on the previous four entries in this ever-changing franchise.

4. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)

If there’s one thing viewers mustn't do when venturing through this franchise, it’s watching them on a screen smaller than a television. We all know the arguments for the “theatrical experience,” but there is a very palpable sense of loss regarding the sound design and cinematography when you’re not being engulfed by the darkness of the cinema. I digress, though, as Beyond Thunderdome turned out to be a misfire not for its technicals, but for its feelings of having too many cooks in the kitchen with Miller co-directing with George Ogilvie. The movie starts with Max coming face-to-face with another ragtag village led by Tina Turner’s Aunty Entity. Only this time, they have an extreme gladiator arena that acts as the primary source of entertainment, in which Max gets himself involved in its festivities.

After the first act, the movie takes a 180-degree turn by incorporating a Lord of the Flies-esque plot that had no business happening. The idea of this second act felt like Miller and co-writer Terry Hayes going for broke at the end of their trilogy. Fortunately, the 25-minute chase climax recaptures the energy of the first two outings, so the franchise seemingly ended on a miniature high note.

3. Mad Max (1979)

The fact that this franchise started so well is a minor miracle once you consider that it also served as Miller’s directorial debut and he had little money (AUD 400,000) at his disposal. Mel Gibson’s brooding performance as Max Rockatansky is what anchors the film. We watch him become a tormented lawman pushed to the edge as his new surroundings defy all the rules he’s accustomed to. He now seeks revenge against a gang of vicious outlaws who killed his family.

Despite its modest production values, the film’s set pieces hold up considerably well thanks to the well-choreographed and shot car chases. The high-octane energy of the action is juxtaposed with the bleakness of the motivations, with Max perpetually torn between his desire for justice and the need to stay away from the madness. The film’s worldwide gross of over $100 million made it the most profitable independent film ever, a title it held until The Blair Witch Project.

2. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)

Renamed The Road Warrior for its North American release, Mad Max 2 catapults viewers into an even more savage and lawless world than its predecessor. Miller elevates the post-apocalyptic saga to new heights of intensity and spectacle, delivering a relentless barrage of jaw-dropping action sequences and iconic imagery. There’s also a capitalization on the foundation of the original film, with more makeshift vehicles adding to the sense of a collapsed society.

But still at the film's heart is Gibson’s Max, who only speaks a little more than a dozen lines. There’s also Emil Minty as Max’s mute boomerang-wielding child sidekick, a staple of the era alongside Ke Huy Quan in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It all comes together to show that bigger is sometimes better.

1. Max Max: Fury Road (2015)

Mad Max: Fury Road is a relentless symphony of chaos and adrenaline that grips you from the first frame and never lets go. Tom Hardy takes over the role of the titular hero, holding his own with the torch. However, it’s Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa who dominated the headlines as she crafted one of the most fascinating original characters of the genre. Both Furiosa and Max want to be in a better place both mentally and physically, but the land they inhabit prevents that from being a simple task.

Of course, there was copious amounts of CGI used throughout the film, but John Seale’s crisp photography and Margaret Sixel’s visceral editing bathe everything in a sea of meticulous passion and analog craftsmanship. It’s Miller’s magnum opus as a filmmaker and one of the greatest action films of all time.

You can follow Tyler and hear more of his thoughts on Twitter, Instagram, and Letterboxd.

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