Mel Gibson returned in 1985 for his third and final appearance as the eponymous road warrior in this lesser sequel which saw the Australian post-apocalypse action franchise drive in a new direction.
Four years earlier Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior had amped up the thunderous four-wheeled mayhem of the high octane 1979 original while leaning heavily into the Western genre.
However anyone buying a ticket to see motorised mayhem on a par with the then high water mark of big screen vehicle action of Mad Max 2, would have been disappointed.
Instead of the indulging the audience by offering yet more rubber-burning tarmac brutality, Thunderdome took the curious decision to go off-roading from the successful template of its predecessors and almost entirely dispense with cars and bikes action until the final act.
And with great location work, sets, costume design, performances and animal wrangling, not to mention breathlessly choreographed stunt work, cinematography, editing and all the other contributing departments working at full tilt, the first half of Thunderdome delivers a terrific future petrolpunk dystopian twist on Sergio Leone’s classic western, ‘A Fistful of Dollars.
This includes an ill-advised wink to the audience where Max is introduced to a baying crowd as ‘The Man With No Name.’
Having had his camel-driven caravan stolen in the opening scene, Max crosses a desert on foot to arrive in a frontier settlement called Bartertown, whose control is contested by a pair known as Master and Aunty, who both are to exploit Max’s willingness to trade his faculty for combat.
From our point of view in 2023 where so much action cinema is produced by pixels, there’s a real thrill just to see the tremendous sets of Bartertown, filled with real people wearing real costumes.
And look there’s camels! A factory full of pigs! This is a fully realised and immersive world. The first films weren’t devoid of camp and there’s plenty more here, with co-directors George Miller and George Ogilvie giving us plenty of oiled up muscular flesh.
There’s a brilliantly staged cage fight which beat for beat is a master class in writing and editing, constantly snatching victory from Max’s despairing grasp.
And though this is a predominantly white world, this is a mainstream Hollywood release where the main antagonists are played by a forty-something woman of colour and a seventy something actor with dwarfism, and affords a degree of sympathy to both, though not in equal amounts.
Although Gibson’s charisma and willingly physical performance anchors the film, rock star Tina Turner offers an impressively controlled performance as Aunty in her only significant big screen acting role, combining intelligence with authority and an impossible to conceal sex appeal.
Meanwhile Hollywood veteran Angelo Rossitto brings pathos to the role of Master and if Max is the muscle, and Aunty the brains, then Master is the heart.
In the first movie, Max was a good cop tourney petrol driven angel of death, in the second, through self-sacrifice, he rediscovers a soul he’d lost. Here he becomes the mythic hero that his boss in the first film told him that the people need.
At the halfway point in the film Max encounters a tribe of children and young adults, and there’s an awkward tonal shift from hard hitting action to something much softer and more akin to kid’s adventure of the same year, The Goonies. second half of the film sees
As much as I love Richard Donner’s goofball shenanigans, it’s unexpected to see elements of them pop up in a Mad Max movie.
Another misstep is the casting of Bruce Spence in an almost identical role to the one he played in Road warrior, but confusingly for the audience, isn’t the same character.
How many airborne scavengers resembling Bruce Spence will there be in the post apocalyptic outback?
Then there’s a reverse tonal shift and finally we’re into fifth gear, tearing across the desert with the hell on wheels action we thought we’d be getting from the off.
When Thunderdome works the results are spectacular. And if this is considered a lesser film in the series then that’s it’s more testament to the bullet-proof previous films and the glorious reboot of 2015 than any fault of its own.
At any event it’s the best action movie of 1985, and a superior western to that years offerings, Kevin Costner’s Silverado, and Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider.
It’s still only the second best Goonies movie though.
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