Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome
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Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985)

Starring: Mel Gibson, Tina Turner, Helen Buday, Frank Thring, Bruce Spence, Robert Grubb, Angelo Rossitto, Angry Anderson, George Spartels, and Edwin Hodgeman.

Directed By: George Miller and George Ogilvie

Rating: (1 ½ out of 5)

Max, still pretty cool, despite the general lameness surrounding him

Wow, this movie sucks.  I mean, I remember not liking it much when it first came out, but watching it again just served to remind me how lame (and incoherent) it really was.  Woof!  I guess this movie really represents the turning point for George Miller from making movies about and for adults to making movies about and for kids (he's the creative force behind the Babe movies, you know the pig... actually, now that I think of it, considering how prominent pigs are in MMBT, maybe this is his transition to making movies about and for pigs).

The first warning sign is when the movie starts up and you see that big PG-13 indication.  Mad Max and the Road Warrior (RW) were both rated R, justifiably since they were gritty, violent movies.  MMBT is Road Warrior lite, Road Warrior with its edge dulled so much that it doesn't have an edge.

Well, enough ranting, let's get on with the review.... MMBT starts off promisingly enough actually.  Despite the lame, glossy, Tina Turner song playing over the opening credits, the first scene begins with a beautifully shot high-altitude look at a large swath of open desert.  As the camera swoops closer, we see a large cart drawn by a team of camels.  A plane flies low over the vehicle, so low that it knocks the driver out of his seat as the camels keep going.  The plane circles back around, and we see the pilots: Jedediah (Bruce Spence) and his young son Jedediah, Jr. (Adam Cockburn).  Jedediah the elder jumps out of the plane and on the vehicle's seat (!) and spurs the camels to increase their pace, leaving the driver far behind.  In the back of the vehicle, a small monkey throws possessions out the back.  The man chasing after the cart finally stops.  He removes his scarf, and we see Max with long, flowing hair, looking like he's just come back from a tryout with Poison (or Whitesnake or another one of those 80s hair bands).

Warning 1: A "cute" kid
Warning 2: Monkey

Okay, now this opening may seem peculiar, and it is.  It is also a clear warning that the movie that follows is going to suck.  Why?  Well, five reasons: (1) Are we really supposed to believe that a plane snuck up on Max and knocked him out of his seat?  Max has always had a pretty good situational awareness up until now, and it seems unlikely that a slow-moving prop plane could get the drop on him.  (2) If a plane hits you while flying, say, 70-100 miles per hour, would  you get up anytime soon?  Ever?  So although Max is now apparently too deaf and blind to see or hear a plane coming, he's still virtually indestructible.  (3) There is a kid in the plane.  A kid who flies the plane home after his dad jumps out to steal the vehicle.  Warden's rule number one is: most movies with kids in them suck.  (4) The pilot jumps out of the plane, and lands in the vehicle's seat.  I won't waste my time on this one.  (5) There is a cute animal in the back.  Warden's rule number two: most movies with cute animals in them suck.  Also, just for the record, Bruce Spence was also in the Road Warrior.  In RW, he also plays a pilot, but at the end of the movie we are told that his character goes off with the survivors of the refinery compound, becomes their leaders, and helps found "the great northern tribe."  At the end of RW, he and Max are buddies.  Here they don't seem to recognize each other (although maybe they do, it is left a bit unclear), so we have to assume he is playing a different character.  Now, I'm not a movie producer (although if you have the money and want me to try my hand at it, I'm game), but it seems to me that it is generally a bad idea to cast the same actor in a sequel, playing a similar role, if it isn't supposed to be the same character.  But as I say, I'm just a lowly web-reviewer, not a high powered movie producer (no matter what I tell chicks in bars) so what do I know?

The movie does, however, unexpectedly make us wait for it to really start sucking.  Max follows his stolen rig across the desert.  Soon he arrives at the outskirts of a thriving community, Bartertown.  On his way in, he is offered water by a peddler.  Max pulls out a Geiger counter and finds the water is radioactive.  This is actually our first evidence that there has been an all-out nuclear war in the Mad Max universe.  When did it happen?  Clearly, MM is pre-nuclear war.  RW might be post, but no one mentions it, so it is hard to be sure.  Could the nuclear war have occurred after RW but before MMBT?  This is actually a big deal... at least as big a deal as C3PO not remembering he was created on Tatooine.  I think sequels really need to be consistent with their predecessors, no?

Anyway, once in Bartertown, Max tries to find his rig.  He ends up impressing the first official he meets enough to get a meeting with the leader of Bartertown (see the screen cap at the top of the page).  As he enters the town, he has to drop off his weapons at a check point, and we get a horrible, clichéd scene where Max pulls out one weapons after another: several guns, knives, a cross bow, etc.  I mean, a lot of hardware.  More weapons than any reasonable person would carry.  I guess he really is mad.

Aunty Entity's Lair

The leader of Bartertown is Aunty Entity (Tina Turner).  She live in a floating, billowing tent perched on a platform above the teaming masses of Bartertown.  We know she's powerful because she has a blind Japanese guy in a Sumo loincloth sitting around playing sax for her.  Tina's actually not a bad choice for the role, although she pretty much shouts out all her lines.  She's dressed in post-apocalyptic chic, which is fine, except that she's best known for her great gams, and instead her outfit really calls attention to her less than ample mounds.  Look, not to be sexist, and not to denigrate the women (I cried too when I saw how badly Ike treated her in What's Love Got to Do with It (1993)), but if you're gonna wear a low-cut outfit, with a push-up bustier no less, you've really got to generate some decent cleavage.

Max and Aunty strike a deal

Anyway, there is a little mysterious chit-chat, and then suddenly Aunty's men attack Max.  He deftly fend them off, showing that despite the opening scene, he hasn't really lost a step.  After disarming his attackers, Aunty stops him from wreaking further damage.   It turns out the attack was an audition.  Aunty needs someone to, um, eliminate some problems, and Max looks like the man to do it.  Through a periscope, Aunty shows Max his target, a tandem called Master-Blaster who together run the underground pig farm that supplies Bartertown with all its energy needs by producing methane from pig shit (!).  Master (Angelo Rossitto) is a dwarf who rides on the back of Blaster (Paul Larsson) a giant.  Master is the brains, Blaster the brawn, and together they form a challenge to Aunty's rule over Bartertown.  Aunty needs someone to eliminate Master-Blaster.  If Max agrees to do the job, Aunty promises she'll reequip him and let him get back on the road.

Master-Blaster

In order to get closer to Master-Blaster, Max takes a job shoveling pig waste.  Coincidentally, his rig (the one stolen in the opening scene) is also down underground, and while Max is working, Master-Blaster and one of his men are trying to figure out how to disarm Max's booby traps.  Conveniently, Max is in a position to help.  He has a little confrontation with Master-Blaster, during which Master-Blaster turns off all energy to Bartertown to demonstrate his power.  Ultimately, Max agreed to help, but as he's disarming the bomb, he sets off an alarm.  The loud noise seems to cripple Blaster.  Max then pulls out a whistle and blows.  The shrill sound has the same effect on Blaster as the alarm.  Armed with this knowledge, Max agrees to take on Master-Blaster.

Back up on the surface, Max challenges Master-Blaster and demands the return of his vehicle.  Master refuses and orders Blaster to kill Max.  As he's about to do so, Aunty's men arrest both and order them to settle their dispute in the Thunderdome.  Thunderdome, despite the impressive name, is just a big wooden cage.  Instead of lingering confrontations or drawn out judicial processes, Bartertown deals with personal disputes by sentencing both parties to Thunderdome, where the operative rule is "Two men enter, one man leaves."

Thunderdome

Hmmm.  Do you think a society can function where the main judicial process is that when two people come into any sort of conflict, the only solution is an immediate fight to the death?  Throughout the movie, Aunty is presented as some sort of genius, who was able to carve a society out of the wreckage of nuclear war, but I just don't get it.  Wouldn't this sort of system simply lead to the domination of the weak by the strong?  Wouldn't the best fighter simply be able to do whatever he wanted?  If you weren't the best fighter why would you come to Bartertown knowing that at any moment you could be challenged to a fight to the death, and that instead of having recourse to the authorities, they would actually enforce this method of "dispute resolution"?

Max wields a mighty hammer

Anyway, Max gets into Thunderdome with Blaster.  Both are hooked up to harnesses that suspend them off the ground slightly.  There are various weapons scattered about the arena.  Before Max can get his whistle out, Blaster is on him and managed to knock the whistle to the ground.  Max now has to fight a giant in a straight fight.  The fight is something right out of the WWF.  Blaster jumps up and down on Max's back, flings him into the sides of the arena, and generally beats on him.  They both basically fly around on these harnesses, with Max jumping over Blaster's head several times.  In the end, Max manages to recover the whistle, and with it in his mouth he smashes Blaster over the head with a giant hammer several times  until he knocks his helmet off.  On one hand, this is an exciting fight, but on the other, it is really ridiculous. At one point Max gets a chainsaw.  He approaches Blaster who backs away.  Then suddenly the chainsaw sputters out, and now Max has to turn and run.  Puh-leeze.  And then there is the matter of these magic harnesses.  They never tangle up, and they allow Max and Blaster to defy the law of gravity.  I guess if they were elastic and set at exactly the right tension, this might be possible, but I don't know...  seems unlikely.

Bet you didn't expect Blaster to look like this under the helmet, right?

In any case, as the fight comes to an end, Max has Blaster at his mercy, prone and without his helmet.  But as Max approaches to deliver the coup de grace, he sees Blaster's face and hesitates.  Blaster has the face of a child; he's obviously mentally challenged.  He gives Max a big goofy grin when Max lowers the hammer without smiting him.  Five seconds earlier Blaster was a quick moving, violent giant of a man, and now suddenly he's presented as childlike and innocent.  Huh?  Max refuses to kill him in cold blood despite the desires of the crowd for him to fulfill the promise of "two men enter, one man leaves."  He turns toward Aunty and tells her the deal is off, and which point Aunty's men shoot Blaster with arrows and finish him off.  Now, of course, if Aunty was willing to kill Blaster in cold blood, why did she need Max in the first place?

...and why is this called Gulag?

Now Max is in trouble.  Having broken his deal with Aunty, he now has to face the second form of "justice" in Bartertown: "Bust a deal, face the wheel."  The wheel in this case is literally that, a wheel of fortune with penalties engraved on it, including "death," "Aunty's choice," and several others.  Max is forced to spin the wheel, and it lands on "Gulag."  I wish I understood what happens next, but I just don't.  When I hear the word "Gulag," I think of Stalin-era Soviet work camps for political prisoners.  In Bartertown, however, "Gulag" apparently means something completely different.  For his punishment, Max is tied to a horse facing backwards.  The horse has a pole with a flask of water suspended from it in front of him to encourage the horse to walk forward.  Aunty's men place a giant, Mardi Gras head on Max's head (!), and he and horse are shooed out into the desert.  I'm not sure my description quite does justice to the absurdity of this scene.

The horse keeps walking in the desert until it finally collapses from exhaustion and thirst.  Max, remains on the horse, facing backwards, the whole time.  This is a guy, remember, who picked a handcuff in seconds in RW.  Well, anyway, Max stumbles around for a while, but with little water he soon collapses himself.  Just when Max looks like he's fought his last fight, a figure appears out of the blowing desert sands and drags Max back to safety.  To our surprise, we find that Max's rescuer is a teenage girl, living with a tribe of several dozen children and no adults.  What was she doing out in the middle of the desert when she lives in a sheltered valley with water?  Who knows?  It is never really explained.

Max and an army of children

The children think Max is "Captain Walker."  We later learn that the children are survivors of a plane crash that occurred as Armageddon raged.  Apparently, although this also isn't well explained, the survivors took shelter in the cove, but at some point all the adults left to try to find civilization leaving the children behind.  Why would they do such a thing?  Who knows?  Walker was the plane's captain and the children have lived for years, waiting for him to return to bring them back to civilization.  In the meantime, the kids have learned to hunt and fish, have developed a working organization complete with leaders, and have created the basis of a primitive religion revolving around retelling the story of their abandonment.  Plus the older kids have started, um, getting intimate and having their own children.  I think, this latter development is sort of icky, since none of the kids looks older than 15 or so, and some of the babies are 18 months old or more.  Do the math.  There is nothing sadder than babies having babies, I always say.  Anyway, this whole plot twist is just so fundamentally implausible that it leaves a bad taste in my mouth just to type it.  But things get worse.

Waiting for Max to fly them home

Well, Max tells them he's not Walker, which leaves the kids disappointed until a few of them realize that if Max could walk to them, they could walk to wherever he came from.  He tries to dissuade them from putting this plan into action by pointing out that Bartertown is certainly not as nice as their pleasant little cove, but you know how kids are.  Once they get a bee in their bonnet, there is no reasoning with them.  Despite Max's best efforts, which include slugging one 15 year old girl unconscious, and tying up a bunch of them, a group ventures out into the desert.  Max wakes up the next morning and goes after them.  He catches up with the group literally just in time to keep them from being swallowed up by a very aggressive sinkhole.  What a coincidence.

Max and the kids camp in the desert.  The next morning they wake up.  Just over the next rise is Bartertown.  Presumably because they are out of water, Max decides that Bartertown is their only hope.  So they approach the town secretly, and drop down into one of the air vents leadign to the underground pig farm.  Max doesn't really have firm control over his flock.  By the time he gets into the vent, several of the kids have gone on ahead.  And by the time he catches up with them, several have climbed out of the vent and into the pig chamber and are clambering on the pipes up over the heads of Aunty's men who now run the pig farm.  Frankly, I'm not even sure what Max was hoping to accomplish at this point.  I guess he wants to ask Master for help, or something.  Master, btw, is now at Aunty's mercy.  She's keeping him around for his brains, but her men force him to live in a small pen down among the pigs.  Also, even though he originally seemed to be a power-mad bad guy, it turns out he's really just a cuddly old (and short) man.

Bartertown's generator... and Max's escape vehicle.  Convenient, eh?

Well, needless to say, the bad guys spot the kids, and we get a weird, Keystone Cops style fight scene, where the kids swinging from ropes disable several of the men, and Max does a little fighting of his own.  It's really weak.  Lots of motion on screen, but no real tension or excitement.  They even rip off Star Wars (1977) -- which probably was ripping off a silent movie itself -- when Max chases one of the bad guys around a corner, only to turn around and run back toward the camera pursued by a gaggle of bad guys (remember, the same thing happens to Han Solo on the Deathstar).  Max, the kids, Master, and Pigkiller (a convict serving a sentence underground, played by Robert Grubb) hop on-board what looks like a truck with train wheels.  Apparently, this contraption is being used as some sort of refinery for the methane because it is hooked up to various pipes leading up into Bartertown, but it is also a working vehicle conveniently placed on functional train tracks.  With Pigkiller in the driver's seat, they put this truck-thingy into gear, and it gradually pulls away down the tracks.  Up above, Bartertown erupts in flames and explosions as this happens.

Have I managed to convey the fundamental incoherence of this entire sequence?  I hope so because it really just makes no sense whatsoever.  We next cut to a view of the truck/train contraption tearing down a set of perfectly maintained train tracks.  Who built these tracks?  How long have they been there?  Are they used often?  For what?  Why was the entire power plant for Bartertown on wheels anyway?  Why does Bartertown explode as a result of disconnecting the truck/train thing?

Looks a little like Road Warrior, right?

We get a lame chase, as Aunty and her men pursue the truck/train.  At one level it is just a rip-off of the final chase in RW.  But the tone is different.  All the violence is muted.  Instead of an edgy action movie, what we get is closer in tone to the Three Stooges (which I presume reflects Mel Gibson's infatuation with Moe, Larry, and Curly).  None of the kids gets hurt.  Heck, none of the bad guys get hurt.  Even Ironbar (Angry Anderson), Aunty's chief henchman and Max's main antagonist escapes largely unscathed, despite being thrown off a bridge, being caught between the truck/train and a exploding vehicle (he just gets covered in soot, like in a cartoon), and finally being involved in a head-on crash at the end.

Ironbar survives this fireball with just a little soot to show for it.

I'm not sure what happened here.  The first half of the movie, before Max is exiled to the desert is actually closer in tone to the first two movies.  There is a real sense of menace in the air, and Aunty has the retarded Blaster killed in cold blood.  But the second half of the movie, once the kids are introduced, has a much lighter feel to it, as if Miller and Ogilvie wanted to end on an upbeat note to ensure their PG-13 rating and please a younger audience.

Well, anyway, to wrap things up.  Just as it seems as if Max and the gang are going to get away, there is suddenly a barrier on the railway.  As the truck/train slows before it, the kid from the opening scene reappears, armed with a couple of rifles to rob the truck/train, as if this were a well-traveled railroad.  Of course, seeing Aunty and her men off in the distance, still giving chase, Jedediah, Jr. runs away.  Max and the gang follow him through an underground warren that he and his father call home.  Coming out the other side, they run toward the plane.  You can guess the rest.  It is a race to take off before Aunty and her men arrive.  At the climactic moment, Max jumps in a truck, and drives ahead of the plane to clear out a path for it to take off, and of course, the plane managed to get off the ground just as Max's truck crashes head on with Ironbar while Max jumps to safety.  The plane flies away, and instead of killing Max, Aunty just sighes, "Well, ain't we a pair, Raggedy Man? So long, soldier."

A narrow, clichéd, escape

The movie ends with the plane flying over an abandoned, burned out city.  The kids settle there, and we see them years later, inhabiting various bombed out buildings, lighting fires to guide Max home.  Ugh, kill me.

I'm shocked that there are actually people out there who like this movie.  What dreck.  A complete betrayal of the tone and style of the first two movies.  Miller apparently fell in love with the mythical aspect of the story and wanted to find an upbeat way to end the story arc.  But the thing is that the story arc was over after RW.  MM and RW are about a man burning out and then finding a reason to care again.  The stuff about Max now serving as an archetype, a hero redeeming mankind, is simply outside the scope of the original story line.  A trilogy that began with an edgy, cult movie, ends with an empty exercise in Hollywood-style formalism.

 

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