Even the film's dialogue in the first act is unexpectedly, unremittingly sharp.
"You can shovel shit, can't you?"
That's all really good stuff for the film reviewers to chew on and ponder, no doubt. And as Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome kicks in with a jolt, the pop tune by Tina Turner promises a good, dark, pacey excursion into a world we've been to before, only on a grander, more epic, more edgy scale.
But audiences -- especially those who are fans of the earlier films -- may still end up upset or disappointed with this third film because it very obviously assimilates Mad Max into the Hollywood mainstream action mold.
Suddenly, the lone warrior of the wasteland is countenancing cute, resourceful kids, fighting cartoony villains (like the aforementioned, apparently unkillable Ironbar) and even playing the white knight. That last bit (the white knight act) is a critical part of the overall story arc: Max's step-by-step return to the world of "humanity," and, yes, it must exist. By the end of the Mad Max cycle, we understand, Mad Max must no longer be "mad."
Yet it's still hard to escape the impression that -- in the Darwinian world depicted in The Road Warrior --the Mad Max (and attached kids) we encounter in Thunderdome would simply not survive.
And Aunty Entity would not retain control of Bartertown for long were she to -- in full view of her battle-hardened troops -- let Max survive after their final clash. It's not just that Aunty's decision to let Max live feels like an anti-climax when we desperately desire a stirring action scene; it's that it doesn't ring entirely true with what's been established before.
And so this movie just feels...softer than the previous pictures.
So, you can sense the problem with Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. The first act is stellar, imaginative, even caustic post-apocalyptic nirvana. The last act is pro forma Hollywood nonsense.
Janet Maslin of The New York Times termed Beyond Thunderdome "the most visually spectacular installment by far, with a few innovations - notably the one of the title - that are far more elaborate than anything George Miller, the director, has attempted before...So if it eventually steers Max into the midst of a tribe of primitive children who regard him as their savior, it can easily be forgiven. This film has showier stunts than its predecessors, and a better sense of humor. It also has Tina Turner, in chain-mail stockings."
Redemption comes in the end for Max, "the raggedy man" who chooses sacrifice over belonging (as possible payment for his spell as an amoral wanderer in the wasteland). But what about redemption for the movie? It clearly forsakes its predecessors sense of driving pace, and unromantic view of the human species for a happy ending.
Is this simply the result of narrative closure, and function of the story arc? Or is it a flaw that keeps the movie from fully satisfying those who began the journey with Mad Max?
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome finds former policeman and family man Max (Gibson) wandering in a seemingly endless desert, driving a team of camels on his converted automobile...now no more than an old-fashioned wagon. A plane dives from the sky and unseats Max from his vehicle. The plane's pilot, Jedidiah (Bruce Spence), jumps into the driver's seat and rides away, leaving Max behind.
Max survives and heads to Bartertown, a nearby outcropping of "civilization" in the desert. He hopes to find Jedidiah and re-claim his property, but instead becomes the pawn of Auntie Entity (Tina Turner), Bartertown's benefactor.
In particular, Entity wants the "King Arab" of the town's energy-producing facility, "Underworld" dead for his repeated attempts to assert authority over her and "embargo" the town's energy. But killing Master (Angelo Rossitto) is harder than it sounds because he is protected by a body guard, the hulking "Blaster."
Auntie strikes a deal with Max to kill Blaster inside the town's arena, a "hall of justice" called "Thunderdome." Max wins the battle, but finds that Blaster suffers from Down Syndrome and possesses "the mind of a child." Holding on to his code of ethics, Max refuses to kill Blaster, and is -- for "busting a deal" -- sent into the wilderness on a horse, gulag-style.
In the desert, a tribe of orphan children find Max and worship him as their lost leader, Captain Walker. These "Waiting Ones" believe that Max can lead them home to civilization, to the city, but are in for a disappointment when Max tells them the truth; that nothing of mankind's previous civilization remains intact.
When a group of children led by Savannah Nix (Helen Buday) make the trek into the wilderness anyway, Max must rescue them, and, once again, survive the dangers of Bartertown.
In the months and years following Max's rescue of the children, Savannah and the survivors of "The Waiting Ones" remember men like Max...hoping that they too will return to civilization at last.
"I know you won't break the rules, because there aren't any."
One arena where you can't fault George Miller and George Ogilvie's Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is the creation of an intriguing, visually-distinguished, post-apocalyptic world.
From the film's first aerial shot (looked to be lensed from low planetary orbit, so you can actually see the curve of the Earth...) to the first reveal of Bartertown (a swooping Louma crane shot...) and beyond, this sequel is vetted in extraordinary and dazzling visual fashion. The imagination and ingenuity of the production designer, Graham Walker, is on full-display throughout. And cinematographer Dean Semler captures all the details -- both droll and dirty -- with aplomb.
What remains special about this Mad Max world is how it effortlessly seems both funny and realistic. The entrance way to Bartertown, for instance, is a crowded tunnel where "The Collector" greets newcomers and assesses their skills, followed by a weapons drop-off point.
After that pit stop, it's daylight...into pandemonium. There's the humorously named "Atomic Cafe," a peddler hawking fresh water ("what's a little fall-out?"), the "House of Good Deals," and towering over everything, the imposing, palatial residence of Aunty Entity.
Oh, and there's a little place called Thunderdome, a stadium that has entered the American pop culture vernacular in a permanent way (referenced on Mystery Science Theater 3000 and in other productions.)
You already know the rules....there aren't any. Two men enter...one man leaves.
But Thunderdome is fascinating for two reasons. First, the "why" behind its very existence in Bartertown is compelling: the survivors of this world's nuclear apocalypse realized that killing leads to warring and that warring was "damn near the end of us all." So here -- perhaps wisely -- violence is limited to this one, awful place. Beyond it, blood lust has no place in Bartertown. Allegedly, anyway.
The second scintillating aspect of Thunderdome is the orchestration of Max's fight inside it. The combatants are strung-up on elastic bands and fight in mid-air, reaching for weapons (such as chainsaws and mallets) at the upper apex of the dome. So Max and his opponent, Blaster, whirl, fly, bounce, dip and spin in battle, and it's pretty exciting stuff. Not to mention staggeringly original.
This is how Time Magazine critic Richard Schickel described the locale: "Thunderdome is both hall of justice and cultural center for Bartertown, presided over by Aunty Entity (Tina Turner), purring like a tiger and claiming she has created civilization's highest flowering since nuclear devastation. Indeed she has, if an imitation of late 20th century city life--all junk, improvisations and random brutality--is your idea of civilization. Thunderdome brilliantly clarifies that irony. Its high-bounding excesses of action simultaneously satisfy and satirize the passion for heedless viciousness that so profoundly moves the action film's prime audience, urban adolescent males."
In other words, the Thunderdome setting provides both the setting for a fantastic, inventive action sequence and a context for some social commentary on our world in the 1980s; the world in which American Gladiators was later born; a world in which action stars such as Stallone and Schwarzenneger were tops at the box office.
Late in the Thunderdome sequence, Max is introduced to another compelling element of Bartertown's law: The Wheel. As in, "Bust a Deal, Face the Wheel."
Here, Max faces random justice in front of a giant spinning wheel that satirizes in shape and form the titular Wheel of Fortune (1983 - present) from the popular TV game show with Pat Sajak and Vanna White. Only here the selections on the wheel are matters of life and death: Gulag, hard labor, acquittal, death, Aunty's Choice, forfeit goods, etc.
"Justice is only a roll of the dice...a turn of the wheel," stresses Dr. Dealgood, importantly. Once more, I should stress that this legal system makes perfect if perverse sense, given the circumstances. The "survivors" in this world didn't make it because they were smart...they survived the apocalypse because of luck. Even Aunty Entity acknowledges this fact...she was nobody until the apocalypse made her somebody. The people of Bartertown believe that fickle fate accounts for their survival and continuance, and the Wheel is a kind of legal expression of that fickle sense of fate or destiny.
In toto, the early scenes in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome -- at Bartertown -- reveal much of value about human nature. Aunty Entity wants complete and total control of the town, and is unwilling to share it with Master in the "Underworld." One can certainly understand why: he's capricious and enjoys her public humiliation.
Still, it's difficult to claim the mantel of civilization in one breath while ordering a hit on "family" the next, as Max points out to Aunty. But thematically, there's something important going on here. As one character states in the film, "no matter where you go; there you are." Mankind -- no matter his aspirations; no matter his new forms of government -- remains the same breed; the same ambitious animal. Even after a world-war and wholesale destruction of the planet surface, Bartertown is still a savage place.
Everything about Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome's first act is filled with invention: the location, the camera-work, the nature of Aunty's entourage, the social commentary, and even the significance of Max's role as the outsider (the film literally compares him to Eastwood's "man with no name" at the inception of the Thunderdome fight).
These are the reasons why critics adore the film. And in addition to all these accomplishments, it also achieves a difficult balance in terms of the sequel format: Thunderdome spins new and interesting territory out of the franchise world rather than simply recycling and revisiting familiar elements from it.