Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Rockatansky Road

It's taken awhile, but after a quarter-century of wandering the irradiated wasteland of post-nuclear Australia, Max Rockatansky is finally headed back to the movies.  Rockatansky, better known by his nom de cinema of Mad Max, was created by director George Miller and producer Byron Kennedy in the 1979 film of the same name, and set the template for an entire subgenre of post-apocalyptic movies that followed in his wake.  As the lodestone upon which that entire vein of filmmaking is built, Mad Max is one of those brands so iconic that I'm surprised its been out of the public eye as long as it has.

Starring then-unknown Mel Gibson as the titular cop-turned-vigilante patrolling the mean streets of Sydney "a few years from now," the original Max was a frenzied vision of low-budget dystopia, and became a huge success everywhere but the US (of course). It wasn't until the sequel two years later, (Mad Max 2 internationally, The Road Warrior stateside) that things really meshed creatively, critically, and popularly, leading to the investment of some Hollywood bucks for the third hit at the pipe, 1985's Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, which in addition to the returning Gibson (who became a global box office star between sequels) also starred Tina Turner in a rare movie role.

Thirty years removed from the first film, the series still holds a singular appeal for me.  Miler's visceral, in-your-face aesthetic remains as powerful today as ever, and Brian May's score for first two films perfectly sets the tone of desperation and decay.  In hindsight, the original's budgetary seams are a little obvious at times, while the third one is almost too polished, with the frenetic, seat-of-your-pants filmmaking traded for expansive, David Lean-esque desert vistas (helped along by Lean's composer-of-choice Maurice Jarre stepping in for May in the music department).  Nonetheless, the trilogy's depiction of a society moving ever-past the brink, combined with Max's journey from vigilante to hero to legend, sets the series apart from both its precedents and antecedents in dystopic cinema.

Although there've been rumors of an imminent Mad Max return for nearly two decades now (including a potential TV series for first-run syndication back in the early '90s), the closest anything actually came to fruition was about seven years ago, when Miller pulled together the pieces for a fourth film entitled Fury Road, which would have had Gibson return to his career-launching role twenty-years removed.  Safety considerations once the Iraq invasion began made the Morocco-set filming untenable, scuppering the shoot, and by the time Miller reconnoitered, Gibson had a new Passion.

But now it looks like Fury Road is back on, with Miller still primed to take us back to the post-apocalyptic well minus Gibson.  This time out the role of Max falls to actor Tom Hardy, whose biggest genre credit until now was as the villainous Shinzon in the unfortunate Star Trek Nemesis, but who's spent the intervening years building up a steady filmography of smaller independent films (not to mention a prominent place in the upcoming Inception).  Miller intends Fury Road to lens in the same Outback locales that birthed the original Max trilogy, and which could (I'd imagine) keep the flame going for another three. 

Now, I've spent enough time on this site bemoaning franchises returning long after satisfactory "final" installments that I really should know better by now, but I can't help being excited for this. To my mind, Miller is one of cinema's great under-appreciated geniuses who's never gotten his due, and while a belated return to his signature creation could well turn into another Phantom Menace/Crystal Skull situation, I'm really hoping this is the exception to the rule.  Also, for as much crap as I gave Hardy for his Nemesis turn, I think he's a great choice to succeed Gibson as Max, embodying the right combination of physicality and humanity the role calls for.  Says the actor, via FirstShowing.net:
It's a relaunch and revisit to the world, an entire restructuring. That's not to say that it's not picking up or leaving off from the Mad Max you know already, but it's a nice re-take on the entire world using the same character, depositing him in the same world, but bringing him up to date by 30 years. Obviously Mel would've been perfect for it but, for some reason, he's not doing it and I am. You can expect the same amount of grit and rawness and authenticity [to my] performance, I hope to deliver. But that's really the crux of me and George to deliver that and all the other actors as the other characters.
Twenty-five years since Thunderdome, the Max franchise hasn't exactly maintained its place in the public eye, which could end up as both blessing and curse.  While it's easier for the series to start fresh without competing with its own legend, it's also harder to cash in on the broad popular awareness that helped other recent revivals.  Still, while there's always a risk that this could fall flat on its leather-clad posterior, the upside (for Miller and for the audience) is also considerable, and this could end up pretty great.  I guess we'll all find out one way or ther other when (and if) Fury Road hits theaters.

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