Mad Max

1979, Kennedy Miller Productions et al

This enduring franchise got its start with an Australian film that cost a few hundred thousand and went on to earn a hundred million. Medical doctor George Miller teamed up with filmmaker Byron Kennedy, grabbed virtual unknown Mel Gibson, modified a bunch of used cars, and created a legacy in the Australian outback. Eschewing dialog for action, Miller staged some of the most innovative (and dangerous) stunts of the day to give his film a super-charged sense of brutality not seen before, and the formula worked. For the limited North American release, Mad Max was almost entirely dubbed to replace the actors' thick Australian accents and make it easier for us Yanks to understand.

     

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Mad Max 2, a.k.a. The Road Warrior

1981, Kennedy Miller Productions

For the first sequel, George Miller exaggerated everything about the original Mad Max: gone was any pretense this was "not far into the future," and pushed it into a post-apocalyptic wasteland populated by over-the-top marauding gangs. It was this comic-book style that spawned countless imitations and knock-offs, especially by Italian filmmakers who cranked out some of the worst films ever made. Miller and his team also ramped up the action as well as the brutality, which had to be cut back in order to get past censors. Amazingly, the film's spare, meandering story, dubious acting and surfeit of violence didn't prevent it from being lauded as the greatest film of the year and among the ten best of the decade.

     

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Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

1985, Kennedy Miller Productions

The third chapter in the Mad Max saga finds our hero caught in the middle of a power struggle over control of a small town adrift in the vast post-apocalyptic wastelands. Tina Turner is the big attraction in what feels like a "Hollywoodized" version of George Miller's original vision, trading edgy violence and endless chases for elaborate sets and substantially more dialog. Some fresh, original set pieces are dogged by shaky performances and uninspired lines.

   

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Mad Max: Fury Road

2015, Village Roadshow Pictures et al

George Miller dusted off his property and, in what feels like a "let me show you how it's done" move, utilized an enormous budget and every tool that technology had to offer to produce a spectacle of awesome, brute-force power. Having no origin story, this Mad Max installment offers no explanation of what it's about, and instead throws us right into the middle of the fray, locking the action throttle wide open and assaulting viewers with a barrage of jaw-dropping stunts. Also, given the minimal use of CGI (90% of the effects were practical), the violence is visceral.

Miller wisely kept Fury Road less talky, returning assertively to the tone of The Road Warrior, although there's a distinct lack of humor, leaving the film as dry and desolate as the wastelands it inhabits. But he also introduced a seriously powerful female character, Imperator Furiosa (what a name!), brought to startlingly raw life by Charlize Theron—in fact, she's so potent that Tom Hardy's Max feels like a supporting character. Miller's incredibly loud, action-saturated film was nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning six—an impressive first for the genre that he created.

       

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