Ranking the Mad Max Films from Worst to Best

As Mad Max: Fury Road turns five this week, we look back at George Miller's barmy apocalypse franchise to ask... which one's the best?

As four films spread across 35 years, George Miller's petroleum-soaked Mad Max movies have always eschewed a conventional continuity. How these movies connect, narratively, has never really made sense, nor do any of the individual chapters appear to exist within the same world or timeline.

It's perhaps better to think of the Mad Max films in a less literal sense. Each one hones in on a man named Max, who will – or already has – come to lose everything and must navigate the wastelands of decimated Australia. In every film, he is destined to become an icon, or hero, though reluctant, for he understands how quickly power can corrupt.

Are all three Mel Gibsons and that one Tom Hardy supposed to be the same man, or – as with Sergio Leone's “Man with No Name” trilogy – are we meant to think of them as different incarnations of a similar legend? The fact it matters so little is a credit to George Miller's blistering vision. Every subsequent chapter simply takes the myth and runs with it.

As Mad Max: Fury Road turns five-years-old, we look back at this gear-headed franchise in order to ask… which Mad Max rules the wasteland?


4. Mad Max (1979)

Where to watch it: Various streaming service

The continent of Australia is rarely giving the benefit of the doubt on screen, so often poised as the last bastion of civilisation, where the lucky (unlucky?) ones make a bid for survival under a punishing sun. It always seem pointless to push back; death is inevitable. It’s not a matter of how you go, but how gruesomely.

Yet anyone who hasn't seen Mad Max for a while, relying on hazy memories alone to imagine its apocalyptic setting, might be shocked to discover that civilisation is still hanging by a thread in this original 1979 film. Yes, viscous biker gangs roam, terrorising the highways, but there is still a sense of order here – and a police force, to which Max (he will not be made “Mad” until the end) belongs.

Perhaps that's why, in retrospect, this feels like the least successful of the Mad Max pictures – the messiest, certainly, both visually and structurally. George Miller, working from a tiny budget, essentially creates a showpiece from which to later spring off his far better sequels. Viewed on its own terms, there is a repetitiveness and an aimlessness, and Gibson – though wild in the eyes – is yet to truly inhabit the role. The car chases are thrilling enough, and there are inspired moments of violence and fire, but this '79 “classic” can't help but feel a bit dated by comparison.


3. Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985)

Where to watch it: Various streaming service

The first half hour of Mad Max 3 is so good it’s almost enough to make you forget about the missing car chases. Can Tina Turner, cast as the villain, be scary? Not at all, is the answer, but she’s having a blast – and so are we. Long-haired and more vocal, Max returns in this second sequel, roaming a post-apocalyptic Australia with a new sense of purpose  – though some of the madness seems to have dissipated.

Miller fleshes out the world in new and interesting ways, but he also infantilises it in the process. Things start off well: a stint in “Barter Town,” followed by a face-off in the titular “Thunderdome,” make for some of the franchise's best sequences. Yet the film loses it way in the middle, when Max awakens in a camp of feral kids. It’s here the movie meanders far too long and the influence of Spielberg's Amblin productions grates with the franchise's gritty soul: Peter Pan by way of The Goonies.

Just when you think Miller has abandoned the defining aspect of his franchise, turns out he’s saving the best until last. Things get back on track – literally – for a blistering, train-like car chase that makes up for that soggy middle. Yes, Beyond Thunderdome is a summation of a particular type of 80s excess, yet you still admire Miller’s talent with the camera, which is always finding new and interesting things to do where it would have been easy to coast. Gibson, meanwhile, delivers his best and most lived-in performance as Max.

2. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)

Where to watch it: Various streaming service

Nothing but dust, and the occasional vehicle spinning its wheels in the sand. Here we find Max, a man who has lost everything – and so by movie law he must care about nothing. Vengeance is not so much a goal as a bi-product of the cruel, unforgiving landscape he inhabits. Is he “Mad” now because he shows so little care for his own life? Yet to be anything other than mad in a world like this one makes no sense. And anyway, aren’t all the sane ones dead already?

This is the Australia most tend to think of when they think of Mad Max: an arid wasteland limping towards nothingness in the aftermath of the apocalypse. Here George Miller creates a believable world despite its eccentricities, where the survivors cobble together an existence from the leftovers of a forgotten world. Miller's static scenes hum with a quiet sadness, yet he shoots action with an inspired kineticism, like a cartoon transposed to celluloid. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, after all, has a cartoon energy and characters to match it.

It isn't perfect – there is lots of filler, the film sometimes taking too long from get to point A to point B, and moments of strange editing and blocking that prove distracting. But it is cleverly designed and shot with real kinetic intelligence, whilst its final truck chase – one of cinema's great action sequences – is a triumph. The myth was sealed with this one, and years later it's easy to see why.


1. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Mad Max: Fury Road feels like the movie that all the other Mad Max films were building toward; rare for any third sequel, and even rarer for one that arrives 30 years after the previous entry. But all through the chaos of a truly nightmarish shoot, George Miller insisted that he had the whole thing in his head. At the time, such notions of greatness were not easy for the cast and crew to process. In the end their trust paid off: this one blows the other films out of the sand.

Tom Hardy takes over from Gibson, and it's easy to see what Miller saw in him: the same animalistic tendencies – a rabid creature cut loose in a world gone mad, with a hint of vulnerability. Is he supposed to be the same man? Miller wastes no time trying to explain, and simply moves forward to deliver one of the most relentlessly impressive action spectacles every committed to film. When cars crash, they really crash. Stunts are always practical and weighty. If there is any CGI, it is minimal, and the piece unfolds with sweeping, operatic precision, a perfect symphony of visual and aural movie-making.

But it's the sheer audacity of the film's many narrative subversions that make Fury Road truly great. Not only does George Miller realise his dream of making a film that is essentially a singular chase sequence (in itself a crazy feat), but he side-lines his hero and pushes Charlize Theron's Furiosa to the forefront, elevating her to lead hero status. Just when you think Miller can do little else to shake up the narrative, he employs his trump card, sending the entire cast of characters back the way they came, right to the start. A cinematic U-turn if ever there was one, the choice reaffirmed Miller as a visionary and risk-taker… and established that the world's greatest action movie director was actually an Australian in his 70s.

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