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In a post-apocalyptic Australia, drifter Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) is attacked from the skies (by a kid no less – and his pops), robbed of his camel-driven vehicle, and left for dead in the desert. Undaunted and determined to get back what’s his, he follows the tracks across the dusty wasteland to a scrapheap of a refuge called Bartertown where only those with something to offer are allowed to enter. With nothing but his grit and some good use of his shotgun, he gets in and earns a meeting with the town’s rancorous ruler Aunty Entity (Tina Turner), a white-haired, metal mesh-wearing dictator who built the place from nothing. Problem is, she’s at the mercy of the town’s energy, a supply of methane controlled by an equally nasty force of power named Master Blaster, a duo consisting of a menacing dwarf (Angelo Rossitto) who rides atop a mountain of a man (Paul Larsson) with a solid steel mask on his head. To get his camels and his car back, Max is given a choice: end Master Blaster or be sent back into the deserts with nothing. Welcome to Thunderdome.
Directed by George Miller and George Ogilvie, Beyond Thunderdome is arguably the most divisive of the Mad Max franchise, with many considering it a smart departure from the first two and the rest disappointed by just that. Tamer than the first two defining films, Beyond Thunderdome is a far more commercial film with a purposeful wider appeal and thematic story. No matter your opinion, it is nonetheless a big action adventure with plenty of vehicular mayhem and chaos to go along with the more lighter elements that introduce a group of children living in an oasis. A moderate box office success, critics loved the film for its innovation and performances, especially those of Gibson and Turner. And like every movie, it has one great moment.
While there’s some jaw-dropping car choreography in the finale, something we’ve come to expect in Miller’s series, it is of course Thunderdome itself that is the film’s greatest achievement, a highly creative and terrifying cage of death that offers up one of the best one-on-one fight to the death matches in cinema.
We first get a look at the imposing dome-shaped cage from atop Aunt Entity’s roost, an elevated living space above the rabble-rousing reached only be a hand-cranked elevator manned by a pair of bodybuilders, a man and a women. We don’t know what it is yet, seen only for a second, but that’s going to change because Aunty has a proposition.
See, she’s not happy with the arrangement she and Master Blaster have over who runs Bartertown, looking to have the behemoth relieved of his mortal coil via Max’s deadly skill, which he proves capable of doing when he survives the audition, a spontaneous attack on him by Aunty’s goons. It doesn’t go well for the goons. But death is done only in the Thunderdome through a fair fight, so he’s got to get to him and provoke a match. Wanting his stuff back, Max agrees and finds himself in Underworld, the pig factory below ground where Master Blaster holds reign, controlling all the power above ground with a big red valve. Turn it off and Bartertown goes dark. Aunty may runs the show up top, but she’s got nothing without a grip on the valve below. For a person wanting all the power, this presents a problem.
Leaving it for you to see how Max does get Master Blaster to take to the Thunderdome, what comes next is a thrilling bit of action as we finally enter the titular combat arena. We’re told at the start of the contest from the greasy ring leader, who pumps the audiences up while his scantily-clad female helpers populate the domed cage with various cutting and smashing weapons, that “two men enter, one man leaves” and so Blaster, a crowd favorite is escorted in, followed by Max, who is said to be a man with no name.
They are strapped into elastic harnesses that allow them to jump great heights and swivel about, and so it is that the fight becomes one of the more unique in film. Flipping about as they attack each other with the weapons, the crowd cheers in a frenzy (some paying with their lives) as the big man and Max wage a two-man war.
The addition of the harnesses is really a thing of beauty, one that gives the fight great verticality but also an astonishing amount of suspense (no pun intended). The hulking, helmeted Blaster (looking like he’s stuck in a deep sea diving apparatus) is an imposing voiceless beast and looks to have all the advantage and that’s the point of course, our belief that Max is in serious trouble. When you watch the scene, there’s a terrific sense of rawness to it all, despite what must have been lots of choreography, and Miller’s action direction is a fluid a pool of mercury. All done practically, there’s a breathless authenticity to the set and the motion of the actors that makes it feel genuine, if not entirely believable. Not going to lie either. Looks like it’d be fun to try. Minus the spiked mace.
The best part is how the fighters are clumsy and the harnesses make it cumbersome and we watch as Max learns how to use them, though never with great skill. That’s what makes it work so well. It’s meant to be fumbled and vulnerable, making the battle a scrappy mess of violence, even though there really isn’t a lot of that. Still, imagine the scene filmed today and you can be sure it would be nothing but highly-augmented aerial displays of beautifully perfect spirals and turns, stripping away the organic, unpracticed feel of what we actually see. By leaving it as it is, the fight in Thunderdome ends up being one of the best there ever was.
Beyond Thunderdome certainly has its flaws and while the original story was meant to be more of a Lord of the Flies adaptation before it became a Mad Max film, the slightly toned down feel of the film weakens some of the heaviness it really should have had. That said, there’s some good work here by Gibson who is right in his wheelhouse, while recording artist Turner proves she has more than a great set of pipes. But it’s the accomplished direction and action scenes, quintessential of any Mad Max film, that maks this as good as it is. Aged very well, Beyond Thunderdome is one to watch again, and a fight in the dome is a great cinematic moment.