Cinema: The Postapocalypse Rings Thrice: MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME

MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME Directed by George Miller and George Ogilvie; Screenplay by Terry Hayes and George Miller

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Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, dyin' time's here." With that genial salutation, the hunchbacked emcee greets a braying mob assembled for the evening's entertainment at Thunderdome. Welcome to a death duel between that stoic wanderer of the postapocalypse Australian wasteland, Mel Gibson's Mad Max, and his monstrous iron-masked opponent, known as Blaster. You are privileged to witness, as well, an astonishing display of virtuoso cinema that is destined to take its place among the most vivid and freshly imagined fist-to-groin contests in the medium's history.

The dome itself is of the geodesic variety, an open latticework of metal bars on which the crowd clambers and clings, forming a subhuman wall of ecstatically writhing bodies and bloodlusting faces. Scattered about the structure are various objects useful in carnage (a chain saw, a huge mallet, a viciously shaped sword of superhuman dimensions). The gladiators are placed in slings that are in turn attached to industrial-strength rubber bands. Boiing! They bounce off the walls and fly at each other with comic, alarming force. Piing! They are catapulted into the dome's upper reaches, grabbing frantically for whatever weapon comes to flailing hand. Spriing! They're back on the ground, whaling away at each other. As their ever encouraging ringmaster says, "You know the rules: there are no rules."

There are rules, though, for movie-makers; they have a duty to entertain and, especially when they are projecting the future, offer cautionary instruction to the audience. How effortlessly this sequence does both. For 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. They can be relied on not to notice or care about the sequence's central irony: that the decisive weapon in the struggle between Max and Blaster is, of all innocent objects, a simple silver whistle.

If this third film in the Mad Max cycle had stopped there, it might have been some kind of low, visionary masterpiece. But "beyond Thunderdome" lies only preacherly anticlimax. Cast out into the wilderness for failing to live up to Barter-town's dog-eat-dog code, Max is rescued by a tribe of lost children as the savior their mythology has promised them. When the talk drags, he leads them on a crusade of the innocents against Aunty and her crowd.

Their final confrontation, a running vehicular battle, is spectacular enough, but it traverses terrain that George Miller and the rest of Max's creators have fully charted before. Once again, as they did in The Road Warrior, they have flirted with greatness. The question that remains for Mad Max IV to answer is, Can they embrace it? And not go all solemn when they do? --By Richard Schickel