MAX ISN'T really mad anymore, just feeling a little cranky. Yes, Mel Gibson, as the post-apocalyptic king of the road, has mellowed in his third adventure, "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.' He's not exactly eating quiche, but I don't think he'd pass up the brie.

Fifteen years have passed since the macadam melee of "The Road Warrior," and civilization is resurfacing, coming up like mutant crabgrass in the radioactive rain. Max, whose camel train is rustled in Scene I, follows its trail to Bartertown, a desert trading post jerry-built from the bones of the past and fueled on the low-tech of the present. Everything runs on methane made from pig byproducts in the Underground. There is muck aplenty.

Tina Turner plays the founder of Bartertown, Aunty Entity, in her push-up, "I can't believe it's a chainmail bra." Her methods are strict -- some might say brutal -- but they do seem in keeping with the times and the mood of the populace. All the same, she's still no match for Max, whose gaze alone is enough to make a strong woman faint.

But Max has changed, let his hair grow long. He's kind of a post-nuclear hippie. And humanism is the new Max factor. Gone are the dash, the ferocity and the gasping pace of Max's earlier escapades.

Creator George Miller co-directs this time with George Ogilvie, primarily a theatrical director. Perhaps the intimacy of the stage and the scale of an epic don't match. While the look is sometimes grand, the pace is pokey. Even the notorious chase scenes are pedestrian, and the violence has been pasteurized (okay by me, but perhaps not cultists).

Bartertown teems with exotic punks in Armageddon designer furs. Traders brawl at the atomic cafe and justice is a form of entertainment, a contest between combatants in the geodesic Thunderdome.

Aunty Entity has hired Max to duel her adversary, the ruler of Underground. And while the rabid crowd clings to its sides howling for blood, Max meets Master Blaster in the dread Dome. The combatants are suspended from the roof like toddlers in Jolly Jumpers, armed with a big hammer and a methane-powered chainsaw. Quite the concept.

But beyond Thunderdome, the film falters. The new, mild Max is banished to the desert, where he meets a tribe of feral children and leads them out of the desert like Moses.

Naturally, it's a pleasure to watch Gibson, no matter what his mood. And as usual, the costumes and sets are imaginative and elaborate. But since "The Road Warrior," punks have adopted the style and none of it looks that original anymore. In fact, yesterday on 16th street, I saw a street person talking with a tree and he had put together a more novel look.

MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME (PG-13) -- At area theaters.