by Steve Habrat
In 1979, a violent little dystopian action thriller from Australia introduced a majority of the world to an unknown actor by the name of Mel Gibson. Made for only $400,000, director George Miller’s Mad Max barely made a ripple in the United States, and it wouldn’t be until the 1982 sequel Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior that American audiences would be familiar with the gruff Gibson. Today, many genre fans consider Mad Max to be one of the greatest action films ever made, second only to it’s follow-up, but the original film actually fails to live up to some of the hype that surrounds it. There are spurts of exploitation violence, high-octane car chases, and fiery car wrecks that are sure to please anyone who considers themselves a fan of savage cinema from the 1970s, but the revenge aspect of Mad Max, which reveals itself in the last fifteen minutes of the film, seems crammed in and brushed over. Despite the flawed climax, Mad Max does have plenty of apocalyptic action and death-defying stunts to keep you pinned to your seat (Holy destroyed camper, Batman!) and there are colorful characters galore. The major draw here is Gibson and his performance as Max, an upstanding Main Force Patrol officer who is the king of the gang-infested highways.
Mad Max opens on the desolate highways of Australia, which is in ruin due to the dwindling supply of oil. The highways are infested with motorcycle gangs who crash into small towns, raid their supplies of oil, and terrorize the town citizens. The only ones fighting for law and order are the Main Force Patrol, a leather-clad police force who battles the gangs in their supped up Interceptors. One of the best officers working for the MFP is Max Rockatansky (played by Mel Gibson), who is extremely skilled when it comes to high-speed pursuits. After Max runs down escaped motorcycle gang member Nightrider (played by Vincent Gil), vicious gang leader and Nightrider’s friend Toecutter (played by Hugh Keays-Byrne) vows to track down the MFP officers responsible for Nightriders death. Max and his partner, Jim “Goose” Rains (played by Steve Bisley), respond to attacks by Toecutter’s gang in a local small town and when they arrive, they arrest Johnny “The Boy” Boyle (played by Tim Burns), Toecutter’s protégé. It doesn’t take long for Johnny to find a way out of jail and while he is being escorted out, he makes violent threats against Max and Goose. Johnny meets back up with Toecutter and the two start plotting revenge against Max and Goose. The gang soon makes good on their violent threats against the MFP officers, which forces Max to consider retirement from the force. However, when the gang attacks Max’s family, he takes to the highways to dish out a little revenge.
Early on, Miller sets the bar high with a breakneck car chase that features more destruction and more eye-popping stunts than any CGI offering of today. A family’s camper is turned to dust as a car goes ripping right through it, Interceptors spin and tumble wildly about the highway, and Max watches over all of it with calculation, waiting for the proper moment to strike. It’s like a futuristic chase through the Wild West as Miller pulls his camera back to reveal the parched and rocky Australian landscape. Miller follows the chase scene up with an intimidating raid on a rundown town, which acts as our brutal introduction to Toecutter. It drips in exploitation even if some of the nastier stuff if kept just off screen and it nicely builds up a slew of despicable villains that we sincerely dislike. As Mad Max speeds on, the film slowly starts to loose the momentum that it gathered in those opening moments. Each new attack or action sequence seems to pale in comparison to what we saw early on. Miller gets back on track briefly when Max’s family is horrifically attacked while they flee on foot down that dreaded highway, but then the film takes on a hurried tone, almost like Miller just wants to finish the revenge side of the film off. The climax is way too brief considering its importance and it fails to really let the viewer feel or savor any one moment. However, the final sequence that finds one character handcuffed to a wrecked vehicle is undeniably influential.
While the action and suspense of Mad Max may slowly slip, Miller makes sure that his cast is one of the most memorable in the action genre. Gibson is electrifying as Max, a skilled MFP officer and softie family man who fears the horrors of his job may push him over the edge. Some of the scenes between Max and his wife, Jessie (played by Joanne Samuel), are a bit too sweet for some of the harsher moments of the film, but these scenes make Max’s violent transformation all the more intense. When Gibson unleashes his gruff vengeance, you can tell that he was born to be action star. Bisley is enthusiastic as Goose, Max’s ruthless, motor-mouthed partner who meets a particularly grisly end. Tim Burns gives a dazed performance as Johnny, Toecutter’s depraved protégé who enjoys rapping and attacking anyone who dares cross him. Hugh Keays-Byrne gives a particularly disturbed performance as Toecutter, a shaggy biker who is calm one minute and then foaming at the mouth the next. His fury over the death of Nightrider is guaranteed to send a chill. Roger Ward has several great moments as Fifi, the hulking MFP captain with a strong man mustache and a bald dome. There is something exciting about the way he encourages his officers to track down this bloodthirsty gang by any means necessary and he reveals a softer side when he tries to convince Max to stay on the force.
Despite its abrupt climax, Mad Max does have an unusually fast paced feel about it. It comes, it entertains, and then it speeds off down the highway. The style that Miller applied to Mad Max has also clearly rubbed off on many action and science fiction directors over the years, especially the look of the cars, which all have an armored predatory aesthetic about them. It is also worth tracking down the film just to admire a film that applies real stunts over computer fakery. It truly is amazing to see what Miller was able to pull off with so little. It lacks polish but the action is unshakably raw and in your face. As far as the violence goes, there is a hearty dose of blood and gore, but most of the really nasty stuff is implied. I don’t think there is anyone out there who would want to see what Toecutter and his gang do to Max’s son. There is an extra graphic scene near the end that finds our hero stumbling down the highway with a smashed up hand and a bloody leg. Overall, for all the action junkies out there, Mad Max is certainly a must-see if you haven’t already experienced it. It isn’t the smartest film you are ever going to see, but its impact on action cinema does make it an essential film within the genre. However, the sins of the climax prevent it from truly becoming a classic.
Mad Max is available on Blu-ray and DVD.