Should I Watch..? Mad Max
What's the big deal?
Mad Max is a dystopian action thriller film released in 1979 and features only the second film appearance of future Hollywood A-lister Mel Gibson. Directed and co-written by George Miller, the film has been credited for creating a greater awareness of Australian cinema and held the Guinness World Record for the most profitable film for almost twenty years. The film portrays a society where law and order have largely broken down and concerns the efforts of a highway patrolman to bring down an out-of-control motorcycle gang. Made on an estimated budget of between $350'000 AUS and $400'000 AUS (worth less than $90'000 US dollars at the time), the film went on to take $100 million as well as spawn the sequels The Road Warrior in 1981, Beyond Thunderdome in 1985 and 2015's revival Fury Road.
What's it about?
The film is set in a near-future Australia where poverty and fuel shortages have society verging on the brink of collapse. The only thing preventing chaos from spreading are the poorly funded police known as the MPF and their top pursuit man, Max Rockatansky. Max is called to assist in stopping a crazed member of a motorcycle gang, calling himself the Nightrider, who has killed a fellow officer and escaped from custody. With Max on his tail, Nightrider loses control and crashes his stolen police car which kills both himself and his female companion. Max's superior Captain Fred "Fifi" MacAfee then warns Max that Nightrider's gang will be looking for revenge.
Sure enough, Max's partner Jim "Goose" Rains finds his motorcycle sabotaged and he ultimately falls foul of the gang - led by charismatic cult leader Toecutter. Max is distraught to find Goose barely alive but burnt to a crisp after Toecutter's young protégé Johnny The Boy ignited Goose's leaking gas tank. And when the gang start targeting Max's wife Jessie and their infant child, Max realises that he has to cross the line to stop Toecutter's gang...
Jim "Goose" Rains
Johnny The Boy
Fred "Fifi" MacAfee
James McCausland & George Miller *
Release Date (UK)
10th December, 1979
15 (2015 re-rating)
What's to like?
Given how low-budget the film clearly is, it's some achievement to see a film that isn't afraid to take chances. It seems unthinkable these days that a film with as little money as this would have so much vehicular stunt work and destruction but Mad Max makes the most out of every cent spent. There is a sense of certain Health & Safety corners being cut but it adds to the movie's bleak outlook on the future and certainly makes it more visceral and exciting. It feels like an episode of Top Gear except the three presenters are genuinely trying to kill each other.
However, the film's real ace is Gibson who puts in a remarkable performance as Max. From the opening scenes where he's shown to be the ultimate police officer to the end where his frame of mind is shot to hell, Gibson demonstrates much of the talent that would ultimately take him on to bigger and better things. And he's not alone - Keays-Byrne is magnetic as Toecutter, making what might have been a stock character into a truly menacing presence. Credit must also go to the numerous stunt drivers and riders (I assume they employed some!) who get the most out of the various bikes and cars on show. A pity that only Australian petrol-heads will get a kick out of this - few vehicles are that recognisable so you don't feel the same misty-eyed nostalgia one gets when watching the likes of The Cannonball Run or Smokey And The Bandit.
- Almost the entire cast were dubbed with American accents when the film was released in the US with Aussie slang being replaced as well. The only exceptions were the nightclub singer played by Robina Chaffey and the voice of officer Charlie (John Ley) as he speaks through a mechanical voice box.
- Joanne Samuel was a last-minute addition to the cast as the original actress had, ironically, been injured in a motorcycle accident just four days before shooting started.
- The film's microscopic budget meant certain luxuries had to be forgone. Many of the supporting cast had to drive themselves to the set in costume, only one of the leather costumes was actually made of leather and the blue van destroyed at the beginning of the van reportedly belonged to Miller.
What's not to like?
My biggest problem with Mad Max is that it's a hard film to enjoy. Even in its lighter moments between Gibson and Samuel as they take off for some much-needed time away, the film lacks any sense of joy. It's a dark, brutal and grim exercise in vehicular destruction and mind-shattering violence. Of course, most action films have violent scenes but few seem to enjoy them in the way this film does. At times, it almost seems to be encouraging the biker gang to go further and be more vicious.
The Aussie dialogue can make understanding the film's details a little harder to understand (unless you're watching the dubbed US release) but the basic mechanics of the story are simple enough to follow. I also felt it somewhat anticlimactic - there's no sense of victory or glory when the film resolves itself while its ambiguous ending suggests that in the end, no-one has truly won anything. It all feels so pointless and unnecessary. Having said that, the film's bleakness matches that of the backdrop it finds itself in - the film is largely devoid of scenery besides dusty fields and the odd pocket of humanity in the wilderness. It doesn't quite feel post-apocalyptic as suggested by the sequels but like earlier Aussie film, the coming-of-age drama Walkabout, there is an odd sense of isolation behind the characters.
Should I watch it?
Anyone expecting an Aussie version of trippy driving flick Vanishing Point will be in for a shock - the film is an unsettlingly mix of brutal violence, gang culture and surprisingly well-staged vehicular stunt work. At the centre is Gibson whose minimalist portrayal of Max does enough to demonstrate the reasons behind his long career in cinema. The film won't be to everyone's tastes but it does more than enough with its limited resources to justify the following it has since developed.
Great For: Australian cinema, petrol-heads, Mel Gibson's career
Not So Great For: environmentalists, female audience members, anyone thinking of holidaying Down Under
What else should I watch?
The series has proved surprisingly influential to a number of film-makers and novelists who share the film's vision of our post-apocalyptic future. Most obviously, the film's sequels further the film's imagery and characters - both Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome reunite director Miller and Mel Gibson to continue Max's story. The 2015 reboot Fury Road recasts Mel Gibson with Tom Hardy and has become the most successful film in the series so far, in terms of box office takings and Academy recognition.
Cars have always seemed to inspire creative types and movies are no exception. From jaunty comic heist The Italian Job and its iconic Mini Coopers to the existentialist hippy trip Vanishing Point, movies and motors have a long history together. Favourites of mine include the bombastic musical The Blues Brothers, the 2000 version of Gone In Sixty Seconds and that timeless redneck classic Smokey And The Bandit.
© 2016 Benjamin Cox