Wednesday, September 9, 2015

"Mad Max" (1979)

Starring Mel Gibson, Joanne Samuel and Hugh Keays-Byrne
Written by James McCausland and George Miller
Directed by George Miller
Rated R — Violence, language, nudity
Running Time: 93 Minutes

Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) is a young hot-shot cop with the Main Force Patrol, the only law enforcement left in a crumbling society. When Max runs the leader of a local gang, the Nightrider (Vincent Gil) off the road, killing him, the gang's new leader, Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) is keen for revenge.

Toecutter and his minions start to take on the MFP, starting by killing Max's best friend, Goose (Steve Bisley). Worried that the job will take everything from him, a burnt out Max turns in his resignation and takes his wife Jessie (Joanne Samuel) and young son Sprog on vacation. But that won't be enough for Toecutter, not at all.

Here it is, the low-budget Aussie exploitation flick that started it all. Made on a shoe-string budget, "Mad Max" found international acclaim and gave the world Mel Gibson, who would be one of the biggest stars of the 1980s and 90s.

There's no doubt, in retrospect, that "Mad Max" pales before some of the work done in later entries. Its stunts are small, as is its overall scope. Yet, there's certainly a compelling movie here, and knowing that there are three sequels gives this original one an interesting starting point.

When looked at in conjunction with its sequels, there's a clear progression as the old world is still barely clinging together. It would collapse entirely between "Mad Max" and "The Road Warrior," and would show some signs of return as humans rediscover communities and law in "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome" and "Fury Road."

But here, there are still towns and bars and families and businesses and cops. Max has a job and a home and a family, and what's interesting is that he worries about what he'll become if he has to stay out on the road dealing with scum like Toecutter's gang. Of course, we now know that's exactly what's destined to happen. It gives the start of Max's journey an interesting perspective when you look at it more than 30 years and three sequels later.

I can't speak to what it was like at the time, of course, since I wasn't born when this film was released and didn't even see it until the late 1990s.

But director George Miller, then an emergency room doctor rather than famous filmmaker, crafts a particularly precarious world. Everywhere you look, the signs of civilization dwindle. Max's police station is run down in every sense of the word: peeling paint, trash on the floor, etc. Even the hospital where Max's wife is taken after getting run over by Toecutter seems inadequate and woefully lacking in supplies. People seem generally afraid and unsure, willing to let Toecutter and his thugs walk all over them for fear of incurring their wrath.

So there's a sense of helplessness, fear and desperation that permeates the entire film. Even a brief scene toward the beginning where Jessie doesn't want Max to go to work has a subtle sense of danger: while Max and Jessie argue, Max's infant son Sprog plays with Max's service pistol, totally noticed.

The film's handful of action sequences are all well done, though, especially the film's opener as Nightrider bests Max's comrades before Max joins the fray. It's an impressive display of budget filmmaking, well shot and impeccably edited. The rest of the film, also, is solidly made despite its tiny resources.

The stepping stone to bigger and better things, "Mad Max" is still a worthy and compelling film on its own.

See Also
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome
Mad Max: Fury Road