Mad Max (1979)


Australia has a bit of a reputation as a rough-and-tumble desert full of snakes, spiders, serial killers and psychotic bikers.  It's a place where men are men, beer is - well, the exact opposite of whatever Foster's is.  It's a place so tough that the only protection you have from the roving gangs is black-leather wearing police in their souped-up muscle cars.

Of course, other than spiders and snakes (and, unfortunately, the serial killers), none of this is true.  In fact, the movies that pushed this stereotype were a rather recent development, as Australia's version of the Hayes Code was stricter than that in the U.S., and it lasted all the way until the early 1970s.  It was so strict, in fact, that there was practically no local film industry.  This changed when Australia adopted something from the U.S. - the "R", or Restricted, rating.

While this coincided with the birth of serious Australian cinema (often referred to as the Australian New Wave) in the late 20th century, it also opened the floodgates for about anything that could be imagined and, in the 1970s, exploitation films of every sort were consistently earning back their production costs at drive-ins and seedy cinemas across the world.  It was this atmosphere that influenced a young doctor named George Miller, influenced by both Australia's muscle car culture and the accident victims the was often tasked with saving.  Add in the oil crisis that began in 1973 and violence that erupted as gas supplies often ran short, and you have the framework for what was to become Mad Max.

In a near-future Australia hit hard by an ongoing oil crisis and a government structure that is quickly crumbling from disinterest and corruption, the Main Force Patrol is an understaffed band of officers working out of a crumbling building called The Halls of Justice.  The Nightrider (Vincent Gil) and his girlfriend (Lulu Pinkus) steal a police pursuit vehicle and lead the MFP on a chase.  When he starts heading toward populated areas, everyone gets in on the chase, including motorcycle cop Goose (Steve Bisley).  Unable to stop them, it comes down to the MFP's start trooper - Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson).  Unfortunately, the chase does not in apprehension, but rather in the violent death of the Nightrider and his companion.

Although he is successful at his job, Max is a new father, and is considering leaving the MFP before the job consumes him.  His wife Jessie (Joanne Samuel) is supportive of his career, but obviously would feel better with him in a less-dangerous job.  However, his boss Fifi (Roger Ward) wants to make sure Max stays on, and despite his own boss's anger at having to spend money on the police department, Max is presented a new pursuit vehicle in order to keep him happy.

The Nightrider, however, was not a lone wolf, but the member of a vicious gang of bikers led by the Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his right-hand man Bubba Zanetti (Geoff Parry).  When they come to pick up the Nightrider's remains, they also decide to terrorize the town.  When a young man  and his girlfriend (Kim Sullivan) try to flee they almost run down the Toecutter, resulting in the gang pursuing them, ultimately disabling their car and raping both.  Max and Goose receive the call, and arrive to find Johnny the Boy (Tim Burns) wasted at the scene.  They arrest him, but the townspeople and victims are intimidated into not appearing for court by the gang, and his lawyers show up at the Halls of Justice to retrieve him - an action that is met by violent resistance by Goose.

In retaliation, a member of the gang tampers with Goose's motorcycle while he has a tryst with a nightclub singer (Robina Chaffey).  Goose survives the crash, but is ambushed in a borrowed truck as he takes his bike back for repairs.  The truck roles and, with Goose trapped within, Johnny the Boy is forced by the Toecutter to burn him alive.  What happens to Goose is the last straw for Max, and he decides to quit for good.  Fifi encourages him to take some time off, and this he does, heading for a beach holiday with Jessie and their baby.  Unfortunately, a stop to get a tire repaired results in Jessie being accosted by the bikers, and giving the Toecutter a swift knee to the groin for his efforts.  Their attempts to report the incident are largely dismissed, but ultimately leads to the bikers attacking Jessie at the farm at which the family is staying.

The gang is temporarily waylaid when locked in a barn by the farm's owner May (Sheila Florence), but they manage to escape and run down Jessie and the baby as she tries to run after her vehicle gives up the ghost.  Max arrives too late, and overhears in the hospital that his child is dead and his wife is likely not going to make it.  Enraged, he returns to the Halls of Justice, retrieves the pursuit vehicle and goes after the gang himself.

While Max appears as a legendary figure that shows up, kind of lends a hand and disappears in the later movies, this one is pure origin story.  Society is on the brink of collapse, and the final nuclear exchange has not yet happened.  There are, however, numerous conflicts over dwindling resources, and larger populated areas are experiencing riots and general anarchy as the government entities meant to keep order slowly crumble.  This was backstory that was largely added in Mad Max 2, as Mad Max itself was not originally conceived as a science fiction film.  The deserted highways, abandoned and crumbling buildings and general sense of decay led the movie into being one, as the locations were usually used for convenience - and, for many of the major chase scenes, for the benefit of being able to film in a guerilla style before the real cops showed up and started wondering what they were doing.

The budget was quite low, so in many ways Mad Max was a disappointment when many Americans saw it, as it had a limited run (famously, overdubbed with American accents) in drive-ins and independent theaters in 1980.  Almost no one saw it, which is why its sequel got the title of The Road Warrior when released in 1982.  Word of mouth and constant cable showings made The Road Warrior one of the most popular movies of the time, and due to the international success of Mad Max, director George Miller was able to do much more of what he wanted when it came to the action scenes.  Thus, when many people found out that The Road Warrior was actually a sequel and sought out the original, they were disappointed to find out it wasn't the frenetic action film they were expecting.

Despite this, you can still see many of the techniques that would go into filming the action in the sequel, including car-mounted cameras and David Eggby, the cinematographer, riding at speeds in access of 100 miles per hour on the back of a motorcycle to get certain shots.  For a first movie, and certainly for such a low budget for a film that had high ambitions, Miller surprisingly seems to know largely what he was doing.  Between him and Eggby we get sweeping vistas of the Australian countryside, largely under threatening cloud cover.  There are often dramatic fades between scenes, not to black, but rather one fading into another to show the passing of time - something that would continue into later Mad Max films.

Still, there are occasional pacing problems, largely in a lot of cases with Max's interactions with his wife.  Max had to have some sort of instigation for taking revenge, and the death of his wife and child figure heavily into the way he is in the sequels, especially as everything he tries to replace them with as he survives in the wasteland is taken away from him one by one.  Still, the whole relationship screams nothing other than plot device.  This was Mel Gibson's first time in a movie (he was enrolled in a drama school along with Steve Bisley), and it shows.  Combine that with (at the time) Miller being better at directing action than directing people, and important emotional parts fall flat, especially the speech about Max's father.  Gibson would quickly grow as an actor (his role as Max resulted in him having major roles in two of Peter Weir's most celebrated films, The Year of Living Dangerously and Gallipoli) to the point that he eventually became an international star.

The rest of the cast is surprisingly solid for such an undertaking.  Although the chemistry with Gibson seems forced, Joanne Samuel shows Jessie as someone who can handle herself when needed.  Bisley has said he was hired more for his ability to ride a motorcycle than for his acting ability.  Can't really tell, since he is also mainly a plot device, albeit a cool one and more effective than Jessie.  The highlights beyond Gibson are Hugh Keays-Byrne, who manages to make the Toecutter one of the most memorable movie villains even if he spends more time directing the violence his minions do rather than getting his hands dirty.  He was memorable enough to be brought back to play Immortan Joe, the main villain in Mad Max: Fury Road.  The other is Geoff Parry, with is pale blonde hair and deadly, snake-like demeanor.  Of any of the gang beyond Toecutter, he would be the one that would scare the crap out of me.  He is able to convey the look of a man who has seen and done many things, and has the intelligence to set his plans in motion.

Watching Fury Road, for many newer viewers (since there was such a long gap between Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and the third sequel) seeing this origin story is going to be a bit of a disappointment, especially considering how much Miller was able to do as the budgets got larger.  Still, this was an important turning point in Australian film making.  Although it didn't do great business in the United States, Mad Max made over $100 million worldwide, with enough filtering back to Miller in order for him to give us the later movies we love so much.  I, for one, still enjoy the first one despite all its flaws, because there are so many scenes, like in the later movies, where you wonder how a good portion of the crew managed to survive the making of the movie.  Except for the obvious dummy going under the truck, what you see in this movie is what you get, with the actors largely doing their own stunts and everything filmed in minimal takes.  It is amazing what a few thousand dollars (and a few hundred cases of beer) can do when someone really has a passion for what they are doing.

Mad Max (1979)
Time: 88 minutes
Starring: Mel Gibson, Joanne Samuel, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Steve Bisley
Director: George Miller

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