Mad Max (1979)

mad max


So this is a recent addition to my collection. There was uproar from some of my Australian friends that I did not own the Aussie classic Mad Max, the film that launched Mel Gibson on his way to superstardom. The most interesting thing about this film is the story of how Mel was originally cast. Apparently Mel was a bit of a rapscallion in his younger days (who’d have thought that?), and the day before his audition Mel’s boyish good looks were pummeled into submission during a fight. He turned up to the audition covered in bruises, looking like exactly the sort of man the filmmakers wanted as their lead. After a few weeks the bruises healed, and the producers realised they had an attractive charmer (Damn!!). Obviously things turned out all right, as this film got made, was well received, and Gibson used it as a springboard to riches in Hollywood.

Mad Max is a simple enough story. Gibson stars as Max Rockatansky, who is basically a member of the highway patrol in a dystopian future. He is also the best member of this force (of course he is). Max spends most of his days tracking down bikie gangs, the last remaining semblance of any organised crime left. Max comes across a gang known as the Acolytes and, along with his partner (Steve Bisley), he sets out to end their run of terrorising the locals. He soon learns this gang is more dangerous than he feared when they murder his partner and target Max’s family. This sets Max off on a rampage that likely nobody will survive.

This is not a terrible film. In fact, for something made in the 70s, it holds up quite well. It does say a lot about how censorship has changed over the years. When Mad Max was first released, it was slapped with an R rating for over the top violence and gore. These days, I think this film would be lucky to get more than an M rating (PG-13 for you Yankees). The violence is not that bad, although maybe I’m just a bit desensitised to it all. The film is clearly low budget– it was made for a little over $400,000– and this is very obvious. What saves this from being nothing more than a glorified C-grade romp is Gibson’s performance. Even back then he showed the charm and good looks that the world would come to appreciate a few years later. He is able to play the role of family man, concerned police officer, and crazy rampaging angry man with a lust for revenge, and jump in and out of all of those personas as required. This is a skill that would eventually come in very handy when he played the nutty Martin Riggs so well during the Lethal Weapon franchise.

Mad Max is ok. I feel like it was built up a little too much by the people that recommended it. For an Australian film though, it is remarkable. I have described in the past my disdain for my home country’s film industry, but Mad Max does not belong on that list. For an Australian film, it is Citizen Kane.

Rating: C+

Mad Max really confused me. I was under the impression that this was a dystopian future, fight-to-the-death while wearing punk clothing type thing, and maybe Tina Turner was in it? I mean, that’s what the those trailers for the new one with Tom Hardy look like. (By the way, how badass does that movie look?) Turns out I was thinking of the sequels. Mad Max is not nearly as exciting.

What confused me is that Mad Max is set more in the near future, one that still has some semblance of order, though that is rapidly breaking down. The sequels are set further on after all hell has broken loose. That’s the type of dystopian future I’m used to thanks to the slew of YA fiction novels and movie adaptations that are currently en vogue. But I’ve always thought that setting a story in the midst of social upheaval could be interesting, and this movie does have its moments.

The premise of this film is excellent and sadly still relevant. The world is in the midst of a major energy crisis and oil is in short supply. It appears that no one has given much thought to alternative fuel sources, because ultra-violent biker gangs terrorize rural Australia by stealing fuel and committing worse crimes, as well. This film may have been inspired by the oil shortages of the 1970s, but assuming the world doesn’t get its act together quick, we might all be living out the plot of Mad Max once the oil dries up (or the water). This movie perfectly depicts this strange limbo world where gasoline is scarce, but still available. I don’t recall any character trying to get around using anything other than fossil fuel powered vehicles. Everyone appears to be going about business as usual, using up precious resources to go on holiday and get ice cream.

That said, Mad Max is just an exploitation film that happens to touch on one of the world’s most pressing issues. It doesn’t provide any social commentary, just a lot of violence wrapped up in an ordinary revenge story. It is interesting that director and screenwriter George Miller was inspired (for lack of a better word) by his time as an emergency room doctor, where he saw injuries and deaths similar to those shown in the movie. However, this feels like its glorifying high speed car chases rather than presenting their aftermath as a cautionary tale. That’s a weird angle for a doctor to take.

Rating: C

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