REVIEW: Mad Max [1979]

Score: 5/10 | ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 88 minutes | Release Date: April 12th, 1979 (Australia)
Studio: Roadshow Entertainment / American International Pictures
Director(s): George Miller
Writer(s): James McCausland & George Miller / George Miller & Byron Kennedy (story, uncredited)

“I’m a fuel-injected suicide machine”

You couldn’t turn on the television without seeing Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome when I was growing up. I couldn’t tell you anything about it besides the fact Tina Turner co-starred, but I remember the whole terminally crazed aesthetic of George Miller‘s post-apocalyptic world. So much so that I always assumed I had seen the two previous entries. While I’m pretty sure memories of The Road Warrior lie somewhere dormant in the back of my mind, I cannot say the same about the original. The yellow “Pursuit” vehicles? Rockatansky domestic life of love and smiles? Baby-faced Mel Gibson trying his damnedest to not become one of the riff raff his badge affords him the power to take down? Nope. None of it rung a bell. So maybe I entered my first viewing with too high of expectations.

I knew Mad Max was a low budget independent that somehow struck a chord with international audiences to make it the most profitable film in history before getting unseated by The Blair Witch Project in 1999, but I underestimated exactly how dated its low-fi sensibilities had become. The product of a former medical doctor in Sydney (director Miller) and a burgeoning filmmaker (co-creator Byron Kennedy) who met at a summer film class almost a decade prior, this unlikely hit debuted in Australia on the heels of a sub-$500,000 production. Scribed by Miller and James McCausland, the hyper-violent look at a dystopian future where crude oil is scarce and the roads riddled with outlaws sold for $1.8 million on its way to grossing $100 million worldwide. Talk about a dream come true.

I can’t speak to how it would have been received upon release, but today its hard-R is tamed by its cheesiness and lack of meaningful plot. Not only does the camera refuse to show any of the carnage besides a severed arm and shot-out knee-cap (oh, I shouldn’t forget the odd frames of buggy bloodshot eyes right before two key deaths by car crash explosion), the filmmakers’ attempt at romance comes courtesy of Max’s (Gibson) wife Jessie (Joanne Samuel) playing the saxophone and him bopping her nose with greasy hands while fixing their wagon’s fan belt. The action is almost completely filmed in close up montages of static car fixtures, cars and motorcycles alternate possessing superior speed of the other depending on what currently suits the script, and Max doesn’t even get “mad” until Act Three.

Hell, there isn’t really a story until Max hits that breaking point—the other two-thirds is merely prolonged exposition. And even that’s shared in as obtuse a way as possible considering we don’t know about anything besides the fact crazy people are crazy and the police officers meant to stop them are barely one notch lower on the insanity scale. This provides some great comic relief, especially at the beginning with an overly enthusiastic dolt in Officer Roop (Steve Millichamp) and his green partner Charlie (John Ley). Between the comedy of errors these two undergo, the maniacal fit of laughter via the criminal they’re pursuing (Vincent Gil‘s Nightrider), and the abstract shots of Max stoically waiting to intercept the chase, I couldn’t stop rolling my eyes at the sheer goofiness of everything juxtaposed together.

And what was it all for besides giving audiences a couple of annihilating car collisions? To make sure Max is put firmly in Nightrider’s boss Toecutter’s (Hugh Keays-Byrne) crosshairs of course. At least that’s the original motive despite this psychopath going after Max’s best friend and partner Goose (Steve Bisley) instead. In fact, I’m not even sure Toecutter knows Max is Max when they finally do confront one another. I was surprised Max knew he was Toecutter when asking a shady mechanic for information considering he was only looking for the guy who threatened his wife and child. Yes, even though Miller and company makes a huge deal about Toecutter moving hell and high water for vengeance on Rockatansky, the reason they find themselves in the same frame at the climax is sheer dumb luck.

Story contrivances aside, at least the characters are memorable. If anything, Max Rockatansky proves the most boring of the bunch if not for his tragic circumstances setting him up to be much more interesting (and mad) in the sequel. Police Chief Fifi (Roger Ward) is a hoot, Bisley’s Goose is a raw nerve ready to wield a baton and go on his own rampage, and how can you not love the simpleton Benno (Max Fairchild) ambling about? Tim Burns‘ Johnny is schizophrenia incarnate, Geoff Parry‘s Bubba is a stone-cold killer, and Keays-Byrne a charismatic villain whose demise is sadly anti-climatic enough to forget it happened. The rest are Keystone Cops and hillbilly rednecks guffawing their way to early graves. Good guys wear shiny leather and the bad are shrouded in weatherworn hide.

I wish I could have watched it through the eyes of a 1980s kid not already desensitized to on-screen violence let alone the off-screen variety utilized here because Mad Max does read as special on paper. A handful of nobodies behind the camera and an anonymous Mel Gibson in front (American trailers focused solely on the action) took Australia and the US by storm before spawning two follow-ups in five years and a fourth coming after thirty more. I can see the potential it would bring to fruition because potential is this film’s sole commodity. Since the fierce anger behind Max’s eyes that sold tickets in the first place is absent until the final frame, the rest plays as though Part Two was inevitable. Presently it appears that sequel is exactly what makes it worthwhile.

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