When today’s young audiences think of Mad Max, their mind’s eye probably wanders towards the Tom Hardy-helmed road-rage epic. While Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) gives an unforgettable take on the same character and is also a product of George Miller’s mind, this feverish, highly kinetic desert epic is utterly dissimilar to anything that was presented to us back in ’79.
Mad Max (1979) tells the story of how Max Rockatansky, a highway patrolman tasked with keeping his small piece of the world safe, (particularly from a biker-gang led by camp Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byre)), actually becomes Mad Max.
The first half plays as a straight, sometimes contemporary and sometimes futuristic police thriller, pitting cops against tyre burning, fuel smuggling hooligans. Mad Max is the slice of exploitation cinema that became a cult classic, catapulting Mel Gibson to mega-stardom in the process and making him one of Hollywood’s hottest assets throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
The film is set in a future dystopia. Many societal structures have buckled. Moral values have faded into thin air; only a handful upstanding family men such as Max remain, rendering them the last standing heroes citizens desperately need. The local police precinct is expected to keep these delinquents at bay without any resources to speak of, operating from stations that resemble bombed-out orphanages.
We’re given no reason or explanation as to how humanity (or is it just Australia?) ended up in such a gloomy state; although at the same time, shops, mechanics, homes and hospitals still seem to function as well as they did in 1970s. Its evident that resources are stretched tight, evidently due to collapsed government services and systems.
Whatever happened left the MFP with no choice but to dress its’ entire force up in vinyl gear and studs, making them look as if they’d just came off the set of Friedkin’s Cruising (1980).
Plot & Character Development
So, interesting bit, this; Max doesn’t start out mad. In fact, he isn’t mad in the least for most of the film’s running time. We meet him as the nickname less, better-adjusted partner of another greasy cop known only as Goose (Steve Bisley).
For most of the movie’s first half, Rockatansky seems capable of keeping cool head, remaining unaffected even after offing members of the gang who don’t think twice before raping both men and women, and pillaging every vehicle that dares stray out of the village core. His reputation as a clean, straight cop who knows no fear is mythical amongst his circles.
The first gang-member unlucky enough to taste Max’s wrath is Nightrider. Drunk in the notoriety he enjoys amongst his fellow gang members, Nightrider rips along the sandy roads acting comically insane until he recognises that Max is hot on his wheels (pun intended), a realisation terrifying enough to turn him into a whimpering softie. Max incinerates him and simply returns to his job and family life without any second thought. All in a day’s work!
Things take a drastic turn for the worse when the bikers horribly mutilate partner Goose and leave him for dead. This drives Max, a young family man, into a mild depression, making him re-evaluate his situation in the process.
After some soul searching, Max discusses his intended resignation with his Captain Fiffy (a very flamboyant Roger Ward who dresses as if he would in a 1981 Queen video) who convinces him to take a few days off with his family instead of quitting for good.
It is during this short holiday that the biker gang takes from Max, and in the most heinous way, what means most; his family, triggering the Mad to take over.
What starts out as a buddy-cop movie becomes a full-on revenge flick, nabbing ideas from exploitation flicks of the era like The Hills Have Eyes (1977) or I Spit on Your Grave (1978), left, right and centre; retard woodland redneck and all.
At times, Mad Max feels unsure of the kind of film it wants to be. It has this habit of making you cringe one moment and sit at the edge of your seat at the next. The characters are not at all well-written; in fact they’re as flat as stickers. Gibson deserves all the kudos he receives not only for doing wonders with the material in this first entry but also for fleshing the character out quite skilfully throughout his tenure as Rockatansky, and particularly during the first two entries.
If Max and his colleagues suffer from lack of development, the villains are treated as afterthoughts. They are written as loud-mouth village-idiot/hooligan stereotypes, and that’s all they remain.
Gang-leader Toe Cutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who would later take on the role of a different Mad Max Arch-villain in the reboot), is oddly charismatic in the role. I do feel that he made much more with the character than could possibly have been written or originally intended.
While his Toecutter makes the character as interesting and memorable as any grindhouse villain from the era, he doesn’t seem to have aged at all well today. He still doesn’t have any real depth and his theatrics come across as cliched, leaving the character to languish in the dust of obscurity.
Birth of the Gibson Avenger
Mad Max could very well be responsible for starting a lot of things. Apart from the two subsequent films starring Gibson and the 2015 Tom Hardy reboot, it gave us the first type of a character Gibson would end up playing a lot throughout his screen career – the wronged family man thirsty for revenge, perhaps popularised today by Liam Neeson with his extremely successful Taken movies.
Mad Max could have gone a million different directions. As far as frenetic car chases go, it doesn’t even light a candle to its first sequel, Mad Max2: The Road Warrior (1981). RW was the one that really turned this cult flick into cinematic gold; with its chaotic vehicle chases and ultra-violence galore.
Mad Max (1979) features a solitary car-jacking by vaulting, and a technically, a crudely executed one at that. The sequels would go on to churn out a number of these awe-inspiring stunts, each one more impressive than the next, leading us to wonder, what other impressive ideas Miller must have had for the first Mad Max, which the miserly budget of A$400,000 didn’t allow him to realise?
A more generous budget would let Road Warrior inject new life in the franchise and establish a genre of its own synonymous with ragged costumes, sandy expanses and high speed desert chases, effectively inspiring a number of rip-offs, the most notable of which would be Kevin Costner’s Waterworld (1995).
Mad Max (1979) started out and ultimately remains a small, no-budget affair. Watching it today it feels much less like the film that birthed a multi-million dollar franchise and much more like the obscure foreign indie it really was. While the pacing is all over the place and the film doesn’t get to the actual ‘madness’ until the final act, I was never bored. It’s a product of an era gone by, a staple of cinema if there ever was one.