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mad_max_ver1

When George Miller first introduced the world to Max Rockatansky in 1979, I wonder if he could have predicted that the character would be popular enough to warrant reexamination almost 40 years later. With three films in the Mad Max canon and a fourth coming this year, however, it’s pretty clear that Miller’s Australian “Road Angel of Death” has had some serious staying power. While the upcoming Fury Road (2015) appears to follow the template set by latter-day high velocity outings like Road Warrior (1981) and Beyond Thunderdome (1985), the original film, Mad Max (1979), was a much leaner and meaner affair, albeit no less over-the-top and prone to some particular comic-book affectations. Drawing inspiration from sources as diverse as Death Wish (1974) and A Clockwork Orange (1971) while bearing more than a passing resemblance to The Warriors (1979), Miller’s initial outing is a real doozy and one that would go on to influence generations of action and post-apocalyptic films to come.

Kicking off with an epic, 10-minute smash-and-bash car chase between the howling mad Nightrider (Vince Gil) and a group of unfortunate highway patrol officers, we’re thrust into the middle of the action with no info-dump or warning. As things gradually settle down, a bit, we come to discover that this appears to be a rather lawless, possibly post-apocalyptic, society, where cops and criminals duke it out on the dusty highways that stretch across Australia. At first, Nightrider seems unstoppable, a Tazmanian Devil behind the wheel who handily out-runs, out-drives and out-bravados every cop he comes across. Cue our hero, Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), the coolest, toughest and most badass patrol officer of the bunch. Max shows up, mirrored shades reflecting back the blistering sun, and proceeds to drive Nightrider straight into an early grave. This, ladies and gentlemen, is his business…and business is very, very good.

Max’s partner, Jim Goose (Steve Bisley), is a good egg and loyal as the day is long, while his superior officer, Fifi (Roger Ward), treats Max like royalty and holds him up as shining example for the rest of the officers. At home, we get to see the softer side of Max: his loving wife, Jessie (Joanne Samuel) blows a mean sax and he’s got a cute baby named Sprog. Life seems pretty darn groovy for this Down Under Dirty Harry but there’s big trouble brewin.’

This big trouble arrives in the form of the dastardly Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his marauding biker gang. Seems that the gang has a bone to pick with Max for snuffing out their beloved Nightrider and Toecutter has sworn vengeance, the bloodier the better. When the gang blows into town to retrieve Nightrider’s coffin, they end up trashing the place, ala an old-fashioned Western, and chase a couple out onto the open road where they destroy their car, chase the guy away and gang-rape the young woman. Max and Goose arrive in time to pick up the pieces, finding the chained, traumatized woman and one of the gang members, Johnny (Tim Burns), so drugged-out that he forgot to run away when the others did.

Faster than you can say Dirty Harry (1971), however, the case gets tossed out and Johnny is released because none of the victims, including the young woman, will come forward to testify. Johnny walks, after taunting the cops, and Goose is furious. When the gang ambushes and attacks Goose in a particularly terrible way, however, Max will have to decide which path to follow, the one that leads to his family or the one that leads to revenge. As Toecutter, his cold-blooded lieutenant, Bubba (Geoff Parry), and the rest of the gang get closer and closer to Max, they will learn one very important lesson: you can do a lot of things to Max Rockatansky but the last thing you wanna do is get the guy mad.

Despite the often grim subject matter (children in peril, rape, collapsing society) and the often intense violence (immolations, dismemberments, semi driving over people), there’s a sense of buoyancy and energy to Mad Max that makes the whole thing a lot closer to a comic-book movie like RoboCop (1987) than to something more serious like, say, The Road (2009) or The Rover (2014). In addition, Miller uses several techniques, such as the wipe transitions between scenes and the jaunty score (courtesy of Australian composer Brian May) that help to elevate this sense of action-adventureism. To be honest, Mad Max often feels like a synthesis of Lethal Weapon (1987) (not specifically because of Gibson’s involvement but more for the depictions of Max’s home-life and the way in which the film’s action constantly toes the “silly/awesome” dividing line) and A Clockwork Orange (the gang’s affectations, slang and Toecutter’s casual brutality all reminded me explicitly of Kubrick’s adaptation), as odd as that may sound.

While never completely serious, aside from the film’s handful of heartstring-pullers, Mad Max never tips all the way over into campy or silly. This isn’t quite the novelty of The Warriors: Toecutter’s gang has an actual air of menace to them, an air that’s not helped by their propensity for rape and assault on innocent civilians. Keays-Byrne is marvelous as the insane gang leader, easily going down as one of the most memorable villains in these type of films: his polite, slightly foppish mannerisms are completely off-set by his hair-trigger barbarity, making for a bracing combination. Nearly as memorable is Geoff Parry’s turn as Bubba Zanetti: his laconic delivery perfectly contrasts with his hot-headed personality making for a character who would’ve been perfect going up against Clint Eastwood in a spaghetti Western.

In fact, more than anything, Mad Max is like a spaghetti Western, albeit one filtered through all of the influences listed above. The interplay between the gang members, between Max and his superiors, between the law and the lawless…the setpieces that could have easily been chases on horseback or wagon…the lonesome, wide-open devastation of the Australian landscape…Sergio Leone might have been proud to call any of them his own.

As one of his first roles, Mad Max set a course for Mel Gibson’s career that would serve him quite well, right up to the point in time where he self-detonated it. Here, however, we get Mel before the headlines, stupidity and career suicide: he’s rock-solid as Rockatansky, bringing just enough vulnerability and indecision to the role to prevent him from ever seeming as completely callous as someone like Eastwood’s Harry Callahan. He also brings a physicality to the role that helps make the whole enterprise seem that much more authentic: Gibson’s performance is so “all-in” that the scene where he limps and drags himself down the pavement genuinely looks like it hurts like hell. It would be the easiest thing in the world to play Max like a video game character but it’s to Gibson’s immense credit that he makes him both so human and so completely badass: it’s easy to see why this became a franchise so quickly, as the magnetism is undeniable.

In some ways, the differences between Mad Max and its predecessors is the same as the difference between the first two Alien or Terminator films: Mad Max is more of a small-scale revenge drama (very similar to Death Wish, particularly in the final reel) whereas the films that followed it are more wide-screen, adventure epics. Despite this, however, I was genuinely surprised to note how honestly cartoonish the film is. Perhaps I picked up on this when I watched the film in the past but it was more apparent now than ever before that the first film fits in perfectly well with the more OTT vibe of the other films. While it may be smaller scale, it’s definitely of a piece with The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome: Toecutter would have fit in nicely in either of those.

With Fury Road on the horizon, I thought it might be useful to go back and revisit the film that started it all. As always, Mad Max doesn’t disappoint: from the rousing action setpieces, astounding car chases, cool-as-a-cucumber lead character, colorful villains and genuine sense of danger and tension, Mad Max is an absolute blast from start to finish. Here’s to hoping that Miller manages to maintain this classic feel with his newest: the world has been without a Rockatansky for way too long now…we need our Mad Max now more than ever.

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