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Mad Max (1979)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

MAD MAX (1979)

Starring: Mel Gibson, Joanne Samuel, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Steve Bisley, Tim Burns, Roger Ward

Written By: George Miller, James McCausland Directed By: George Miller

The Short Version

Behold: the real start of Mel Gibson’s rise to stardom.

For a basic to the bone flick, there’s a surprising amount of real character here.  From one guy, anyway.

And car chases.  Outstanding car chases.

The nastiest stuff is all implied, but you probably won’t notice. You might notice when it gets slow, though.

Mad Max is an iconic flick that’s part of the “must see at least once” canon.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

CHEEZ-ITS.

You can eat them in the car, and they’d probably survive the apocalypse.


Pairs Well With...

FOSTER'S.

I’ve never met a single real Aussie who thinks it’s “Australian for beer,” but that can only help assure that there’d be plenty left after the apocalypse. Besides, it’s easy to knock back without any real thought if that's what you're after.

“It's that rat circus out there.  I'm beginning to enjoy it.  Look, any longer out on that road and I'm one of them: a terminal psychotic, except that I've got this bronze badge that says that I'm one of the good guys.”


For such an incredibly simple movie, Mad Max certainly does give one a lot to think about.

A gritty, low budget, basic to the bone post-apocalypse exploitation flick that achieved international cult status a few years after its initial release and which served as the initial platform from which its lead actor leaped into the realm of superstardom, Mad Max is one of those pop culture reference points that demands to be experienced at least once by any serious moviegoer.  As for the flavor of that experience… that very much depends on what you’re expecting to see.

Mad Max begins with a scene so memorable that it and the final one are often the only two that long estranged viewers can remember.  Specifically, it begins with a damn exciting car chase punctuated by the constant roar of high performance engines.  (Never mind that every vehicle roars the same; on this budget, that sort of thing is forgivable, and it is a very nice roar.)  With no grand cityscape to serve as a backdrop, this one’s all about the vehicles and the scary people driving them.  It’s the sort of car chase that can forcibly drag even the most refined adult right back into teenagerhood: a raw, no-frills action piece that reaches down to a more primal excitement center than the gloss of modern Hollywood can reach, and it feels like it goes on for the coolest kind of forever.  It is awesome in its simplicity, and one of the best car chases ever filmed.  Its brethren that occasionally pop up during the rest of the film are nothing to sneeze at, either.

With that in mind, one could be forgiven for remembering little else about Mad Max after a few years, save perhaps a vague recollection of the ending.  But if all you’re expecting is an automotive action flick, you’re in for a shock. 

Stripped to its frame, Mad Max plays like a cross between and old school biker gang flick and a “lone sheriff” Western with an added splash of Death Wish, set upon the stage of an undefined but definitely post-apocalyptic Australia.  Though best remembered by most for its chase scenes, when viewed through modern eyes, it becomes something else.  Specifically, it becomes a decent man’s journey down the path leading to antiheroism, before such characters became the norm.

There’s a reason that Mel Gibson made a major impression here, folks, and it’s not because he looked cool in a pair of shades while driving a muscle car.  Surrounded though he may be by screaming lunatic stereotypes and one-dimensional characters, Max Rockantasky himself has some depth, if one can blink past the roaring engines long enough to see it.

When the audience first meets Max, the “Mad” moniker he’s given by the title may seem a stretch.  He is, in fact, an unshakable “Mr. Cool” type straight from a 50s/60s Steve McQueen type mold, with a man-boy’s obsession for high performance under the hood and an old school sheriff’s ideals of justice.  He ends up taking down a nasty street thug who left his fellow cops in the dust; another day at the office.  Then he’s revealed to be a family man with a vanilla sweet lady and a young child at home, and it turns out that while the results you’re already predicting are indeed accurate, the details involved are not.  As jaded viewers, we expect that the family exists To Be Threatened when the bad guy’s cronies come out for revenge, but that’s not quite the way it works, and that twist is one of the things that makes Mad Max special.

As expected, the remaining members of the gang of thugs do go after the cops, but they don’t zero in on Max right away.  Instead, they target a different cop who throws a fit when one of the thugs is let off scot free.  When Max sees his buddy burned to a crisp in a hospital bed – it’s worth pausing to note that only Max sees him burned to crisp; the audience doesn’t get to see the gory details of this or pretty much anything else that might have gory details, either – he doesn’t do the predictable thing by going out on a mission of vengeance for his fallen pal.  Instead, he quits the force.  Apparently, seeing his burned buddy throws a switch in his brain that makes him realize that he did the exact same thing – albeit without intent – to the bad guy at the start of the movie, and he feels unclean.  All he wants to do is pack up his family and dash off to a more pleasant part of the wasted-out country.  For anyone used to the standard conventions of cop/action movies, it’s not just novel: it’s downright jarring, and in that moment, Max Rockatansky – and through his performance of that character, Mel Gibson – becomes someone of note who transcends his initial archetype.

Had Mad Max ended right there, it’d have been one of the ballsiest moves in movie history… but of course, it doesn’t end there, nor should it.  (Brave though that ending might have been, it’d also have been lousy.)  Instead, the audience gets half an act of the film that features the formerly leather-clad Max in a clean white shirt and light colored pants taking a road trip that seems surreal in such a dirty post-apocalypse setting.  Alas for him, the lady and the kid stop for ice cream in a town that’s been occupied by the gang o’ thugs, and they don’t take kindly to her refusal to become their play toy.  She and the kid do escape easily, but we all know what must inevitably happen, and the film jumps back onto the track the audience was originally expecting.  Max’s attempts to defend his family ultimately fail, and in one fell swoop, Mr. Rockatansky jumps ahead of his own time and becomes the modern antihero: the very man he declared he did not want to become earlier on in the picture.  To defeat the villains, he becomes just like them, earning the “Mad Max” moniker with a style of vengeance that has come to echo through the years.  (Modern horror fans may recognize his final act as something very familiar indeed, thanks to a later film lifting it.)  And even though he is only in that mode for the final minutes of the movie, it’s obvious that this will not be a temporary change.

Behold the future, as presented by a film from the late 70s that borrows much of its frame from the late 50s.  The character study is there if you want to see it, but if you don’t – and many would rather not – it’s okay to just throw your brain in neutral and enjoy the hot car chases, too.   Just remember that the nastier edges of the movie have been dulled by time, and that if action is all you’re interested in, there are stretches of the film that play rather slow.

Bottom line, whatever your expectations may be, Mad Max is one of those pop culture landmarks that demands a visit from any serious moviegoer, though it’s probably worth previewing first before you decide whether or not to own it as part of your permanent collection.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, December, 2013


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