Mad Max

Mad MaxSynopsis: In the ravaged near-future, a savage motorcycle gang rules the road. Terrorizing innocent civilians while tearing up the streets, the ruthless gang laughs in the face of a police force hell-bent on stopping them. But they underestimate one officer: Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson). And when the bikers brutalize Max’s best friend and family, they send him into a mad frenzy that leaves him with only one thing left in the world to live for – revenge!

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Mad Max 7.5

eyelights: the DIY quality of the picture. its kinetic energy.
eyesores: the sloppiness of the picture. the unrealistic ending.

“Any longer out on that road and I’m one of them, you know? A terminal crazy… only I got a bronze badge to say I’m one of the good guys.”

‘Mad Max’ is a 1979 independent motion picture from Australia. It’s notable for two things: 1) launching the career of Aussie actor Mel Gibson (who had been in only one picture before), and 2) breaking the world record for greatest profit-to-cost ratio – a record that it held for twenty year, until the release of ‘The Blair Witch Project’.

The picture is set in Australia in a post-apocalyptic future (“A few years from now…”, it states) where an energy crisis has devastated the country: it is now overrun with gangs and the authorities run ragged just trying to keep up with them. Nota bene: much of this is not explicitly stated; we are thrown into the picture with little exposition.

The premise of ‘Mad Max’ is simple: Max Rockatansky is an officer of the Main Force Patrol, a private police force that maintains law and order in the Outback (where the gangs are the most dangerous), who finds himself pushed to his limits by some local bikers. It’s a story of revenge filled with high speed chases and brutal violence (by 1979 standards).

If one were to compare it to another film, think of it as a sort of modern equivalent to the Sergio Leone’s ‘Per un pugno di dollari’: it’s low budget, it’s imperfectly cobbled together, the cast is a mixed bag, the music is a secondary character, the setting is a grim harsh land, and the plot revolves around a hard-as-nails, morally ambiguous protagonist.

Actually, being one of the first Australian pictures to be shot with a widescreen anamorphic lens, it also benefits from some beautiful photography along the way – much like Leone’s film did. For all its technical flaws (you can even see dirt, blemishes and reflections in the lens), it leaves one with a visceral and vibrant memory; it’s unforgettable.

It’s no wonder that it was as big a hit as it was, and that it influenced cinema for years to come.

For me, ‘Mad Max’ is a flawed gem. I see what the filmmakers were intending to do, but they never really pull it off exactly right. The perfect example is its slow introduction to Max: it takes 10 minutes for us to hear his voice for the first time and for him to spring into action, and 12 minutes to see him, but the suspense-building was slightly off.

Nice try, but better luck next time.

I also like that they humanize Max by introducing us to his family life, to his tender side (he discusses with his spouse how hard it is for him to express his emotions, for instance, and he tells his boss that he wants to quit before he becomes too much like marauders they’re chasing), but the scenes often feel out of place next to the action.

And, naturally, I dig a good revenge story (as evidenced by my love of ‘Darkman‘ and ‘The Crow‘), but somehow I felt that it was contrived here, that Max could easily have avoided this fate – especially since he had been warned that the gang was out to get him. Leaving his spouse and child alone seems rather reckless, contextually-speaking.

So it doesn’t feel wholly undeserved – and a screaming sense of injustice is the driving force of the best revenge stories.

But it’s a high-octane ride nonetheless. From the opening high-speed chase between two MFP Interceptors, an MFP motorbike and a hopped up criminal who dubs himself the Nightrider, all the way to Max’s roadside rampage at the end, there’s no denying that director George Miller has put together an unforgettable array of action sequences.

In fact, although I’m no great fan of car chases or mindless action, and even though it’s not always edited together coherently, I immediately fell in love with the low-riding camera work, giving us a pavement-height perspective on the action. Between that, the speed, and the dry, empty landscapes, these shots cemented me to my seat.

And, for all the b-movie wonkiness, there are only a few absolutely unforgivable moments in the picture – all of which take place at the end.

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

  • Max (who by this point is very mad!) goes out after the gang, but gets distracted by a biker who has crashed in a field, in the middle of nowhere. Naturally, he stops, goes to check it out…andis shot in the knee from 200 metres by gangleaderToecutter with a sawed off rifle – if not a shotgun.It was aguetapens!But where did these guys come from? Where were they hiding in the middle of nowhere like that? How could they possibly hit him at that distance with such accuracy? And how could he even limp about on a blown out knee like that afterwards? Um… and wasn’t it a really dumb plan by the baddies in the first place?
  • Toecutter gets hit by a 16-wheeler… that comes out of nowhere! Think about it: Outback, long stretches of empty road… where did that truck come from? Why didn’t anyone see it coming? Or, at the very least, hear it coming? Can you say “coincidence”? I think you can. In fact, I’m sure you can. Lord knows I did…
  • Even though Max had his knee shot off, and also had an arm run over by a biker, he’s still on his merry rampage. How he can drive with only one arm and leg is beyond me – let alone without passing out from the pain. Next thing we know, his knee is bandaged and he’s limping about on it. Suuuuure.
  • The picture ends abruptly with Max letting the punk blow up and then driving off. While it could have been highly dramatic, it felt anti-climactic for some reason. Max is basically driving off as though he were going to the corner store: emotionless, maybe even bored, and the explosion barely registers.

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

My only two other comments about ‘Mad Max’ are with respect to Brian May’s (no not THAT one) score, which is overly dramatic, brash, omnipresent. It’s too damned much, drowning out most scenes. There is absolutely no subtlety here, and I really would have preferred that some of those scenes had remained silent. Instead it’s ceaseless.

The other comment is about Mel Gibson, as Max. He hadn’t yet developed his cocksure persona and he comes off as bland. The character is interesting, but Gibson isn’t. But listen to that voice. Woah. George Clooney-style. It’s amazing to see how small Gibson is in comparison to the others, how unthreatening he looks here, ’cause man he’s got a BIG voice.

‘Mad Max’ is no grand cinema. But given the era and the means with which it was cobbled together, it’s deserving of its reputation. It’s a fine action picture by most standards, so long as one considers the context. It became a worldwide sensation for good reason, and I very much look forward to seeing its two sequels (which I’ve only seen once each).

As for the upcoming ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’… I’m actually quite curious to see what Tom Hardy will be like in this iconic role. I’m no great fan of his but, based on this first offering, the part is wide open for interpretation. And with George Miller back at the helm and Charlize Theron co-starring, it shows some promise. I’m sure I’ll be going down that road.

Date of viewing: February 10, 2015

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