Dir. by George Miller - 1 hr. 28 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
You know that you're in for a great time when the intro credits to a movie tell you that there's going to be a character named "The Toecutter." There are many other reasons to enjoy "Mad Max," but having a character with that name definitely promises an unusual (probably trashy) movie. And, I've got to admit, it would be highly unlikely that any of us would have heard of this film at all if it didn't deliver on that promise. Oh, but it does. It's like the perfect storm of low-brow entertainment, and resulting stew is so much better than it has any right to be.
Sometime in the near future, Australia is in the grips of a gas shortage, which makes keeping law and order difficult. The Nightrider (Vincent Gil) and his girl have gone terminal psycho and stolen a police cruiser, with which they are leading the police on a high-speed chase, all the while spouting AC/DC lyrics over the police band and sweating profusely. Most of the police aren't up to the Nightrider's skills, but Max (Mel Gibson) is, and when he takes over the pursuit, it ends in twisted steel and flames. You'd think no one would be that upset about the Nightrider's passing, but he belonged to a biker gang, led by the Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), an intelligent, yet crazed man with spectacular hair and eye make-up. And Toecutter is very upset about Nightrider's death, therefore his gang is used to extract revenge from the police in general, with Max as the ultimate target.
There are a lot of things to like about "Mad Max," but there is also the very real possibility that this film might exceed your threshold for violence. Some of the worst things that happen do so off-screen (which doesn't really help), but there are also a lot of graphic, shocking elements on full-display here. And, this being a low-budget independent feature (it cost less than $500k to make, which was still not a big budget for a film in 1979), the shocking things aren't a matter of effects, or super-loud explosions (although things do blow up). This is not the sort of film where Max suffers and turns the other cheek, instead it's one where a man is pushed past his breaking point, and then responds in kind. So if you're looking for a positive message, know that you're not going to find it here, and that if you need that in your entertainment, you might want to skip ahead in the series to the much less challenging "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome."
With the disclaimer out of the way, let's dig in.
Maybe the most important thing about "Mad Max" is that the story just works. It's not a complicated story, but it is one where you can understand where each of the main characters are coming from. The police are struggling to maintain order, the biker gang does what biker gangs do (all the way back to "The Wild One" and then some), and that's terrorize wherever they descend upon, and simple-mindedly seek revenge whenever they're wronged. Max is trying to get by, and when the bikers up the ante, there's no choice but to see the battle to a final conclusion. There's some question as the movie goes along if anyone's ever going to come to their senses, but it's not really that kind of movie (in the same way that "Dirty Harry" doesn't have a scene of Clint Eastwood trying to get troubled teens to try harder in school, and then helping them with their homework). I can help but think that the slightly unusual setting (to American audiences) and accents help sell that this world is a possibility; American audiences might not be able to suspend disbelief as easily if the world "Mad Max" is set in was more familiar in its details.
One of the fascinating details to this film is that there are long stretches that don't have star Mel Gibson in them. One grows so accustomed to seeing movies built around "star roles," where the audience will presumably grow bored and wander out of the theatre if Brad Pitt isn't on screen for more than a minute or two that seeing a filmmaker that just tells his story the way he wants to is refreshing. There are two things to note about that, though. At this point in Mel Gibson's career, he wasn't much of a star (this was only his second film). And secondly, this is very much a "Harry Lime" kind of star role, where his presence in the story makes a difference as to what's going to happen. But my point stands, it's fascinating to watch a movie that isn't structured exactly the same as others.
If you like car movies, you're probably going to like "Mad Max." Part of what's interesting is seeing cars that look like American muscle cars (customized, of course), but with variations peculiar to Australia (like having the steering wheel on the right side of the cars). There are tons of footage of these cars (and motorcycles) racing across what must be an endless supply of flat, open space down under. Director George Miller favors a very low camera angle (possibly bumper-mounted or off the fender of a car), so you really do get a POV sense from a lot of the shots, and there are times where I really felt in the middle of things. There's also no shortage of car-crashes (both police and non-police cars, and there's also demolition of cars by hand) throughout the film, which is pretty important to the car-chase dynamic.
Over the years, "Mad Max" has held a lot of it's potency to shock. There are little cartoon-y moments that let you know that it's okay to laugh at this sort of ultra-violence (there are two identical very brief shots, in separate parts of the film, where a characters eyes bug out right before he drives into something that's going to explode and take him with it), and the characters never seem to break the fourth wall. That they're all taking the events seriously helps; breaking the fourth wall can make this sort of film unbearable. If violence isn't supposed to be disturbing, but mere entertainment, it can feel nihilistic. In the case of "Mad Max," the sense that you're supposed to laugh at the big violence, but also understand why the characters are doing what they're doing is the key to enjoying the film, and not feeling like you've been pounded into the filthy ground by torture porn. The final scene is a great example of this (as well as another "Dirty Harry" moment); the bad guy doesn't even really see himself as being bad (although he's been led further down that path that he'd have liked by Toecutter, as shown earlier) even though the audience surely feels differently, and he's presented with a satisfying comeuppance. There are two messed-up choices, and the real question is whether he's got the stomach to continue on like he has been. It's a moral quandary, but also left me laughing at the awfulness of the situation. That, right there, sums up "Mad Max."
4 / 5 - TV (HD)