Mad Max (George Miller, 1979)

by Douglas Buck November 8, 2020 6 minutes (1295 words) Blu-ray

Revisiting (yet again) the first entry in the wild and woolly, vehicle-fetishizing fan-boy beloved franchise, that being the tragic origin story of that leather-garbed loner icon of the post-apocalyptic wasteland Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) (with first-timer viewers daughter and ex-wife there to experience it through what I have to say is the wonders of my 10’ wide projection system screen), recounting, in all its brash and wonderful exploitation-minded glory, his descent from idealistic (and I mean ‘idealistic’ in the most right-wing reactionary head-busting way, that is) near-mythic road cop with the souped-up car, feared for his ability to take down the adrenaline-rushing, drug-fueled lawless gangs out there terrorizing the highways, to avenging angel, throwing away his badge (like any good Dirty Harry of the near future would do) so he can go beyond the law to take down the crazed bikers, the ones who not only maimed his partner for life but ruthlessly cut down his beautiful wife and baby boy (who likely would have grown into a head-busting dispenser of justice just like his dad!) in the street.

From the adrenaline rush of its opening scenes (with its openly heroic presentation of the mysterious masculinity-driven figure of Max, an evocative leather-clad, sun-glass wearing body part at a time, the first of many wonderful examples in the film of the bonding mixture of impressive filmmaking savvy with a go-for-broke, quasi-naïve, near-infantile myth-building that makes Miller’s filmmaking, at his best, so cinematically engaging – and I include all the crazed violence in there as well), with the Mad one himself and his speedster cop co-horts engaged in a high-octane pursuit of the drug-fueled Nightrider (Vincent Gil) which leads to his spectacularly explosive death, right on through the eye-popping — and I mean that literally in some cases, as there are some wonderfully garish, devilishly funny (in an early Peter Jackson Brain Dead kinda way) quick shots of villains’ eyeballs literally popping out of their heads in disbelief just as they realize they’re about to get ‘all blowed up’ – adrenaline rush of an ending sequence, with one explosive set piece after another of motorcycle (and sleazy bad-guy rider) taken out one by one (yet again clearly referencing that other aforementioned lone wolf cop franchise, the one with Clint Eastwood’s somehow-lovable, yet entirely liberal-hating Inspector Callahan taking out the lowlifes in limp wrist-friendly San Fran at its center, with “Max”’s wildly explosive concluding sequence directly mirroring a lot of the equally unforgettable motorcycle-crushing ending of the first, and best, Harry sequel, Magnum Force from earlier in the decade, with that screenplay provided by the great, self-myth building, right-wing raconteur of the 70’s New Hollywood movement, John Milius – this viewing made me realize just how much Miller was borrowing from the Dirty Harry franchise, including the politics), it isn’t hard to imagine just how this this wildly audacious (even more so when you consider it was George Miller’s first film! – you just know he must look back and say ‘thankfully, we didn’t know better otherwise we wouldn’t have done half the things we did!’), crazily stunt-filled (to the point of wondering how nobody could have died making it, a question that grows even more perplexing with the even more jaw-dropping stunts achieved in the death-defying, and even better, sequel) and gloriously violent Aussie-based genre film became such a sensational international phenomena (though oddly not really in North American – hence, why the sequel was called The Road Warrior here, while everywhere else it was known as Mad Max 2)

Its pack of nihilistic motorcycle-riding villains, just one notch above cartoon characters, led by the wild-haired, German war helmeted baddie, Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a moniker with a nice ring to it, even if doesn’t conjure up the most imposing threats (what? he cuts people’s toes?), streaking across the barren roadways, raping and pillaging their way through small towns harkens straight back to those openly rebellious Roger Corman/Peter Fonda hell-raising Hell’s Angels biker pics (an Aussie one, though, partially one of the things I think that helped capture viewers imagination – who are those crazy people out there in the desolate outback where life seemingly has no meaning?), only with a dash more in the sexually ambiguous (and reactionary, naturally) department, as there seems to be a lot of slithery omnivorous desire expressed amongst each other, speaks to the broader elements of the film (which also includes the overtly cutesy relationship between Max and his wife), which perhaps lessens the impact of the over-the-top action and violence in the film, but makes it no less effective; when Max is ultimately left near-crippled after cleverly taking out the final, and perhaps sleaziest, of the gang members – the loose cannon, eager-to-prove-himself Johnny Boy (Tim Burns, who kept reminding me of young English rocker Adam Ant at the height of his fame) – in a bloodthirsty moment of revenge (a bit ahead of its curve in going for that eventually common 80’s action movie conservative audience response of cheering on the grizzly death of a bad guy – and, like many a really good 80’s movie – doing it really well!) – the whole thing (Max’s tragedy, the sense of loss of innocence and giving over to vengeance) plays out with a nice resonance (in fact, it was nice seeing it with daughter and gobsmacked ex, because they always remind this hardened viewer of how harsh some of these movies he watches are!).

While the ‘apocalypse’ that occurred is left unexplained, Miller smartly uses the desolate outback (and the run-down set that is the police station) as nice little low-budget markers that the human race is nearing its death-throes from whatever did happen.

Mad Max is a grand slice of high-flyin’ exploitation cinema; and like the best of its ilk, it’s got some resonant kick to it. It’s the one that got it all started – in low budget, but far from humble, fashion — already displaying that wildly energized and eye-popping death-defying stunt work that would just keep growing with each entry (though, alas, the last one, Mad Max: Fury Road was way too much of an incoherently fast-cutting, over-stimulated CGI-sploogefest, and I say that no matter how much fascist infantile adoration was manufactured around the damn thing).

It certainly continued the ascension of that increasingly manic and nutso Hollywood megastar we all know (and kinda love, I guess… when he isn’t drunkenly babbling on about Jewish plots to take over the world) Mel Gibson; from handsome glamor boy to high profile blockbuster actor with the odd quirk of seemingly choosing a lot of roles in which he receives a brutal thrashing at some point in the film (likely a sort of necessary public flagellation in his religiously fervored mind, methinks), to director of the greatest – and, I mean, by far — Jesus gore-porn movie ever made (with the added thrill, at least for me, of seeing adoring throngs around the world clamoring to see it, many bringing their children to absolutely worship before the openly lurid images from perhaps the most single-mindedly brutal exploitation film Hollywood has ever released).

Watching Gibson in these early roles like this first “Max”, what strikes me is how, while he rarely comes across as particularly accomplished (there are some big dramatic acting moments in The Bounty for instance, that are simply embarrassing), there is something working-class earnest about him that shines through. Gibson ended up being a perfect Max, able to express (or perhaps just being) simple and naïve early on, then with his presence alone (as with almost all the great iconic male action stars, like Eastwood and Bronson), when captured by a knowing director like Miller, able to project his silent stoicism into something transcendently mythic.

Mad Max (George Miller, 1979)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

Buck A Review   action film   australian cinema   george miller   mel gibson   post-apocalyptic cinema