Mad Max was directed by George Miller (Happy Feet, Lorenzo’s Oil), written by Miller and James McCausland, and stars Mel Gibson (Dangerous, Boss Level), Joanne Samuel (Alison’s Birthday, My Pet Dinosaur), Hugh Keays-Byrne (Stone, The Blood of Heroes), Tim Burns (Now and Forever, Patrol Boat), Geoff Parry (Gallipoli, Sword of Honour), Roger Ward (Boar, Turkey Shoot), Steve Bisley (Water Rats, The Great Gatsby), and Vincent Gil (Body Melt, Prisoner). It’s about a cop trying to maintain a system of law and order in a dying world being pushed to the edge by a biker gang.
The Plot: With the world teetering on the brink of complete collapse, Miller and McCausland created a story from the perspective of the movie’s own world. It’s got the basics, but it scrounges for more, taking elements from films the world over to make something quirky, sophisticated, and barbaric.
“A few years from now” the law-abiding few rely on the Main Force Patrol, who are essentially the highwaymen of the rotting world. They catch word of Nightrider (Gil), a cop killer driving crazily on the road who’s able to avoid them, so they call on Max (Gibson), who puts the chase to a stop. Loads of world-building goes on in just the first 10 minutes, with the world still barely hanging on. The grass has some green left in it, the law is still trying to keep the world straight, and the cars are still driving (Scarily accurate in their prediction).
On a test ride of their new car, Max and his partner Jim (Bisley) hear from Captain Fifi (Ward) that the Acolytes, the biker gang that Nightrider was a member of, are none too pleased about Max’s keeping of order. The movie takes its time to give the audience a glimpse of the adaptive lifestyle everyone lives before introducing the antagonists, which gives the movie a singularity its imitators could never achieve. Max and Jim run into the aftermath of Toecutter (Keays-Byrne), Bubba (Parry), and Johnny (Burns) terrorizing a town whereupon they arrest Johnny. Naturally, the Acolytes don’t take kindly to the deliverance of justice and hatch a revenge plot that gets Jim gravely injured.
Sporting a straightforward narrative, yet windingly presented in a variety of locations, Mad Max does have a still-novel trick up its sleeve in flipping the script into a revenge upon revenge upon revenge thriller. Max needs time away from the MFP, and goes his own way, but the Acolytes are intent on finishing the job, creating a collision course of experienced combatants to spike the final act with creative confrontations and a blistering end.
To create a long-lasting franchise, Miller and co-creator Byron Kennedy needed to put their own stamp on the revenge story. Using elements from westerns, actioners, and silent films, they did just that.
The Characters: As they do with Mad Max’s story, Miller and McCausland acquaint the audience with the survivors of the world’s dwindling lifeforce, creating bizarre villains and relatable heroes for a roster that shouldn’t gel as it does.
Max is a less-than-traditional cop trying to live a traditional life in spite of the circumstances. Always trying to do right has taken its toll on the man, with his focus being on his job at the MFP instead of on Jessie and their young son, but after Jim’s injuries reintroduce the risks of his job, he switches gears.
Detailing is done by Gibson instead of the script, with his apparent love for cars, ability to juggle, and no-nonsense demeanour aiding in creating a realistic character. The relationship between him and Jessie grounds the world in realistic problems that have yet to fade into memories, like parental priorities and the cost of living. She makes for a strong companion to a stronger protagonist.
Toecutter and the Acolytes, apart from sounding like an underground metal band, make for an easy-to-hate bunch of criminals. Toecutter himself is sadistic, taking his time to monologue to his lackeys about stylizing murder and how they should take pride in their behaviour. Style is inseparable from him, as he’s made up with great hair, eyeliner, and fashion choices.
Some humanity is retained in the Acolytes, as Johnny shows reservation about what he does to Jim, although he’s taken over by the gang’s brutality by the movie’s end. Bubba is quiet and eager to spit on whoever he can; whether that’s because he wants the gang members to improve or just because he can is anyone’s guess. Side characters like Jim and Fifi round out the cast with likable personalities and essential roles.
The Thrills: It’s remembered for its action, but the first Mad Max is a far more dramatic thriller than action/adventure and should be talked about for its tense atmosphere and ability to wring excitement out of very little.
With Mad Max’s first 10 minutes consisting largely of the Nightrider chase, Miller does set a standard for his action sequences, which is a high bar as the chase boasts an intense pursuit down winding roads, an MFP interceptor crashing through a van, and a dangerously close game of chicken between Max and Nightrider that illustrates Max’s devotion to the force and the stunt team’s devotion to Miller’s direction. This tier of action punctuates each appearance of the Acolytes and makes their presence felt with explosive finales, edge-of-your-seat pursuits, and relentless commitment from the gang members to their leader.
Between action beats, Mad Max offers bursts of lurid behaviour from the Acolytes that are not always violent, but it’s always unpleasant. They’re introduced as they make their way through a dusty town, taking what they want, intimidating the store owners, and scaring the townsfolk by revving their engines and dragging one-off attached to a bike by a rope. Even during the quieter moments, they’re doing something odd like horsing around with a naked mannequin, taunting each other with guns, or making weird noises. Toecutter leads a gang of madmen that bring an uncomfortable air of insanity everywhere they go.
Miller’s most white-knuckled series of events comes late in the game when he brings the obsessive Toecutter into contact with the Rockatansky family who are on vacation in one of the (seemingly) last thriving natural spaces in Australia. The precedent for the gang has already been set, making their encroaching movement on an unsuspecting family headed by an unguarded Max a perfect sequence of dramatic irony for the audience. Once the gang gets their hands on the man that killed their own, the movie brings the conflict to a fever pitch, making for a jaw-dropping moment that’s perfectly handled by Miller.
At times Mad Max borders on exploitation with rape and child endangerment teased throughout the runtime, occasionally lapsing into overkill. Miller keeps it tasteful and tense with strong direction and memorable oddity.
The Technics: Knowing the story behind the movie’s creation only makes Mad Max more of a miracle. Miller and Kennedy worked as doctors, taking as many emergency calls as they could to raise funding for their script and ending up with a meagre budget to work with. Flashes of padding and unfamiliarity show themselves, but it’s impressive nonetheless.
Despite Mad Max being his first feature, George Miller showed a remarkable sense of style and ingenuity, with strong cinematography by David Eggby favouring low angles to start vehicular mayhem, slow motion to accentuate the crashes, natural lighting in interiors, and scrappy technique to achieve certain effects. Style can’t make up for at times questionable decision making though, with the movie a little too deliberate in its pacing, allowing itself to sag for sections of the latter half.
Sound mixing posed problems as well, with the score taking more of the soundscape up than the dialogue at times, making subtitles a crutch. Foley work is generally good, but some of the sound design is weak compared to what’s on-screen, especially during violent exchanges.
Through grit and determination, Mad Max became a franchise that got off to a great start with the titular first outing that, while undeniably rough around the edges, is an investing, thrilling, and occasionally overlong triumph.
Mad Max is available in just about every format known to man as well as on Digital platforms. And if you’re looking for more reasons to get Mad, FilmTagger has some suggestions.