When you think about some of the definitive films of the 20th century, it is hard to ignore George Miller’s Mad Max series. Although the third, Beyond Thunderdome, is regularly slated and the second, Road Warrior, is generally considered the best, the 1979 original Mad Max is still a huge cult classic. Upon release it became the film with the highest budget-to-gross margin, and held such an accolade for twenty years, spawned the career of superstar Mel Gibson, and also birthed many imitators, spanning multiple mediums. As our Mad Max retrospective series begins, it is time to review the first of the bunch, the one that started it all: 1979’s Mad Max.
The film itself tells the story of Max Rockatansky, one of the few ‘good cops’ in the dystopian future portrayal of the Australian outback. With his wife Jessie (Joanne Samuel) and son Sprog by his side, Max lives a reasonably comfortable life, until he encounters the vicious biker gang led by Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne). As the gang takes away everything Max cares about, it is up to our monosyllabic Aussie hero to put this gang to an end and free the outback from tyranny.
Straight off the bat, the plot of Mad Max is a little thin on the ground. Coming into this completely blind to the series (I have tried to remain spoiler-free), I was expecting something a little more action-packed and a little more character-driven, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy what plot the film had. The film’s main poster definitely misleads, because unlike the high-octane films that follow it in the series, Mad Max is a lot less of an action film than you may think. Much of the film’s reasonably straightforward plot is communicated through exposition, which is at times pretty difficult to understand due to the thick accents of some characters, particularly with the Night Rider in the film’s opening. That said, the writing is reasonably good and establishes these characters and the world they live in well enough that by the time Max gets mad, it packs a punch. I’m not going to spoil it here, but some of the turns this film takes I really didn’t expect, going against some of Hollywood’s edgiest conventions, and I can’t mention the plot without discussing the spine-tingling and absolutely iconic final scene. It is shot brilliantly, delivered perfectly by both parties, and written so that you can really sense the change Max has undergone throughout this reasonably brisk 90-minute ride.
Obviously, the main hook for Mad Max is its action. Although much of the film consists of beautiful cinematography and dialogue, the rare moments where the pedals hit the metal really are some of its best. George Miller’s decision to shoot the film entirely with practical effects was a stroke of genius, as every crash packs a punch and you really get into the action. It’s fast, high-octane, incredibly dangerous and at times nail-bitingly tense, but that’s what makes it just so sublime. The action scenes are shot really well and the riveting, somewhat frightening music only ups the tension and adrenaline of these fantastic moments. That said, the action is at times too infrequent, even for such a short film, and it’s mostly down to the film’s meagre budget of just $650,000. Miller’s not got a lot to play with regarding stunts, so when they arrive, he makes sure they stand out and allow this film to flourish.
Unlike the action, budget has no impact on the quality of characters and performances, but unlike the action, these can at times be a mixed bag. Mel Gibson is pretty great as Max, especially when considering that he initially didn’t even go for the role but was in fact asked to audition when his sister came to read a part. He perfectly conveys Max’s conflicted psyche, unsure whether to continue the career he loves and become a monster or settle down with his family, and when Max snaps, he snaps. Gibson’s performance in the final scene is, as mentioned, truly iconic, and proves just how well his performance has conveyed the change Max undergoes. The other outstanding turn is Hugh Keays-Byrne (who interestingly also had a role in 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road) as the Toecutter. His performance is truly unhinged and at times terrifying, and although a bit campy by today’s standards, Toecutter is a simply iconic villain that is the perfect match for Gibson’s Max.
What has the potential to be a hallmark for film-making, Mad Max‘s basic plot and sparse action scenes slightly let down what is otherwise a truly revolutionary experience, that combines thrilling action with sublime performances. That said, nothing could truly derail what is one of the best films of the 1970s, and one of my favourite action films ever. It’s iconic, it’s violent, and at times it’s truly shocking, so Mad Max is always a thrill ride I wholeheartedly recommend you embark on.