Release Date: December 10th, 1979 (UK)
Genre: Action; Adventure; Science fiction
Starring: Mel Gibson
Mad Max roars into life in the midst of an increasingly tumultuous car chase. Nightrider, a crazed gang member, is on the run from a group of police officers seeking justice for the murder of one of their own. The cops — or Main Force Patrol (MFP) — aren’t the most skilled highway cruisers, bumbling in nature and even more so in execution. All except one. Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), the definition of poise, is the key player in a rather lousy team. We only see his grazed cowboy boots and chiselled chin to start with.
Max enters the vehicular fray, rampaging down an otherwise barren motorway — George Miller took inspiration from the 1973 Australian oil crisis, and this certainly looks like a region in need of basic resources. The director acknowledges the absurdity in what is occurring, and in what is set to occur, by introducing a plethora of slapstick obstacles: a stranded caravan, a barrage of road works, and a road-crossing baby. The pursuers crash, but the maniacal Nightrider cackles his way past each distraction in his “fuel-injected suicide machine”. Of course, Nightrider eventually crumbles at the sight of cool Max. He should have frenzied at dusk instead.
The screenplay never really deviates from the antics relayed above. It turns out Nightrider was part of The Acolytes, a motorcycle gang cut from the same cloth as Alex and his droogs. Their ultraviolence really is ultra-violent; from smashing up towns to off-camera rape to fiery murder, The Acolytes are a bad bunch. In line with Miller’s preferred tone there’s also an unconventional aura to the troupe, whose members would rather roly-poly back to their vehicles than walk.
Droogs they may be but unlike Kubrick, who liked to slow events down to a thoughtful meander, Miller takes an all over the place approach, with David Eggby’s cinematography zipping around and refusing to linger. This unholstered style greatly heightens the film’s prevailing intensity. The closest we get to an extended shot is during car chase scenes, at least when vehicles aren’t flipping on their head or exploding into pieces.
An apt description of the film might be ‘western on motorcycles’. But instead of galloping into town, characters rev. Said towns are often dusty, laid back communities where every day is Sunday. We are privy to a world where civilisation is in the process of falling, where chaos is a wrongdoer’s prime weapon and justice is in tatters (the latter, visually represented by the worn-out Halls of Justice sign). Trial attendance is low thus criminals walk free, devoid of lawful comeuppance, leaving only one form of comeuppance left to dish out. It doesn’t resemble the dystopian landscapes prominent in modern outings such as The Hunger Games or Oblivion, but instead a future that still bears familiarity, in that sense more aligned with a Blade Runner.
Droves of faceless characters are the product of a relentless mindset, and as such it can be difficult to clearly distinguish who stands on which side and why. Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), leader of The Acolytes and definite villain, is how you would imagine Russell Brand if Russell Brand was the leader of a post-apocalyptic motorcycle gang: speaker of intellectual gibberish; British accent; hair all over the place; wearing a lot of leather. Keays-Bryne successfully balances oddness with menace and is particularly effective when conversing. “That man is Cundalini and Cundalini wants his hand back,” is one of his numerous uncouth and brilliantly delivered lines. Every time he appears on screen the film instantly spruces up. Toecutter is a bit like Heath Ledger’s Joker in that sense — irresistible to watch, utterly deranged yet eternally composed.
Gibson’s Max isn’t a hard-nosed or rugged vigilante, but in fact baby-faced and emotive. He spends his evenings listening to soothing saxophone melodies and having his hair washed by his wife Jessie (Joanne Samuel). At one point the job becomes too much for him and he opts to spend more time with his family, which means lying in wheat fields and Tarzan-ing into springs. But Max is “a winner”, he’s “on the top shelf” according to his MFP overseer, Captain Fifi (Fifi in name only), portrayed solidly by Roger Ward.
This overly righteous version of Max works because it highlights the character’s purity in a bad world, and underscores the endpoint of his arc. Miller’s decision to purposefully emphasise the familial side of Max — the side pre-Mad — before entering into the final act is a simple-yet-effective ploy that makes us sympathise with greater heft.
Miller spreads his OTT prerogative across all aspects of the story, not stopping short simply at action sequences. Corny music plays over loved-up scenes between Max and Jessie. Brassy cacophonies of sound are present during dramatic moments too — for example, a gruesome hospital bed scene. Elsewhere the pillaging score is constant and somewhat overdone but, again, is a key part of the director’s ethos.
A middling lull is unfortunate, where contrivance seeps into the narrative (somehow Max and The Acolytes keep wheeling into each other) however proceedings soon pick up again and build to a gratifying conclusion. This isn’t Mad Max yet, not the iconic manifestation of the character as moviegoers know him, but it’s a superbly crafted worldbuilder.
Images credit: IMP Awards
Images copyright (©): Warner Bros.