Horsepower Month is here and what better way to start off than the Australian indie film that satisfies the fans of the post-apocalypse with gritty and dark action, and really really cool cars all at once. Yes, it’s 1979’s Mad Max.
Whenever I talk to someone around my parents’ age about Mad Max, they usually default to The Road Warrior, the 1981 sequel that was released without “Mad Max” in the title due to the general anonymity of the original. What comes to mind about The Road Warrior is the mythic quality of everything. The lone ranger, the helpless settlement, the antagonistic gang of bandits, all following obvious archetypal touchstones but with an distinct style and world. The look is so distinct, it’s often one of the main things lauded about the series and rightfully so.
Yet, Mad Max is interesting because the story hasn’t reached mythic proportions just yet. The indie budget wouldn’t allow for the kind of ambition seen in the rest of the films. To work within the constraints of resources, this first entry is an origin story, not just for Max, but for the world that his stories are set in. The world in Mad Max is not in ruins, but on the brink. There are still regular people, towns, and homes; there’s even law enforcement. Max starts as a cop at the beginning of this film. This is all threatened by a wave of crime and anarchy brought about by this impending downfall of civilization. It’s a different film from the rest of the series, but it stands on it’s own well and tells a heartfelt tragedy.
To give myself the adequate space to fangirl properly, the negatives first. The budget, while often put to good use, showed through sometimes. Especially in the score. There was great production value in the cars and stunts and sets, but then the music comes in and takes me right out. Especially the love theme. It’s a sultry and obvious saxophone melody: incredibly cheesy and 80’s but not in a good way. Also some of the direction as far as blocking and moments were poorly done, but that was better in the context of the romance scenes. But those are my major complaints. Not nearly enough to discount all the things I enjoy about this movie.
The acting is awesome. Mel Gibson as Max Rockatansky is probably the weakest of the leads actually, but only by a small margin. He portrays a great idealism and throughout the arc makes the appropriate changes to that idealism. He also has intimate chemistry with his wife, Jessie (Joanne Samuel). Even though that music took me out, their acting together brought me back in. And it also helped that they had a cute dog and baby with them. The main villain, Toecutter, played by Hugh Keays-Byrne, is top-notch. There’s nothing particularly well written about him, but the cocky, unhinged performance brings to life what could’ve been a stale bandit villain. The supporting cast are great as well. Goose (Steve Bisley), Max’s best friend, has a charm and confidence you can’t help but admire, and the rest of the cops and minor characters all feel grounded and believable.
The story is also fantastic. Not only is it told primarily through visuals, but the themes of law vs. anarchy and idealism vs. reality are interesting, especially as the foundation for the Mad Max series. In the later films you only see the aftermath of civilization. This film you see the moments when law loses to anarchy, when the stones of order falter. The visuals and editing carry a massive amount of storytelling weight by giving us the information of gruesome death or injuries only through bits and pieces. While the budget definitely pushed them towards this style, it worked out in the end as an effective tactic to make the audience fill in the rest of the gore. The dialogue is nice color to the story, especially the banter between the cops. The direction makes you focus on the visual anyways, even if dialogue is happening. For example, in a scene between Max and his police chief, the shirtless police chief is wearing only a scarf and holding a watering can the entire conversation. I got the information from the dialogue and was entertained by the chief’s attire and his relationship with Max. This film has both surface entertainment and deeper substance, which I appreciate. Also, there is a creativity to the aesthetic of the biker gang that, although limited, shows inklings of what George Miller wanted and later would do in the Mad Max sequels. The little examples of it here are fun Easter eggs and interesting knowing what is to come.
Although often forgotten in favor of its sequel, this film is incredibly original. Often if people like a certain setting, they will go whole hog into it, whatever genre or category the story may be. Here the setting is the transitional space between society and anarchy, sane and mad. By itself it tells the tragic story of a cop gone rogue. In context, it’s the solid foundation of the myths that are to come. It may not be as eccentric as the others, but it’s worthy of recognition nonetheless.
P.S. The Interceptor is an awesome car, with plenty of horsepower!