Mad Max is a repository of ideas and inspirations, sketched with confidence by George Miller, who, as legend has it, had to work as a medical assistant to help fund its production. The movie was shot for $400,000 and earned over $100,000,000 at the box office, making it one of the most profitable movies of all time. It also launched Mel Gibson’s career, who was 23 years old, possessed an edge harder than granite, and would be starring opposite Sigourney Weaver just three years later in The Year Of Living Dangerously (1982).
That edge is what cuts through Mad Max, a bleak, dystopian look at the Australian outback in which the law is fading and delinquency is rampant, where the cops look like fetishistic bikers and gang members have names like Toecutter, even though no toes are cut. The law is so affected the police force has the molecular structure of a gay strip club.
But such is not a criticism of Mad Max. Its images only shape it and give it a certain kind of plausibility. Of course, in a world where police officers zoom around in souped up muscle cars, nothing can be completely plausible, but Mad Max is confident enough in its identity to pretend to be. And that’s sufficient for what it aims to achieve.
Gibson plays Max Rockatansky, Main Force Patrol’s quickest, deadliest interceptor. He’s sturdy, reasonably charming, but lacks a real, penetrable personality. The movie tries to give him dimension by surrounding him with a loving wife (Joanne Samuel) and a cute baby, but when he’s apart from them he more closely resembles the love child of The Terminator and Blade. He feels alive when he’s with them, we’re meant to believe, but take them away and what does he become? Well, this movie will show you.
Riding roughshod through the barren streets of the outback is a motorcycle gang called Nightrider, led by Toecutter, who is played by Hugh Keays-Byrne as a maniacal and stupendously unpredictable enforcer. He’s more charismatic than Max, but the movie does a good job of making you believe otherwise.
His gang is large in number, which could help explain how they’re able to pop up whenever the plot needs them to conjure some mischief. They tease Max’s wife, who absentmindedly brings her baby to a rural convenience store for ice cream. Then they tease her again, this time when she absentmindedly goes to the beach alone. They kidnap the child and then… You can possibly figure out what happens for yourself. Let’s just say the wife isn’t the smartest kid in the playpen.
What’s endearing about Mad Max is its devotion to its craft. Its story is left wanting, but we see a lot of great, fascinating stuff, like intense car chases and collisions, and careful framing to present an Australia that has been bulldozed by crime. I say the story is left wanting, but it serves its purpose dutifully. The narrative is sparse, which echoes quite brilliantly the emptiness of society and the country. Indeed, it always seems as though the gang outnumbers the cops. There’s imbalance here. A shift in power. Miller hints at this with clever subtlety, then throws in a mammoth hero to pull the town out of desperation. It’s a pity, though, that the bad guys are more engaging and individualised than the good. They have personality. The good guys just have cars.
Best Moment | The death of a certain someone, involving an eighteen-wheeler and an unfortunate bike.
Worst Moment | Max’s wife’s stupidity. You’ll know what I mean.