Mad Max (1979)
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Mad Max (1979)

Starring: Mel Gibson, Joanne Samuel, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Steve Bisley, Tim Burns, and Roger Ward. 

Directed By: George Miller

Rating: (3 out of 5)

Max before he's mad

Although Mad Max is often called a post-apocalyptic movie, it really isn't.  It is more precisely a dystopian vision of the future, where civil society is under siege by increasing crime and disorder.  The vision of future in Mad Max is in many ways similar to that presented in A Clockwork Orange (1971).  Similarly, Mad Max's view of the police as constrained by outdated rules and regulations echoes Dirty Harry (1971) and its sequels.  Indeed, unlike A Clockwork Orange which ultimately uses this vision of the future to raise profound questions about the role of government in controlling free will and the tradeoffs  involved in such a course, Mad Max, like Dirty Harry makes the more mainstream case for judicial retribution.  Or does it?  For a low budget movie, Mad Max is surprising challenging in terms of its core philosophy because although our hero does "triumph" in the end, he is also so emotionally wounded as to be dead inside.  This is not your typical happy ending.

But people don't watch or remember Mad Max for its social commentary.  Mad Max is remembered, rightly, as a great action movie.  Director George Miller  imbues all the action sequences with a wild, frenetic energy.  It is really a case of technique overcoming material limitations.  Think of the scene where the biker gang chases down and terrorizes the young couple.  There is almost no on-screen violence, but Miller creates a terrifying experience through sound and quick cuts of a car being destroyed.

Max challenges Nightrider to a game of chicken

The movie begins with a great action sequence.  A maniac who calls himself the Nightrider (Vincent Gil) has killed a cop and stolen a souped-up police interceptor, and the movie opens with the police desperately trying to stop him before he drives into inhabited areas.  The police are hardly model citizens themselves.  The first cop we see is spying on a naked couple through a rifle scope.  And the standard operating procedure for ending car chases in this world is some combination of shotgun blasts and ramming.  (Maybe they should have tried that with OJ when he went on the lam.)  Unfortunately, the first cops on the scene end up crashing their cars spectacularly rather than stopping the Nightrider, so they call on Max (Mel Gibson).

Max is the epitome of a cool customer.  His first encounter with the Nightrider is a harrowing game of chicken, with Max forcing the maniac to swerve first.  His nerve broken by the encounter, the Nightrider falls apart as Max wheels his car around and begins to tail him at breakneck speeds.  Miller makes a great use of sound in all the action sequences.  The cars are early-1970s Detroit muscle cars, with small frames and big loud engines.  They don't hum along so much as they growl, and not the smooth roar of fancy European sport cars, but rather the sound of barely contained beasts.  At crucial moments, Miller seems to manipulate the film stock, either washing out the colors or maybe speeding up the film (it's hard to tell) to create a sense of sudden discontinuity.  Watch carefully the several shot sequence at the end of the Nightrider chase, where we cut from the sudden appearance of a workman waving a red flag as the cars crest a hill, to the Nightrider's passenger looked back anxiously, to the sight of Max's car braking, to a shot of the obstacle ahead, to the Nightrider trying to swerve and putting his car into a spin, and finally to an extreme close up of the Nightrider's eyes as he realizes he's going to crash.  This sequence is so much more interesting than the usual way action movies end car chases: with a slow-mo view of a car hitting a ramp, taking off, and then twisting through the air until it explodes on impact.  The movie has a distinct visual style that goes a long way to explaining its cult status.

The next scene features Max at home watching his wife (Jessie, played by Joanne Samuel) play the sax, while in the background a news story about the death of the Nightrider is on TV.  Frankly, these home scenes (we get more later) never really work.  The idea, of course, is to show Max is a normal man, and to demonstrate his attachment to his wife.  But it feels like filler.  I don't think we ever really get a sense of the connection between the two.  Their conversations don't seem like those a married couple would have; they are more like conversations two unrelated people might make up if they were trying to convince the INS they were really married.  In part, the problem is that the movie is deliberately trying to play up the disconnect between Max's normal home life and his mad existence on the roads.  But it is too forced.  Everyday Max goes on the roads and kills people (bad guys to be sure, but still).  And then suddenly he's at home, Mr. Family Man, telling sappy stories about taking walks with his dad?  The world is falling apart on the outside, and the home scenes come of as delusional rather than normal.

The gang and Toecutter

Luckily, the movie soon shifts back into an action realm.  The Nightrider's gang rides into a small town to pick up his remains.  The gang is led by the Toecutter, who is played by Hugh Keays-Byrne as sort of a cross between Charles Manson and Joan Crawford.  He wears eyeshadow for crying out loud.  Toecutter's gang is reminiscent of the gang of outlaws that rides into town in westerns.  They would also fit in fine in any number of biker movies.  Despite their somber task, the gang has time to terrorize the town... well, that and prance around a lot.  Not to be politically incorrect or anything, but in both Mad Max and its sequel, the Road Warrior, a lot of the outlaw bikers seem a little, um, light in the loafers, if you know what I mean.  Combined with the leather clad cops, you don't have to be Quentin Tarentino to spot a homoerotic subtext here.  In a later scene, the cops have one of the bad guys all trussed up in chains, and the police chief's (Fifi, played by Roger Ward) outfit at another point would allow him to be a lead character in a BDSM porno.  Anyway, I'm not quite sure what to make of all that, but there is definitely something going on here.

The pursuit....

Among the people watching the gang's antics is a young couple.  At first, they're just having fun watching, but when the gang's activities turn more violent, including dragging one poor sap down the main street from the back of a motorcycle, they decide to skedaddle.  This is a good idea, but executed badly in this case.  As they pull out, they nearly run over Toecutter, who sets out after them down the road.  The bikers catch the car quickly, and run it off the road.  They quickly attack the car, smashing windows, puncturing the roof, and tearing apart the engine.  The whole scene is just a series of quick cuts, but blended together gives the impression of a violent assault.  The scene with the young couple being pulled out of the window of the car and surrounded by gang members.

...and the aftermath

Max and his friend Goose (Steve Bisley) are dispatched to the scene, where we see the aftermath of destruction. The male of the couple is spotted running away from the scene, and the woman is wrapped in rags with a rope around her neck.  Both have obviously been brutally raped.  Also at the scene is one of the bikers (Johnny the Boy, played by Tim Burns), too stoned out of his gourd to ride away.  Though arrested, Johnny the Boy is soon released because no one shows up in court to press charges.  Goose goes nuts and tries to kill Johnny right there, but Max and the others restrain him.  This scene provides a not-too-subtle dig at the legal process, but also makes clear that no matter how much disorder seems to rule, a functioning legal system exists.  The nature of this legal system is more than a little unclear.  Apparently, there are courts and lawyers, but at the same time, the inside of the police HQ looks like an abandoned warehouse.  The scene ends with Goose and Johnny exchanging threats, and the police captain letting his men know that at least on the roads, if not in court, anything goes.

Cooked goose

Unfortunately for Goose, the gang gets to him first.  While he is at a nightclub, they tamper with his bike.  The next day on the road, Goose's wheels suddenly lock up and he is pitched through the air, landing hard.  Amazingly, he gets up and walks away, but after borrowing a truck to transport his bike, Goose is attacked by the gang.  They throw a wheel through his windshield, and when the truck tumbles off the road it traps Goose inside as fuel leaks from the gas tank.  On my DVD version of the movie, this chapter title is "The Goose is Cooked," so you can imagine what happens next.  Goose isn't killed though, but he might as well be.  The sight of his charred friend in the hospital is too much for Max, who storms away and makes up his mind to quit the force.  The captain tried to convince him otherwise, and suggests he take a few weeks off.  Max is still determined to quit, but he agrees.

We next see Max, Jessie, and their son Sprog (?), loaded into a van and driving out into the countryside.  Everything is going well, until Max stops at a junkyard/auto shop to get a tired fixed.  While the mechanic is fixing the spare, Jessie goes off with Sprog to find some ice cream.  By coincidence, Toecutter's gang is camping by the store, and they begin to harass Jessie.  She manages to fight them off, and drives back to pick up Max.  They seem to get away in the clear, but the gang is looking for them now.

Jessie tries to outrun the gang

They hide out with some elderly relatives on a farm near the water.  There is a chilling scene as Jessie heads down to the beach with only the family dog because Max is working on the van.  At first, everything seems fine, but when the dog disappears, Jessie gets creeped out and heads back to the house through the woods.  The woods are always a scary place (as was demonstrated so effectively by the Blair Witch Project (1999)), but Jessie quickly realizes someone else is there with her.  We see vague movement at first, and after a while, we spot individual gang members chasing after her.  She runs into the dog, hanging from a tree, gutted.  Still, she manages to elude her pursuers and makes it back to the house.  Max, armed with a shotgun, goes off to examine the woods himself.  While Max is off, Jessie suddenly realizes Sprog is missing.  She searches for him frantically, but when she finds him, he's been captured by the gang.  Jessie begs them to let him go, but she is only saved by the arrival of the elderly aunt armed with a shotgun.   They lock the gang member up in an old barn, and try to escape in the van.  Unfortunately, after just a couple of minutes, the engine gives out.  Jessie grabs Sprog and tries to make a run for it, but the bikers have broken out and ride her down.  Max arrives too late to save them.  His son is dead, and his wife is maimed and fatally wounded.  This all drives Max over the edge.

He goes back to his house, and breaks out his leather policy uniform.  He breaks into the police HQ and steals a new supercharged V-8, and heads out onto the road.  The last 15 minutes of the movie feature Max tracking down and taking revenge on the gang members.  He runs several off the road, but then he gets ambushed and shot in the leg (which is why he wears a brace and walks with a limp in the Road Warrior (1981)).  He manages to survive the ambush and shoot one of his attackers, while the others run off.  This is actually one of the few big holes in the movie.  If the gang has guns, why didn't they just shoot him again from a distance rather than trying to run him over and giving him a chance to use his sawed off shotgun?  In any case, the ambush leads into a spectacular chase scene, where Max tries to ride down Toecutter.  Miller keep his camera low to the road to increase the sense of speed.  Finally Max manages to force Toecutter into a head on collision with an 18 wheeler.

Mad Max finishes off the Toecutter with a little help from an 18 wheeler

The only one left is Johnny the Boy.  Max drives all over the highways trying to track him down, but finally comes upon him by luck.  Following the tracks of a truck that has run off the road, Max finds Johnny scavenging the site.  Max gets the drop on him, and cuffs his ankle to the overturned truck.  Then Max rigs a makeshift bomb from a broken headlight, leaking fuel, and lighter.  In one of the most memorable scenes in the movie, Max hands Johnny a hacksaw, "The chain in those handcuffs is high tensile steel.  It'd take you ten minutes to hack through them with this.  Now, if you're lucky, you could hack through your ankle in five minutes."  He limps away, and hits the road.  In the background, we see an explosion that presumably consumes Johnny.  A killer ending... literally.

Mad Max is truly a product of the 1970s -- a time capsule almost of fears about rising crime, collapsing legal systems, and oil shortages.  It is also an extremely well made low-budget movie.  If it pales compared to The Road Warrior, it does so only by virtue of the latter's larger budget and more intricately choreographed stunts.  Mad Max has a visceral energy, especially in its action sequences, that have only been matched in a handful of movies.

 

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