Mad Max (George Miller, 1979) One of the reasons why Mad Max’s decades late return to the big screen this week is so exciting is because this just might be the franchise least interested in continuity in film history, so there’s no need to be concerned about Max’s long absence. Each time George Miller dips back into his distinct apocalyptic universe, all he keeps is the character of Max, desert landscapes, and automotive mayhem. Beyond that, the movies are essentially disconnected, each almost playing like a different genre (especially Beyond Thunderdome, which feels like three different movies crammed together and not in a good way). Back when Miller created the series in 1979, his genre was drive-in car porn. Sure, there were some clever ideas in play that elevated it above the norm, but essentially Mad Max is an exploitation movie. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, the flick is a classic of that form. It just doesn’t serve up the bondage nightmare future and Joseph Campbell hero myths that everyone associates with the series thanks to The Road Warrior. Yet take in Mad Max on it’s own terms and the explosive little flick is undeniably a classic.
Even as a first time filmmaker, George Miller was quite an ambitious director. In addition to pushing high-speed car stunts beyond what anyone had dreamed possible, the guy approached filmmaking as a means exploring the most elemental possible storytelling. Car chases and crashes have always been amongst the most base and visceral cinematic pleasures, so Miller whipped up a world based entirely around those cheap thrills. Beyond that, his character drama was also dialed in on the most traditional possible form. In future entries, he’d get a little more literary and toy with hero myths. But in Mad Max, Miller’s subject was pure and simple revenge. It’s quite possibly the oldest narrative chestnut there is and that was no accident. Mel Gibson stars as a renegade highway patrolman in a vaguely futuristic landscape where highways are lawless zones filled with psychopaths on wheels. Only adrenaline junkies with a conscience can defend the law on those roads and Gibson was exactly that. Unfortunately, the guy was also happily married with a baby. So when a gang of cartoonishly crazy bikers (led by Hugh Keys-Byrne in a spectacularly over-the-top performance) show up to avenge their compatriot who Gibson ran off the road, they hit him right where it hurts. Left a widower, Max gives up his last sheds of kind humanity to take brutal revenge and become a legend.
In hindsight, Mad Max feels like an origin story for the morally ambiguous ‘Man With No Name” inspired Road Warrior. It works as prologue in context to the rest of the series, but in 1979 it was just a straight up revenge-fueled drive-in movie loaded with automotive carnage and a damn good one. Things kick off with an astounding high-speed pursuit on the open road with little context and immediately obvious heroes and villains. With cars crushed through obscenely dangerous gusto, the camerawork framed like colorful comic book panels, and the editing ground-breakingly kinetic, the sequence still stands as one of the most purely entertaining openings in action movie history. It was almost an experiment by Miller to see if he could grab audiences by the throat through sheer cinematic sensation. It worked like gangbusters.
From there, Miller weaved together a revenge tale designed to gradually work audiences into a similar frenzy through the most base and traditional storytelling imaginable. When things snap into place in the finale, it definitely works. But the first time filmmaker does stumble along the way. The flick is always technically accomplished and Gibson/Keays-Byrne are a dynamic hero/villain team. However, Miller’s skills as a writer were still a little raw. There are a handful of cornball family drama sequences (especially the sax-solo introduction) and the pacing sags in the middle. Still, these are only issues that stand out in comparison to the practically bulletproof genre storytelling of The Road Warrior. Compared to the 70s carsploitation and revenge movies that Mad Max was made to compete against like Death Wish or Vanishing Point, it’s clear why Miller’s debut was an instant worldwide success. The filmmaker’s imagination wasn’t yet ready to world-build a mythology that’s ripped off to this day just yet, but he knew exactly how to whip exploitation house audiences into a frenzy and Mad Max remains a dynamite B-movie 36-years later. Any flaws pop up only in the context of the sequels. But, if you can put those out of your mind and recognize the budgetary restraints and context of the drive-in gem’s production, it’s hard not to get swept up in the flick’s considerable charms.
Mad Max hits Blu-ray for the second time courtesy of the good folks at Shout Factory. It has to be said that the transfer is carried over from a five-year-old MGM disc, but thankfully that’s not a problem. The gorgeous widescreen transfer looks spectacular for a film of this age and scale, with Aussie landscapes and vehicle explosions bursting off the screen. The sound has all been cleaned up nicely and you have your pick between the original Australian audio and the ludicrous American dub in the best quality possible. Extras are ported over from that release as well including an audio commentary and two brief documentaries featuring various members of the cast and crew that provide welcome background info for the flick. New to this Blu-ray is a spectacular new 26 minute documentary featuring Mel Gibson, Joanne Samuel and DP David Eggby that’s filled with all sorts of amusing new info (including Gibson recalling that he got the part because he showed up to the audition black-and-blue from a bar brawl the night before and denials of rumors that stunt men were killed during production). Aside from some pretty new packaging, the doc is the only new addition to this Mad Max Blu-ray. So if you’ve got the previous release the only reason to pick this one up is that doc. However, if you’ve never gotten Mad Max on Blu before a) what were you thinking and b) go buy this immediately.