Though not as good nor, arguably, as influential as its first sequel, Mad Max (1979) was an undeniable international smash, one of the first Australian films to reach such a worldwide audience. It established Peekskill, New York-born Mel Gibson as a major new star, and it anticipates the low-cost dystopian future genre that Mad Max 2 (1981), better known in the U.S. as The Road Warrior, firmly cemented.
Expertly directed by George Miller, one of two Australian directors with that name - Scotland-born George T. Miller helmed The Man from Snowy River, among others - Mad Max makes the most of its limited budget, is superbly edited, and knows how to push its audience's buttons. It's viscerally exciting and grimly comic, but also unrelentingly bleak and debatably fascist, in much the way Dirty Harry had been pegged earlier in the decade.
MGM's Blu-ray & DVD combo recycles older extra features but the new transfer - with numerous audio options - provides a massively improved viewing experience.
"A few years from now" Australia's rural roads are overrun with sadistic motorcycle gangs and varied hopped-up thugs with no regard for human life. The Main Force Patrol (MFP) is an apparently federal highway patrol, manned by thrill-hungry cops-for-hire not far removed - indeed, almost indistinguishable - from the criminals they recklessly chase down.
The film opens with a wild pursuit between competing MFP officers and "Nightrider" (Vince Gil) who with a punk female companion has escaped police custody, fleeing in a stolen MFP vehicle. After several spectacular car crashes, leather-clad police officer Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), effectively introduced in a classic, mythic-Western style, confronts the desperate escapee. In the end Nightrider and his girl die in a fiery crash Max's high-speed pursuit partly causes.
This doesn't sit well with Nightrider's motorcycle gang, especially with "Toecutter" (Hugh Keays-Byrne), their leader, who vows revenge. The gang makes like pirates in a small town, raping women, beating up the men, and stealing gasoline, which the film hints is fast becoming a precious commodity. Motorcycle cop "Goose" (Steve Bisley) arrests another gang member, Johnny the Boy (Tim Burns), but he gets off on a technicality.
The gang catches up with Goose and burns him alive, beyond recognition. Max decides to quit the force and spend time with his pretty wife, Jessie (Joanne Samuel) and their toddler son, but soon enough Toecutter's gang turns up, threatening them all.
I hadn't planned on watching Blu-rays of The Exorcist and Mad Max back-to-back, but that's what happened, and I was struck by the fact that, though made an ocean apart and under very different circumstances, they express a not-dissimilar, fear-mongering message that struck like-minded chords with their respective audiences. Both were huge hits: Mad Max cost $300,000-$400,000 but grossed around $100 million worldwide. Each expresses an archly conservative message: in The Exorcist it's that medical science is a scam and only Christianity can save you; in Mad Max it's that there's no escaping today's violent society so you'd better stand ready to kill the bastards.
It's not a pleasant film to watch though audiences (including this reviewer) responded with bloodthirsty enthusiasm as Max picks off the entirely unsympathetic, rotten-to-the-core bad guys one-by-one, meting out poetic justice.
And yet the film is impressive in myriad ways. The editing is among the best-ever for a film at this budget level, with Miller and his cutters (Cliff Hayes and Tony Paterson) using all manner of tricks, reminiscent of Peter Hunt on the early Bond films: optically-printed fast-motion, subliminal cuts lasting a few frames (including popping eyeballs, a Miller trademark). The stuntwork is also extremely good. In one shot, an obviously unplanned accident is caught on film when the stuntman gets whacked in the head by a flying motorcycle. Mad Max touts a fine score by Brian May and some charismatic performances - Steve Bisley's Goose and the Lawrence Tierney-esque Roger Ward more than Gibson.
Setting the film in the very near future was undoubtedly a budgetary consideration - no expensive sets and props to build - but the look of this slowly crumbling society is interesting. The picture draws on other genres, especially Westerns, perhaps most obviously in the character of Toecutter, who strongly resembles Gian Maria Volonté around the time he made A Bullet for the General.
Video & Audio
Mad Max was the first Australian film shot in 'scope format, and the transfer here, apparently drawn from the U.S. release version (it includes the AIP logo) is outstanding, far better than any version of the film I've ever seen. The title elements and other opticals like dissolves are muddy and soft, but those seem inherent to the original film.
When first shown in the U.S. AIP infamously dubbed the film into American English, but I found this mono track to be quite good actually. The dubbing actors do a surprisingly good job capturing the original performances, though Toecutter's voice has been significantly altered from soft, clipped, and Dick Shawn-like in the original to low and gravelly in the American version. The Australian track has been remixed to 5.1 Dolby Digital but I found the original dialogue hard to make out as the music and effects tracks dominate a bit too much. Spanish mono and French stereo tracks are also included, along with English and Spanish subtitles. (The DVD, also included, has French subs as well.) The disc is region "A" encoded.
The supplements, all recycled from earlier standard-def DVD versions, include a 24-minute retrospective featuring the film's cinematographer, art director, and special effects supervisor, all of whom are heard again on the disc's audio commentary track. Two U.S. trailers have been bumped up to 1080p, however. The second disc, the DVD, includes a few more extra features, including a documentary about Gibson, a "trivia and fun fact" track, a photo gallery, and TV spots.
Mad Max II/The Road Warrior is by far the best of the three "Mad Max" films to date (a fourth has been in the planning stages for years) and this first Mad Max doesn't really make for a fun night at the movies, but George Miller's direction make it a worthwhile if occasionally unpleasant viewing experience. Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.