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Mad Max - Collector's Edition
As George Miller's long-gestating fourth film looms on the horizon, Shout! Factory has arranged to rerelease the original Mad Max, bringing out a new Collector's Edition Blu-ray while Warner Bros.' trilogy set is temporarily out of print. Conventional wisdom will tell you that the second film, Mad Max 2 / The Road Warrior, is the best of the bunch, and there's no denying it features the series' most incredible action sequences, including an extended finale involving cars, trucks, motorcycles, and semis. Personally, though, my loyalties lie with the original, which has a low-budget, anarchic charm and features a fascinatingly minimalist or "early" version of the post-apocalyptic setting popular in sci-fi movies.
Although the film is set in the Australian outback, there's no particular reason that Mad Max couldn't take place in any secluded countryside. Brutal motorcycle gangs, such as the one led by Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), roam the roads, terrorizing innocent people and causing violent havoc wherever they go. The only real opposition to the gangs are the Main Force Patrol, a band of nervous and frustrated veterans doing their best despite limited resources and what appears to be a lack of bureaucratic backup. The film opens with a spectacular chase between the MFP and "The Nightrider" (Vincent Gil), and the patrolmen have little choice to fight lunacy with lunacy, leaving a trail of smashed vehicles and injuries in their wake (one MFP member takes a piece of shrapnel through the throat and speaks through a vocoder for the rest of the film).
Miller's vision of this "wild west" is fascinating because civilization is clearly only on the brink of collapse rather than all the way there, with many people still managing to carve out normal lives despite the obvious disrepair of the world around them. The police department appears to be at least partially condemned, with rooms filled with destroyed furniture and assorted junk, and Toecutter's gang is free to hide in plain sight, setting up camp on an abandoned beachside where they blow the limbs off of mannequins. No doubt much of this aesthetic sprung from Miller's need to make the most out of a limited budget, but the results are wonderfully evocative and creative. He creates a chaotic, violent world, but it's somewhat recognizable, giving Mad Max a unique flavor.
As fate would have it, The Nightrider was a member of Toecutter's gang, and Toecutter is quite upset to see him killed. The culprit: MFP superstar Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), who causes Nightrider to skid to an explosive death after a game of high-speed chicken. Shortly thereafter, Max and his partner Goose (Steve Bisley) capture another gang member, Johnny "The Boy" Boyle (Tim Burns) at the scene of a brutal assault on a young couple. With Max now firmly in Toecutter's sights, he and the gang will stop at nothing to get to Max, including going after Goose, and eventually, Max's wife Jessie (Joanne Samuel) and infant son Sprog (Brandon Heath).
As an exploitation film, Mad Max takes a slow burn approach, biding its time while it builds up the kindness and warmth of good-humored Goose and the sweetness of Max's relationship with Jessie. In this way, Miller avoids making them nothing but victims that can motivate Max to action, building them up as characters that the audience likes as much as they like Max. The subsequent Mad Max films would shave the character down into a man who only speaks when he needs to and lets his car do most of the talking, but the original is almost a character piece, with a focus on Max's relationships with others. He even extends that courtesy to the villains: Johnny "The Boy" often feels like a victim himself, despite his part in terrorizing and sexually assaulting the young couple. Toecutter is particularly ruthless, forcing Johnny to go farther and do worse things than he's prepared to be involved with. Keays-Byrne himself is also unsettlingly charismatic, making a monster that compels one to keep watching.
Aside from the setting, Miller also acquits himself nicely as a first-time director. He roars out of the gate with the action opening featuring The Nightrider, featuring the film's biggest car stunts, and keeps the pace from flagging despite a minimal amount of action for nearly an hour afterward. Certain tinges, such as Max seeing what Toecutter's crew has done to Goose, have a fun B-movie skew to them, and after the gang catches onto Max and Jessie's trail when they go out to the countryside, an unnerving sense of creeping inevitability settles in. Miller cleverly employs cuts and glimpses to harness the power of implication, convincingly placing a baby on the median between two speeding cars, and has an eye for certain images, such as a ball and a shoe bouncing away down a road. It's also hard to deny his good fortune in finding Mel Gibson, who displays plenty of movie star charisma even in his first role. All of the Mad Max movies have their charms, even the much-maligned third movie (which Miller only co-directed, due to personal issues), but for now, the original remains the best, a thrilling, edgy triumph of independent filmmaking.
Mad Max arrives with all-new artwork by Paul Shipper, who for my money is the best Struzan surrogate available, arranging the characters in a collage style similar to the quintessential artist. On the flipside, you'll find the original 1979 poster artwork for the film, which obscures Mel Gibson's face underneath a helmet and facemask. The single-disc release comes in a Viva Elite Blu-ray case, and there is a cardboard slip replicating the Shipper art sliding over the entire package.
The Video and Audio
The 2.39:1 1080p AVC presentation on Shout! Factory's new disc is clearly from the same basic source as the movie's previous MGM / 20th Century Fox Blu-ray (which was later duplicated by Warner Bros. for release in the US trilogy tin, although the disc is different elsewhere in the world). Unfortunately, Shout! Factory has long struggled with compression issues on their Blu-ray releases, and this release is no different. The original negative for Mad Max is currently lost, likely sent to America during the dubbing process and misplaced. As a result, the grain structure in the original MGM disc is slightly faint, with the source for the transfer being a generation removed. On the Shout! disc, the weaker compression causes the grain to become even less resolved, which has the aggregate effect of making the disc appear smoothed, as if overzealous DNR was applied. On a screenshot level -- comparisons for the caps in the review are provided here, here, here, and here, as well as here (Shout! / MGM), here (Shout! / MGM), and here (Shout! / MGM), the difference is pretty minimal (although it can be seen in hair, for example), but in motion, the differences are actually aggravated. On the other hand, a minor amount of dirt and speck removal has been performed on the Shout! release, and can be seen in the comparisons if you flip back and forth, but color and overall levels of detail are about equivalent.
Sound-wise, this new disc offers both a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix and the original DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, Both of these sound decent, although dialogue has a tendency to get a bit lost inside the 5.1 remix. Both tracks show their age, but on the whole I give the edge to the original track, which sounds more natural. Owners of Shout's new Escape From New York Blu-ray have determined that the 2.0 track on that release is not actually the original audio, but a downmix of the full 5.1 track. I listened to portions of the 2.0 on both Shout's disc and the MGM disc, and in this case I could not hear much of a difference, although it's much harder to do an audio comparison as opposed to a video comparison, as I have to switch the disc out of the player in order to do the check. If any viewers with more impressive aural memory than mine hear anything awry, please let me know and I will update the review. Update (6/13/2015): Many have reported that Shout's original mix is indeed a downmix of the 5.1 instead of the original mono. However, they seem to be split on whether or not MGM's disc had the original mono either, or if both discs feature a downmix. The "American" redub is also included in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, along with English subtitles.
Most of the extras on tap here are from MGM's "Special Edition" DVD, released way back in 2002. Repressings dropped one side of that flipper disc, so the video extras will be new to some, but the film clips within those featurettes are quite obnoxious on this Blu-ray, exhibiting a choppy and interlaced appearance that the pieces did not have on DVD. Clearly, some setting was not correctly monitored in their transfer to this disc, although the overall informational value of the extras is not obviously affected by this technical hiccup.
The one new supplement is a 26-minute featurette, featuring new interviews with director of photography David Eggby, actor Joanne Samuel, and star Mel Gibson. It's a nice look back at some of the things that made Mad Max a memorable movie, touching on some of the same topics covered elsewhere on the disc while also revealing a few potentially new ones, including the casting process and the budget. It's nice to hear from Gibson and Samuel, although inessential; the real get would've been Miller (a director's commentary alone would've made this a must-own). One slightly crude comment Mel makes about the vehicular action being like "car rape" also stands out. It's not the worst observation, but it is unnecessary -- you'd think a guy who had come under such fire might be a bit more attentive to his choice of words, especially given the film contains an "actual" rape.
It should also be noted that a couple of minor extras from the DVD haven't made the jump (in particular, a trivia track).
There's no question that Mad Max should be in every action / sci-fi fan's collection, but both Shout's Collector's Edition and the MGM original Blu-ray are imperfect. Personally, the compression issues are hard to shake: despite being a fairly minor difference, the effect it has on the overall viewing experience is fairly significant. Those who are more inclined to care about supplements will likely prefer the new Gibson / Samuel interviews, but the disc also omits at least one extra from the MGM disc. Ultimately, this new one -- certainly the most freely available Blu-ray of Mad Max, and affordable at around $15 -- is good enough to be recommended to those who have never owned the film, but owners of the previous release don't necessarily need to run out and upgrade.
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