Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) is a good cop, but one who's feeling burnt out, jaded and possibly at the end of the line. He doesn't see that there's much of a difference between him and the nutcases he runs down as a copper in a post-apocalyptic Australia that's devoid of any real civilisation or authority. We're told at the outset of the film that this all happens, "A Few Years From Now…" and that threatening warning still seems all too real nearly 30 years from when this groundbreaking classic was made.
|Director: George Miller
Starring: Mel Gibson, Joanne Samuel, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Steve Bisley, Roger Ward
Screenplay: James McCausland, George Miller
Max is an interceptor driver for the Main Force Patrol, what serves as a police force in this desolate wasteland, and he doesn't relish his job, trying to grasp a hold on to his humanity through the fragmented moments he gets to hold onto with his wife Jessie (Samuels) and their infant child, Sprog.
Can I just tell you right now that the first eleven minutes of this film is the greatest car chase you will ever see. Bullitt? Forget about it. The French Connection? Nope. The Blues Brothers? Gimme a fuckin' break. This is white hot action, bleak, mean and totally breathtaking in its brutality. A scum-sucking scoot-jockey called the Night Rider has stolen a police V8 interceptor with his uber-slutty girlfriend, after breaking arrest, killing a cop and generally taking it on the lam. Pursued by the MFP and having caused all kinds of mayhem, a whole bunch of the good guys want to kill him (Rufe: "Understand this: that skag and his floozy…they're gonna die"), but it's up to Max to run this nut-bag to ground in his souped-up Interceptor. Tough guy dialogue abounds – the kind you and your mates quote at each other, and if you can't dig on this opening scene, then I hope you die soon in an unforeseen gardening accident. It is one of the greatest openings to any movie ever, and features more burning rubber and exploding vehicles than you could possibly hope for. And you know what's best about it? It's really gritty, mean and nasty. And apparently, it was dangerous to film – much of the stunt work in Mad Max was an exercise in guerrilla film-making, by all accounts – so much could have gone horribly wrong, and yet the movie itself went so beautifully right.
Max manages a brief escape to his beach house with Jessie and Sprog, but duty calls, and he's back to the force. It's worth mentioning at this point how much like Clint Eastwood's uber-Western The Unforgiven the setting is a character in this film. There's one shot – just one – of a city, and it looks pretty shabby, the Halls of Justice that the Main Force Patrol operate out of is a fucking hole, much of the film takes place in a bona fide wasteland, and when we do reach a kind of bucolic Eden, it quickly becomes about the most unfriendly place on Earth. You're aware of it the whole way through, because of its presence in the shot. Miller's camerawork here is little short of genius.
When Max turns up at the Halls of Justice, he's introduced via his mate Jim Goose (Steve Bisley – "Jimmy the Goose: larger than life and twice as ugly!") to one of the other main characters of the film and what becomes Max's ultimate weapon of vengeance, the last of the V8s. This is the kind of car that any man would want. I'll let Barry the stuttering mechanic speak for me: "She sucks nitro…with Phase Four heads! Twin overhead cams, 600 horsepower through the wheels. She's meanness set to music and the bitch is born to run!" The car is basically a bribe to keep Max on the road – he wants out, and his boss Fifi MacAfee (Roger Ward – who chomps a cigar just as meanly as Fred "The Hammer" Williamson – one of my all-time heroes) is all too keenly aware of it. Feef, as the boys at the station call him, wants the public to see heroes, and believes that Max is the one to show them that heroes still exist – Max himself is not so sure. The world is so crummy that a hero for such a world would have to equally as crummy, as morally bankrupt. Max sees himself as apart from that world.
A gang of bikers roll into Wee Jerusalem to collect the remains of The Night Rider, and they are bad, bad guys. Led by the Toe-Cutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), and ably assisted by his umm "friend" Johnny the Boy and second-in-command Bubba Zanetti (who, with his black leather gear and cropped blonde hair reminds me all too much of a Screaming For Vengeance-era Rob Halford), they terrorise the town leading to the rape and mutilation of a man and a woman. The ambivalent sexuality of the bikers somehow adds to their sense of menace and threat. They want vengeance for the death of the Night Rider, and they don't care how they get it.
Incidentally, the gang set the tone for the whole code of dress for the post-apocalyptic genre – leathers and furs and bad haircuts. Martino, D'Amato and Castellari must have been taking notes…
Max and Goose are called out to investigate the crime, and find Johnny the Boy, totally off-chops at the scene, and talking large about the Night Rider. But, it seems, in the future (the present?) justice doesn't prevail – Johnny looks at Goose (with his broken leg) and Charlie (another MFP officer who has lost the use of his voice due to an accident in the opening scene) as a mute and a cripple – indicating that this is all justice is, in this day and age – unable to speak or act. And it makes us look at justice in our day as the same. Not a merry thought. We're individuals who want to see the punishment fit the crime, but it never can. We want it on a basic, primal, personal level – but our legal system would see that as barbaric. But that's who we are. Barbarians, at heart.
Johnny walks free (despite Goose's best attempts to pulverise him with a truncheon), and the gang start to enact their revenge. Victim #1: Jim Goose. Goose's bike is fucked with by Johnny, while Goose is entertaining a lady-friend (who would at first glance appear to be part-woman, part stick-insect) at a roadside dive called the Sugartown Cabaret, and the Toe-Cutter has Johnny the Boy set Goose on fire in a car-crash. Like I said, nasty, brutal and mean-spirited. Johnny doesn't want what the Toe-Cutter has planned, and says so, loud and clear – but this is just Nuremberg-logic. He wants vengeance, but he's not prepared to go to the Toe-Cutter's lengths…initially.
Max sees what's left of the Goose, and basically thinks, "Fuck this for a game of soldiers, I'm off", and wants to get the fuck out of working for the MFP. Fifi tries to haul him back in with his big speech, which is relevant in our time as much as it was in the early 80s: "You're a winner Max, you're on the top shelf, and I'm not going to lose you for some crazy notion about quitting. They say people don't believe in heroes anymore, well DAMN THEM, you and me Max, we're gonna give them back their heroes." Max: "Do you really expect me to go for that crap?... That mad circus out there, I'm beginning to enjoy it…Look, any longer out on that road and I'm one of them. A terminal crazy wearing a bronze badge to say I'm one of the good guys." Fifi: "You're hooked, Max! And you know it!" A prophetic statement, as it turns out. Like I said before, it's what Eastwood tried saying with The Unforgiven and Pale Rider many years after, and what Bronson's character in Death Wish got across oh-so-effectively in the early 70s. And then check out Oldboy, or any of Park-Chan Wook's other Vengeance films. Revenge, and especially VIOLENT revenge, is such a nasty piece of cake…
Max and his family fuck off to the countryside for a bit of a holiday, ice-cream and sunshine and beaches and such, but unbeknownst to them, the Toe-Cutter and his crew are there too. Things are looking grim, especially when Jessie and Sprog are run down by the bikies. For Max, that's it. Dog dead. Bad. Mate dead? Really fucking bad. Wife and child dead? Cue: homicidal mania. Max gets the last of the V8s and goes on a monumental killing spree, becoming an almost unstoppable avenger. I won't tell you how the film ends, but it's one of the most cold-blooded series of killings in cinema history – if you've not seen them before, they will nail you to your seat. Visceral, edgy and cruel. I didn't know films could do that, when I first saw Mad Max. It's still nasty today, and strangely gratifying – revel in its goodness. This film is why I generally dress like a member of the MFP – leather jacket, leather pants and big fuck-off boots. If you can find a better film than Mad Max that isn't either Romero's Dawn of the Dead, or Carpenter's The Thing, or anything directed by David Cronenberg, I'd like to see it. Can't find it – it doesn't exist. Mad Max rules, that's why.
This is film brilliance writ large in 20 foot high glowing neon letters. Australia has never produced a better movie than this.