American International Pictures
Produced by Byron Kennedy and Bill Miller
Directed by George Miller
Written by George Miller, Byron Kennedy and James McCausland
In the “Lethal Weapon” movies Mel Gibson played L.A. police detective Martin Riggs who undergoes such a severe psychological trauma when his wife is killed that the common held belief is that he’s gone straight flat out crazy. Insane. Mad, even. That’s the main trait shared with an earlier Mel Gibson character: Australian highway cop Max Rockatansky who undergoes such a severe psychological trauma when his wife and son are killed that the common held belief is that he’s gone straight flat out crazy. Insane. Mad, even. In fact, he’s even called MAD MAX.
The movie is set in Australia of the near future after some sort of global disaster. We’re never told in this movie what the disaster was but the two sequels to MAD MAX make it clear that the world superpowers finally threw down over dwindling oil resources. Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) is a highway cop in The Outback. Along with his partner Jim Goose (Steve Bisley) and the other members of the small band of cops known as The Main Force Patrol, they do their best to protect the public from marauding bands of motorcycle gangs that roam the highways, looting, raping, pillaging and just generally carrying on cranky. The cops are so poorly funded that their headquarters, the ironically named Hall of Justice looks like a rotting pigsty. The have only one half-crazed mechanic to keep their vehicles running. The MFP has a hideously dangerous run-in with a psychotic called The Night Rider who steals one of their souped up Interceptors and leads them on a terrifying high speed pursuit that ends in several civilian and police cars wrecked, an officer severely injured and The Night Rider dead.
This starts Max to thinking that maybe it’s time for him to get out. He’s got a wife (Joanne Samuel) and a baby boy he’d like to be around to grow old with. The Goose conspires with their boss, Fifi Macaffie (Roger Ward) to get Max to stay by bribing him with a customized Ford Falcon with a supercharged V8 engine. Max is Fifi’s best cop and if he loses Max then the MFP is going to be in real trouble as they’re barely holding their own against the vicious motorcycle gangs as it is.
The situation heats up when The Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) the leader of the gang that The Night Rider was a member of decides to wage war on The MFP and takes a horrible revenge on Jim Goose, setting a trap for him and burning him alive while he’s trapped in a flipped over truck. This decides it for Max. He turns in his resignation, takes his wife and son and heads north, determined to find peace for them while he’s still able. But Max is next on The Toecutter’s list of revenge. And if he can’t have Max then he’ll settle for Max’s wife and son instead.
MAD MAX is a good example of what is meant by ‘grindhouse’. It’s a straight-up B-budget action/adventure with no other purpose than to entertain. I vividly remember seeing this on 42end Street back when it really was 42end Street and thinking even then it was pretty damn cool. I saw it on Turner Classic Movies last night and I still think it’s pretty damn cool. Primarily because of the highly exciting action sequences. George Miller knows how to film action. And he knows how to film car chases. Back in the 70’s audiences had become pretty jaded when it came to car chases because just about every action movie back then definitely had one, sometimes two and if they could figure out any way possible then dammit, they’d throw in three. But George Miller really has a way of making car chases so energized that you don’t feel like you’ve seen these car chases before.
And even though I’ve got nothing against CGI, I dearly love action films of the 70’s and 80’s because you know that these are real guys in real cars doing these stunts. When cars are slamming into eighteen-wheelers at 90 miles an hour or guys go flying through the air to land on concrete and roll for another 50 feet you feel it because you can see it’s an actual human being getting busted up and not a CGI. It also gives an air of believability to the action because nobody is breaking the laws of physics here. The fighting is sweaty, brutal and painful. Especially in the scenes where Mad Max faces down The Toecutter and his protégé Johnny The Boy (Tim Burns) and Max is shot and run over with a motorcycle. Max doesn’t shrug off his wounds and get up to whoop ass. He gets up, sure, but it takes time, it hurts like hell and even back then Mel Gibson was a good enough actor to sell the scene.
This being Mel Gibson’s first major starring role is probably the reason most will want to see a movie that’s almost 30 years old and even then you can see the easy charm as well as the grim intensity that would bring him international fame. He’s as competent as you would imagine in the action sequences but he’s also amazingly gentle and warm in the scenes with Joanne Samuel who plays his wife. They have a real chemistry together and it’s not hard to buy them as a young couple in love. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Gibson blows the screen apart but he’s a helluva lot better in his first film than a lot of others I’ve seen. Steve Bisley as Max’s partner Jim Goose is so full of life and so likeable that you wish he had more screen time. He’s got one of those grins that you’ve seen before: he’s either just put one over on you or he’s about to. Either way, you’re gonna let him because you just can’t resist that grin. Roger Ward is one of my favorites in this movie. Despite being named Fifi, he’s a towering slab of man, bald as a rock, always chewing on a cigar, wearing a flowing black scarf and telling his boys: “Do whatever you want out on the road as long as the paperwork’s straight!”
Hugh Keays-Byrne does something really remarkable with The Toecutter in that you really get the sense that this is a guy who actually tunes into the wavelength of a world we can’t see. He leaves the stereotypical villain-type acting stuff to Tim Burns who plays Johnny The Boy as a cowardly bad guy. Much more interesting and fun is Geoff Parry as The Toecutter’s enforcer, Bubba Zanetti. He’s the main source of humor in the movie as he delivers some really goofy lines but in a sober, dead-pan manner that I found both utterly hilarious and totally chilling. He was a character I wanted to know more about as compared to The Toecutter and Johnny The Boy he seems rational, calm and he give The Toecutter advice that is perfectly sane. I wanted to know how Bubba ended up with these guys but unless George Miller decides to do a prequel, my curiosity will continue.
MAD MAX was followed by two sequels: “The Road Warrior” and “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” each of which I heartily recommend. Both movies aren’t just rehashing the first movie. They continue the story of Max Rockatansky, deepening his character and humanity even as the world slides further and further into barbarism. Taken as a whole they’re not only classic action/adventure but also the forerunner of every adventure trilogy you see produced nowadays. If you haven’t seen MAD MAX in a while, treat yourself. And if you’ve never seen it, spring for the rental fee, why don’t you? Yeah, yeah, I know it’s not a 100 million buck summer blockbuster but the lack of a budget actually gives the movie a hard and gritty reality that a lot of today’s movies simply don’t have. And it’s simply just a lot of fun to watch. Enjoy.