In a few short days we'll arrive at the on ramp for Fury Road, the fourth Mad Max film, the first one in thirty years, and the first film without Mel Gibson as former MFP agent turned wasteland scavenger Max Rockatansky (he's been replaced by face-mask aficionado Tom Hardy.) So now it seems as good a time as any to revisit the films that got us to Fury Road as well as the series as a whole. The films have left a permanent mark on action and the post-apocalyptic genre as a whole. So the question now is how well they hold up? That's what we're here to find out. I'll review all four films as well as write my overall impressions of the series at the end.
So let's get mad, shall we? (Spoilers for all films, obviously.)
Mad Max directed by George Miller, 1979
Mad Max is a hard film to write about. One one hand, it's a legendary movie that kickstarted the careers of its director and lead. On the other hand, it ages pretty terribly. I hope to convey a respect for the material while reserving the right to be critical of what is weak. And yet, even acknowledging the flaws, it is apparent that there is talent here, both on screen and off. And most should agree that this film had the potential to be a stronger final product than it ultimately was.
George Miller was a practicing doctor in Australia who worked on student films in his free time in medical school. It is said his ER experiences with motorcycle crash victims gave him some inspiration for the film. He made Mad Max for $400,000. The film went on to gross $100,000,000 and held the record for several decades for being the most profitable film ever. Mad Max is by that standard as successful a start as you can ask for.
The film follows Max Rockatansky, a Main Force Patrol agent who polices the roads in his V8 Interceptor-a film car icon that still holds up. Max's world is in slow decay. A fuel crisis we never see has caused societal regression which is only hinted at. Now law and order has morphed into the MFP. Motorcycle gangs run rampant on the roads terrorizing people, and the MFP fight back from their turbocharged cars.
Max, a 21-year-old fresh-faced Mel Gibson, is on the up and up in the MFP. But he worries that he's going as crazy and evil as the scum he hunts, and hopes to stay sane for his wife and child. After his best friend on the force, Jim Goose, nearly dies, Max decides to take a holiday. While on holiday though, gangs kill his wife and child sending Max over the edge.
As a viewer, the real dark fun is watching Max's transformation. He's scared he'll become another lunatic on a motorcycle. The reality is that he's become something darker. Once he's been robbed of everything all he has left is the animal instinct to survive. By the end, Max is perfectly suited to live in such a messed up world. The finale sees Max hunting down the last person who is responsible for his family's death. He handcuffs the man to a car that is about to explode and hands him a hacksaw, telling him, "The chain in those handcuffs is high-tensile steel. It'd take you ten minutes to hack through it with this. Now, if you're lucky, you could hack through your ankle in five minutes. Go." By the end we create a hero who is wholly unique to Miller's world.
Max's transformation is the core of the film, and it holds up well. But the film around it as I mentioned has a lot of problems. For starters, there are too many villains, and they're all over the place. The opening of the film introduces us to the soon to be deposed Nightrider, who spends most of his screen time screaming about the death machine that he is. When he faces off against Max, he suddenly bursts into tears and loses it. The tonal shift is incredibly jarring.
The other villains are equally a mess, though perhaps this could be attributed to a bunch of low-level Australian actors with not enough direction. Viewers today might struggle to get through their eccentricities and overacting. "Push me, shove you. Oh yeah? Says who?"
The film also has dreadful pacing. An 88-minute film should not feel this slow. At times though, Max doesn't even feel like the main character for stretches of the movie, sometimes it feels like it's about his best friend Jim Goose (who's humor and charisma often steal the focus from Max.)
The biggest challenge of getting into the film though is the lack of exposition. Details of why the world is the way it is are few and far between, and you need a wary eye to get them. Some details might have come in dialogue, but even with subtitles on it's hard to understand what is being said. Nobody likes voiceover or starting a film with two paragraphs of exposition superimposed on screen, but in this instance it would be an improvement.
But it's not all terrible. The action of the film for the most part does hold up. There are artifacts of the time, such as the under-cranking, and it is obvious the film is working against a budget, but overall the stunt-work is admirable and solidly badass. It's easy to imagine how back in 1979, the chases and stunts must have blown people away. In a post Fast & Furious 6 world though, the impact isn't quite there.
One can't simply dismiss Mad Max isn't a bad movie. It isn't. It's a movie that could use better actors, better direction, and perhaps a larger budget. But there is undeniable talent and passion here. Miller couldn't create something so unique and rugged if he wasn't passionate and committed to his vision. And the flaws of the film aren't the usual mistakes we see in movies from this era. Movies from thirty years ago fell into the trap of terrible fashion choices or the fetishization of outdated technology. For example, look at this scene from Rocky IV...
Can you see the difference. Miller didn't make a movie that's a product of it's time (disregarding the oil crisis of course.) He tells a classic tale and creates his own mythology. And while it's a crazy mythology, you can't help but love how wholeheartedly he embraces the insanity. Mad Max is true to Miller's vision, and true to itself.
Despite the passion put into it, it's still a rough film to watch. But if you can stomach some severe overacting by the lesser actors and some off balance pacing issues, there is a lot here to enjoy. (Though it'll take some work to get through the thick accents.) If you're a fan of the series at all, you owe Mad Max a rental, if not a purchase. Even if just to see a fresh-faced Mel Gibson before he went crazy (crazy, not mad.) Just don't go in expecting it to be like the films that followed, it isn't. Treat it like a prequel, a character piece that sets up Max on his many adventures to come. Just have a copy of The Road Warrior ready to go as soon as you finish.