In a dystopian future, an energy crisis has caused the law and order in Australia to break. Peaceful societies still exist, but ruthless biker gangs have begun terrorizing the land.
Don’t worry, though. If the next two films taught us anything, it’s that it’s only gonna get better.
Jaded by the lawlessness that is slowly eroding civilization, police officer Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) wants nothing more than to retire and spend time with his wife Jessie (Joanne Samuel) and their son Sprog (Brendan Heath). But after his family and partner “Goose” (Steve Bisley) are hunted down by a gang led by the sadistic Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) in retaliation for one of their own fallen members, Max vows to get revenge.
Prior to becoming a filmmaker, George Miller worked as a medical doctor in Sydney, Australia. It was during that time, working in the emergency room, that he witnessed many of the injuries and deaths that he would later on depict in a small, low-budget film called Mad Max. During his residency, Miller met amateur filmmaker Byron Kennedy (Mad Max and The Road Warrior’s producer) at a summer film school in 1971. The two of them produced a short film, Violence in the Cinema, Part 1, which managed to win some festival awards, but their big break didn’t come until eight years later with the post-apocalyptic action film Mad Max.
Believing that moviegoers would find the violence off-putting in a typical setting, Miller set the story in a dystopian future, but both he and co-writer James McCausland used the 1973 world oil crisis as a backdrop for viewers to relate to. Once finished, it made its rounds through Australia before finally making its way to the U.S., though horribly re-dubbed by an American crew.
You know, ’cause that Australian foreign language, aka English, is something we Americans need translated.
Although it initially polarized critics, some linking it to Mein Kampf and deeming it a favorite of “rapists, sadists, child murderers and incipient Mansons”, the film was a massive box office success, grossing $100 million worldwide on just a $400,000 budget (up until The Blair Witch Project, it had the highest profit-to-cost ratio of any film for 20 years). And despite the initial backlash from some critics, it eventually won most of them over.
The impact this film had really needs no more mentioning: A trilogy regarded by many as one of the most iconic of all-time, an unknown Aussie actor turned Oscar-winning filmmaker and a long-awaited fourth entry set to finally be released this weekend after being stuck in development hell for about 15 years.
Mad Max is not a game changer when it comes to story. Dystopian universes have been used in film before it (the Planet of the Apes franchise), and George Miller’s narrative style owes many thanks to Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy” (like Clint Eastwood’s Blondie, Mel Gibson’s Max Rockatansky is also referred to as the “Man with no name” in the trilogy). But this is a slam-bang, balls to the wall action flick that gives crazy a new name, and those that have seen all three films know the first one’s only getting things warmed up.
What Miller does here is prove that intense and exciting action isn’t confined to just the big budget flicks, staging riveting car chases and crashes sure to leave you on the edge of your seat. With limited resources and money at his disposal, Miller may not have had the benefit of Star Wars and Superman’s CGI or the elaborate, epic in scope set design of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but he, cinematographer David Eggby and stunt choreographer Grant Page create some spectacularly crafted action scenes from the opening high-octane police chase between Max, his fellow officers and Nightrider to Max’s quest for vengeance.
The film has more than enough style to compensate for it’s thin, simplistic revenge tale (to the franchise’s credit, the story does evolve into something bigger throughout the series). Miller deserves all the props in the world for packing as much punch out of so little as he does, and his style would only improve throughout each film in the trilogy (The Road Warrior may be the best film out of the three, but the fight between Max and Blaster in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is Miller’s most creative sequence).
Although the narrative is thin, and it dawdles a bit in the second-act when things slow down, even when it dawdles, it’s never boring thanks to Mel Gibson’s compelling performance. Gibson only had one film credit to his name prior to taking on the role that would propel him into stardom, but there’s a reason why this role, along with Lethal Weapon’s Martin Riggs, is so career defining for him; he sells the hell out of it. Even through the few missteps taken by Miller, whether a slow patch in the middle section or a musical score beat that’s a bit too on the nose, Gibson gives us a character worth rooting for throughout it all, handling every emotional turn that hits him just right.
Plus, give the man his due. Max was using hacksaws and handcuffs long, long, long before Jigsaw made it cool.
Featuring some first-rate action sequences and a breakthrough performance from Mel Gibson, Mad Max kicked off both filmmaker George Miller’s career and his Aussie dystopian three-part opus with a big bang. Sure, it hits a few speed bumps along its course, but the setup for one of the greatest trilogies to ever hit the screens is nevertheless a fun, adrenaline-fueled thrill ride that’s as every bit as mad as its namesake.