A young Mel Gibson stars in the original Mad Max.
Produced with a budget of less than $400,000 and with a worldwide box office of over $100 million, Mad Max was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having the highest profit-to-cost ratio of any motion picture ever made. Although it lost the title in 1999 to The Blair Witch Project, it's still a testament to how a good story, a likable hero and plenty of action can trump the biggest budget and most elaborate special effects.
Written and directed by George Miller, the story was inspired by the gas crisis of the 1970s. With today's rising gas prices and wars in the Middle East, it looks even more prophetic today than it did when it was released.
The timeline for the Mad Max films has always been a little sketchy. All we are told when this one starts is that it takes place a few years from now. It doesn't appear that the nuclear war mentioned in the sequels has taken place yet, but society has started to breakdown. Motorcycle gangs rape, pillage and scrounge for fuel along the deserted highways and in seaside towns of Australia. However, civilization still exists, as do courts of law and a police force. The barren wasteland of the sequels is nowhere in sight and the landscape is still quite beautiful in places.
Instead of being the man with no-name, wandering the desert outback, that he would become, Max in this first installment is a family man and police officer. He and his fellow officers patrol the highways in their yellow Interceptors, standing as the last line of defense against the gangs.
The plot is fairly simple and closely resembles that of a western. At the beginning of the film, Max pursues the psychopathic Nightrider, who has stolen a police car. The chase ends with Nightrider's death. Nightrider's gang comes to collect his body and raise some hell. When they kill several people close to Max, he mounts up in his famous super-charged Black Pursuit Special and goes on a quest for revenge.
A 23 year old, baby faced Mel Gibson stars as Max. This was just his second movie and the one that set him on the path to stardom. It didn't put him on the A-list, but it certainly pointed him in that direction. The series and this character has never been big on dialogue, but that doesn't stop Gibson from imbuing Max with a humanity that keeps you rooting for him no matter how dark he gets. Without an actor with his charisma in the part, this movie could easily have been forgotten as just a silly action movie, but Gibson provides the much needed heart to the story.
For many years the only version of this movie available in the United States was the dubbed one. When it was released here in 1980 it was felt that audiences would have difficulty understanding the Australian accents and slang, especially through the tinny drive-in theater speakers, which were still prevalent at that time. The result was a cheap and poor dubbing job. When I watched it now, in HD and with the original voices for the first time, I was amazed at how much it improved my enjoyment. In the past I was always so distracted by the voices and the visuals being out of sync that it became annoying. And while audiences in 1980 had no idea what Mel Gibson sounded like, hearing a different voice come out of his mouth just added to the annoyance. Watching it with the original vocal track is the best way to truly enjoy it.
With another Mad Max sequel reportedly in the works (with Tom Hardy taking over the role of Max), now is the perfect time to go back and rewatch the original. It also wouldn't hurt for certain Hollywood producers to watch it either. As the recent John Carter flop proved, just inflating a budget doesn't guarantee entertainment. Sometimes movies done on the cheap, like this one, can be the most innovative.
Mel Gibson as Mad Max.
This original low budget action flick is by far the best of the Road Warrior movies. It contains more emotion, heart and genuine plot than either of the more expensive sequels. It is grittier and more realistic as well and tells a simple but compelling story.
This was Mel Gibson's second movie but with it he found a theme he would return to many times in his career; revenge. A man (usually a cop of some sort) seeking revenge for the murders of his wife and/or children. This plot device plays a part in the Lethal Weapon movies as well as Ransom and the Gibson directed Apocalypto. In Payback even the title says revenge.
The first half of the movie plays like a brutal decrepit future cop movie. The focus is on Max and his partner Goose as they deal with a psycho motorcycle gang. Once Goose is killed and Max leaves the force the story gets personal. Max goes on an extended vacation in the country with his wife and infant son. Of course you just know they will cross paths with the demented bad guys sooner or later and the big climax doesn't disappoint.
I agree Scott, this movie proves you don't need a huge budget with tons of explosions and special effects to make a tensely riveting action flick. The reason this movie has more heart than the sequels is because Max is shown as a family man and not just some enigmatic loner wandering a future wasteland.
Somehow I'd never seen this movie before so I never watched it with the bad overdubbing. I can only imagine how much that detracted from the movie. The Australian accents definitely add to the atmosphere. Mel Gibson sure did have a baby face then (see photo) although he already possessed a hugely charismatic persona and his trademark intense stare he uses to convey emotion.
This movie may have been shot on the cheap but its widescreen cinematography is quite beautiful. All things considered Mad Max holds up well.
Mel Gibson and Joanne Samuel in Mad Max
Mad Max is all about the cars and its title character. It opens with a big car chase with plenty of accidents and close calls, including one involving a toddler. We first see Max in an extreme close up of only his shaded eyes. A few minutes later we get a quick shot of him walking and taking his sun glasses off. A star is born.
As Scott mentioned, this is very much a western genre type film. George Miller once described Mad Max as, "A western in new clothes." If you replace cars with horses, you definitely have a western. The bad guys arriving in town on motorcycles to meet a train is very reminiscent of the gang of outlaws arriving in town on horse back to meet the train in High Noon (1952). Where the movie takes a unique turn is when the gang sexually harasses a guy and then chases a couple down the road and rapes both the girl and the guy. John Wayne never had to deal with that. As my brothers wrote, this is a revenge film, something again familiar to western films.
Patrick wrote that this film started a tradition of Mel Gibson starring in revenge films. It also started a tradition of him playing someone slightly off. The most famous line from this film is when Max says to his boss, "It's that rat circus out there, I'm beginning to enjoy it. Look, any longer out on that road and I'm one of them, a terminal psychotic, except that I've got this bronze badge that says that I'm one of the good guys." Could that line not pertain to Gibson in real life, only replace badge with Oscar?
George Miller directs some great action sequences and makes the car chases quite exciting. He does not though,deliver a completely solid job as director. Some scenes, such as when Max sees his burnt partner, are over wrought. Still, he manages to bring some real sense of emotion to Max's personal struggle with the loss of his friend and later his wife and child. Gibson does an adequate job of acting but looking cool in that leather uniform, sitting behind the wheel of his car deserves as much credit as his acting.
Photos © Copyright Kennedy Miller Productions (1979)