The plot of George Miller’soriginal 1979 Mad Max is a stock-standard revenge plot that could have been lifted from any one of several dozen westerns. Not that it matters, because this is a movie that is all about style, energy and mood. It’s how you tell the story that matters.
The first of the three Mad Max films is not quite a post-apocalyptic film. It depicts a society on the way to becoming a post-apocalyptic society. Civilisation hasn’t collapsed, but it’s in a lot of trouble. The battle between the forces of law and order and the forces of anarchy and violence has become a war with few rules, a war in which the cops are only marginally less brutal than the criminals. Miller cleverly doesn’t give us too many details - we have no idea what has brought this situation about, but we don’t need to know. This is minimalist film-making, with no time wasted on filling in backstories or detailed exposition. The tone is set, and that’s enough.
The title character drives an Interceptor vehicle for the Main Force Patrol. Whether this is an official or unofficial police force is irrelevant - it’s all there is. After a spectacular opening sequence that ends in the fiery death of an escaped road criminal known as the Night Rider the Main Force Patrol officers involved find themselves targeted for revenge by the Night Rider’s buddies. A cycle of revenge is established and it steadily escalates.
When the bad guys go after Max’s wife and kid you just know things are going to get really out of hand. Max isn’t well balanced at the best of times.
The obvious influence on this production was an earlier Australian movie, Peter Weir’s 1974 The Cars That Ate Paris, which had the same blurred lines between authority and anarchy, the same moral nihilism, the same black comedy, the same almost religious obsession with car culture. What Miller did was to increase the level of action and violence by several orders of magnitude.
Mad Max caused much teeth-gnashing in Australian film circles. It was regarded as being thoroughly disreputable and its huge commercial success caused even more resentment. It launched Mel Gibson as an international star, although whether that was a good thing or a bad thing depends on your point of view. It is interesting to see the Mel Gibson person still only partially formed at this stage. He does a lot less scenery chewing than in later roles. He’s blander, but less annoying. And he’s completely overshadowed by Hugh Keays-Byrne as the sinister Toecutter.
The acting has a slightly stylised, theatrical quality to it that was probably intentional. It adds to the feeling that this is not reality, this is not the present day. It’s not quite science fiction, but it’s not quite our world either.
It’s a stylish and highly entertaining movie for those who like adrenaline-charged action movies. It’s certainly a classic of its type. It inspired some tedious imitations, but that sadly is the way of the world. On a less positive note it reinforced the unfortunate trend towards totally male-oriented testosterone-fests, although to be fair Miller does appear to take a slightly sardonic attitude towards the whole male bonding thing, and to the car fetishism.
Mad Max remains the best known of all ozploitation movies, and whether you love it or hate it it’s one of those must-see movies simply because of the extent of its influence on popular culture in general and on exploitation movies in particular.