This week’s Monday Pick is the 1979 action thriller Mad Max, a film that lunched one of the most lucrative franchises in film history. The Mad Max trilogy has spawned many imitations over the last thirty plus years, but they fail to add up to George Miller’s fantastic vision of the ultimate dystopian future.
Mel Gibson (who was virtually unknown at the time) stars as police pursuit man Max Rockatansky. He patrols the highways of the not too distant future Australia that is on the verge of complete anarchy and lawlessness. In the first installment of the series, Miller shows the audience that in this future, resources like food, water, and gasoline are becoming scarce and society is beginning to break down. The Main Force Patrol (MFP) is the uniformed highway safety enforcement whose main purpose is to stop marauding gangs who pose a threat to the society they are desperately trying to preserve.
The first ten minutes of Mad Max are filled with some of the most impressive and dangerous stunts ever performed in any film before or since. The MFP is in pursuit of an escaped convict who calls himself the Night Rider. Along with his girlfriend, the two take off in one of the force’s fastest V-8 pursuit vehicles and are successful in evading several pursuit units.
While working on the engine of his own vehicle, Max listens to the radio chatter of his fellow officers who are in pursuit of the crazed fugitive. As the chase makes its way into civilian areas, the officer’s every attempt to end the pursuit has failed.
One of the most impressive stunts throughout the sequence is when the pursuit vehicle operated by officers “Roop” (Steve Millichamp) and “Charlie” (John Ley) crash through a motor home that had broken down in the middle of the road. Every position of the camera in the scene is phenomenal and the pay off is incredible. Learning from his friend motorcycle cop Jim Goose (Steve Bisley) that the MFP units are out of commission and unable to maintain a pursuit, Max intercepts the Night Rider and ends his crazed escape from custody.
Learning of their comrade’s death, a motorcycle gang run by the villainous Toe Cutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) swears to take their vengeance against the MFP and the man responsible for the Night Rider’s death. At the same time that the motorcycle gang has set its sights on the MFP, Max begins to feel that he is quickly becoming unstable and that he is taking too much pleasure in unorthodox ways of combating violent criminals.
One great scene in the film is after the motorcycle gang wreaks havoc on a small town; they roughshod over the population, damage property, and steal supplies and fuel. After the gang’s brutal attack and rape of two young motorists, the Toe Cutter’s young protégé is apprehended by both Max and Goose who take him in and charge him for several crimes the gang is involved in.
Due to the ineffectual nature of the courts, no witnesses testified and the case is thrown out. An enraged Goose tries to keep Johnny “the boy” from leaving and attacks the two court appointed lawyers. After the situation is diffused, the Captain tells his men that “as long as the paperwork is clean.” his men can do whatever it takes to go after the gang.
This is where the film now begins to take off. At just under the 90-minute mark, Mad Max packs a huge punch and gives the audience a satisfying tale of love, loss, and revenge. When the gang now targets Max’s friends and eventually his wife and young son, Max puts aside his notions of leaving the force, dons his black leather police uniform and goes out to kick a whole lot of ass.
One by one, Max wipes out every scumbag member of the gang and leaves those responsible for the death of his family, the last of his revenge scheme. The final several minutes of the film are the most amazing death scenes of them all. The last gang member is given the ultimatum by Max to hack through a set of handcuffs which would take ten minutes, or to hack through his ankle which could be done in five minutes before a crude fuse ignites gasoline from the wreckage of a truck involved in an accident, that was set by the gang member hoping to steal fuel and supplies. This scene was a definite influence for future films like Saw I or even Eli Roth’s successful Hostel series.
Miller’s unique vision of the film came to him while he was a doctor working in Victoria, Australia. His long time friend and former film school mate Byron Kennedy came up with the idea to make the film. Miller decided to set the film in the future because it would have been more accepted by the audience who might find the violence too hard to imagine in the current setting of 1979.
Screenwriter James McCausland took many of his experiences with the mid 1970s gas shortages and remembered the savage nature of people who waited to purchase fuel, those who cut the line were dealt with severely by angry mobs that desperately needed fuel for their cars.
“Yet there were further signs of the desperate measures individuals would take to ensure mobility. A couple of oil strikes that hit the pumps revealed the ferocity with which Australians would defend their right to fill a tank. Long queues formed at the stations with petrol-and anyone who tried to sneak ahead in the queue met raw violence.”
Mad Max did not do very well in the U.S. when it debuted in 1980. An American voice over crew, due to audiences not understanding the thick Aussie accents or slang terminology, dubbed over the Australian audio track. In New Zealand and Sweden, the film was banned due to the intense violence that was disturbing to many censors. The film underwent many cuts, especially Goose’s death scene.
As of today, the film has been accepted in Sweden and is still cut for New Zealand audiences. In a recent poll, in thirty-two years, the film has gone on to gross over one hundred million dollars worldwide, and has spawned two sequels. Miller plans to revamp the series with a forth installment known as Fury Road. Many actors like Tom Hardy (Bronson) are rumored to play Max. Mel Gibson has declined the film due to personal reasons and other projects he is currently involved in.
Mad Max is available on DVD and Blu Ray disc through MGM/UA Home Video and can be rented/streamed via Netflix.