Mad Max (1979)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on the screenplay by James McCausland and George Miller, “Mad Max” starts off weak—a confusing, unexciting exercise in stunts while showcasing awkward, barely comprehensible dialogue. But something happens during the final third. Suddenly, it begins to gather focus, tension escalates to near unbearable levels, and there is creativity in how action scenes unfold. There is a reason why it is remembered decades after its release.
Max (Mel Gibson) is one of the many patrol cops in the Outback who is constantly on the lookout for the troubles motorcycle gangs create. A man named Nightrider (Vincent Gil), the leader of the gang, has escaped prison, leaving all sorts of raucous in his wake. When Nightrider is eventually indisposed, his followers, led by Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), end up terrorizing everyone they come across.
The story is replete with colorful performances. Although none of the characters are well-developed, once in a while they are given a line or a shot that ends up being milked to perfection. Keays-Byrne, for example, clearly has fun with the role. Although his presence is not especially intimidating, there is a quality in his performance that reminds me of a dog in the process of becoming fully rabid. Toecutter is unpredictable and it makes him quite entertaining. Toecutter’s right-hand man, Bubba (Geoff Parry), is also interesting, but I was at a loss as to why he wasn’t given more to do or say.
I grew tired of the so-called romantic exchanges between Max and his wife, Jessie (Joanne Samuel). Not once did I believe they are a believable couple. However, the actress is wonderful in portraying a woman who is scared for her life and her baby’s. She is front and center during the film’s most tension-filled scenes. The trick she manages to pull off is feeling scared and coupling that fear with a whiff of surprising toughness. As she runs in a forest suspecting that the men she came across the day before has found her, we anticipate what will happen to her. I enjoyed that women in this picture do more than cower and squeal.
Although the material offers violence, it knows when to pull back. Notice it does not show gruesome details—like a hand being cut off, a body being run over by a motorcycle, a driver hitting the dashboard as one vehicle collides with another. It gives us a chance to imagine the brutality, in parts, which makes it more engaging. Instead, effort is put into how to frame tragedies, like where the camera should be placed when a character we have grown to like meets an untimely demise.
It is a lot to ask of someone to sit through about forty minutes of rather uninspired scenes, but I believe that the final thirty minutes is very strong, it makes the film worth seeing. Even though it is unpolished (I think that quality is a part of the work’s appeal), “Mad Max,” directed by George Miller, is directed with enthusiasm and vision not only when it comes to the action but also of the lonely scenes of endless roads in the Outback. It is set in the future but it has the soul of a western.