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MAD MAX (1979)

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"Any longer out on that road and I’m one of them, y’know? – a terminal crazy – only I have a bronze badge to say I’m one of the good guys."

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Mad MaxDirector: George Miller

Starring: Mel Gibson, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Joanne Samuel, Steve Bisley, Geoff Parry, Tim Burns, Roger Ward, Sheila Florance, Vincent Gil

Screenplay: George Miller and James McCausland

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Synopsis: In the future – a few years from now – gang-member Nightrider (Vincent Gil) kills a policeman and steals his pursuit vehicle. A high-speed chase follows, with two teams from the Main Force Patrol crashing their cars, one while swerving to avoid a toddler that has wandered into the road, one after plunging through a bystander’s caravan. Also in pursuit, Jim Goose (Steve Bisley) crashes his motorbike and breaks his leg. Goose calls his partner, interceptor Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), who enters the chase. Locating Nightrider on the open road, Max plays "chicken", forcing the gang-member to swerve away. He then turns his car and catches the fleeing Nightrider, tailgating him relentlessly. The two high-speed vehicles come across the site of a severe accident. Max stops, but Nightrider cannot: he strikes the other vehicles, and his car rolls and explodes…. That night, Max tells his wife, Jessie (Joanne Samuel), that he is thinking of quitting. The next day at the Halls Of Justice, Max is shown a new high-power V8, not realising that it has been built to lure him into staying a cop. Max’s superior officer, Fifi Macaffee (Roger Ward), warns him that Nightrider’s friends are after him. Nightrider’s old gang, led by Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), Bubba (Geoff Parry) and the psychotic Johnny the Boy (Tim Burns), rides into a small town to collect Nightrider’s remains from the railway station. Afterwards, they begin wrecking the town and harassing the people. A young couple decides to get out, but they nearly run Toecutter down. The entire gang rides in pursuit, running the couple off the road. They then attack, smashing up the car, and hauling the young man and woman out into the road…. Max and Goose are called to the scene. They find the young man running away half naked, his girlfriend beaten and almost catatonic. They also find Johnny the Boy, who was too stoned to leave with the others. Johnny’s ravings reveal to the cops that Nightrider was a member of the same gang. Some time later, the cops get the unwelcome news that all charges against Johnny have been dropped, as no witnesses showed up to testify. Goose goes berserk, attacking Johnny before his colleagues can pull him away. Johnny is hauled away by Bubba, yelling threats as he goes. While Goose is in a nightclub, the gang tampers with his motorbike. Riding along the highway, Goose loses control and crashes. He borrows a truck to take his bike back to town, but is run off the road when Johnny throws part of a wheel through his windscreen. The truck rolls upside-down and begins leaking petrol, with Goose trapped inside. Toecutter forces Johnny to throw a lit match nearby…. Max is summoned to the hospital, recoiling in horror when he sees his partner’s indescribable injuries. The next day, he hands Macaffee his resignation. Macaffee tries to dissuade him, finally talking him into deferring his decision until after he has some time off. Max, Jessie and their baby take a holiday to spend some time together. When their van has a blow-out, Jessie leaves Max negotiating for a new wheel and drives down the road to find some ice cream for the baby. On her way back to the van, she finds herself confronted by a gang: it is Toecutter and his men….

Comments: A triumph of style over substance, George Miller’s Mad Max managed to overcome its cripplingly low budget and the limitations of its neophyte cast and set a standard for both petrol-fueled and post-apocalyptic action movies that many better funded and more technically adept productions made since have failed to meet. The film is crude, rough-edged and almost brutally simplistic - all of which, rather miraculously, works to its advantage. Mad Max’s main virtue is its honesty: it never for so much as a second pretends to be anything other than what it is, moving from chase sequence to chase sequence, crash to crash, death scene to death scene with an absolute minimum of character development, dialogue and plot. The "stars" of the film are not its cast, but the staging of its action scenes, and above all its editing. (Despite the on-screen credits, it is generally known that George Miller edited the film himself – in his kitchen – to save on expenses.) The film’s cutting is kinetic, yet never in that boundlessly annoying, MTV-inspired way that dominates so many contemporary films (and which is clearly intended to appeal to morons with the attention span of a zucchini). It has a power that almost drags the viewer into the action. The result is a string of unforgettable set-pieces. The exhilarating opening scene chase/crash sequence lasts no less than eleven minutes, hurling the audience directly into this bewildering world of the near future. The film concludes with Max, now completely "mad", on his quest for revenge, a fifteen-minute adrenaline rush double-peaking with the gruesome (if discreetly rendered) deaths of Toecutter and Johnny the Boy. Between these bookends, which together comprise nearly a third of the movie, we have the attack on the young couple, terrifyingly conveyed in a series of rapid-fire shots; Jim Goose’s fiery end; and above all, the triple-climactic encounter between Jessie and the gang. This horrifying chain of events is a triumph of tension-building. Even when the viewer knows how it is going to end, each separate episode retains its ability to disturb. This may well be due to the fact that a different set of fears is played upon in each encounter. Jessie’s first run-ins with Toecutter and his followers are "real world" situations. The first in particular could happen to anyone. When Jessie escapes through a combination of quick thinking and quick action, we are pleased and relieved, but we know that it’s not going to end that easily. The second confrontation, when Jessie is stalked through the woods, conjures up all kinds of primal fears, and culminates in the terrible realisation that the gang has Max and Jessie’s baby. This situation, too, is dealt with, but fate intervenes, stranding Jessie and her son in the middle of the highway, unprotected. Jessie’s desperate, hopeless dash down the road is the stuff of nightmares, as the gang pursues her relentlessly – and catches her….

With scenes such as these, it is not surprising that Mad Max has earned a reputation as a film of extreme violence; but in fact (possibly due to budget problems), all of the film’s most harrowing moments occur offscreen. While car crashes, explosions and fatalities abound, the most viscerally disturbing aspects of the story – the assault on the young couple, Goose’s fatal injuries, the killing of Jessie and Sprog – are only implied. It is due to some very skillful editing that the shocked audience comes away feeling that it has seen much more than it actually has. The editing is also responsible for Mad Max’s most interesting recurrent motif, a slam-cut close-up of the eyes of the soon-to-be victims of vehicular mayhem. Such an image precedes pursuit team officer Charlie’s trip through a caravan, Nightrider’s crash-and-burn, Toecutter’s encounter with an eighteen-wheeler and, most memorably of all, the end of Jessie’s flight from the gang. At the film’s conclusion, after the explosive disposal of Johnny the Boy, we are given one more close-up of eyes, those of Max himself. By this time the audience is well aware of the implication: Max is as much a dead man as those he has left in his bloody wake.

Although Mad Max is generally classified as a "post-apocalypse" movie, this is not, of course, strictly accurate. Similarly, the film is only nominally science fiction, being set in the future, "a few years from now". Unlike most of the films that followed and/or copied it, there is no defining "event" in Mad Max, no devastating war, no nuclear holocaust, no concrete reason for the world being the way it is. Nothing has actually happened in Mad Max; civilisation is just going to hell all on its own. Most of what we see in the film is familiar. There are families, and houses, and opportunities for "time off" and holidays. There are nightclubs and restaurants. And there is an operational legal system and a police force – sort of. The ridiculously wide gulf that yawns between the functioning of these two supposed pillars of "decent" society give the clearest indication of the pace at which the world depicted has crumbled. High-speed chases causing massive destruction, shotgun blasts and the forcing of fatal accidents are all apparently legal activities, yet on the rare event that a criminal is apprehended rather than killed outright, he is subject to laws that, in this society, can only be regarded as embarrassingly anachronistic; for Johnny the Boy (body-swathing chains and all) still has rights. (When Johnny is released on legal technicalities, Jim Goose goes into an appropriately Dirty Harry-esque fury. That Mad Max is light years away from that particular brand of wish-fulfillment fantasy is illustrated when, in the inevitable showdown, it is the criminals who win – the Goose being cooked, as it were.) If the police in Mad Max are marginally less frightening than the criminals, it is only because their activities are less randomly executed – although God help any innocent bystander who happens to get in their way. The film’s breathtakingly rendered opening sequence serves to introduce us to the forces of – ahem – law and order. One of the pursuit men, Roop, is first seen spying on a couple having sex through the telescopic sight of his rifle. When the chase begins, he howls with glee at the thought of blowing away a "scag" and his "floozie"; and despite two crashes, he refuses to give up the chase until his car has plunged through a caravan – totalling both it and his partner. (After expressing his disgust at being "out of the game", Roop adds unconcernedly, "Better send a meat-truck – Charlie’s copped a saucepan in the throat.") We then get a good look at Jim Goose, introduced enthusiastically describing another devastating accident ("….he was just sitting there, trying to scream with his face ripped off!"), and soon seen reacting to his own crash and consequent broken leg with laughter and wisecracks. And then, of course, there’s Max. Max the heroic one. Max the sane one. Yeah…. One of the more interesting things about Mad Max is the post-release propagation of the line, "They say people don’t believe in heroes any more. Well, we’re gunna give ‘em back their heroes!" – as if that was what this film was actually about! It seems to have been lost in the shuffle that the film goes out of his way, both visually and verbally, to debunk the notion that in this world, there could be any such a thing as a hero. Max himself responds to his superior’s rallying cry with a weary, "Do you really expect me to go for that crap?" In the end, he does, of course, put his uniform back on, just as Fifi wanted; but there is nothing "heroic" about his subsequent actions. Ultimately, Mad Max suggests that the only thing separating the cops from the criminals is their self-awareness. The criminals are honestly psychotic; the police force, in contrast, is populated by those who still need an excuse to commit their acts of violence.

Mad Max is frequently described as "testosterone-charged" and so it is, in more ways than one. In the society of the future depicted here, women are almost invisible. We have brief, unflattering glimpses of a nightclub singer, a nurse, and the mother whose neglected toddler wanders into the road during the opening chase. Of the female characters given anything resembling significant screentime, only May Swaisey is left standing at the end. Nightrider’s "floozie" is incinerated with him; the female half of the young couple terrorised by the gang is assaulted into catatonia; while domestic goddess Jessie is doomed from the moment she leaves the refuge of her home. It is difficult to know what significance to place on all of this. The aberration of Picnic At Hanging Rock aside (and even that deals with the female sex more as "symbols" than as people), the marginalisation of women in Australian films is a very old, if not exactly proud, tradition. Initially, it seems as if George Miller is simply serving up more of the same – except that there is clearly something else going on here, namely, the ambiguous sexuality of so many of the male characters. While a male-dominated film scenario does not, of course, necessarily imply homoerotic overtones, in Mad Max they are unmistakable. The tone is set by the distinctly fey performances of Hugh Keays-Byrne as Toecutter and Geoff Parry as Bubba. The activities of the gang, too, lend themselves to conflicting readings. Consider the attack on the young couple: it is generally inferred that either he is beaten and she is raped, or that that they are both raped, but in fact when the victims are discovered it is only he who is missing his pants. After Nightrider’s girl is killed, the only "woman" we see with the gang is the mannequin captured and unwisely carried into their midst by Johnny the Boy. Toecutter is quick to dispose of this intruder, shooting it in the head – an act he follows by forcing the barrel of his gun into Johnny’s mouth. On the other side of the legal fence, the senior officers of the MFP dress in totally fetishistic, skin-tight black leather. And what, precisely, are we to make of a senior policeman whose preferred wardrobe is black leather pants and a neck scarf with no shirt, whose main occupation is fussing with his pot-plants, and who goes by the name (nickname?) of "Fifi"? Indeed, what are we to make of any of this? Miller may be implying that it is tendencies such as these that have contributed to the downfall of society; or conversely, that they are merely one of its outcomes. Or then again, it is entirely possible that he is simply messing with the audience’s mind….

Mad Max achieved the tricky feat of being successful in countries other than Australia (the appalling re-dubbing of the film in the US notwithstanding), while nevertheless retaining its ability to speak directly to the Australian psyche. The film is, of course, a hymn, a love-poem, dedicated to the car – something which carries a significance that might be lost on overseas audiences. One of the things that does so much to define the Australian character is (to steal a lyric from Neil Finn) the tyranny of distance. People living in other countries often have difficulty comprehending the sheer vastness and above all the emptiness of much of Australia. Travelling away from the main population areas is not just a matter of moving from small town to small town: often, there is literally nothing out there for hundreds and hundreds of kilometres. (Every year we get stranded tourists needing to be rescued off the Nullabor, having tried to just "pop across" to Perth from Sydney. Heh.) This makes Australians, more than most people, slaves to their motor vehicles. We love them, but they own us. It is therefore not surprising that the car and the motorbike form some of the most dominant and recurrent images of the Australian cinema; and particularly so in the films of the seventies – everything from Peter Weir’s experimental The Cars That Ate Paris, to the biker classic Stone, to Mad Max itself, of course. Most frequently, the machines are photographed so as to emphasise the visual contrast between them and the absolute starkness of the natural environment. (This impulse still lingers, as evidenced by the numerous overhead shots of the titular bus in Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert.) This worship of the motor vehicle, double-edged as it always was, takes on a particularly interesting form in Mad Max, where along with its other, ever more necessary functions, the car has become the weapon of choice. (Significantly, when Max goes from being "family man Max" to "vengeful killer Max", he trades in his daggy little van for a roaring beast of a suped-up V8. If this were a conventional action movie, we'd probably see him tossing away his standard issue handgun, and picking up a magnum.) Although both cops and criminals carry guns, they rarely use them; manhood is not defined by what you have in your holster, but by what you have under the hood; by how fast you can drive; by how you hold your nerve on the road. The use of a gun, in contrast, seems to be regarded as cheating; cowardly. Pursuit officer Roop does try to use one in the opening scene, but he’s pretty inept. Toecutter shoots Johnny's mannequin, but never a person. May Swaisey holds Toecutter's gang at bay with a shotgun, but then, she's a woman - and old. When she fires at the gang out on the highway, she misses. The weapons do not truly come into play until the climactic scenes, when Toecutter and Bubba are brought to the full realisation of how dangerous "mad Max" really is. Even then, they do not kill him with a gun, merely incapacitate him. Max himself, though he carries a gun, doesn’t resort to its use until after he’s been shot himself and run over. At the end, when he corners Johnny the Boy, he uses the weapon to keep his target still, but fittingly resorts to a final act of vehicular violence in order to dispose of him. Some reviewers have scoffed at this dismissal of firearms, but from a psychological standpoint, it’s not as unlikely at it might appear at first. We have no real gun culture in Australia, thankfully; certainly not in the way we have a car culture (this is a place where saying "Holden" or "Ford" at the wrong moment just might get you killed….). George Miller seems to be suggesting that in the future, things will be as they are now, only rather more exaggerated; the car will be even more so, the gun even less so; that here – along with, less face it, pretty much everything else that’s ever happened in Australia - we will travel down a slightly different evolutionary pathway from the rest of the world.

Although it was not his first film, Mad Max made a star out of Mel Gibson. What is surprising, watching the film again so many years after its release, it just how awkward Gibson's performance is - at least when he actually has to "act". (He's not helped by the dialogue he's given for the two occasions when he's called upon to emote.) For the most part, however, Gibson is asked only to be a presence, and that he does excellently well. Miller gives his star a genuine action movie hero build up, with ambiguous cutaway shots to him and his car throughout the opening chase. We see his relentless, murderous pursuit of Nightrider before we ever really see him; it is not until his quarry has gone up in flames that we get our first good look at him, clad in black leather from head to toe, whipping his sunglasses away from those incongruously baby blue eyes. Miller makes much of the contrast between Gibson's youthful appearance and his (deserved) reputation as an ice-cold "interceptor". If Max is not "mad" at the outset, he is perilously close to it, separated from his colleagues only by his tenuous grasp on reality. His plea to Macaffee - "Any longer out on that road and I'm one of them" - is tellingly ambiguous: is he talking about the criminals, or his fellow cops? Once Jessie and Sprog have been killed, the question is no longer relevant; his family, his career, even his sanity have been mercilessly stripped away from him; he has become what he most fears. Though Max obliterates his enemies, the film's final scenes - again in contrast with most other action movies - suggest not triumph, but utter desolation. The final lesson of Mad Max is that Mel Gibson does "crazy" very well indeed. As we take one more look into his eyes as he drives off down that endless road, it is remarkably easy to see Martin Riggs standing off in the distance.

This is not, as I said before, an actor's film; far from it. Most of the characters are really no more than ciphers. Joanne Samuel does what she can with the stereotypical role of Jessie, but really, she's there to be "wife" and "mother", not a person. The domestic scenes are necessary, but they all feel forced; you get the distinct feeling that George Miller's heart wasn't in them they way it was in his action scenes. The performances of Hugh Keayes-Byrne and Tim Burns on the side of the criminals, and Steve Bisley on the side of the cops, are flamboyant enough to be memorable; and amongst the rest of the cast, it's good to see stalwarts of Australian film and television like Roger Ward, Sheila Florance, Vincent Gil and Max Fairchild popping up throughout the movie. The script of Mad Max is terribly uneven, most of the dialogue wavering between stilted and overly fruity, with occasional flashes of wit in between. Touches such as having nearly all of Nightrider's dialogue consisting of lines from songs by AC/DC help as well.

But really, no-one's watching Mad Max for its prose, are they? The film was a huge success in Australia (outgrossing Star Wars on its initial release) and did well overseas, although it was not until after the release of the first sequel, Mad Max 2, that the film really came into its own in foreign markets. For many years, Mad Max held the record for the highest outlay-to-profit ratio, something that was clearly not lost upon the people responsible for the seemingly endless stream of clones that have been produced over the past two decades. Mad Max probably comes a very close second to Halloween in terms of the sheer number of rip-offs it has inspired (add in those films more directly inspired by the sequel, and it's no contest), and for the same reason. Let's face it: copy Jaws or Alien, you need a monster; copy The Exorcist, you need special effects. But post-apocalypse films, like slashers, are both formulaic and incredibly cheap to make. All you need is a stretch of open land (not too far from town), a few beat-up and/or redecorated cars, some picturesque costumes and a willing team of stunt drivers. Add an opening crawl to explain that the year is such-and-such, that a terrible "event" happened a while back, and that mankind faces a critical shortage of food/water/petrol/Tim-Tams, and hey, presto! - one post-apocalyptic dystopia! Given all this, it is remarkable how many Max clones fail utterly. Granted, most of them make the mistake of stepping away from their model, and trying to mean something. But the real failure usually comes in the staging of the action scenes. Somehow, film-makers have found it difficult to duplicate the rawness, the energy, the quality of utter relentlessness that powers the chase sequences in Mad Max. Like the other films I'm examining, Max didn't necessarily do it first, it just did it best; capturing and utilising that cinematic magic that somehow separates one film from its competitors, and leaves its imitators sprawling in its wake.

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