Monday, June 10, 2024

Mad Max (1979): Revisiting the Mad Max Franchise

Welcome to a special four-episode look at one of my favorite film series!  You know it, you love it, it's Mad fucking Max.

Mad Max.  Few film titles convey such a fountain of information and connotation as those six letters.  When George Miller conceived the title for his first feature film (Jesus, what a debut...), he tried to think of a name that would be simple, easy to remember, alliterative, and most of all evocative.  The fact that only the third letter of each word was different was a plus, and even more compelling was that the title ended in an X.  Is there a phonetically more jarring letter in the English language?  Couple that with the absolutely iconic chrome/lightning bolt/grill graphic design in the opening titles, and immediately the viewer is keenly aware this film will not be for the squeamish.  Things are about to get intense up in this bitch.

Produced on a scant $400,000 budget by the barely experienced Miller and Byron Kennedy, Mad Max was a veritable powderkeg of an action movie, shot guerrilla-style while capturing the look of a big-budget film.  Proper safety precautions weren't even considered; the cinematographer was often seated in a chair mounted to the front of a vehicle, or strapped to the back of a motorcycle to achieve the immersive, frenetically-paced action shots.  It's a near-miracle no one was seriously injured during the making of this teleplay.  The cinemascope aspect ratio allowed for the car chase shots to feel even faster than they were; with the sky and distant background cropped out of the frame all you're left with is the road and the vehicles, hurtling toward camera.  
By now you should be familiar with the story.  Ace cop Max Rockatansky leads a beleaguered police force against rising gang violence, becomes the primary target of a band of savage outlaws, loses his family, and becomes a sadistic monster himself.  Mad Max hammers home the theme of good and evil being delicate-at-best states of mind.  Evil people don't think they're evil, good people are often just one tragedy away from crossing the line.  Part of the genius of Miller's filmmaking and the script co-written by James McCausland is how much it suggests thematically with so little dialogue.  While developing the story Miller aimed to create almost a silent film with sound, where the images and action would tell the viewer all they needed to know about what was happening.  

The opening sequence is a masterclass in economy of storytelling.  The first shot of the delapidated police headquarters immediately tells us the system is breaking down; the Halls of Justice sign out front is falling apart and the building looks to be in disrepair.  The shot of the road sign with the phrase "57 fatalities" shows us the roads have become unsafe, either from failing infrastructure or vehicular violence.  The police radio scanner gives us all the background information we need.  The cops are in the midst of a pursuit; a criminal has escaped custody and stolen a V8 special.  And there's the setup for the first ten minutes.  We're introduced to Roop and Charlie, two rather bumbling officers who are totally outmatched by the flamboyant outlaw The Nightrider.  During their brief pursuit the pair crashes (spectacularly) not once, not twice, but thrice, and their colleagues in the March Hare car meet an even worse fate, flipping over and meeting certain doom.  Charismatic, adventurous motorcycle cop Jim Goose attempts to help but also crashes, suffering a leg injury.

Enter Max.  Initially shown only in brief glimpses and closeups, Max is taciturn and no-nonsense, a futuristic Clint Eastwood.  He's given only six words of dialogue in this entire sequence ("Go ahead," "You okay?" "Much damage?"), before joining the pursuit and expertly bringing down the perp, chasing him into a gasoline drum and an explosive death.

Just from that one scene we're given a dystopian setting, an overburdened police force, a rash of road violence, and an unflappable star officer who serves as the film's protagonist.  We soon learn that Max is also a family man who lives in an idyllic beach house, and that he's grown tired of chasing down road crazies and has to be lured back with a sparkling new V8 special.  Not only that, but his exploits in the first scene have consequences - The Nightrider's gang vows revenge against the officer who took down their comrade, and all hell breaks loose.  

In terms of casting, the bikers all deliver natural, authentic performances, capturing the fearsome, dangerous presence of unpredictable gang members but also each carving out space for their characters, no matter how minor.  From the comedic antics of Mudguts and Cundalini to Bubba Zinetti's icy detachment, to Johnny the Boy's youthful overexuberance and hesitancy, the lieutenants of the gang are colorful villains, all relatable in some strange way.  But the film's casting coup, even ahead of Mel Gibson's prodigiously effective, starmaking performance, just might be Hugh Keays-Byrne as the frighteningly imposing Toecutter.  Byrne, a classically trained Shakespearean actor, doesn't so much portray the Toecutter as embody him, an oddly philosophical, hulking cult leader with a piercing stare and a shock of unkempt, flexuous hair.  Couple that with his fur-adorned motorcycle jacket, and the Toecutter takes on the primal demeanor of an wrathful grizzly bear, capable of bringing sudden destruction on anyone he wants.  Keays-Byrne would return to the franchise 36 years later as Immortan Joe in Fury Road, but the Toecutter is his career performance - startlingly imposing and possessing of a controlled insanity that gives him both a regal aura and a legitimate sense of menace.  Toecutter is one of the great movie villains.

Even aside from the bikers, the film is populated with memorable supporting characters, both a testament to the actors' performances but also to Miller and McCausland's ability to insert into this universe an incredible level of detail.  Consider for example the train station attendant (Reg Evans), a thankless, minor role, but one given a noteworthy moment as the gang intimidates him and Toecutter impresses upon him to remember the Nightrider with reverence.  This scene isn't important to the plot, but it adds a layer of character development a lesser film wouldn't have taken the time to explore.  It's little touches like this that make Miller's universe so immersive and fascinating.  Every character with a line of dialogue (and even some without) makes their mark, using limited screen time to find their moment.

There are really two main protagonists in Mad Max; the first half of the movie belongs to Jim Goose, Max's fast-talking, girl-charming partner (played effortlessly by Steve Bisley).  After unsuccessfully arresting Johnny the Boy due to a lack of prosecution witnesses, Goose shows his volatile side, attacking Johnny and vowing to bring him down.  But the biker gang takes swift revenge on Goose, first tampering with his motorcycle and causing a brutal crash, and then smashing the windshield of the truck he's driving and setting it on fire with him still inside.  From there the story centers on Max, shown in stark contrast to Goose as introverted, coolheaded, and now overwhelmed by his job after the loss of his partner.  Max takes an indefinite hiatus from the force and brings his family to a beachside farmhouse, but the gang follows him, continuing to terrorize the Rockatanskys until finally murdering his wife and son.  Thus is the catalyst for his becoming Mad Max.

The film's third act is a vengeance-fueled rampage, as Max brings sudden vigilante justice down on the entire biker gang, brutally knocking the bulk of them off a bridge, shooting Bubba Zinetti to death (after taking a crippling bullet to the knee himself), and running Toecutter into an oncoming truck, in the film's most graphic scene.

But the final sequence is the one that truly conveys Max's descent into the very thing he feared becoming.  After days patrolling the roads for Johnny the Boy, he finds the final gang member pillaging a dead truck driver and decides to handcuff Johnny to the overturned truck, rigging a bomb to explode in five minutes and giving Johnny the choice of dying or hacking off his own foot to escape.  It's in this moment that Max has gone feral; so consumed by revenge that he takes pleasure in torturing the one gang member who showed any sort of remorse.  This is the film's bleakest scene; our protagonist is now a broken, sadistic shell of a man who has lost everything he cared about, including his own sense of morality.  What a way to end an action film!

Considering what a flawless setup the first film is for what the general public came to think of as the world of Mad Max (desert wastelands, mohawks, shoulderpads, DIY vehicles, etc.), it's rather staggering that this was originally intended as a one-and-done movie.  Miller and his collaborators simply wanted to make a film about a good man who loses his soul, amid a bevy of spectacular car stunts and colorful characters; they didn't intend for it to become an iconic franchise.  I'd imagine a mainstream film with such a down ending released today would be a bit of a hard sell, but in 1979 it was a smash, grossing over $100 million worldwide on a $400,000 budget and setting the record for most profitable independent film (The Blair Witch Project eventually dethroned it two decades later).  Mad Max was a sensation and not only made Mel Gibson a movie star but gave Miller and his team a career and the chance to revisit the wholly original universe they'd created, this time on a much larger budget....

Mad Max is one of the most groundbreaking action films of all time, made with fearless abandon by a maverick director and his ragtag team of visionaries.  Despite its narrative simplicity and breakneck pacing, it endlessly rewards repeat viewings with subtext, little character flourishes, and visual bombast.  Miller took the car stunt picture and pumped it full of high-octane performance juice, redefining the post-apocalyptic action film the same way George Romero had created the modern zombie film a decade earlier.  And like Romero he'd find his masterpiece in the series' second installment.

I give Mad Max **** out of ****.

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