You gotta love a low-budget film that embraces its inner cheesiness. Working with an estimated pittance of just $300, 000, George Miller--who also would go on to direct the more appropriately funded "Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior" and "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome" (in addition to the much later and cheerier "Happy Feet")--created a film that revels in its small-picture shortcomings.
If it were a studio action film, "Mad Max" would merit no higher than a 6 out of 10. The story is wasteland-thin, the cinematography bears witness to the skimpy budget, and the acting gets high curds for cheesiness. One suspects that Miller told his motorcycle thugs that if they whoop and howl and scream with manic intensity in every scene no matter what the scene calls for, he can mask some of the low-budget trappings--the minimalist sets that go well beyond anything post-apocalyptic, the long shots that occasionally look like hand-held video captured by a car that slowed to witness the filming, or the inescapable homemade feel that, with a little salesmanship, turns into something more positively raw.
Then there's the concept itself, which borrows heavily from the traditional Western in order to make an Australian "Eastern" that plays out the same way: In a bleak and expansive nowhere, law and order takes a back seat to a bunch of bad guys who terrorize citizens in towns and on the road. Neo-futuristic lawmen try to keep order, but the gang members clearly have zero respect for them or the society that they represent. But there's one young--make that VERY young--cop who has the same sort of strong-but-silent code as the Western hero and the same determination to get the bad guys for the good of a society in which he's never truly comfortable. That's "Mad" Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson, looking straight out of high school). This is Gibson before he went mad himself, playing a role that starts out as Western hero and then very quickly sees him go Bronson on the bad guys whose behavior brought out the "Death Wish" in him.
It's a slow-simmering vengeance tale from the start, because Max has a hand in the opening-sequence death of a wacko gang leader known as Nightrider (Vincent "AHHHHHHhaaahaaaahaaa" Gill). And nobody knocks off the leader of this gang and gets away with it--even in a B movie--which means that the most hazardous occupation in this film is that of the hero's partner, Goose (Steve Bisley). The next characters at risk are Max's wife (Joanne Samuel) and child.
So what makes "Mad Max" rise above ever-so-slightly above its B-roots? For me it's two things: the unrelenting pace that matches the madness of the gang, Benzedrine for Benzedrine, and the high quality of stunts. I don't know how much they paid the stunt men, but it wasn't enough. "Mad Max" is a gritty film that trades on extreme close-ups and adrenalin shots but none of it would make a sale with audiences without the extremely realistic car and motorcycle crashes and explosions.
Fans of Mel Gibson (are there any left, after his anti-Semitic tirades?) will appreciate "Mad Max" because it's the film that first featured him in the lead. Compared to the loose cannon he later becomes in the "Lethal Weapon" series, this is more like Gibson's version of the restrained (except where it counts) Dirty Harry Callahan. It was enough to make this film a cult classic, and it led to even better-known, better-conceived, and better-scripted Mad Max films to follow.
No B-movie is going to look stupendous in 1080p, but the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50GB disc makes "Mad Max" look better than you'd have thought it could. Yes, given the source materials, there's a noticeable layer of grain throughout, but it's almost as minimalist as the sets. Colors are good, given the wasteland palette, and black levels are strong, given the soft focus of the original film. In fact, on Blu-ray many scenes that previously looked a little soft have more sharpness and edge detail, and those extreme close-ups look awfully good, with realistic skin texture and tones.
Purists are going to want to by-pass the English DTS-HD MA 5.1 and head straight for the original English Dolby Mono 2.0 to get the true "raw" experience. Not that the featured soundtrack is a blight, mind you, because the DTS-HD MA does spread the sound nicely across the sound field and makes fine and believable use of the rear effects speakers. But there's something about watching a B-movie with a B-soundtrack that just makes it seem like the planets are in alignment. That option is also available in Spanish, along with a French Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo and subtitles in English SDH and Spanish.
The big bonus feature is the film on DVD. But aside from a 25-minute making-of feature that explores not just the pre-production and production aspects but also the film's remarkable reception, there's only a commentary track and a couple of trailers. That's it. And the commentary track doesn't even feature Gibson, who may have gone into hiding after his last brush with the law. Instead we get film historian Tim Ridge pulling most of the weight, along with art director Jon Dowding, special effects supervisor Chris Murray, and cinematographer David Eggby. The last two have the most interesting things to say.
"Mad Max" lay the groundwork for two superior Max films to follow, and it shot Mel Gibson's career right out of a cannon. Despite its budget and other shortcomings, "Mad Max" is still worth watching and worth adding to the post-apocalyptic section of your home video collection.