What's Max so mad about? It couldn't be the $100,000,000 this 1979, independent Australian action film earned worldwide or the Australian Film Festival Awards it garnered. It couldn't be the two successful sequels it spawned, "The Road Warrior" and "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome." Maybe it was the measly $15,000 Mel Gibson got for starring in this breakout picture.
In any case, "Mad Max" comes down to us today as one of the most original and visionary post-apocalyptic adventures ever made. MGM studios see to it that we understand the film's significance with a bonus-laden Special Edition DVD.
The setting is Australia's wide-open spaces "a few years from now," as the preface tells us. Some kind of nuclear holocaust or natural disaster has devastated the land, the populace live in small isolated enclaves, the Halls of Justice lie in ruins, and the police are fighting among themselves. The country's primary diversion appears to its fascination with cars and speeding, and law enforcement (called the Main Force Patrol or MFP, which looks suspiciously like an acronym for something else) is chiefly concerned with pursuing highway hooligans.
Max Rockatansky (a very youthful Mel Gibson) is the Force's top pursuit man, who takes care of the psychotics and nut cases the rest of the cops can't handle. Of course, he has the hottest, fastest car in the business. The trouble is, as Max puts, the police are as dangerous in their own way as the maniacs they're pursuing. Max's "Interceptor" is like a court of no return, a final judgment seat for evildoers. He reduces even the most dastardly villains to tears, but he's getting tired of it. He figures it's just a matter of madmen chasing madmen.
The plot, what little there is of it, begins when Max takes care of a miscreant called the "Night Rider," sending him to an early grave. The "Rider's" friends, a scummy motorcycle pack led by yet another lowlife, "Toecutter" (Hugh Keays-Byrne in a fascinatingly creepy role), vow revenge on Max and his partner, Jim Goose (Steve Bisley). When the rabble get out of hand with their smashing, raping, and killing, Max goes truly mad, taking the law into his own hands, leading to a chilling and highly stirring finale.
Max, in the person of Gibson, is something of an enigma. On the surface he appears to be the wide-eyed boy-next-door, an innocent set adrift in a world of lunatics. He is wildly in love with his wife, Jessie (Joanne Samuel), and their child. He lives in a comfortable and attractively decorated house that seems totally out of keeping with the rest of his surroundings. He's bright and charming, yet we can see there's a beast deep down inside him, one that takes a while to surface but once does carries him not only through the conclusion of this film but two more besides. Like Marshall Kane in "High Noon," he's a man who's been pushed too hard and can't back down. The plot becomes a routine revenge tale, but it's effective, nonetheless.
It's hard to say what's happened to the society in this film (the script doesn't bother to clarify it), but clearly the people have been traumatized by some great calamity. It's assumed in the sequels that it was a devastating war that reduced the civilization to something near the Stone Age, but it was "Mad Max" that set the tone for every post-apocalyptic picture that followed it, right down to the dark, ratty clothing and unkempt appearance of the villains that now seem requisite in this sort of picture. We even see these visuals showing up in films like John Carpenter's recent "Ghosts of Mars," an outer-space vision of the "Mad Max" landscape.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of "Mad Max," however, is how derivative it is yet how truly fresh it is, too. Writer/director George Miller borrows some of the hellions from "The Wild One," the car chase from "Bullitt," the lone avenger theme from "Dirty Harry," the degenerate youth gangs from "A Clockwork Orange," and a big helping of old-fashioned melodramatic music to underline every action with a swelling crescendo; and then he manages to combine everything into a one-of-a-kind original.
Sure, it's all about cars going fast, but the energy quotient is so high, the action so nonstop, the stunts so well executed, the anarchy so expansive, and the antiheroes so heroic, it's hard not to be impressed.
MGM's picture and sound quality are only so-so, but at least the studio provides the choice of both widescreen and standard screen formats on the same side of the disc, thus allowing us to see for ourselves, quickly and easily, just how much we're missing in the pan-and-scan version. It's a good fifty percent of the screen image that's butchered for the sake of "filling one's screen," but if that's what you want, you're able to get it. The widescreen ratio is approximately 2.13:1, with colors that are reasonably natural but not entirely well delineated. They are somewhat faded, soft, fuzzy, slightly smeared, yet have the distinction of coming through cleanly, with little or no grain, moiré effects, or other digital artifacts.
The sound is available in its original mono or in a new Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track. The Surround is still rather limited in width and depth, with little directionality from the rear speakers. Fortunately, there is little need for too much surround information except during the high-speed car chases, and then it's probably fine that big splashes of sound come from the back of the room.
Special bonus features spill over onto the back side of the disc, which is always a good sign for the viewer. On side one there's an audio commentary with Production Designer Jon Dowding, Cinematographer David Eggby, Special Effects Designer Chris Murray, and film historian and self-pronounced "Mad Max" expert, Tim Ridge. Plus, there's a "Mad Facts" trivia track that's fun; switch it on and from time to time miscellaneous information about the movie pops up as text at the bottom of the screen. Next, there is a choice of the original Australian English soundtrack or an abysmal American English dubbing that should not be considered under any circumstances. Finally, there are thirty-two scene selections and the options of English, French, or Spanish subtitles. On the flip side, we have two documentaries, the first called "Mel Gibson: The Birth of a Superstar," sixteen minutes long, and a second titled "Mad Max: The Film Phenomenon," twenty-five minutes long. Of the two, the second is the more enlightening. In addition, there's a colorful international poster gallery, a well-worn theatrical trailer, and four TV spots.
Some movies hold up better over time than others. For me, "Mad Max" holds up pretty well. Better, in fact, in its minimalism than its more-elaborate follow-up, "The Road Warrior," and far better than its third, over-the-top sequel, "Beyond Thunderdome." "Mad Max" may seem simplistic, sometimes crude, but it's got a provocative main character, a stimulating pace, and thrills galore. Given its relatively modest budget and bare-bones story line, the movie manages to push the entertainment factor to the max. It's rated R for violence and brief nudity.