Director George Miller started something unstoppable when he unleashed Mad Max on audiences back in 1979. Everything from computer games, music videos – famously 2Pac’s California Love and Puretone’s Addicted To Bass – as well as filmmakers such as James Cameron and Guillermo del Toro who have been influenced by Miller’s post-apocalyptic anti-hero. From its gritty, grindhouse origins to the remake due in cinemas next year, Mad Max has become synonymous with the action genre and that’s before the small matter of Mel Gibson’s star-making performance is even touched on.
The Mad Max films came to represent the very best of Ozploitation – a trend of Australia films that looked to take advantage of the introduction of R rated films – and as such thrived on their violent execution. What makes them memorable is that same energy has survived over the years. There’s no flashy CGI trickery here, no Hollywood budget to make the car-mageddon slick. Miller made Max, like his titular character, raw, ferocious and endlessly entertaining. The impacts are real, the crashes often earth shattering and, by today’s standards, jaw-dropping. Yes, at times they have slightly dated. The sped-up editing to make the vehicles go faster draws a smile but they’re used sparingly. Max makes Fast & Furious look like a poodle grooming video by comparison.
There is an inherent Western influence in the Mad Max films, Miller clearly seeing his world as a future frontier in which bad guys rule and a good man is hard to keep down. In the first film, Max is a sheriff desperately trying to keep the peace, The Road Warrior re-imagines him as a gun for hire and by Thunderdome he’s even referred to as ‘The Man With No Name’. A firm nod from Miller to Max’s Clint Eastwood, Sergio Leone, Spaghetti Western influences.
Like Eastwood’s Man With No Name, Max is the very definition of anti-hero; the strong silent type who more often than not shies away from an issue only for his moral compass to guide him back. The character of Max, rather than the violence and carnage on screen, is what makes the films so memorable. But it’s also the characters that surround him. While Max might chose his words carefully his world is peppered with over-the-top caricatures just waiting to hiss and roar in his face. The Clock Work Orange gang of Mad Max, the feral kid of Road Warrior and of course Master-Blaster of Thunderdome are but a mere handful of a wonderfully vibrant collection of rogues Max has to deal with over the course of three films.
In casting a then fresh-faced Mel Gibson – who famously bagged the role having been asked to come back as one of the ‘freaks’ of the film due to a beaten-up face from a bar fight – Miller stumbled upon one of Hollywood’s biggest stars for years to come. Without Max there would be no Martin Riggs from Lethal Weapon. Gibson is pent-up rage personified in Max but never forces the issue. Instead hiding behind a blank expression, a dead-eyed glaze that is one minute hurt child, the next seething vengeance demon. In the first two films Gibson is bordering on monosyllabic, the kind of character who says more with a glance than a mouthful of words. Watching Ryan Gosling in his two films with Nicolas Winding Refn – Drive and Only God Forgives – it’s hard to imagine such memorable characters without casting a fond memory back to Max; the silent, angry man behind the wheel of a car, fists clenched waiting for the next fight to begin.
Sure, by Thunderdome the formula seems to have slightly lost its way but it’s still a fun little adventure movie. But the first two films are seminal, iconic in their execution. From Miller’s kinetic style to Brian May’s soaring, often bombarding score, the design of the films is always at the fore. Part punk, part fetish, all achingly memorable, it’s no wonder they have been so readily been paid homage and stolen from over the years. Crucially though, they’re unique. Kevin Costner’s box office bomb of a film, Waterworld is quite clearly a remake of Mad Max: The Road Warrior but comes nowhere close to capturing the scale and themes of its Miller’s original.
Available for the first time on Blu-ray, in a nifty petrol can package, Mad Max is a crucial part of any action junky’s collection. Buckle up, prepare for one of cinema’s most outrageous and enjoyable examples of vehicular destruction and go crazy for Mad Max.