The first thing you notice about Mad Max is how much it hurts. The action is incredibly cool but also viscerally real. It’s like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Unforgiven jumped into Dr. Brundel's telepods and out came this mean mofo totally unlike anything else. For example in one scene Max runs a biker off the road. In an ordinary movie that wouldn't even be worth mention, bigger and better destruction up ahead. This however, is not a kind of film, this is Mad Max, a beast all of its own, it savors every single slow mo piece of destruction in a way that would make Sam Peckinpah blush. In this film the biker flies off the bike, sails through the air and hits the road, his body flailing like a rag doll as he skids for about fifty yards, finally just when you thinks its over the wayward cycle comes skidding up behind him smacking his head HARD a sickening crack fills the soundtrack and the biker is dead. All done in one unbroken slow mo take. THEN onto better destruction. Does enjoying this make me an arm chair sadist? I don't think so. The main joy of "motion" pictures after all is the motion, the utter joy of watching things move in a way they shouldn't be able to in real life. If we hold that to be true, I have to say that Mad Max puts bodies in motion better then any other movie ever made.
MGM has put together a nice package for this movie, an entertaining commentary, a nice trivia track, two better then average documentaries, and the usual trailers and TV spots. It’s nice to see a company actually respect such a cult classic (cough Harold and Maudecough), and I've got three words for them, The Road Warrior. It’s even better than this one and is the kind of movie that an incredibly cool package could be built around. Do it. Now.
The plot in itself is not that special. Max is a cop. Max kills member of bike gang. Bike gang messes up Max's life. Max ends bike gangs life. That's about it. Like I said the plot isn't that great, it’s the things that center around the plot that are awesome (action!).
Many people remark about how realistic the action looks. Well that's because it basically is real. What you see is truly what was done. Mad Max was made for a little under 100,000 dollars. They didn't have the money to add hover tanks and such nonsense to their chases. What they did do was buy junk cars, take other junk cars, buckle their safety belt and basically hit them at full speed. There really isn't alot of trick photography here. When in the opening scene you witness a van (the directors own) get reduced to the size of a beer can you're watching the real thing and that makes all the difference. The action outside of the car is great too. One iconic scene involving a shot gun agonizing inches away and two speeding motorcycles is just outside of classic. The opening scene is especially worth note, a car chase surpassed only by The Road Warrior, T2, and Matrix Reloaded, which features a fleet of police cars in pursuit of a very angry AC/DC fan.
I hear cynics moaning, and it’s true plenty of cool actioners have come and gone, but something about Mad Max is different, something beyond the most awesome destruction ever shown on screen. The story is what I believe keeps making people come back to it, the story and the truly unique world that George Miller makes utterly real. Most reviews say Mad Max is set in a post apocalyptic world. It’s not, it]s set in a world where the Apocalypse is still happening. We've seen post apocalyptic worlds, from Zion, to John Conner's Subway Tunnels, to the underground Beehives in 12 Monkeys. It has been covered. Mad Max however is something infinitely more frightening, a society that has just abruptly begun falling apart for no damn reason. The Road Warrior explains that the oil ran out. Here though it is just human nature that ended civilization. The hospitals are still working, the police force is still working, but they don't even have enough to maintain their own buildings. There are restaurants and bars, you can go to your friendly neighborhood mechanic but more likely then not you'll have to withstand a comment about how he "Hasn't seen a station wagon that he wasn't scraping off the pavement for a long time." You can go take your child to get ice cream, (but once you leave the shop you're fair game for the bikers). On the other side of the coin rapes and murders are utterly common place. When a bike gang does something so minor as to oh take over an entire town, the police cannot even be bothered. The highways have become so dangerous that whole sections of them are "forbidden zones" where the police have just given up. Signs posting the amount of fatalities for the year have replaced speed limits.
In the middle of this insane and dying world is Max, played by an amazingly young Mel Gibson, on whom the movie ultimately rests. If we buy him we buy the movie. I'm sorry if you could keep a straight face during the, "Arnold naked in the shower with some stranger's child so he can pretend to be a good dad", in Collateral Damage, you're a better man than I. When family ties are used cheaply to instantly change a character from psychopathic to nice guy with a kid, it can turn out horrid. Here though, it works quite nicely, Max is thoroughly human with his family. He and his wife aren't cloying, but they have real chemistry, they're comfortable with each other, and have their own private jokes and affections. Max is also comfortable with the kid, despite giving him the name Sprong, he's an attentive and loving father. You get the sense that in another world, Max wouldn't have been out of place in the suburbs.
But this is not another world. So when Max gets behind his Interceptor (Aka the coolest car in a movie ever) he becomes the baddest mofo in the world. This is no point of contention, It is simple fact. Indiana Jones would cower in fear, Shaft would duck and cover, The Man With No Name would suddenly turn into Don Knotts. Once Mad Max and his interceptor roar onto the scene you know two things: People are going to die and they are going to die messily. The fact that Mel Gibson sells both absolutely is something that should not be underestimated.
Everyone else does a good job too. The main Baddy, a biker called Toecutter, is an mad and intimidating villain, truly bizarre (though not on the level of the gloriously strange Lord Hummungus from The Road Warrior). Max's boss the oddly named Fifi, paints an intimidating and oddly sad portrait of a man who lived in our world and simply can not deal with this new one.
But aside from that great character work, a uniquely creative future world, and the greatest action this side of Raiders, what makes Mad Max special? Moral heft. I know that moral heft is an odd phrase to use when describing a film that takes great joy from graphic violence. So to explain why the spoiler warnings are now in full effect.
OK so you've gone and seen it. Mad Max asks the question: Can vigilantism be right? This on its own is alien since Hollywood usually considers it a virtue, no questions asked (Dirty Harry, Collateral Damage, Deathwish). Max is set up as a good guy. He's a cop and his methods are extreme, but he's considerably better then the others. What's more is he feels guilt about what he does, even though he does it to the lowest scum there is. He confides to his boss how frightened he's becoming, how he's scared he's enjoying the violence, and the only thing separating him from the "Terminal Crazies" is his badge. By the halfway point he's decided he doesn't want violence in his life anymore, and plans to quit the force. When the bikers attack, the movie doesn't shy away from what he lost. His wife is a fleshed out character and they love each other. However, it also doesn't shy away from what he lost when he gained his revenge either. By the end of the movie he's a soulless dead husk, a grieving monster who has no one left to take out his rage on. The scene that is often remembered and featured most prominently in the trailers, is a scene between Max and Fifi. Max is planning to leave the force and Fifi tries to convince him to stay saying "The world doesn't believe in heroes anymore? We're gonna give em back their heroes." However, by the end of the film the irony is plain to see, there is nothing heroic about Max's actions. They're cold, sadistic, acts of deserved vengeance. When he gets revenge on the final member of the gang, there is no orchestra swell in the background, only a broken man who has no place to go.