Sunday, February 27, 2022

Mad Max: A Movie That Runs on Adrenaline

(KL Studio Classics, Australia, 1979, 93 minutes)

Made by an inexperienced Australian filmmaker who had recently left behind a career as a trauma room physician, George Miller's debut, Mad Max, became an action-movie legend that launched a multi-film franchise and forged a superstar out of then-unknown drama student Mel Gibson. 

In 1979, even cinematographer Greg Eggby (Warlock, Quigley Down Under) was new to the film business, though you’d never know it from adept camera work rooted in low-to-the-ground shots that put viewers in the driver's seat--or in the path of oncoming traffic. With a shoestring budget, a tight script, and bottomless reserves of resourcefulness, their thoroughly Australian artifact thrilled audiences around the world with minimal dialogue and maximum mayhem, though the original release, unlike Kino Lorber's edition, was unnecessarily dubbed by AIP for American audiences. 

As a filmmaker, Miller keeps cliché at bay through his attention to detail even as he hews to revenge-thriller archetype: highway patrolman Max Rockatansky starts with everything and ends with nothing. In a classic Hollywood move, the director introduces him four minutes into the picture by focusing exclusively on his reflective sunglasses and black biker boots. 

Gibson's famous blue-eyed visage doesn't materialize for nearly 20 minutes, by which point Max's colleagues have enlisted him to track down Nightrider (Vince Gil), a cackling cop killer joyriding with his girlfriend. The high-speed chase ends in fiery death for the both of them, leading his gang, led by Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne, Fury Road's Immortan Joe), to plot revenge. 

After they set a trap for Max's friend, Goose (Gibson's drama school pal, Steve Bisley), that results in a gory outcome, Max decides he's had enough, but instead of quitting the force, he goes on vacation to clear his head before making a final decision. He and Jessie (Joanne Samuel) load up the car with toddler Sprog and hit the beach, picking up a canine companion on the way. 

The gang looms closely behind, and when Max's car experiences engine trouble, they close in like outlaws in an old Western. No shrinking violet, Joanne is a fighter who gives Toecutter a swift kick in the biscuits before speeding away, but the gang eventually dispatches dog, wife, and child, leading Max to pick each one of them off before riding off into a mythical future in which he'll become The Road Warrior. 

If Miller would play up the post-apocalyptic qualities of his environs in subsequent installments, the look of the first film owes largely to budgetary considerations, since he could turn oil cloth costumes and ramshackle locations into strengths rather than liabilities. The abundant extras include archival featurettes, commentary from Eggby and art director Jon Dowding, and an interview with the ever-expansive Miller (now working on sequel #4). 

Decades after the fact, Mad Max remains a kinetic experience spiked with humor, romance, and real-world stunts that offer the kind of visceral excitement computers can't quite replicate. To quote an original tagline, it's a "movie that runs on adrenaline, high octane, and raw nerves!" Highly recommended. 

Images from Deep Focus ReviewTrailers from HellDaily Motion, and Amazon. Mad Max is available on Blu-ray and 4K UHD through Kino Lorber.

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