Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Mad Max

Crude, simple, and melodramatic, Mad Max (1979) remains a raw, powerful, and kinetic debut for post-apocalyptic cinema's most enduring character. Directed by George Miller and starring Mel Gibson in the title role, Mad Max is a startlingly effective low-budget debut for both star and director.

Some years into the future and society's in decline. Armed gangs prowl the highways, and the police prove wildly ineffective against them. Only Max Rockatansky (Gibson) has any success against them, demonstrated in the opening chase when he kills the notorious Nightrider after all others failed. But Max is weary of the violent lifestyle, afraid of what it's doing to him, and he wants to retire to a quiet life with his wife and infant son. A tragic encounter with members of the Nightrider's old gang, led by the deranged Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and the cold Bubba Zanetti (Geoff Parry), sends Max down a dark, violent path to revenge.

Like George Lucas, George Miller draws on several classic characters, archetypes, and genres to craft his story. The desolate towns and lonely stretches of highway populated by assorted law enforcement and criminal types are not too far removed from the classic westerns, and the near future setting allows them to conduct their chases on motorcycles and high-powered interceptor cars instead of horses. Max himself is the noble lawman, trying to keep order in a world quickly slipping into chaos, and when the violence hits him close, the movie becomes a vigilante picture.

Miller also includes some humor, mostly of the gallows variety. When Max's wife Jessie (Joanne Samuel) is pursued by the Toecutter's gang, she drives off and in the process tears off a man's hand with the car; when the gang confronts her later, the Toecutter points out the shorthanded member and says, "Cundalini wants his hand back." These gang members are a wild and unpredictable, making you laugh at their odd, kooky behavior one minute and then shocking you with their cruelty the next.

The main draw of the film is its action scenes. Watching the movie, you get a sense of the speed and danger of the highway. Compared to most modern action movies and even its sequels, Mad Max is smaller scaled, but thankfully, Miller shoots the chases in a way that's easy to follow. Unlike the likes of Michael Bay, he doesn't try to hide the action beneath a flurry of quick cuts, jerky camera movements, or rapid-fire editing; Miller tracks the action and lets us see it clearly, one of the reasons the movie holds up so well. When a car smashes into something at high speed, we feel it, whether it's pulverizing steel or crushing flesh and bone.

Another reason the movie holds up so well is its human element. Sure, the lawman who wants to retire is an old trope, but the movie gives it great weight. The casting of Mel Gibson is central to Max's transformation. Gibson's reputation has slid in recent years because of personal demons, but here, he's believable as a loving every man devoted to his wife and child. Usually when you watch an action star with loved ones, like say a Schwarzenegger or a Stallone, they're so wound up and muscular, you're just waiting for them to start killing bad guys.

Gibson seems so normal, so down to earth and genuine that when he grabs his sawed-off shotgun and takes off after the outlaw gang, it's downright chilling. He becomes a shell of a man. Early on, his boss Fifi (Roger  Ward) tries to talk to him out of retirement, saying people don't believe in heroes anymore but the two of them will give them back their heroes. The tragedy of Max is not only that he loses everything but he loses his humanity and capability of being a hero.

This world Miller creates is cruel and merciless, and it plays no favorites. On the highway, everyone - cop, criminal, man, woman, child - is meat for the grinder, chewed up and spat out. The gangs are ruthless; they rape, pillage, and murder almost everyone they come across. The scary thing, as Max realizes, is survival means becoming just as brutal and desperate as the criminal scum he pursues. There's no room for heroes.

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