MGM // 1979 // 93 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // October 18th, 2010
He rules the roads.
"Mad Max, as seen through the eyes of my teenage self, was much cooler than it is right now...I used to think it was awesome, but there is so much wrong with that movie, I don't even know where to start." -- Chief Justice Michael Stailey, posting on Facebook
A police Interceptor roars across two lanes of blacktop in a dusty wasteland. Behind the wheel of the muscle car is the Nightrider, a rogue cop killer who taunts the Main Force Patrol over the police band radio. The MFP's pursuit isn't going well as one cop car is demolished in a crash, and motorcycle officer Goose (Steve Bisley, The Chain Reaction) wrecks his bike. Meanwhile, MFP badass Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson, Lethal Weapon) waits patiently in his pursuit vehicle as the Nightrider approaches. When Max guns his engine and joins the chase, his crackerjack driving reduces the Nightrider to tears seconds before the trash-talking murderer's life ends in a ball of flame.
Angered by the Nightrider's death, a motorcycle gang led by the psychopathic Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne, Farscape) arrives in town, bent on revenge. A brutal roadside rape leads to the Goose's arrest of one of the gang, the ass-kissing coward Johnny the Boy (Tim Burns). The MFP is forced to release the kid when the terrified witnesses refuse to testify against him in court. When the gang targets the Goose for revenge, maiming him in a terrible road accident, Max quits the force and retires to a peaceful life in the countryside with his wife (Joanne Samuel, The Wiggles Movie) and toddler. But Toecutter and his gang target Max's family, leaving our hero with no option but to don his leathers, get behind the wheel of his car, and mercilessly kick asses.
While I can see where our esteemed Chief Justice was coming from in his Facebook rant, I thankfully don't agree (perhaps that means there's not all that much difference between my teenage and middle-age self). Mad Max is a product of its time and must be taken on its own terms, to be sure, but visiting it again for the first time in a long time, I was surprised at how well it holds up. Because Mel Gibson went on to Hollywood action hero superstardom and Mad Max spawned a sequel that is arguably one of the greatest action movies ever made, it's tempting to think of the movie as an action picture. It's not. Mad Max is the seminal Aussie exploitation flick -- gritty, low-rent, and designed to shock. It is a differently beast entirely from The Road Warrior. Set in a mysterious dystopian nightmare brought about by reasons unknown (though one gets the sense its world has suffered a slow decay rather than the trauma of an Armageddon, nuclear or otherwise), the movie is designed to feel uncomfortably like our own world, only without the systems of authority that civilize our more savage human instincts.
Like most Americans (of a certain age, anyway), I first encountered Mad Max on VHS in the early '80s, its sometimes hokey exploitation style intensified by a slapdash dub that replaced the actors' Australian accents (which the studio feared Americans wouldn't be able to understand) with poorly imaged American voices. At the time, I was shocked by the movie's relentless brutality -- it contains scene after scene of ghastly inhumanity, punctuated by some of the most death-defying automobile stunts ever committed to film (at least until The Road Warrior was released a couple years later). Its weird, post-apocalyptic vision delivered all manner of difficult to watch sequences involving rape, murder, maiming, and vicious road deaths, doled out with casual cruelty by its shaggy, wild-eyed villain, the Toecutter (his name derived from Australian slang for a thief who victimized other thieves because they have no recourse to the authorities). Perhaps Mad Max has lost some of its edge in this age of torture porn horror flicks and the cheeky, over-the-top excesses of the faux exploitation produced by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez; perhaps I found revisiting the flick riveting because my eyes were clouded by nostalgia. Even so, I still found Mad Max a brutal little piece of celluloid, admirable for its low-budget ingenuity and willingness to hold no narrative punches.
If the movie has a major structural flaw, it's the leisurely pace of a second act in which Max abandons the MFP for a quiet life in the countryside. The outright action of the first third of the film gives way to slow-building suspense and a pervasive sense of doom. But the change of pace shouldn't come as a surprise: Mad Max is an American Western transposed to a futuristic Aussie wasteland, the hero's white steed replaced with a badass V-8 Interceptor. Like countless notable cowboy heroes who came before him (the movie is especially indebted to Fred Zinnemann's High Noon, from which it borrows much of its plot), Max Rockatansky must first try to avoid violence before completely giving himself over to it. Any other pattern would diminish his heroism. Besides, Miller and his crew build dread so effectively in that slow middle section that I found myself hoping that events would unfold differently than I knew they would, that Max wouldn't lose everything in the roar of an engine. And when the movie's second act finally gives way to its action-packed third, we're blessed with automobile mayhem so bone-crushing, it makes the action at the film's beginning look tame. All of it is expertly executed by stunt performers who clearly put their lives on the line, and shot with a maximum of gritty visual coherence by cinematographer David Eggby (Pitch Black). In the early '80s, the movie's climax, in which Max delivers final comeuppance to Johnny the Boy, played as a cleverly vicious subversion of the unwritten Hollywood rule that a hero can never kill an unarmed opponent in cold blood. It still works as a joyfully unapologetic revenge fantasy, even if we've become more accustomed to heroes unmoored from conventional morality.
Mad Max arrives on Blu-ray in one of MGM's line of Blu-ray/DVD combo packs. The BD's 1080p/AVC transfer appears to have been stricken from the same master used to create 2002 Special Edition DVD (the American International logo at the beginning of the movie has the same slight wobble in the gate). Colors are significantly denser, brighter, and more accurate those on the DVD. Depth is limited by the way Miller shot the movie, but detail in close-ups and medium shots is far superior to the DVD's soft image. Video artifacts are minimal and use of digital noise reduction is controlled. Minor source damage is apparent in isolated scenes throughout the movie, mostly in the form of small flecks. Given its age and humble origins, Mad Max looks darned good in high def.
The audio options were among the most attractive features of the Special Edition DVD because it marked the first time the original Australian mono track was available in the US. The disc's default option was a Dolby 5.1 expansion of the track, though it also offered a two-channel mono presentation. The American English dub was also preserved on the disc. The Blu-ray ups the ante with a DTS-HD 5.1 master audio expansion of the Australian track that is considerably brighter and louder than the DVD's Dolby surround mix. Imaging is slightly cramped, however, with dialog sometimes stepped on by the movie's aggressive score. Again, a two-channel mono mix of the Australian track is provided, as well as mono dubs in American English and Spanish, and a stereo French dub.
The Blu-ray contains an informative group commentary by cinematographer David Eggby, art director Jon Dowding, special effects technician Chris Murray, and Mad Max superfan Tom Ridge. It also houses "Mad Max: Film Phenomenon," a 25-minute retrospective making-of featurette. Both the commentary and the featurette were included on the previously released Special Edition DVD. New to the Blu-ray are two American theatrical trailers for the film.
The set's second disc is a copy of the Special Edition DVD. One side of the flipper disc contains the feature in both widescreen and pan-and-scan formats, while the other contains supplements. The commentary and making-of are repeated, of course, but you also get "Mel Gibson: High Octane Birth of a Superstar," a 16-minute lovefest, produced before Gibson's many high-profile troubles, a "Road Rants" in-feature trivia track, the movie's Australian theatrical trailer, four TV spots, and an poster gallery with 16 international posters for the movie.
Mad Max's one overriding flaw is Brian May's (the Australian composer, not the Queen guitarist) jarringly emphatic score. Pick a scene, any scene, in which Miller and Eggby's camerawork appears showy or the acting comes off as hammy, and imagine that scene without May's score. What you'll find is that where the movie seems overly melodramatic or stylistically garish, it is primarily the fault of the music, which works so hard to underscore the action and drama that it manages to undermine the visuals rather than support them. I'm sure May had a blast assembling his collection of timpani rolls, cymbal swells, and trumpet fanfares, but the end result is less a contribution to the film than a distraction from it.
Both my teenage and adult selves give Mad Max a hearty thumbs-up. It's grade-A Aussie exploitation, savage and action-packed. The movie's high definition presentation could probably have benefitted from the production of a new master, but the upgrade in image and sound over the old DVD is stark enough to warrant a double-dip -- especially since the DVD's cramming of both a widescreen and pan-and-scan presentation of the movie on the same side of a flipper disc resulted in a soft and overly-compressed image.
Cundalini wants his hand back.
Review content copyright © 2010 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English, Australian)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English, American)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English, Australian)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 1979
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Trivia Track
* TV Spots
* Photo Gallery
* DVD Copy