By Marc S. Sanders
What is the fascination with George Miller’s original 1979 film, Mad Max? I don’t get it. I know this film shot in the Australian outback was made a on budget less valuable than even a shoestring. The fast-paced camera shots of cars careening down long stretches of highway are high octane (pun, most certainly intended) and the crashes are completely in your face. Yet, I need more than this.
When the film pauses for albeit very brief moments of storytelling such as a motorcycle gang apparently out for revenge against dystopian future cop Max (Mel Gibson’s breakout role), how is this ever even learned among the characters? When Max opts to resign from the police force and take his wife and young son on holiday, how does this motorcycle gang led by a savage named The Toecutter (great name) catch up with them, and then after a narrow escape, how do they catch up yet again with one another, while making a sudden appearance on the back of these noisy motorcycles? Miller’s film never goes from A to B to C. Rather it goes from W to S to Q and then Z. It’s a mixed up mess.
I’m all for throwing logic out the window when watching a thrilling action piece…if it’s thrilling. When it’s not, well then, I’m asking for the logic. Miller’s film feels like a bunch of want ads cut out of old newspapers, and then scotch taped together into a film reel. I’d be curious to see an original script. I can only imagine it being no more than three pages long.
The appeal in 1979 and the years thereafter when the Max character blossomed into a franchise must have come from Gibson on film. Yes, the stunts in this film with quick edit action pieces are daring. I still think so forty years later. This wasn’t CGI after all. This was all the crunched up metal, rubber tires and flames that Miller could muster. Still, the one artistic achievement had to be Mel Gibson’s image. He wears the costume well. A blue t-shirt enhancing his blue eyes under all black leather with a sawed off shotgun in his right hand while driving a souped up black Pursuit Special automobile with the engine sticking out of the hood. Just writing that out reminds me of how iconic that image is, and this is before the similar looking Terminator that came along a few years later. Still, that’s where George Miller’s inventiveness stops.
There is nary a character to consider. The villains are nothing more than leather clad with bleached hair and dark mascara under the eyes riding Kawasaki bikes. I know this was made with next to no money. These guys don’t have to look like Darth Vader, but could they at least offer up something interesting to say? Max has a couple of partners in the police squad. They have no camaraderie. One of them gets burned to a crisp. Max takes a look at him in the hospital. Why should I care though? It’s not like I saw these guys share a Coke together. Max is married. They lie side by side each other in bed and their toddler sits on the floor nearby. So? Anything else? Could one of them start a pillow fight or kiss or something, please? A shoestring budget can still allow relationships to happen. Miller doesn’t care about that though. John Woo may show a nonstop bloodbath in any of his films with next to no story. His films can work however, because he won’t get sidetracked with showing two people in their bedroom doing nothing. He’ll remain focused on the mayhem. Miller is not doing that here. He shows a house with a bedroom. Yet he doesn’t show the story in that bedroom that’s in that house. That’s the difference.
I know the subsequent films in the franchise vastly improve upon the original Mad Max. I’m just amazed they ever saw the light of day. I’m more amazed that this became one of the most profitable films in worldwide history. How did 1979’s Mad Max have the legs…no…the wheels…to maintain this ongoing velocity of interest? What do I know? I guess I’m a Debbie Downer for wanting people to talk to one another before handcuffing them to a gas guzzling fiery wreckage. Is it too much to ask for a little sensitivity?