In the not too distant future, somewhere in Australian countryside, the police force and a gang of ruthless and despicable bikers rage an unforgiving war along the open road. When these two forces collide (quite literally at times), rarely does one side have the luxury of leaving the scene alive, or in one piece for that matter, as is terrifically exemplified in the film’s breakneck paced opening sequence. By the look of this world’s general surroundings, technology does not seem to have taken any significant leap forward and even the infrastructure is at times of dubious quality, such as the police station where our protagonist, Max (a young Mel Gibson), is stationed.
No, judging from what the viewer is privy to, about the only things awarded improvements and modifications are vehicles built for speed above all else. If you aren’t ready for the terrors and thrills that await you in this dystopian Australian future, you had better stay home. Such is the peculiar but strangely compelling cinematic vision of director George Miller and his creative team in the cult classic Mad Max, the film that truly started Mel Gibson’s remarkable acting career. The film was made with a modest budget, but the crew were adamant in wanting to give audiences something thrilling which would have them gasping in their seats. Stunts, stunts and more stunts are the chosen ingredients, but with a snippet of story and character development just to add some icing to this devilishly sweet but deadly cake. I greatly admire this kind of filmmaking. It is energetic to the tenth degree, with a pace that doesn’t let up whatsoever. Even though the movie clocks in at a customary 90 minutes, I honestly did not see that hour and a half go by while being transported to Miller’s racing adventure ride. To be perfectly honest, there isn’t much of a story. I don’t mean this in the way we in the world of critics often complain about such high octane action films in that the plot may be overly complicated or needlessly convoluted, what with a series of aimless plot threads making feeble attempts at holding some mess of a story together. On the contrary, Mad Max is as honest an action movie as they come. The opening sequence lasts a good 10 minutes and features about 3 huge crashes with adequately set up the tone and pace of things to come. Even when the movie is doing its best to give some character moments, everything is moving along briskly.
The funny thing about the entire endeavour is that while on the surface it looks like director Miller is more interested is showing off what his crew of filmmakers and very, very brave stunt people can do to earn the appropriate ‘oohs!’ and ‘ahs!’, he also gives the audience a hero, or anti-hero, that is genuinely likable and for whom we can sympathise with once things begin to go horribly wrong for him. Mel Gibson, at least this younger version of the famous Aussie, is pretty darn charming. The film teases us near the beginning that this cop might be a no-nonsense can of bad assery, but just as quickly shows a far more passionate and vulnerable side to the character of Max. He is a family man at heart, with a loving wife and a handsome young baby boy too. He and his partners in the force are hooked on speed and imposing looking vehicles that can help them get that extra edge along the highways, but the movie constantly brings us back to the reality about a man who has a heart and a mind. He is fragile and if you hurt him or his friends, he feels it. I mean it when I say Gibson gives a very nice performance in the film. Quite frankly, based on his Mad Max character and comparing it with some of the other performances of his I’ve seen, I’m fine with going so far as to say this is clearly one of his better acting gigs.
A hero is just as good as the villains he faces off against, and there is no shortage of crazed bikers for our hero to chase after, or be chased by. While lacking in any significant character development or depth, the biker gang’s purpose is to be evil incarnate on wheels. They rarely take any prisoners, are apparently obsessed on imposing their own sense of anarchy, and above all else are not the least bit frightened by the prospect of being chased by the police. Any opportunity to play high speed games of cat and mouse with the authorities seems to be relished by this delusional band. Everyone involved, from the leader to the lowest of the low, is missing some marbles. They babble on endlessly and seem like their hooked on LSD at all times. Subtlety was not on the menu when Miller was guiding the actors who portray the villains, but then again this isn’t a film for which an abundance of subtlety is required. I’m pretty sure we’re just supposed to find these guys weird (check) and appropriately evil (double check). Admittedly I did find some of their behaviour somewhat comical, but one might blame my own uniquely strange sense of humour. If you disagree, you know where to send the hate mail.
Naturally what the film really excels at is destroying cars at completely crazy speeds. For these types of films the camerawork is of utmost importance. It may be all fine and dandy if the stunt drivers rehearsed their performances over and over again until the point of perfection, but if the camera crew and editing department are unversed in the ways of portraying spectacular action on the silver screen, then it was all for nothing. I was more than pleased, and quite honestly thrilled, to witness some epic car and motorcycle crashes that had me reacting with some profanity and gasps the likes of ‘S**t, that must of really hurt’. Solid script be damned, this is for cinema goers looking for high octane action that refuses to pull any punches. I believe the source of my satisfaction from the action oriented sequences is twofold. First are the eventual and inevitable crashes, which are wild and deliciously violent. Second is the sense of speed that is so eloquently captured on film. These are modified cop cars chasing after some very impressive bikes and Miller’s camera is consistently place at strategic locations to convey a marvellous and exhilarating sense of speed that hit me in the face almost every time. Like in so many action films, what the director chooses to do with the camera will make or break a scene. Thankfully virtually every trick and editing technique is used to the fullest extent and provides the film with its some very memorable moments of adrenaline which I won’t soon forget. Oh, and a little bit of extra credit for the eye-popping effect that occurs a couple of times in the film. Funny but fitting as well.
Mad Max could easily be used in a driving instructor’s course. Everything that is done during the 90 minutes of this movie should never, ever be performed in real life while driving a car or a motorcycle. Safety first people, safety first. Who am I kidding? I’m sure you all knew that already of course. Still, I’m not so sure the stunt people thought of safety first upon performing their heroic duties on set. Come to think of it, based on a documentary on Australian exploitation cinema I recently watched on the tele, Not Quite Hollywood, I can confidently tell you that they most certainly did not think about safety first during the filming. In all honesty, if the drivers simply wanted to lend the film a sense of excitement regardless of the costs, they can rest assured that their broken bones were well worth it.