George Miller | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Australia / English | 18 / R
The man who would go on to helm Babe: Pig in the City and Happy Feet here delivers the best-known Ozploitation movie, an occasionally scrappy B-level production that’s primarily concerned with violent gang antics and road chases. It stars everyone’s favourite Hollywood madman Mel Gibson as Max Rockatansky, a road cop in what might be a slightly dystopian post-apocalyptic Australia or might just be a bleakly-considered version of ‘now’, where he and his colleagues are targeted by a biker gang after one of their members is killed during a pursuit.
Said pursuit opens the film in style. It’s a surprisingly-lengthy white-knuckle sequence that introduces us not only to Max, but to what director George Miller is capable of. Even 35 years on it remains a mightily effective set piece, with more punch than the average over-choreographed CGI-addled chases of the last decade-and-a-half of moviemaking.
Unfortunately it’s so good that the rest of the film struggles to match its adrenaline-pumping level, which must leave some viewers particularly underwhelmed. After meandering through something approaching a plot, the film really comes alive again when Max takes a holiday. No, really. Even though Miller can’t again match the excitement of his opening salvo, he at least offers sequences of tension and shock, including the pivotal moment where Max is driven Mad.
The film’s finale is surprisingly fast, a brief explosion of revenge that doesn’t provide your standard Action Movie thrills, but can muster some memorable stunts and lines. It’s here Max goes from average super-cop to full on movie hero. In reading up on the film, a few pieces analyse the ending as Max going to the dark side — becoming as bad as those he was fighting against; or, at the very least, becoming an anti-hero. I didn’t see it that way at first, which I think is the difference between 1979 and what’s happened in movies since. Now we routinely have heroes who do bad things: look at Jack Bauer’s love of torture in 24, or everything Liam Neeson does in Taken. Those characters are never presented as anything other than the good guy; there’s no (or very little) question that what they’re doing is right, and that we should root for them. Maybe we should be questioning Max’s actions at the end, and considering the possibility that he may have become a villain himself. Maybe people did that, once. Now, I think the majority of viewers (especially for this genre) would uncomplicatedly cheer him on.
On the bright side, such moral considerations at least lend some extra depth. Even without it, Mad Max delivers a fitfully exciting car-action movie. It’s probably best known today thanks to its sequels, but still has much to offer those who like, or would like to discover, the almost-grindhouse-esque gritty thrills of ’70s independent exploitation movies.