While not as influential as “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior”, legendary Australian director’s first “Mad Max” film is still a classic and a very important film. It’s also damn good.
As one of the best action-exploitation films ever made, it’s very impressive just how little Miller had to work with. The budget is estimated to be $400k AUD tops (the film would go on to recoup $100million USD; holding the title of most profitable film in existence from 1980 to 1999). While the film suggests and flirts with apocalyptic overtones, Miller and writer James McCausland drawing from the 1973 oil crisis, it takes place before the actual apocalyptic event that leads to the wasteland of the succeeding films. It’s doubtful whether Miller had even planned for sequels, let alone foray into explicitly post-apocalyptic material, at this point, but the first film works tremendously well as an entry into the series as it depicts a world fraying at the edges, flirting with insanity, but still with a semblance of order and society. The setting is even more disturbing than the later film’s settings in some ways; the contrast between the civilised world and the encroaching barbarity all the more horrifying when you can still see that civilised world. The structure of the Mad Max series as a whole is very fascinating, absurd, and original – how many series have the most dramatic moment (the apocalypse itself) take place not only off-screen, but in-between films, and rarely explicitly alluded to?
Miller is an extremely cinematically-minded director, flat-out stating he intended to make Mad Max as a “silent movie with sound”, more focused on cinematography and kinetics than dialogue or plot. The third film in the series is regarded as a misstep for focusing more heavily on plot and dialogue, but the first film absolutely succeeds in fulfilling Miller’s “silent movie with sound” vision. Shot gloriously in 35mm, the film remains an engaging action-film experience to this day. The staging of the races and crashes is impressive, and Miller’s experience as a medical doctor treating similar injuries as to those obtained in the film shows. The film is raw, brutal visual poetry.
The cast do their jobs well enough, the highlights being Gibson as Max (especially post-breakdown), Vincent Gil as the Nightrider, and Hugh Keays-Bryne most of all, as the villainous Toecutter (he later went on to portray the villain, Immortan Joe, in “Mad Max: Fury Road”). My only real critique of the film would be the musical score, which grates.
The film, while bursting with fun and adrenaline, is depressingly bleak in the final act. In the context of the series, the film feels more like an origin story, and the tragedy seems less devastating because we know future films explore with Max’s morality, trauma, reflections on life, and so on, but as a standalone film, “Mad Max” seems to end on a note of nihilism in keeping with the encroaching barbarism at the corners of the depicted Australia. After that barbarism ruins Max’s life, he too violates the social contract which is nearly all that’s holding civilisation together at this point, and devolves into the eponymous madness.
I give it three and a half ice-creams, and a brand new Interceptor.