Mad Max (1979): George Miller
George Miller, on the road as a traveling doctor, shot a little movie about a cop fighting some thugs terrorizing rural, gas-starved Australia. Miller had spent some time in an ER, where he treated accident victim after accident victim, fueling a phobia of the road that turned into a, so far, four film franchise and launched the career of an unknown actor named Mel Gibson. Not bad for a doc.
ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: Well Adjusted Max fights crime in a crumbling society until a motorcycle gang kills his wife, driving him Mad.
Max Rockatansky (the undiscovered and soon-to-be sensation Mel Gibson) drives an Interceptor for Main Force Patrol. He’s the best, which we know from the opening scene. As two yokel drivers chase Nightrider, Max coolly bides his time gearing up to catch the sumbitch.
Max needs little time to capture one of Australia’s most dangerous outlaws, and by “capture” I mean force him to drive into a wreck of truck carrying oil. Nightrider explodes.
Miller chose not to reveal Max’s face until after this opening scene ended, instead shooting his boots, the grease on his hands, his sunglasses, and his nipples poking out from his shirt.
Only now do we see what Max looks like. And he’s…dun dun DUN…a white guy. He’s just a white guy, y’all, like all other guys in Australia seem to be, according to movies. Why the subterfuge?
Good question. Gibson was Just Another Actor in 1979, and although he would make Max his most famous character, Mel Gibson was not yet close to being MEL GIBSON. I believe Miller showed parts of Max so viewers could draw their own character before the visual aspect of cinema gave us a face. This is Mythmaking 101, and contributed to the franchise’s becoming just that–a franchise.
But Max is much more than a calm killing machine. He has a soft side. His wife Jess and his son, who I think is named Sprock, maybe Brock. He’s named after either a car part or a bird sound. It doesn’t matter, because the parents think little about him. Witness: in one scene the boy stands at the wheel of the red station wagon, and in another he plays with a handgun. At the farm retreat, before Sprock is babynapped, both mother and father leave him alone. Granted, Toecutter has frightened both parents, but they just forgot him.
Jess is sad early in the movie, so Max tries to cheer her by donning a silly mask. He deeply loves his wife. Later, when Max is on leave, the family travels to a swimming hole where Max tells a long story about his father, the moral of which is, he doesn’t want to wait around to tell Jess how he feels about her. He doesn’t actually tell her how he feels, but you, and Jess, get the idea. She’d rather kiss him, in that moment, than hear the words.
Yet when Toecutter kills Jess, Max becomes what he feared he would. Max transforms from caring husband, father, and defender of the peace to insane, vindictive, cruel Road Warrior. Sorry, not yet, next movie. He’s just a road warrior.
Mad Max is short movie, but Max’s character arc is broad. Max is the one keeping Goose in check when they learn that Johnny must be released for lack of evidence. By movie’s end, Max footcuffs the same Johnny to a truck and offers him the chance to cut his own foot off to avoid exploding.
The motorcycle gang hounding the Outback rides Kawasakis and follows Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a man with white hair highlights that evoke Tina Turner. He’s a crazy dude. He first speaks at the train station where Night Rider’s coffin shows up. He wants the station agent to respect him, so he grabs his face to ensure he pays attention. Toecutter places his thumbs on the man’s chin and his forefingers near the man’s ears. A strange way to frame someone’s face, but the world of Mad Max is strange.
Toecutter owns his gang, but barely. He has to out-crazy his men, men who wear heart-shaped sunglasses and make out with womannequins. Toecutter decides to show his strength by claiming that The Bronze, aka the MFP, have sent the model to spy on them. He agitates Johnny until he shoots it.
Yet Toecutter must be sensible. He doesn’t meow or mock dance. When he finds the photos Max left inside his helmet, he looks around, fearful, that Max might be watching. Toecutter frightens, but he seems to tenuously hold his crew together. That his rationality and forward thinking could harm his ability to lead the group.
The action comes lightly in Mad Max, but that’s not a bad thing. It’s a character-making story. I describe the key scenes in other sections, so I’ll detail some interesting tidbits about this franchise-launching Down Under weirdo flick.
Miller shot the movie with $650,000, according to IMDb. Consider that the budget for 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road was 230 times that. That bears repeating: 230 times the budget. Much of the cash for the original, according to an interview in Cinema Papers, came from Miller’s pocket as an emergency doctor.
Remember when Goose offers a driver a get-out-of-jail-free card? Miller gave some to the troupe of actors that played Toecutter’s gang, in the form of letters with studio letterhead on them. The troupe drove their bikes from Sydney to Melbourne for filming, and bonded on the road.
Remember that van smashed in the opening chase? That was Miller’s own van.
Mel Gibson’s real-life buddy Steve Bisley plays Jim Goose, a playboy accustomed to fast living and fast driving. We first meet Goose when he sees Nightrider barreling through town. He grabs his motorcycle, breakfast in mouth, and drives through town. He ends the ride by sliding into another car, breaking his leg, and having a laugh about it.
Max might be called Max, but it’s Goose who lives to the max. We next see him riding his bike into the Halls Of Justice, his right leg in a full cast. You’d think riding a bike with one leg would be hard, but Goose doesn’t care. He crutches his way into the station, shirtless. To what other job could you report without a shirt? Modeling? Swimming? Federal policing?
Goose has a temper, never shown better than when the suits order Johnny released from custody. Goose flies into a rage, beating Johnny and trying to beat the lawyers and the cops who let go the punk. But can you blame him? I felt the same rage, after seeing what Toecutter’s punks were capable of.
Goose comes to an untimely end as the result of a dirty trick. The released Johnny toys with his bike while Goose gets all doe-eyed inside the Sugartown Cabaret at a leggy singer. Next day, Goose drives his bike, for a while, until it stops working. Huh?
I got no clue about what happened to Goose. All I know is that Toecutter’s gang came after him when he crashed– No, they didn’t. Goose flagged down a repair truck, which he drove back to town or somewhere. Johnny sees him coming, and he tosses a metal thing from the hill alongside the road, a thing that crashes into the windscreen. I say windscreen because that’s what they call them in Oz.
Now, how Johnny knew that Goose would be driving the repair truck I don’t know. Seemed like a good guess. How he perfectly timed his metal thing toss into windscreen, in a world without a strong culture of youth Aussie Rules Football, to practice and hone such throwing skills, I don’t know. How Goose, a good driver, flipped the truck multiple times because of the windscreen breaking, I don’t know.
I do know that Goose ends life upside down in the truck’s cab, as Johnny squares off with Toecutter, the former lighting a match on the latter’s jacket zipper, which ignites the gas spilled around the truck, which ignites Goose. To death.
Changing gears, has a movie character ever more closely matched the biker from the Village People than Fifi, MFP chief? No. None have. Here’s a guy who is enormous, wears leather, and spends time on the clock watering the plants in his office. Shirtless. With an ascot around his neck.
Such wonderful style used to be reserved for pop stars, but in future Australia anyone can dress in leather pants and ascots. Fifi seems a day removed from nipple clamps.
And don’t mistake Fifi for a softie. “We’re gonna give ’em back their heroes,” he shouts at Max after granting him a few weeks leave. He might have a dog’s name, but he has a lion’s heart.
Ah, Toecutter’s gang. What a bunch of loons. They were fun loons, though, weren’t they?
When the crew arrives first on screen, they park their bikes in a quaint fringe town, seemingly populated by fewer people than are in the gang. Two guys get off their bikes and mockingly dance a waltz in the street. Another guy wears heart-shaped sunglasses.
My favorite gang member was Bubba, a guy who looks exactly like Taran Killam playing a Sprockets character. Those are SNL references, if you don’t know and wish to. Bubba treats everything with utmost seriousness. Never does a smirk or grin cross his face. Always does he want to be the muscle to Toecutter’s brains and Tina Turner hair.
Another gang member finds a womannequin and brings it to the beach. He tongues it, like he would a lover. Little wonder that these guys assault Jess later, a woman they call “dinner and dessert.” (The kid was one of those, but I’m not sure which; either way, it was creepy.)
Then you got the guy meowing at Jess. And the dudes chasing her through the woods. They were shown only in flashes, and never their faces, much like Max was filmed in the opening scene. It’s not a coincidence. Max fears he will soon become like the biker gang members if he continues his work as a police Interceptor. That’s exactly what he becomes at movie’s end.
These guys were straight crazy. Toecutter was their boss, but I feared them more for having no longer a grip on reality.
The Max franchise, renowned for car chases, shines in its first installment. One of Toecutter’s people spins his bike on the pavement, creating a black circle by burning the rubber on his rear tire. It’s a neat trick that has little to do with plot, but is merely the filmmakers and stuntmen showing off as much as the character.
Luckily for the characters, the roads of rural Australia are mostly devoid of vehicles not in the motorcycle gang nor the MFP. When such vehicles show up, people die, or nearly so.
The most destructive driving occurs in the opening chase. Nightrider, a member of Toecutter’s gang and alleged cop-killer, leads two Interceptors around the roads. Big Bopper and his partner drive their car first into a road sign. Then another car drives into George Miller’s van. Finally, Big Bopper launches the car through an RV after nearly pancaking a toddler.
Nightrider, the “fuel-injected, suicide machine,” makes good on his boast by driving into a fuel spill and exploding. That scene required several days to shoot, and went off in one take, because that’s all the money they had for it.
The Rockatanskys have retreated to a bucolic farm for R & R. Jess walks through the woods, but she soon finds that Toecutter has followed them there, to avenge her ball-kicking.
Jess, terrorized and mortified, flees with Mae, the farm’s matriarch, in the red station wagon. That works fine, except Max never finished fixing the car’s broken fan belt, and so it quickly breaks down. Jess runs down the road, but she can’t outrun the bikers.
We don’t see Jess and Sprock run over. Instead Miller quickly cuts between Jess and the bikes until we see a ball and a baby shoe, barely worn, fly into frame. Max, running the entire way, soon joins them, and in a strong moment he sprints the distance between the car and his dying family while he watch him break down.
His son is dead. His wife isn’t dead, only mostly. Max can’t get out of the game, not now. He returns to the Halls of Justice and checks out the 600-horsepower car, a shotgun, and a give-no-shit attitude. First he returns to the mechanic shop where he left his tire and interrogates the mechanic about Toecutter’s gang, specifically, where are they at?
Max anticipates the gang’s next move–siphoning gas from a moving tanker. He trails them until they are aboard their bikes. His first move is to drive right through them. One guy falls off, but immediately gets back on. Max drives ahead and spins around to meet them again on a bridge. Two guys fly off it into a river, and two more spill on the road.
I would think that driving a bike against a car would be nearly impossible. Max wouldn’t have to do anything to send some drivers careening. He could fishtail a little bit and smack a few. He could run them down from behind and injure more. If a bike leaves the road or swerves fast enough, its driver will likely lose control and die. Max, in a car, would just turn the wheel and keep going.
Toecutter and Bubba were not amongst the dispatched, but they catch wind of Max’s doing from the mechanic. Max has spooked Toecutter with two photos he placed in his helmet, one of Goose and one of Max’s wife and child. The stage is set.
Max follows the two bikes that escaped his initial attack into a Prohibited Area, one which looks like the rest of Australia, until he sees a wrecked bike and a body near it. We all know it’s a trap. Max knows too, but he can’t help himself and stops anyway. With the endless chatter of the police dispatcher behind him, he leather-squeaks toward the body, loosely holding the sawed-off shotgun.
Max approaches Johnny’s supine body, until Bubba shoots Max’s leg with a pistol. How did he not see them? Bubba and Toecutter appeared to be chilling on the side of the road. They drive up, and over, Max’s arm. Toecutter, wisely, implores Bubba to “quit toying.” I say wisely because Max immediately shoots Bubba with the shotgun.
Gibson uses terrific acting in crawling back to his car. The bullet wound remains, and his lower left leg is unusable. Gibson drags, yanks, tugs it, anything but weighs on it.
Max and Toecutter drive further down the road. One great shot frames Toecutter on the bottom of the screen as Max nearly overtakes him from the top of the frame downward. He gets close, but an 18-wheeler smashes into and over Toecutter and his bike.
Comic relief comes mostly from Goose. He’s a charmer, as you see when he and Max chat with a couple riding a motorcycle through the countryside. Though we don’t hear anything, Goose clearly flirts with the woman, despite the boyfriend standing inches from him. He hands the dude a “get out of jail free” card.
Of course Toecutter’s people were crazy and funny, perhaps both. When they aren’t murdering or threatening to murder people, they can make ’em laugh. They should travel around and put on a variety show. Not a murder show. Bad gangsters.
Big Bopper’s partner was funny. He only sticks around for the first scene, but we meet him literally asleep at the wheel as the film opens. He chides Big Bopper for blaspheming and fears the bureaucratic hand coming down on him after they crash through some cars because “he had his indicator on.”
Is it funny when Max’s kid plays with a handgun? Yes. And his name is Sprog. I looked it up. I first thought it was Sprock. But it’s Sprog. I know, I kept it as “Sprock” until now, because so what?
Mad Max is a funny movie. It means to be funny because of its weirdness, as if we couldn’t stomach such a horrible future world without such odd characters.
All we know about this world is that it’s set “a few years from now,” which means the mid-1980s. Australia is very beautiful, chock full of vast grass fields and beaches abutting clear water. The roads are well maintained and the towns classically frontier.
The only crappy location is the interior of the Halls of Justice. Windows are broken, trash is everywhere, and garage is mostly empty. Society might have broken down, but the landscape shows no scars.
Miller has never been high on society’s future. His first Max movie claims that the ugly future is a few years away. Turns out that a gasoline shortage is to blame for society’s downfall, although that isn’t explained until the second film.
Max fears that he’s starting to enjoy the insane thrills provided by a life on the road. That’s the reason he wants to quit the police force. After the bikers kill his wife and kid, he becomes exactly what he fears: Mad. But does he enjoy it? I don’t think so. Max never cracks a smile after transforming into Road Warrior. (Meant it that time.)
Max and Goose, the best cops on the force, are just a smidge less crazy than the thugs they chase. Miller believes, perhaps, that if a hair’s breadth comprises the distance between the two, maybe that’s the same distance between a nice society and one that ravages innocent people for fun.
I got nothing here. Miller impresses by not showing the gruesome murders and rapes implied in several scenes.
- A nice detail: as Max drives after Toecutter’s gang, in one shot he passes a dead rabbit on the roadside.
- A lot of birds show up at random times, mostly to change the scenes.
Summary (45/68): 66%
Mad Max changed the landscape of action movies. It literally did this by filming and being set in Australia. It also gave us a grittier character than we knew, a nihilistic one, set in a future society that we clearly recognize, not as different from ours, but devolved from it.