Originally shown April 22, 2009
The so-called New Wave of Australian cinema started in exactly the same way that the Golden Age of Hong Kong cinema would ten years later: cheap, balls-to-the-wall action pictures. In Hong Kong, that meant films like A Better Tomorrow, with cast and crew full of people just north of being nobodies. Call them somebodies with nothing to lose and not much of a budget. In Australia in 1979, those somebodies were George Miller and Mel Gibson, and their movie was Mad Max.
If you’ve seen a couple action pictures in the last ten years or so, then you’re not going to find much that’s new in the plot of Mad Max. In a vaguely post-apocalyptic future where cars are rare – according to Wikipedia, inspired by a major Australian oil crisis in 1973 – Gibson’s Max is a member of the elite automotive unit MFP (Main Force Patrol, or as my friends and I called it in college, the Motherfucking Police). He busts some minions of the crazed Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who comes after his friends and family. Bang bang, vroom vroom, free on a technicality, he gets results you stupid chief, yadda yadda yadda.
Here’s the thing: Miller has a gift for making this cliche, pulpy material sing. He had to, because he had to compete with Hollywood’s exported hits on far less money. The year 1979 saw America’s movie budgets begin to pick up steam in order to imitate the success of Star Wars; two such efforts of that year were Alien and Apocalypse Now. Meanwhile, Mad Max had the distinction of being the first Australian film shot with an anamorphic lens, a technology Hollywood had possessed for twenty-five years.
Miller simply chose a chunk of Australia with low population and no obstructions. This put the emphasis on empty roads, and the speed that a car can get to when it has a long, straight, empty surface ahead. Miller has some great stuntmen and stunt drivers, but he also gets things done with some low-fi camera tricks such as cranking up the camera speed. That’s an interesting difference between old special effects and the newer computer creations: when a computer effect is poorly done, it looks *really* fake and takes me out of the movie, but even though Miller’s camera sleight-of-hand looks fake, it doesn’t distract from the rest of the scene.
The end result is that Mad Max has tremendous energy. The plot doesn’t always keep moving – the “bad guy gets off on a technicality” scene is positively turgid – but the action sequences are intense enough to propel you through the slower parts. Many of them are staged without music, the only soundtrack being the revving of engines as the cars reach their top speed.
Obviously I don’t have anything good to say about Gibson’s buffoonery in recent years, but it is interesting to watch him in his first major role. He seems in-character and completely un-self-aware – as opposed to, say, Lethal Weapon 4 where he had stopped playing “Martin Riggs” and started playing “Mel Gibson playing Martin Riggs.” The bigger his Hollywood star became, the more Gibson seemed to be winking at the camera, something which happened to Willis, Stallone, and all other big action stars of the ’80s. Assuming he wasn’t a crazed anti-Semite all along, Gibson makes a compelling argument that too much self-awareness can make you crazy.
Max needs to seem a little real, because the rest of the characters really aren’t. The best way to avoid camp is to have all of your actors playing it straight, but it doesn’t look like any of the actors playing villains in this movie got the message, and that is ultimately what holds the movie back. I would best describe Keays-Byrne’s performance as “ludicrous,” and he’s actually the best actor among Max’s opponents. A good Mad Max drinking game takes place during every scene Max isn’t in; every person who giggles must take a drink. Warning: alcohol poisoning is a danger.
One argument that I heard a lot about Leprechaun in the Hood was that it was so terrible that it was a lot of fun. Personally, I didn’t see it that way; the things which made it terrible took a lot of the fun out of it for me. I prefer watching a movie like Mad Max, which would be terrible if it wasn’t a lot of fun. It’s a serious movie, but not too serious, and shot through with the enjoyment of filmmakers who wanted to do this sort of thing before and never got the chance.
Reviewed by Mark Young