Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Mad Max

Guess what, people?  According to this movie, in "a few years from now," we will be entering the post-oil era, where law and order begin to break down before the inevitable zombie apocalypse.  Well, that last part is my own personal belief, but the opening credits to Mad Max say the rest.

This is a film about a warrior --- a road warrior, if you will --- named Max (Mel Gibson) who, as part of the few-years-from-now police force (the Main Force Patrol), cruises the highways of Australia, trying to protect people from increasingly rampant motorcycle gangs.  Max has several moves in his driving arsenal.  He captures one bad guy by playing "chicken" and another by finding him at a crime scene.  While that may not sound too impressive now, wait until just before the zombie apocalypse and let's see how effective the police are then.  Max's competence makes him the hotshot of the MFP, and his arrests make him and his partner, Goose (Steve Bisley), the target of Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), leader of the worst gang in the area.  Max and Goose capture a few of Toecutter's men, but they are set free because nobody will testify against the gang in court.  This ticks Goose off, so he scuffles with one of the gang members, Johnny the Boy.  Johnny happens to be Toecutter's protege, so the gang focuses on getting even with Goose; in this case, "even" for a couple of punches means "sabotaging his motorcycle and then lighting the leaking gas from his vehicle on fire."  This ticks Max off, so he quits/is sent on vacation.  On vacation, the same gang tries to molest Max's wife and daughter, but gets tired of it and just runs them over in the road, killing them.  I don't want to spoil the ending for you, but it involves revenge and Max earning his "Mad" moniker.

The first question you might be asking yourself is "Isn't Australia a continent?"  Why, yes, it is.  "Wouldn't that make it incredibly improbable for the same people to keep running into each other?"  Actually, no.  The continent/nation of Australia was actually the inspiration for the titular bar in Cheers because everyone knows each others name (presuming your name is Crikey, Walkabout, or Yahoo Serious).  There have been rumors that the country also inspired the film Australia, but when you ask, the nation usually changes the subject.

What do you want?  This is a B movie, pure and simple.  The fact that this movie is intelligible is a feat unto itself; the American theatrical release featured American voice-overs for all the actors and they Americanized much of the Aussie slang.  I don't see why, since the movie (with its original Australian voices) sounds good to me.  I don't mean to imply that B movies can't be good, but pointing out plot holes in a movie like this is no fun.  Yes, they are present, but they don't detract from the film as a whole.

The trait that makes this B movie memorable is how brutal it is.  You see a lot of car wrecks in this movie, and I mean wrecks.  These cars were purchased to turn into scrap, and the filmmakers accomplished that mission.  There are rape scenes (more or less off-screen) and women and children suffering vehicular homicide.  All of that is pretty raw, especially for 1979, but that is just the setup for Max's revenge tour.  To give you an idea, the final scene with the hacksaw has been credited for the idea behind the Saw series.  The violence isn't too shocking to our modern, numbed sensibilities, but this film still stands out as genuinely brutal at times.

If this movie was designed to be known for its violence (a definite possibility), then the acting and directing are pleasant surprises.  This is Mel Gibson's first major role and he does a pretty decent job here.  He's not a revelation or anything, but he plays his part well and comes across as dangerous and intense when he needs to.  Writer/director George Miller did a great job, given his limitations.  Most of the actors are clearly not professional, but Gibson, Keays-Byrne, and Bisley all turn in respectable work, and they are the key roles.

This movie also stands out with its unusual setting.  Even now, using Australia for the setting of a movie is an unusual move, and this film pulls no punches with how brutal the landscape can be.  It is also strange that the movie is neither contemporary not post-apocalyptic.  It's set in the near-future, but nothing terrible has happened...yet.  It's a good excuse to establish a status quo that is a little extreme, but not necessarily requiring elaborate sets and exposition.  It's not a big deal, I know, but I appreciate the fine line this setting proverbially walked.

The fact that this film spawned two (and perhaps a third in the future) sequels is well known.  Traditionally, the first movie in a series is the best, with the sequels usually being bigger and dumber.  Of course, most franchises don't start with a B movie.  This movie is unpolished and not terribly professional, but enjoyable despite that.  This is the kind of movie that should be SyFy-original-movie-bad, but is pleasantly surprising.  If nothing else, this is a worthy precursor to the greatness of The Road Warrior.

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