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Entries in Mad Max [1979] (1)

Tuesday
Jun072011

Mad Max (1979)

Outback Stakeout

You could describe me as a thoroughly depressed dude.  For some reason, I'm unable to appreciate my great life for more than a twentieth of a percent of any given day.  I indulge in self-sabotaging behavior and revel in the silly dark side I should have left behind in high school.

This leads to unwise decisions, like watching Spice World at four o'clock in the morning.

Fortunately, even my sadness has a bottom, and I was savvy enough to recognize it in Elton John's cameo following the opening number (which, sue me, I thought was quite good).  I'll finish Spice World soon, per a clause in my "Never Walk Out" policy; but for my own safety and the continuation of this site, I had to step away from the pop tarts.

So who does one turn to in such a situation?  Why, to everybody's favorite misogynist/anti-Semite, Mel Gibson, of course! Granted, Mad Max came out way before he was any of those things (ahem), so you won't find any cheeky inferences in this review. But the fact is, I'd never seen this film and figured virtual road rage might be a solid outlet for whatever demons are keeping me from resting at night and tensing up my legs so much that I can barely walk during the day.

I've seen bits of the sequels, The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, but the original has always escaped me.  It's a weird little film, full of fantastic camerawork and stunts as well as some of the worst scene transitions I've ever seen.  I was two years old when it opened, so I can't judge whether or not the crap that tarnishes George Miller's almost-masterpiece was acceptable back then; but I will say that Mad Max could use a bit of the old George Lucas treatment.

Set in a near-future Australia, the movie centers on a small unit of highway patrol cops who have become as crazy as the sun-baked lunatics they try to keep off the roads.  Miller and co-writers Byron Kennedy and James McCausland do something unique here: relegate their main character to sidekick status for about half the picture; like so many elements in the story, they handle this unevenly, but I appreciated the novelty.  When the movie begins, Max is the cool, shadowy enforcer who swoops in to clean up a nasty bit of trash named Nightrider (Vincent Gil) after four other officers fail to nab him. Later on, he pops up as second banana to a super-cop named Jim Goose.

Goose is the hard-partying single swinger to Max's settled family man.  He's also a bit of a celebrity, known for busting heads and keeping the sparse populace safe.  But Nightrider's death draws the ire of biker-gang leader Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) who puts a hit out on our heroes.  Before long, Goose gets cooked and Max announces he's quitting the force.  His captain orders him to take a vacation to clear his head and reconsider.

On a trip to the countryside, Max's wife, Jessie (Joanne Samuel), runs afoul of Toecutter's gang and, through a tense series of events I wouldn't dare spoil, winds up dead--along with their infant son.  Max goes crazy (er, mad) and seeks to destroy anything on two wheels.

I know it's sacrilege to nitpick a cult classic, but goddamnit, someone needs to. All of the action in Mad Max is superb.  Miller and cinematographer David Eggby placed me square in the path of banged-up vehicles moving at a hundred-and-fifty miles per hour, and there are entire stretches of this movie where my whole body locked up.  The duo are masters of both anticipation and collision, and aside from Duel and the original The Hitcher, I haven't seen a movie that so faithfully captures the dread of being in the middle of nowhere at the mercy of strangers.

On the other hand, you have the goofy shit, like Max and Jessie's disappearing/reappearing son.  At the outset of the vacation montage, I thought, "Oh, they must have left their baby with some relatives that were neither introduced nor mentioned"; until the kid pops up in the car at a gas station.  Later, at a summer home--whose owners might be relatives--Jessie goes off to the beach for a swim and leaves the baby playing in some tall grass several yards from the house, unsupervised.  Later, she's shocked to learn that the bikers have kidnapped her little latchkey angel.

One more note about Jessie: She plays a mean saxophone.  Early in the movie, we see Max sitting at home in the dark as a sexy sax groove plays on the soundtrack; I figured we were being clued into the steamy, contemplative places his mind was going, but when Miller cuts to Jessie in the corner, practicing her instrument, I felt like I was watching Airplane!.

Let's talk about those transitions, shall we?  I don't know if Miller is to blame, or if this is strictly the fault of editors Cliff Hayes and Tony Paterson, but Mad Max has some of the most awkward cuts and unofficial wipes I've ever seen. From abrupt fades-to-black to downright strange closeups of birds that are, I guess, supposed to fly into the camera to prevent us from witnessing the bikers' heinous crimes, there's not a single instance of natural progression here; which is unfortunate considering how terrific the chase scenes are. I dont' know this for sure, and it'll sound rather obvious, but it seems like Mad Max was thrown together purely as an action showcase.  That's a tough call, given the sort of art-house nature of the meandering story lines and character development, but these details took me straight out of the picture; I have to assume they're either deliberate, bad choices, or simply afterthoughts.

I can't even say for sure that Mel Gibson is the star of the movie. As I mentioned earlier, Max is a non-presence until Goose leaves the story. By then, he comes off as a milquetoast dad who gets pushed too far. Had Miller and company fleshed him out a bit more--had they actually decided what he was supposed to be--maybe his blood-quest during the film's closing ten minutes would have resonated. Instead, I was left to assume he'd become a real character in the sequel.

I'm glad I chose to watch Mad Max today. It's an uneven movie, but it falls short in really interesting ways and manages to surpass much of the excitement level of today's mega-million-dollar blockbusters. It's silly, violent, and uplifting, and has restored enough of whatever's missing in me today to make Spice World a possibility for tomorrow.