The apocalypse, whatever may have caused it, was not particularly devastating to the Melbourne landscape which George Miller’s Mad Max takes as its setting. Green grass and blue skies are intact, and seeing as groceries and food are still readily available for purchase, it can be assumed that capitalism survived as well. But chaos reigns, nonetheless: The roads of Melbourne are rife with motorcycle gangs, addled speedsters, perverts, thieves, and a myriad of other criminals that take what they like from others and kill without fear of reprisal. The chief reason for their cavalier attitudes is that the ranks of the MFP (Main Force Patrol), the remnants of Australia’s highway patrol, have been pared down to a rag-tag gang of leather-clad lawmen who drive around in refitted Melbourne police cars.
The most feared of these automobiles carries the name “Interceptor,” driven by the most trusted and skilled of MFP men, Max Rockatansky, played by a young Mel Gibson in what would become one of his most popular performances. In the fantastic opening scene, the MFP’s pursuit of a crazed speedster, nicknamed “The Nightrider,” are carefully punctuated by shots of Max’s slow preparation for the last leg of the chase. As expected, the Nightrider meets his end in a blaze, but even as Max goes home to see his family and receives congratulations from Goose (Steve Bisley), his partner, a more wild and treacherous force, a motorcycle gang, takes up the Nightrider’s cause and begin a campaign of bedlam on his behalf. Led by a tyrannical madman given the name “The Toecutter” (Hugh Keays-Byrne), the gang takes responsibility for several heinous acts before they decide to target Goose, Max, and, toward the end, Max’s family.
Often hailed as one of the chief cinematic exports of the “Ozploitation” era, Mad Max should be noted more as a miracle of economic filmmaking than as a narrative landmark of Australian cinema. Budgeted somewhere slightly north of $300,000, Mad Max is exciting, fleet-footed, and beautifully, ominously shot by then first-time cinematographer David Eggby. In comparison, Smokey and the Bandit II, a film built on similar facets and released in the same year as Mad Max, though wholly different in tone, was given an immense budget and failed to illicit anything but a few ironic guffaws at unintended moments and a chorus of yawns. The lean budget ultimately works to Mad Max’s advantage: The Australian landscape conveys dissolution and ruin far better than any stylized “future world” could and Miller builds remarkable tension from scaled-back action sequences and some superb car chases.
Much of this action lands in the film’s final 30 minutes, making Miller’s film a bit back-loaded and even a bit anticlimactic. Max’s inevitable showdown with Toecutter comes early and ends too easily but the film’s final scene, which inspired James Wan and Leigh Whannell to write the first Saw film, for better or worse, thrusts a stake deep into Max’s belief in balanced justice. Politically, Mad Max is about as barebones as action films come: The good guy is a family man who gives justice a chance while the villains are without morals, conscience, sanity, or even a spec of humanity. Art director Jon Dowding once likened Toecutter’s regalia to that of Genghis Khan, while Max wears a near-tailor-fitted, sufficiently badass leather outfit and a pair of aviator shades.
Despite this, Mad Max succeeds overall as a minimalist action spectacle, a cult item and, most curiously, as Mr. Gibson’s first lead performance. Peter Weir’s Gallipoli is credited for showing Gibson in a more romantic light, leading him to his most popular performance as Riggs in the Lethal Weapon series. Looking back, however, Gallipoli hardly carries the same specialized importance given to Mad Max and is, at the end of the day, a generally overrated film. One could say plenty about what has happened in the subsequent years with Gibson, but his charisma and sheer presence in Mad Max is undeniable; his preparations in the opening sequence are really a sight to behold. Roaming the asphalt with a sawed-off shotgun, Gibson plays the last snapped sinew of true justice in a world gone wrong, a role he would return to in several other forms. In fact, Mad Max can now be seen as setting the political tenor of Gibson’s career. One could only wish it had also set the bar for his creativity as well: Braveheart made on a budget of $300,000 would be quite the sight.
This 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer of Mad Max, at a close-to-original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, is perhaps not the best visual experience you'll have on Blu-ray, but it's a strong release from MGM, especially considering its miniscule budget. Mad Max is, to some, known as the first Australian film to be shot on widescreen anamorphic lenses. To that end, the film looks very good overall: Skin tones are natural, clarity is generally impeccable, textures and colors are all perfectly calibrated. The black levels deserve more attention, but they are serviceable. The sound is similarly strong, but its greatest accomplishment is reclaiming the original Australian audio, which was dubbed over by American actors upon the film's release in 1980. Atmosphere noise is immersive and clear, as is the score.
The commentary, featuring DP David Eggby, historian Tim Ridge, art director Jon Dowding, and special effects supervisor Chris Murray, is the only thing really worth anything as far as extras go. All four men give good details and anecdotes about the making of the film that keep the track bouncing along where other commentaries become pointless and tiresome. The featurette, "Mad Max: The Film Phenomenon," has a few interesting tidbits but is largely pointless. A DVD copy of the film is also provided which features original trailers, TV spots, a photo gallery, a blithely worship-fueled documentary on Mel Gibson, "Mel Gibson: The Birth of a Superstar," and a worthless trivia track.
Though often, baselessly considered one of the great films to come out of Australia, Mad Max’s arrival on Blu-ray carries the reminder that, above all else, the film is a low-budget action spectacle that should inspire amateur filmmakers to take genuine risks.