From the opening minutes of his Ozploitation classic, George Miller establishes himself as one of the greatest visual film makers in the history of cinema. With its quick cutting, roving camera and incorporation of iconography usually associated with the western genre, the opening car chase that begins Mad Max ranks as one of the greatest action sequences ever caught on film and sets the tone for the breathless ninety minutes that follow.
Set “A Few Years From Now” in a post-apocalyptic wasteland (a setting that would be cloned in any number of lesser imitations), Mad Max is the story of the police, “The Bronze”, who wage a constant war with “The Skags’, nomad bikers that terrorize the few people left after the fall of society. Caught up in the middle is the titular Max, an honest cop who still believes in fighting for what’s right.
The film, as aforementioned, is a revelation in its visual scope. Making the most of its widescreen, Miller employees a comic book style in his imagery that one could argue may be the predecessor to the modern action film. Featuring incredible stunt work from Grant Page (rightfully celebrated in Mark Hartley’s documentary on the genre, Not Quite Hollywood); the movie seems to keep trying to top itself after every daring spectacle, and what’s more succeeds in doing so.
As well as being an incredibly well made film visually, Miller’s sense of story is never given enough credit. While drawing heavily on a familiar good vs. bad premise that evolves into a classic revenge film, he engages the viewer totally within the world of the film and the characters that inhabit it. Instead of showing Max as a one dimensional lone ranger like “The Man With No Name” that Clint Eastwood so memorably portrayed in the Sergio Leone films, after slowing revealing him to the audience, Miller immediately sets about humanizing this tough as nails cop as a loving and warm family man before putting him through tell and taking the audience along for the ride.
While Mel Gibson’s iconic portrayal of Max would help him launch an international career to super stardom, the other actors in the film, who would all go on to find success in Australian film and television, all take their sometimes cartoonish roles seriously and all shine. Steve Bisley as the hotheaded Goose is fantastic, as is Ozploitation veteran Roger Ward playing his standard hard man as their Captain. Hugh Keays-Byrne is delightfully over the top as the aptly named Toe Cutter and Joanne Samuel does a fine job in one of her only film roles as Max’s wife.
A stunning piece of film making, as well as a car fetishist’s delight, Mad Max more than justifies its reputation as not only a masterpiece of Australian cinema, but cinema in general. When the gangs take over the highways, pray he’s still out there…
Mad Max was theatrically released in Australia on April 12, 1979.