This is truly a strange film to watch for the first time in 2020, in which I draw odd parallels to the world we live in today. Like the present day, “Mad Max” paints a world on the brink of collapse. For fans of the series that were generally aware of the series, but only started watching after “Fury Road” like me, it serves as a sort of origin story for “Mad” Max Rockatansky and his world before apocalypse would break out, throwing it into anarchy.
Max (Mel Gibson) is a member of the Main Force Patrol (MFP), Australia’s Highway Patrol, in a not-so distant future to 1979. The world has been racked by war caused by an oil draught, and order has started to break down in Australia in the form of a vicious berserk biker gang that terrorizes the population through vandalism, theft and rape. Max comes into direct conflict with them when he kills a member of theirs, Crawford “Nightrider” Montazano (Vincent Gil).
Lead by Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), the gang kills Max’s partner, Jim “Goose” Rains (Steve Bisley), as well as his wife, Jesse (Joanne Samuel), and son, Sprog (Brendan Heath), which throws him into his titular madness.
The Australian government and MFP are portrayed as extremely ineffective and incompetant, and no one seems to take the biker gang seriously. They’re pretty much allowed to do whatever they want. There’s this strange casualness to everyone in this film, as while the seeds of what is yet to come are clearly planted in this film with the start of the breakdown of social order represented by Toecutter’s biker gang, nobody pays it much heed.
Roger Ward plays Fred “Fifi” Macaffee, Max’s police chief and commanding officer, and I quite enjoyed his character, though I wish there was more of him in this film. Apparently there’s a deleted scene that depicts his death, but it would have really helped if it were in the film, not only to symbolize the complete breakdown of authority in Max’s world, but to also break his character of the last character that keeps him grounded.
I think it’s also fair to criticize how Director George Miller portrayed Max’s madness, as it’s less of a smooth descent and more of a lightswitch. One second he’s a law abiding former MFP officer, another he’s a vigilante keen on destroying Toecutter and his gang, making them pay for what they did. Max’s trauma would be better developed in later films, and given this film was relatively low budget and also from 1979, there’s a lot I can forgive.
My biggest problem with the film is that it’s boring and poorly paced. It’s a film that takes its time, but I can see why it became a cult classic. “Mad Max” was Miller’s first feature film, and it’s the bud of much better works that would come after it.
Throughout viewing this, I couldn’t help but think what fun it would be to explore the world of Mad Max 1 through a video game, especially considering how well “Alien: Isolation” captured the world of the original Ridley Scott “Alien” movies. Indeed, all of the Mad Max films probably would work reimagined as AAA games.
“Mad Max” is a classic film. It’s not perfect by any means and it is severely limited by its budget and production (it was filmed in six weeks), but it was the breakout hit Miller needed to make much better films (for a time, it was the most profitable film of all time).
I will opt not to assign this film a score. Some films stand as important milestones in cinema, and I feel like the scoring/star system is inadequate to assess them. “Mad Max” 1979 is certainly one of them.
Whether it be to see an important piece of film history or to see the origin story of Mad Max, “Mad Max” 1979 is certainly worth a watch.