A Critical Appreciation of Explosions: Mad Max

A Critical Appreciation of Explosions continues on in all it’s blood- and gore-soaked glory, this time with another generous contribution from Yaz. 

Mad Max  is an important movie. It launched the career of Mel Gibson– who, psychotic-manchild antics aside, went on to do some absolutely phenomenal work –it helped launch an entire culture of Australian action films, the main character is pretty obviously the inspiration for The Punisher, the entire aesthetic of the Fallout games is a love letter to the film and its sequels, and the final five minutes of it inspired all 12-odd hours of the Saw franchise.

I had to think pretty hard to decide which Mad Max film to look at here, because I really do love all of them in different reasons. The first one is a dark, dirt-cheap and scary jolt, the second is incredibly fun and the most-loved and iconic of the series, and the third is really goofy, campy fun with some kickass action. In the end, though, the first one– simply titled Mad Max –really is the outright best of the films, despite its budget of approximately $12.50 and its sad lack of Lord Humongouses.

The FDA recommends at least one Lord Humongous, the Ayatollah of Rock ‘n’ Rolla, per day.

The thing that’s most unexpected about the original 1979 film is how incredibly unlike an action film it is. It feels more like a horror movie or a bleak, Children of Men-style drama that just happens to be punctuated with fucking awesome car chases. The film’s biggest inspiration was the 1973 oil crisis, in which Austrlian citizens proved themselves willing to line up for hours and beat each other with tire irons in order to fill their cars. And the original Mad Max captures that tone. Rather than the post-apocalyptic wasteland I expected going in, it’s instead a film about society right before it totally collapses. The world is in complete economic collapse, no more gas is coming into the country, and the roads and cities are slowly emptying. Gibson’s Max is part of what’s left of the police force, trying to protect his family from the savagery that no one has the power to stave off any more.

Not even by shooting absolutely everyone.

It’s a great performance by Gibson too– so that, even after 30 more years of acting practice, it remains one of his most memorable. Max Rockatansky is, for most of the film, a devoted husband and father and an honest highway cop. But there’s this tension in him– the way he recoils at a rubber monster mask like he’s afraid to wear it, the way he stares off into the sunrise with this look of utter despair on his face –that gives this feeling of something inside him. Max isn’t just afraid of the dangers of his collapsing world, he’s afraid of losing his grip. You’re never quite sure how much of Max’s heroism is out of legitimate goodness and how much is a defense against the madness of the world and himself. He’s like Batman as played by James Dean.

The director, George Miller (who, no lie, went on to direct Babe and Happy Feet) was working as an emergency room surgeon when he made the movie, and that really shows– the violence in the film is pretty goddamn brutal and mostly based on actual car crash victims who Miller treated. The opening of the film is one of the most intense and realistic car chases ever recorded (which is what happens when a bunch of auto buffs can’t afford pyrotechnics or safety equipment and so just race and crash actual cars) and it ends with a cop having most of a windshield embedded in his throat.

No special effects there. They just drove a police car through a trailer and hoped no one died.

Similarly, the film is scary because of just how little gentility or mercy it shows. When Max gets injured, he doesn’t just shrug it off. He wears a leg brace for the rest of the series. When the gang of thugs are chasing after Max’s wife (who, spoiler alert, dies later, because she is Mel Gibson’s wife in an action film– although really, we should be scared for Mel’s wife in any context) surround her and start pawing at her, you get legitimately afraid that you’re about to watch someone get raped. There’s never that feeling of safety or security that most action films have. It’s a really unrelenting movie and the scenes where Mel Gibson is breaking down because he knows that he’ll never be able to make a safe place for his wife and son are incredibly powerful precisely because the movie never lets you feel safe.

There’s this omnipresent sense of dread, of shit about to go down, and even after all the bad guys are dead you know that the world is only going to get worse. Max’s rampage of revenge, instead of being the focus of the film, occurs within the last twenty minutes or so and is more about the tragedy of a good and just man being turned into a vigilante killer than it is about our hero kicking ass and killing scumbags. The final shot– Max, completely expressionless and feeling no sense of victory, driving into the waste land in silence –is about the bleakest ending any action film has ever had.

And then, of course, things got worse.

It’s a beautiful film, too. The Australian Outback is about as gorgeous a shooting location as you could ever ask for, and the film’s flaws– its cheap film quality, its one-take action scenes, its dim sets and the fact that, after they ran out of money the crew just started donating their own cars to the cause –all give it a really dingy, ramshackle feeling and an incredibly graceless beauty. The cinematography is still incredible, the chase scenes are intense and the writing is sharp, but the film has that real low-budget charm and passion. You can tell it’s a movie by people who loved cars and filmmaking and were in it out of love. There’s a moment where Max has a broken knee and is driving his car, and you can hear all the painful shifting as he switches gears without using the clutch. The roar of the engines is loud and everywhere, so that the scene where Max meets his beautiful V8 Interceptor is entirely shouted over the car’s thrum. It’s cheap and it’s dingy and it feels more real than reality because of it. It’s the Clerks of action films. It’s a testament to the skill and talent of great action filmmakers that they could make an enduring classic and help invent an entire genre of science fiction for only 400 grand.

This amazing shot cost less to film than a ham sandwich.

If you haven’t seen the first installment of the trilogy, then, by all means go out and find it. The Road Warrior  is the more entertaining film and has a ton more stunts and action, but the original has an intensity and an incredible originality that can’t be denied. It’s one of the most emotionally draining and realistic action films ever made, and, unlike most of the other films we’re focusing on, one that’s a fairly serious film. Even though it opens with a sex scene followed immediately by a car chase.


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