Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Before I Die #573*: Mad Max (1979)

This is the 573nd film I've watched out of the 1,177 movies on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working my way through. *I just jumped from #568 to #573 after some editing of the full list to add a few more titles, 4 of which I had already seen. 

Director: George Miller

A marvel of its day, if not exactly a movie that first-time viewers are likely to love.

When taken in the context of when it was released, the original Mad Max is quite something. While the idea of setting a movie amidst a massive social breakdown was nothing new for the late 1970s, George Miller's vision was remarkably unique. In a style that embraced and even preceded the gritty punk aesthetic that we would see in movies like Repo Man, Mad Max gave us a dirty world infested with maniac gangs who terrorize the roadways. The tone of the film often has a B-movie quality to it, with the gang members completely hamming it up as they act like psychopaths hopped up on crystal meth and lighter fluid. And it is fairly clear from the sets and costumes that the filmmakers did not have much of a budget to work with.

But good lord, what George Miller and the crew managed to do with that budget.

With amazing efficiency and minimalism, they created a realized and horrifying fantasy world. We quickly see that the only defense the sparse region has against the gangs is a small band of dedicated highway patrolmen. These officers have few resources to work with and almost no support from a legal system which, based on our few glimpses of it, is all but useless. Among the police is a young and highly capable officer, Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson). Max is a very steady hand behind the wheel, and he is one of the few officers who has not become warped or jaded by their arduous job. That is, until one of the more ferocious motorcycle gangs and their leader, Toecutter, target Max and his family for killing one of their members.

The movie was advertised as a revenge tale, and there is that element. However, the revenge part of the story doesn't kick in until the last ten minutes or so. Most of the movie is dedicated to showing just how dilapidated the world is becoming, with several high speed chases thrown in. When Max does go seeking vengeance, though, there is enough emotional buildup that his rage is palpable and the conclusion powerful.

It might not have the budget or insane feats of a Fast and
Furious movie, but Mad Max features more than a few
intense pursuits on the roadways. 
When you realize that George Miller had a minuscule budget to work with, it is clear what a brilliant director he is. The cinematography is excellent, and the action scenes are extremely well done for the few resources at their disposal.

Having seen Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior several times before this, I was surprised that the original movie actually takes place before the world wars and nuclear devastation that create the mutated insanity that we see in in the sequels The Road Warrior, Beyond Thunderdome, and Fury Road. This makes the original feel even more stripped down and simplified. If I had been a viewer when the original was released, it probably would have blown my mind the same way that it did with so many people back then. I didn't realize it until I did a bit of research, but Mad Max long held the record for most profitable film, as it grossed over $100 million worldwide, while being made on a budget of a relatively paltry $350,000. This little B-movie-that-could clearly struck a chord with audiences, and the critics even saw Miller's impressive skill.

All of that said, Mad Max is tough to recommend to just anyone. People looking for a "fun" movie are likely to be disappointed. The movie is disturbing vision of the gritter, nastier sides of humanity and society. While there is some decent acting in it, particularly the understated turn by Mel Gibson, many of the performances are over-the-top. Anyone who enjoyed 2015's amazing Fury Road and wants to know more about the backstory of Max and his twisted world if likely to appreciate some parts of Mad Max; otherwise, only those who enjoy dusty dystopian settings and themes should go out of their way to catch up on this classic underdog.

That's 573 movies down, only 604 to go before I can die.