This article was first posted on July 23, 2010. It was inspired, in part, by Mel Gibson's recent (at the time) misogynistic meltdown and comparisons made in the media between his actual personality and that of his breakthrough role in Mad Max, the film that put Mr. Gibson on his path to stardom and, possibly, his propensity towards alcohol-fueled, homophobic, antisemitic, racist and misogynist rants towards whomever happens to be unfortunate enough to be in his presence when the madness seizes him. It is presented here with some minor corrections.
Mad Max begins with the caption "A few years from now...". Frankly, when I first saw this film back in the mid 80's, I thought its vision of an anarchic future in which civilization is slowly unraveling at the seams, with the police, the Main Force Patrol, trying (in vain, it turns out) to maintain order and with nomad biker gangs reveling in a new social order in which they're positioned as the apex predator, was a bit naive and simplistic. This was before it was firmly established in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome that the breakdown of civilization was precipitated by a nuclear war; in the first film, the actual cause of the breakdown is left somewhat vague but in the preamble to its sequel, The Road Warrior (or Mad Max 2 as it was called in Australia), it was hinted that some sort of socioeconomic catastrophe that found its catalyst in a war of some sort (not necessarily nuclear) was the cause of civilization's slide back into barbarity.
However, after having lived through Hurricane Rita and Hurricane Ike and witnessed the mad rush for gasoline, food and water that occurred before and after the storms, and having recently moved to California just in time to witness the disbandment of police departments for lack of funds and having to live with the anxiety of wondering what will happen when/if the state's annual budgetary crisis come to a head, it's quite possible that it wasn't the background story of Mad Max that was naive and simplistic, it was me that was naive and simplistic.
My only excuse was that it was during the mid 80's when I came to this conclusion. I was young and stupid. And, hey, it was the 80's.
But enough of my pessimistic ruminations on the possible prescience of director George Miller's vision of the downfall of civilization.
What's the movie like?
Despite the more than 30 years spanning the film's initial release and my re-viewing of it tonight, George Miller's story of the efforts of the Main Force Patrol to stem humanity's slide back into barbarism and the tragedy that ultimately transforms Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), hot shot Main Force Patrol driver, to Mad Max, a human wrecking ball fueled by 600 horsepowers worth of righteous vengeance, still holds up well. Mad Max grabs your attention from the moment the title credits and the theme music come on and it doesn't let go. Modern audiences may think it slow but that's because films these days seem to be made to cater to ADHD sufferers. That bit of "slowness" in the middle of the movie is a little something called character development, which, strangely enough, existed in action films 30 years ago.
However, I don't want to give the impression that Mad Max wants for action. Like I said, it grabs your attention from the get-go and drops you right in the middle of the action, and action it has in spades. There's this stunt in Mad Max that made me cringe when I first saw it and it still makes me cringe. I don't know how they filmed this scene. Basically, Max drives his Pursuit Special through a formation of nomad bikers and we get to watch the aftermath of his righteously homicidal rampage in lovingly filmed slow motion; one of the bikers is thrown from his motorcycle (actually, they're all thrown from their bikes) and he sort of does a butt slide on the asphalt...and then a flying out of control bike hits him in the fucking head! I don't know if this was an actual accident that happened during filming which George Miller kept in the film or whether it was the result of a meticulously planned stunt but it really looks like an honest to God human being got hit in the head with a flying out of control bike for our entertainment. Now, it could have been a dummy that took a hit for the team but it really doesn't look like a dummy and, trust me, there are scenes in Mad Max where it is apparent that a dummy just got run over for our entertainment and the use of dummies in these scenes is pretty obvious so I speak as one who has some inkling of the difference between a dummy and a human being.
In addition to the many incredible stunts involving flying motor vehicles hitting each other and terrible things happening to the soft and squishy people that happen to be inside them, Mad Max ends with a climax, which probably inspired the Saw movies, in which Max Rockatansky utters one of the most memorable lines of dialogue in action movie history:
"The chain in those handcuffs is high-tensile steel. It'd take you ten minutes to hack through it with this. Now, if you're lucky, you could hack through your ankle in five minutes. Go."
The difference between five minutes to hack through the ankle compared to the ten minutes to hack through the high-tensile steel is very relevant since before uttering this line, Max had just chained his prisoner, Johnny the Boy, to a jury-rigged time bomb!
Speaking of memorable lines of dialogue, some of the threats that Mel Gibson allegedly leveled at his girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva would make great lines in an action film coming from the mouth of the hero warning the villain about the hellacious shitstorm that he is about to unleash upon him. Except for the bit where he tells her that "you should just fucking smile and blow me!"
Because that would be a little too weird.