Australian director George Miller announced himself to the international marketplace as a formidable storyteller with Mad Max, a violent story set in a bleak near future where brutal gangs clash with trigger-happy cops on the battlefields of open highways; Miller’s camera swirls and swoops around the action in a kinetic way, accentuating the excitement generated by the confrontations between leather-clad road warriors. Mad Max was also the first opportunity for many viewers to see the young Mel Gibson, who tapped into his well-documented reservoir of personal rage to play an already tough cop transformed into a grim avenger by unfortunate circumstance. Having said all that, is Mad Max a particularly good movie? Not really.
The story is a tricked-up rehash of standard vigilante tropes, Straw Dogs with car fetishism thrown in for good measure. The narrative is also relentlessly histrionic, with every scene punctuated by capital letters in terms of blunt foreshadowing and heavy-handed visual metaphors. Yet even though there’s not a whit of subtlety to be found in these 88 minutes, the acting is generally quite strong. It’s interesting to watch Gibson’s first attempt at the man-on-the-edge routine he later perfected in countless Hollywood movies; leading lady Joanne Samuel is earthy and warm; and villain Hugh Keays-Byrne does an effective job of portraying a punk-rock version of your friendly neighborhood sadist (his one shaved eyebrow is a nice touch). So while the story is thoroughly clichéd and the violence is cartoonishly excessive (let’s run that guy over twice, because once is never enough), Mad Max seethes with the energy unique to ambitious young artists who are desperate to show off their skills.
After Mad Max made a splash, Warner Bros. hired Miller to shoot The Road Warrior (1981), a hybrid remake/sequel that features Gibson in a star-marking reprise of his Mad Max role. In addition to a bigger budget, The Road Warrior has more imagination and style than its predecessor, though it shares the same numbing sledgehammer approach. A third film in the series, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, appeared in 1985, and a fourth film, Mad Max: Fury Road, is reportedly in the works, albeit without Gibson in the lead role.
Mad Max: FUNKY