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Mad Max (1979)

“They say people don’t believe in heroes anymore.  Well damn them!  You and me, Max, we’re gonna give them back their heroes!” says Fifi.  Max Rockatansky asks, “Ah, Fif.  Do you really expect me to go for that crap?”  Fifi responds, “You gotta admit I sounded good there for a minute, huh?”

The 1970s and very early 1980s saw a revitalization of Australian films that eventually became known as the Australian New Wave.  Included are films by Ted Kotcheff (1971’s Wake In Fright), Peter Weir (1975’s Picnic At Hanging Rock, 1977’s The Last Wave, 1981’s Gallipoli), Phillip Noyce (1978’s Newsfront), Fred Schepisi (1976’s The Devil’s Playground, 1978’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith), and Bruce Beresford (1977’s The Getting of Wisdom, 1980’s Breaker Morant).  George Miller was another Australian filmmaker who would emerge during this period.  Little did he know that he would give birth to one of cinema’s greatest iconic characters as well as provide the platform that would enable little-known Mel Gibson to give his breakthrough performance.  Until now, my exposure to Mad Max has been limited to the third film in the franchise, 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (which I’ve caught in pieces on TV over the years).  Unlike the sequels, the first film still has some of what we would consider a normal society (although the dystopian future has already taken root).  I finally got the chance recently to see the original Mad Max on the big screen at the IFC Center, and it was quite an enjoyable experience.

1979’s Mad Max follows a cop named Max Rockatansky in the near future who works for the Main Force Patrol (a highway police patrol that looks after what’s left of the rural towns in Australia).  A biker gang led by the Toecutter is targeting civilians in rural towns and sets their sights on the police after the death of one of their own.  After the stakes become personal and tragedy strikes, Max takes a stand and fights back against the gang.  Miller brought together a terrific cast that includes Mel Gibson (as Max), Joanne Samuel (as Jesse Rockatansky), Hugh Keays-Byrne (as the Toecutter), Steve Bisley (as Jim “Goose”), Roger Ward (as Captain “Fifi” Macaffee), Vincent Gil (as the Nightrider), Tim Burns (as Johnny the Boy), and Geoff Parry (as Bubba).  Gibson shines in his breakthrough performance, bringing compassion and vulnerability to Max’s family man and is calm and cool when on duty.  Samuel also shines as Max’s wife, being his rock, keeping the film grounded, and giving Max hope for the future.  Keays-Byrne is dramatically creepy and weird as the Toecutter, a symbol of the anarchy that is to come (without going too over-the-top).

The screenplay by Miller and James McCausland perfectly creates the beginnings of a dystopian future, with lawlessness slowly increasing.  It establishes Max’s family life and contrasts it with the Toecutter’s “family life.”  Miller’s direction is strong, drawing impressive performances from his cast and staging thrilling action sequences.  David Eggby’s cinematography eschews a dark visual palette, creating a contrast between the natural sunlight that is used and the film’s dystopian setting.  Jon Dowding’s production design helps create the beginnings of dystopia in the vast rural Australian landscape, perhaps best personified by the run-down Halls of Justice sets.  Clare Griffin’s costume designs are first-rate (the leather outfits for the police look bad-ass), as is Ned Dawson’s sound design.  Brian May (not the member of the band Queen) delivers a wonderful score with exciting action music and a tender family motif for Max.  Mad Max is a visceral experience that brings Miller’s dystopian vision of the Australian landscape to life and gives birth to one of cinema’s greatest icons.

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