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Mad Max (1979)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1997

An action-packed road movie with a heart, Mad Max launched Mel Gibson on his path to the Oscars. Set in a sort of post-apocalypse near-future, the standards of Australian civilisation have slipped somewhat. Gangs of bikers maraud the highways, barely kept in check by elite cops and their suped-up pursuit cars. Just watch as Nightrider (Vincent Gil) screams down the road in a stolen pursuit vehicle, keeping the cops at bay with his suicidal manoeuvres. In some spectacular crashes all of his pursuers are disabled, leaving just ace driver Max (Mel Gibson) to face him. Starting off with a dare, Max drives directly at the oncoming car, with a devastating crash narrowly avoided when Nightrider loses his nerve. Further down the road this psycho delinquent ploughs into a major traffic accident, unable to take the pressure of Max behind him. For Max it's just another day, as the thin line between order and chaos, but Nightrider turns out to have had a number of not very happy friends.

Cruising into a small town, a gang of scruffy bikers looks ready for trouble. However, their leader the Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) is actually here to collect Nightrider's coffin; it's small, as there wasn't much left of him. Casually terrorising a couple of young love-birds on their way out, Max and his partner Jim Goose (Steve Bisley) get sent to check out the aftermath. Luckily the kids are still alive but, even better, one of the bikers, Johnny the Boy (Tim Burns), was too stoned to drive away. The cops take him back to headquarters (or what remains of it) for a little cross-examination. Unfortunately a pair of slimy lawyers get Johnny released, much to the annoyance of Goose. Revenge is in the air, with the biker gang vowing to get some "bronze" while the cops have been given free reign by their boss. The first round goes Toecutter's way when he catches Goose and incinerates him in his truck. This is all too much for Max, since he's got a wife and kid to consider, and he quits.

The family unit departs on a well-earned holiday, drifting along the deserted beaches and generally motoring around. By a dreadful coincidence they run into the biker gang again, although with a bit of nifty driving they seem to have lost their nemesis. If only life was that easy! Toecutter and his disreputable mob manage to track them down, which leads to a terrible climax and a turning point for Max. His wife Jessie (Joanne Samuel) and baby son are brutally mown down by the bikers, pushing Max over the edge. Returning to his well-worn leather uniform, Max takes the most powerful vehicle in the police garage (a beast of a car with "nitro" injection) and embarks on a personal vendetta.

A real sleeper hit, Mad Max went nowhere on its original release and only rose to popularity with its more successful sequel. This is probably down to the strange atmosphere of the film; the characters inhabit an almost deserted landscape where nothing actually gets done and everyone clings on to the last vestiges of civilisation. Mechanics have risen in status, since they're the only people who can construct working cars from the leftover junk, but sheer physical force is the route to power in this territory. There's a surprising level of tenderness in the film, as Max shares time with Jessie, but this tends to be forgotten under the roar of super-charged engines. The stunts and car chases are all important here, providing lots of impressive thrills and spills. Sure the acting isn't up to much but who cares! Somehow though this movie seems better in memory (where everything is compressed into a long highway chase) rather than in reality, where there are lots of slow moments and not particularly interesting bits. A low budget classic then but not quite in the same league as its successor.

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