It’s most common for movie series to peak begin on a high, before anyone had an inkling there would be further chapters, and then inexorably decline. A few notables buck the trend, however. Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn is one, where the comic energy makes its predecessor look threadbare by comparison. Mad Max 2 (or The Road Warrior) is another, a movie that fully embraces propulsive, kinetic action and the mythic potential of its protagonist. While both these elements are in nascent form in Mad Max, it’s really by reflection of what came after, and Mel Gibson’s star-in-waiting status, that George Miller’s first instalment is elevated beyond its exploitation (or Oz-ploitation) trappings.
Which isn’t to say Mad Max isn’t effective; there’s good reason it held the status of the most profitable movie ever (until The Blair Witch Project came along; now that’s a picture with nothing to crow over other than its profit margin). Max is reputed to have earned more than $100m worldwide on a budget of less than $400,000 (presumably Guinness did some checking before they put it in their Records book). Audiences were clearly responding to something, whether it was the car stunts, although the most impressive occur in the opening sequence, or the revenge plotline. Max becomes a leather clad Dirty Harry during the final act, dispensing his own form of justice when he’s pushed too far (although Miller is less frivolous about his hero than in Don Siegel’s deeply ambivalent picture, which points the finger at Harry Callahan while simultaneously celebrating him).
There’s an unrelenting bleakness and grimness of tone to Mad Max that isn’t so far from horror movies of that period. No one is really safe anywhere in this decaying tomorrow; anarchy is on the verge of taking hold. In particular, the intrusion of bestial and lawless man on a natural or peaceful idyll during the second act is the stuff of horror movie staples (there’s a strong whiff of Straw Dogs at times). Miller’s picture also reflects the surrounding cultural landscape; the seedier paraphernalia of punk, which he will later fetishise (Mad Max 2’s mohawks and bondage gear), is the distillation of a generation gone to hell. It isn’t just the nomad trash; it’s also those who would hold them in check. We see this from the first, with Peeping Tom cops (members of MFP – standing for the definitely not focus-grouped Main Force Patrol) indulging a gratuitous attitude towards high-speed pursuit not so very different from those they are chasing.
Miller allows his audience to fill in the blanks. His story is “A few years from now…” We’ve seen science fiction pictures depicting a fallen world before (although the most overtly “sci-fi” thing about Mad Max is the title design), ones with a not dissimilar tone (No Blade of Grass, in which the failure of crops leads to starvation and terror, most notably with the sudden appearance of Hell’s Angels bent on rape and pillage). But this is a society before the complete collapse of the sequel, and as such it occupies a netherworld unusual for the movies.
The opening free-for-all MFP chase only becomes a concern when we learn that the Nightrider (Vince Gil) is “heading for population”. Later we are told he is a “scoot jockey”, “nomad trash”, and a “glory roader”. We may wonder why Max and his missus and sprog would choose to live out there (somewhere), in harm’s way, or, indeed, go on vacation, or that he would let her visit a deserted beach while he fixes a fan belt, but then there wouldn’t be much of a picture; horror movie rules must be observed. It may be there are areas of “lesser” danger out there, hence the “Stop Prohibited Area” sign when Max speeds after Toecutter, but the reasons for the warning are not elaborated upon (John Kenneth Muir astutely observes this is Max crossing his own personal boundary).
It’s only foolhardy types like Goose (Steve Bisley) who are fearless; Max is well aware of the dangers, and is looking to get out when meet him. Places that Toecutter’s gang visit (picking up Nightrider’s coffin from a station, homaging classic western business as he hassles the station attendant) seem to expect trouble as part of an increasingly outlaw existence, but some evidently deal with it better than others (the mechanic gets off lightly, until Max encounters on him; the young couple who race off don’t).
This is a vision of ruination; the understaffed MPF occupy threadbare premises; if not for the wobbly Halls of Justice sign and a dodgy lawyer, one might believe they weren’t even legitimate cops. Perhaps Max was an influence on the cuts-hit, crime-afflicted precinct in Robocop (1987). Officers become trigger-happy adrenaline junkies to survive. The chief instructs, as long as paperwork is clean, they can do what they like out there.
Part and parcel of this is the destruction, both auto- and human. The latter is informed by Miller’s former career as a doctor; violence in Mad Max is not cavalier, nor is it consequence-free for its hero. Those surrounding him may or may not be blasé, but it is a fact of life. Goose grosses out a fellow diner by describing an accident victim’s missing face, so winning an extra lunch, while the reaction of Roop (Steve Millichamp) to the injury of Charlie (John Ley) is especially matter-of-act; “Better send the meat truck”.
The Toecutter and his gang are even less sensitised, wholly psychotic and indifferent to the acts they inflict upon others. Nightrider announces himself as a “fuel-injected suicide machine”, young or beautiful people are there to be defiled (“Look what’s turned up for Sunday dinner”; “Main course and dessert” are the comments on Max’s wife) while the Toecutter threatens that she will “lose her face”.
Elsewhere Miller allows himself a grim chuckle. The dismemberment of the curiously named Cundalini (“Cundalini wants his hand back”) makes for a gory punchline when Jessie (Joanne Samuel) discovers the dog having a go at his severed appendage. The survival of Charlie, now equipped with a voice box, is also played as something of a joke, and the popping eyeballs of Toecutter add some colour to demise (which one might have expected to be at Max’s hands).
The real witness to the horrors of the road is Max; Miller allows sights to play across his face rather than directly. He is the one ushered in to witness the fate of Goose, left to burn in a fiery wreck (“That thing in there. That’s not Goose, no way”). Goose was thought indestructible, and his fate serves to emphasise that, even as he pushes towards the mythic, Miller is grounded in brutal cause-and-effect. Later we see the distraught Max listening to doctors discuss Jessie’s fate at the wheels of the bike gang (multiple organ failure, lost an arm). Even with more-than-sufficient motive, he isn’t permitted the cool unflustered Eastwood reprisal; his arm is run over and he takes a gunshot wound to the leg that leaves him permanently afflicted (Mad Max 2).
If the violence has the kind of unflinching method of a medical man who knows every detail, Miller is still learning his art as an action director. His use of anamorphic widescreen is consistently impressive; he has an instinctive understanding of framing, placing the camera low and creating an exaggerated reality. He also can’t be faulted with his staging, and he builds sequences expertly. The only problem is, aside from a tendency to uncrank the action, they’re structured rather overtly like ‘70s “Public Information” films; the sequence of factors that will combine for explosive action is both contrived (a child, a van stuck on the road) and telegraphed well in advance, although this is something Miller will have honed come the sequel.
The introduction of Max occurs during the opening such sequence, in which his fellow officers fail. Miller sets him up iconically, not showing Max fully at first, and introduces him as the only guy who can intervene (even Goose comes a cropper). There’s actually fairy little to emphasise Max as the best of the best in the manner expected of him by his pals; certainly not in terms of go-getter bravado. While he tells chief Fifi Macaffee (Roger Ward), “Look. Any longer out on that road and I’m one of them, you know? A terminal crazy, only I got a bronze badge to say I'm one of the good guys”, it’s only his skills at chicken that mark him out in this regard (and that’s more ice cold).
Presumably he was once closer to the carefree Goose, which is why the Interceptor is considered a greater lure than it actually is (“we have to seduce him with candy”). Max doesn't really convince when he claims he's beginning to enjoy it in that "rat circus" out there, as we've seen precious little to evidence this. Max is not disgusted with the Force, or the system, like Dirty Harry (the latter is reserved for Goose), he’s simply afraid for his soul. The point is, unlikely his colleagues, he isn’t crazy.
While the character minimalism in Mad Max 2 is intentional and adds comic book lustre, the broader strokes in Mad Max are less effective. Max’s scenes with Jessie and son are there to prevent an alternate vision of his life, and for every nice touch (his wife’s unexplained signing “Crazy about you” as he leaves for work), another misses the target (Jessie’s sax solo). Because Mad Max is pared down, the depiction of homebody Max is on the clumsy side. The montage road trip romance before the villains do the nasty further emphasises two disparate worlds that have no relationship with each other (and hence Miller creates more questions than he is prepared to answer; surely their home is impractical. Shouldn’t they at least have bars on the windows?) Miller may be consciously presenting Jesse as Max’s “happily ever after”, but it means she exists solely to be lost and provide motivation rather than as a fully realised character.
The best shot of the movie – and its notable that, for all his ability to provoke, Miller knows cutting away can have greater power; from Goose in the wreck, to Goose in the hospital bed, and here - is the moment where Jessie is overwhelmed by the gang. We see no impact, only the bikes whizzing by and solitary shoe and ball dropped in front of the camera. It’s the kind of punchy filmmaking Miller is striving towards, hence its inclusion at the beginning of the sequel.
If The Good, the Bad and the Ugly found Clint picking up his key items on course, Mad Max can occasionally distract for the elements that define Max in 2; look, there’s the Interceptor, aw, there’s his doggy, and look what he did to make his leg that way! In a real way, Mad Max 2 lives apart from Mad Max, the montage at the opening of the former representing the half-remembered dream of a realm far from the present. We even sense this retroactively in the language Fifi uses with Max, predicting his status as a subject of folklore, although Fifi's sermon is well-rehearsed bluster (“They say people don’t believe in heroes any more. Well, damn them! You and me, we’re going to give them back their heroes!”)
But, while Miller will later entertain such iconography wholesale, here the character of Max is more difficult to define and in something of a state of flux. On holiday he could almost be taken for a square, but when he bounces back to pursue Toecutter he becomes a flawed force of nature (one we do not see again, not even in the sequel). The transition comes through, of all things, staring at a rubber monster mask.
Curiously, if Jessie is presented in a rather perfunctory manner, Miller sets up the rest of the support with the easy memorability of Leone. There are the incidental encounters. There’s Goose (an influence on Top Gun?) who is already a legend (“We’ll see you on the road, scag!”), one who believes his own hype, and so must die. There’s blonde Bubba (Geoff Parry), the right hand man of Toecutter, shown to be a more measured kind of psycho. We also meet Benno (Max Fairchild), the gentle giant, introduced with a horror cliché flourish (and yes, I did wonder if he was supposed to be the same character as Masterblaster in Thunderdome).
Johnny the Boy (Tim Burns) comes across as a gibbering loon from the mould of the Scorpio Killer, one who uses medical diagnosis as protection (“I’m not a bad man. I’m sick, see. Psychopathic. Personality disorder”). The choice Max gives him is likely, given Johnny’s squeamishness, to be terminal (five minutes to hack through his ankle versus 10 to get through the chain). Yet, perhaps surprisingly, given his abundant craziness, Johnny is not the full deal crazy. He draws the line at setting Goose alight, even when instructed by his boss (“This is a threshold moment, Johnny”). Admittedly, this doesn’t quite match what we have seen of him before, but it serves as a neat mirror to Max at the conclusion, who has now crossed over such that he is utterly impassive over Johnny’s end.
Revisiting Mad Max, a film I haven’t seen since the ‘80s, my reaction has changed very little, but I am more conscious of the nutty performance Hugh Keays-Byrne gives as Toecutter. Keays-Burne also plays the villain in Fury Road, of course (in both movies he also has crazy hair, his being worthy of The Bride of Frankenstein here, and those eyes are unmistakable). The threat of Toecutter is that of an intelligent man given to barbarousness. He tells the man at the station, “What a wonderful philosophy you have” and his mock horror reaction to May (Sheila Florance) is hilarious (managing to momentarily undercut the queasy tension of the scene).
It’s curious that Miller, building his blocks of myth, denies Max revenge on the ultimate instigator, who meets his demise when he goes headlong into a truck. Perhaps that is intentional, since there is a clear denial of the satisfaction of revenge in the picture, but it means Miller is working in two essentially conflicting directions.
Mad Max 2 leaves Max driving off into the unknown, the wastelands, where he will become a warrior. The 1973 oil crisis that informed Mad Max may inspired the idea of scarcity of resources, but it does not become central to until the sequel; the lawlessness of the gangs could exist in any dystopian scenario, not just an petrol-poor one (even the oil truck hijack).
My first experience of Mad Max was, like many, in a cropped-frame, US-dubbed version. It gains much from being seen (and heard) in its intended form, but, while it’s an effective movie, it cannot hope to pack the punch of its sequel. Mad Max’s rough-and-ready qualities only work in its favour so far, and Miller is unable to quite traverse from visceral horror road show to myth-making. The title is as lurid and overblown as Brian May’s melodramatic score (to be fair to him, he told Miller there was too much of it), testifying that the picture has a raw power, but it creaks under its learning curve. Miller mistakes iconography for literalism at times (“Anarchie Road”) and there’s a feeling that, as with Evil Dead, it really isn’t essential to see the original; everything one needs and more is in 2. Mainly effective for the chilling conjuring of a society on the wane, recognisable still but without the means to reverse its decline, Mad Max paved the path for the classic to come, but it isn’t a classic itself.