Mad Max Review
"I am the Night Rider! A fuel injected suicide machine!"
And so we are introduced to the hellish world of Mad Max, set in a dystopian future where feral gangs of outlaws rule the roads. The police do what they can to combat this menace, and the public try to keep out of the way. Smack-bang in the thick of it is Officer Max Rockatansky, part of the Main Force Patrol (MFP) which is tasked with keeping law and order on the blacktop. The aforementioned Night Rider opens the film with a snarl, having killed a cop and stolen his car, leading the MFP on a crazed pursuit which can only end badly. Max's role in the chase angers the local biker gang, led by a man called The Toecutter, which sets in motion a hard-driving whirlwind of death and revenge with Max at the wheel.
Director George Miller's 1979 'Ozploitation' movie put both him and his fresh-faced star - a young Aussie-American named Mel Gibson - on the map. Made in and around the city of Melbourne, Australia on a shoestring budget, it defied all expectations and became one of the most successful independent films of all time, taking upwards of US $100 million worldwide. The bruising stunts and breakneck speed are what Mad Max is well known for, but the performances are just as powerful, and the intriguing imagery and editing give it a unique visual style.
According to the on-screen title the film is set "A FEW YEARS FROM NOW...", but the filmmakers weren't concerned with producing instantly dated notions of what the future would be like (probably because they didn't have the money to do so!). The barren Aussie landscapes work really well in a visual sense, hammering home how isolated and desolate this future is. The only thing which badly dates the movie is a groovy disco sequence. The production design instead concentrated on pimping out the stuff that matters, i.e. anything that runs on wheels, and the cars look just as bad-ass more than three decades later. (There's a certain freshness to the first film which the sequels lack. The kinky outfits in Mad Max 2 may have seemed scary at the time, yet they just look a bit fruity now. The less said about Thunderdome the better.)
Miller's editing constantly uses wipes, fades and dissolves which often give the film a dream-like quality, and although the stunts are 100% real they're also wildly cartoony at times, such as the quick close-up of wildly bulging eyes which precede a couple of big crashes, a police car getting battered to bits which somehow keeps on running, and one of the stunt cars has an obvious rocket booster attachment (!) which Wile E. Coyote would've been proud of. There are some bizarre images too, like the police commissioner who's dressed in Kendo gear for no apparent reason, and the brief close-up of Max's young son playing with a gun which isn't there on the wide shot. So while it's not exactly Lynchian in its madness, Miller isn't content to let the movie rest on its petrol-fuelled laurels.
Instead of using clunky dialogue to pad out the film in true B-movie tradition, Miller keeps the yakking to a minimum and so the narrative is pretty darned tight. Because of this there's precious little backstory or exposition, and given the obvious post-apocalyptic leanings of the sequels it's hard to pin down exactly when the first film takes place in that chronology. And when Max does get to deliver some insight into his character, it's done in such a way that it slows the movie to a dead stop. But maybe that's the point; at this stage in the movie Max is away from all the madness on the roads and so he's finally able to articulate his feelings towards his wife and child. The bitter irony is that just as soon as Max embraces these emotions - and perhaps life itself - something happens which will destroy his humanity, and turn him into the very thing he's been fighting against. And so the 'Mad' Max of the title finally makes his appearance...
Mel Gibson is good value, although it's not a particularly polished performance. Steve Bisley does a great job as Goose, Max's charismatic motor-cycle riding friend in the MFP, and Roger Ward has a memorable turn as Fifi, their bullish man-mountain of a boss who knows exactly what Max's true nature is. Joanne Samuel is fine as Jessie, Max's wife, adequately conveying her love for her man and also her dislike for what he does. Hugh Keays-Byrne leads the line for the bad guys, starring as the unhinged Toecutter, and he expertly flits between genuine malevolence and good old-fashioned scenery-chewing. Geoff Parry is worth a mention for his cold, dead-eyed performance as Bubba Zanetti, and Tim Burns is very annoying (intentionally so!) as Johnny The Boy.
Apart from all that, there is of course the brutal action. The film is a petrolhead's delight, showing off a few muscle-bound V8 Ford Falcons in various guises, and during Max's introduction at the start of the film his patrol car is given almost as much coverage as he is. We don't see Max's legendary V8 Interceptor take to the road until later in the film, but when the car gets a sniff of N20 it's enough to send a tingle down the spine. The smashes and crashes are all played out for real, and there's a palpable sense of danger throughout as a result - not least when a stunt rider gets clonked on the head by an errant motorcycle. It's a given that there's no CG but there aren't any visual effects full stop, save for a few moments that are optically sped-up, and it all adds to the realism.
In short, Mad Max is a lean, mean exploitation classic.
Mad Max comes to Blu-ray with a theatrically correct widescreen 2.35:1 presentation. Filmed in anamorphic 35mm (albeit Todd AO 35 and not Panavision), much of that format's foibles are apparent, with plenty of distortion at the periphery of the frame and a corresponding drop in sharpness in those areas.
Miller makes regular use of optical effects for his scene transitions. which lose a noticeable amount of detail and punch up the grain accordingly. A handful of shots look exceedingly dupey, with some very heavy grain. Still, when we cut to a regular shot there's plenty of fine detail on show. The multitude of opticals would normally lead to lots of printed-in dirt and scratches too, but they've been cleaned up beautifully here. The only things that remain are a sprinkling of some white negative-density specks, and an occasional static white mark during some of the optical shots.
The colour has not been subjected to a modernist makeover, so while it doesn't 'pop' off the screen it does look very natural. Skin tones are never overdone, and the bursts of colour that are there (the yellow of the MFP's Ford Falcons, the greens of the trees in the climactic final reels) stand out against the otherwise bleak backdrops. The contrast has been given the same respect - in other words, it hasn't been adjusted to retina-burning proportions to give the film a more modern look. This means that the occasional low-light shot will look a little washed out, but given the low budget source it is what it is. Otherwise, the black level is surprisingly pleasing.
I couldn't spot any compression greeblies on this fine AVC encode, although some little technical issues caught my eye. There's some edge enhancement resulting in thin but obvious halos, for which I've knocked a star off of the rating. If I had to guess, I'd say that this transfer came from a telecine of a positive element rather than a scan of the negative, owing to the noticeable gate weave. A low-budget flick like this needs all the help it can to look even remotely good on home video, and a high-resolution scan would've surely yielded a sharper and more stable image, which wouldn't have required overzealous sharpening.
Still, that's just me being ultra picky. Mad Max looks very authentic on Blu, all things considered.
Unfortunately the sound is limited by the original source and it just never kicks like I wanted it to. That's not to disparage MGM's efforts on a technical level, as the 5.1 remix on offer - encoded in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio - is very faithful to the original mono. Too faithful, in fact, as there's barely any activity from the surrounds and LFE, and even the front spread does little to follow the on-screen action. The dialogue often gets lost in the overbearing score, the latter benefitting the most from the 5.1 expansion, sounding strong and clear. The original theatrical mono audio is included as a Dolby Digital 2.0 track, along with the lifeless American dub, also in mono.
This combo pack contains the new Blu-ray and also MGM's 2004 'Special Edition' DVD. In keeping with the laziness demonstrated by Fox/MGM not putting all the extant features on the Blu-ray, I'll take you through what's on the high-def disc but will leave its DVD counterpart to an earlier review: Mad Max SE DVD Review.
So, what do we get on the Blu? The audio commentary (ported over from the SE DVD) is surprisingly good. Miller and Gibson are nowhere to be found, but most of the participants were involved with making the movie and have keen recollections of the shoot, not least cinematographer David Eggby who recounts how hairy some of those shots were to capture. Art director Jon Dowding chimes in with some interesting titbits, as does special effects man Chris Murray, and the only let down is the "Mad Max expert" Tim Ridge who can only state the bleedin' obvious.
The same line-up appears in the 25-minute featurette Mad Max: The Film Phenomenon, along with a couple of other talking heads whom I've never heard of. Again, there's no sign of Miller or Gibson, and this featurette (also taken from the SE DVD) feels like a segment of one of those awful '100 Greatest...' TV shows as a result. They do what they can to talk up the success of the film - especially Deep Voice Over Guy™ - but the people in the audio commentary tell the exact same stories on-camera and it feels largely redundant.
Rounding off the package are a few HD trailers; two US theatrical promos for Mad Max and one each for The Terminator, Rollerball, Windtalkers and Species.
Mad Max is a mixed bag on Blu. The video and audio are faithful renditions of this A$400,000 indie movie, so if you're after demo material you've come to the wrong party but purists will find much to appreciate. The reheated extras are a disappointment, as with no input from either the star or director it all feels a bit second-rate, but the commentary is worth a listen at least. And the film itself has stood the test of time, not least the action scenes because there's no substitute for actually doing this stuff for real. I doubt that Max will receive better treatment for many years yet, so if you're a fan and can play Region A discs (yes, they've locked it) then this release gets a strong recommendation from me.
"They say people don't believe in heroes anymore. Well, damn them! You and me, Max, we're gonna give 'em back their heroes!"