Arc of a Driver.
Mel Gibson is mad. We know that now. But in 1979, he was madder. As MAD MAX.
“A Few Years From Now” in a blasted ochre wasteland of cars and guns, lone highway cop Max Rockatansky (Gibson) goes Mad Mel on the bike gang that killed his wife and child.
MAD MAX started it all. We can nitpick over the few other “post-apocalyptic” movies existent at the time (PANIC IN THE YEAR ZERO (1962), A BOY AND HIS DOG (1975, which the director cites as an influence), DAMNATION ALLEY (1977), etc.), but none had the heat, the fury, the – ahem – “drive” of MAD MAX, which propelled the genre itself into – dare I? – overdrive.
In 1968, BULLITT took the Car Chase to the next level. In 1979 MAD MAX took the Car Chase into orbit. The new bar is established with the visceral opening: In this Outback Steakhouse wasteland (filmed around Broken Hill, New South Wales), cops pursue the frenzied Night Rider (Vince Gil) in a stolen police car, while he quotes AC/DC and methamphetamine. The chase is like a fist around our throats – primitive, hurricane, guttural; feeding off speed and low-slung gunslinger camera techniques. When the two cop cars are vanquished in the chase, a third cop car takes over…
When the wheel of Max’s Interceptor rolls into camera in closeup and pulls to a stop, with Night Rider’s car at the other end of a stretch of road, we realize: This is a Western, with cars as horses and highways instead of dusty streets. A man dragged behind a motorbike instead of a horse, each showdown with vehicles instead of guns; this is Kurosawa, this is Leone; HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER writ apocalyptic.
Gibson, so 19 and babysmooth they re-phrased it “smooth as Mel Gibson’s bottom,” is doe-eyed and dutiful in the opening scenes; a real Stolid Max (but that didn’t make for a good movie title – mostly because people didn’t know what “stolid” meant), on a rocketcar to international superstardom; close-cropped hair, bedazzling eyes, oozing charisma like a BP oil spill, and a smile that made panties drop. The butt-leather only helped. With wife Joanne Samuels and toddler Sprog, he plays Family Max (nope, still no movie title) each night, and “bronze” by day (the derogative name by which the police are known).
Fellow bronze Goose is Max’s best friend (played by Steve Bisley, Gibson’s real life surfie wingman, as hot and hunky as Gibson in Australia at the time); Roger Ward is man-mountain Fifi the police captain (“You and me, Max, we’re gonna give ’em back their heroes!”). Shakespearean-trained Hugh Keays-Byrne is unhinged bike gang leader Toecutter, an imposing, loping beast of Earth colors and furs and shaved eyebrows; Geoff Parry, his inscrutable bottle-blond right hand, Bubba Zanetti; Adam Ant lookalike Tim Burns is unbalanced, irresponsible Johnny the Boy (who shares something very Don’t Ask Don’t Tell with Toecutter, which also probably involves his right hand).
Max realizes he teeters on the edge, “It’s that rat circus out there. I’m beginning to enjoy it. Any longer I’ll be a terminal crazy, only I’ve got a bronze badge to say I’m one of the good guys.” He’s a Concerned Max (but still no movie title). A fatal attack on Goose drives Max to tender his resignation to Fifi. Though doing his best Anxious Max (uh, still no movie title), Fifi doesn’t buy it, “What is this? Bunny week?!” and sends Max on paid leave. Aha! Bunny Max as title? Shutup.
While on vacation, Max starts talking girly to Joanne Samuels, “I don’t want to wait ten years to tell you how I feel–” who thankfully stops him by kissing him, and then taking her clothes off to go swimming. He’s a regular Sensitive Max Factor by now (definitely not movie title material), and it would take a chance encounter with Toecutter’s gang to prompt him to grab a nut. In the roar of an engine, his family is cut down. That makes Max…
At last! We have the movie title that will make people burn rubber to get their arses in here!
The gurgle and purr of hyper-tuned motors, the arid expanses of heat-split asphalt, camera kissing the speeding black, screaming across the flat Australian desert plains. Rocket-fueled vehicles pummeling across the desolate skull-and-crossbones streets. Iconic scenes, like the undercranked visual of the hotrod pealing toward the horizon and the vulture bikes gaining effortlessly on it, from below the screen (as iconic as the star destroyer hoving into view from above the screen). The primal nitro cars, the graphic slow motion crashes, the raw high-speed head-ons establish this movie as the new breed of fuel injected suicide machine.
The bronze vehicles are all Ford Falcons – the coolest and sexiest of cars, with their Spitfire lines and solid road-hugging bodies. Max’s “Pursuit Special” is spoken of as “the last of the V8s” in this film, and then christened “The Last Of The V8 Interceptors” [to be said in a totally ocker accent] in the sequel, MAD MAX 2.
Written by James McCausland, Byron Kennedy and George Miller, and directed by Miller, MAD MAX put Australian filmmaking on the map. Fueled by the anxious, epic, punchy soundtrack of Australian composer Brian May (no connection to Queen’s virtuoso guitarist). With a budget of less than $400,000 and a worldwide box office of over $100 million, “for twenty years the film had the highest profit-to-cost ratio of any motion picture, conceding the record to THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT in 1999.” (Wikipedia.)
mad film making
Miller would show us his directorial style was as lean as the bike gangs were mean: We see Max striding toward his Pursuit Special to commandeer it for revenge – a dissolve, and the cruiser is rolling toward us with him at the wheel; when Max’s family are run down – an acceleration, a baby shoe and a bouncing ball are all it takes to visually grasp the tragedy; when Max pulls back the sheet to see the burned-alive Goose, a watery filmic effect – on Max’s horrified face – is enough to convey the extent of Goose’s injuries… the film is filled with beautiful shorthand and implied storyline like this… It was part budget, part creativity – all madness.
Miller revolutionized the literally death-defying camera technique of the traveling shot at road level at 100 miles per hour. With minimal technology: His cameramen were actually leaning out of vehicles and holding the camera at road level as the vehicles they were riding in were barreling along cheating death. Almost everything onscreen is practical effects: the gunshots into the mannequin, the car crashes, bike tumbles. No CGI, no Steadicam, hardly any stuntpeople (when Goose and Johnny the Boy are scuffling and the cops and lawyers tumble out of the doorway, rolling, hitting tarmac, that’s every one of those actors involved in that scene – no stunt people taking any falls); and there is that slomo bike crash where the rider gets a wheel to the head. Most claim he’s alive and well…
In the final scene, where Max hunts down Johnny the Boy and psychologically tortures him before killing him, innumerable questions are raised. (But in 1979, no one was asking them.) Yes, they killed his family, but in any civilized society, you can’t just kill back. Are the filmmakers saying Max’s unilateral judge-jury-executioner behavior is acceptable because civilized society is no more? Or maybe they’re saying that true justice IS what we inherently know it to be: an eye for an eye. Earlier, when Max was being hunted by Toecutter and Bubba Zanetti, they tortured him by shooting him in the knee and driving over his arm (as a result, Max would have metal braces on his left leg in later scenes, and retain them throughout his filmic sequels). (This scene would preempt THE TERMINATOR (1984), as this killing machine called Max wills his body forward, toward his assailants, through the excruciating pain of his wounded arm and leg, a murderous glint in his eye; Toecutter can only turn tail and run.) So because they tortured him, it’s okay for him to torture back? Yes it’s knee-jerk entertainment, and we serious apologists like to regard it as “visceral, primal instinct.”
Is it Hero or Anti-hero that drives into the raining night having premeditatively killed a man without a trial? The filmmakers have finally gotten the point across, that by now, the dead-eyed, exhausted, nihilistic Max truly is… well, you know…