Essentially a western dressed up in post-apocalyptic duds, 1979’s Mad Max proved to be a surprisingly significant release. That seems especially true considering its origins as a low-budget offering made in Australia. However, its influence and success spread beyond those shores as the flick made quite a lot of money, and its dilapidated, gang-oriented setting proved to be very influential for many future releases. Oh, and it strongly launched the career of some guy named Mel Gibson.
Influential Mad Max may have been, but is it actually any good? Yeah, to a degree, but I must admit I didn’t feel the film had aged terribly well. It was easier to respect how fresh it must have seemed 22 years ago than to get into it today.
Max takes place in some undefined future “a few years from now”. At the start of the film, we see the desolate landscape and meet supercop Max Rockatansky (Gibson). A nutbag named the Nightrider (Vince Gil) steals a cop car and tears up the landscape, endangering police and civilians alike. When the other officers of Main Force Patrol can’t subdue the Nightrider, Max steps in and handles him, unfortunately (?) killing the criminal along the way.
This event brings the Nightrider’s cohorts to town. Led by the sadistic Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), the wreak havoc with the locals and target Max and his co-workers for their involvement in the Nightrider’s death. Max’s fellow officer and best friend Jim Goose (Steve Bisley) also becomes even more involved when lawyers get gang member Johnny the Boy (Tim Burns) out of jail on a technicality. Eventually, the stakes rise to a high level, and events occur that effectively make Max mad. There’s your title!
On the positive side, director George Miller started the film well. The opening confrontation between the police and the Nightrider worked quite nicely as they build the tension. They showed some exciting and vivid camerawork that vividly captured the action, and they also spotlighted some fine stunts. Miller introduced Max in an especially provocative manner that kept him a mystery until the right moment; it’s a great introduction that made the first section of the film quite compelling.
After that, the situation seemed less consistent. At its best, Max featured some exciting stunts and action, but it came at the cost of interesting and rich characters. All of the different roles felt fairly one-dimensional, and none of them ever did much for me. Toecutter was a particular disappointment. Keays-Byrne gave him a very distinctive look and feel, but the personality himself remained somewhat flat and generic.
Gibson didn’t show much of the vaunted charisma that would make him such a star. To be sure, he seemed more than acceptable in the role, but I rarely thought he brought a lot of spark or fire to the part. He made Max acceptably strong and forceful, but he couldn’t elevate the role past its bland origins.
At times, I thought Mad Max was a reasonably well-executed little action flick. For certain, the crew did much more with little money than they had a right to do; the film looked more elaborate and expensive than I’d reckon on a low budget. Nonetheless, the movie occasionally seemed somewhat dull and lifeless to me, as the bland characters never lifted the piece to another level. Mad Max merits a look as a groundbreaker, but I don’t think it’s held up tremendously well as a film.
Mad Max appears in both an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 and in a fullscreen version on this DVD-14; the widescreen image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Only the letterboxed picture was reviewed for this article. Though a few concerns popped up along the way, as a whole I was quite impressed with the quality of this image.
Sharpness seemed very strong. The movie remained crisp and distinct at all times, as I discerned virtually no signs of softness or fuzziness. It was a nicely focused and tight presentation as a whole. I detected no concerns related to edge enhancement or jagged edges, but a little shimmering occurred on occasion. Print flaws appeared quite minor for an older film. I saw a few specks, a little grit, some light grain and a blotch or two, but these remained fairly insignificant. All in all, it looked like a rather clean and fresh presentation.
Due to the production design, colors were rather drab throughout much of Mad Max. The movie featured a somewhat overblown and washed-out look to match the desolate setting. However, when brighter hues made sense, the DVD replicated them with solid vividness and accuracy, and the colors consistently appeared clear and distinct. Black levels also came across as reasonably deep and rich, and shadow detail looked clean and appropriately opaque. Overall, I was very impressed with the visual presentation of Mad Max, as it easily exceeded my expectations.
Though also good, the film’s remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack wasn’t quite up to the standards set by the picture. One very positive note: the audio came from the original “Australian English” recording and not from the atrocious American dub that most US fans know. Apparently the distributors thought Yanks couldn’t handle those thick Aussie accents, so we were stuck with a terrible looped edition.
In any case, the DVD replicates this situation. For those who remain interested, the American dub also appears on the disc, as does the original monaural Australian track. While the 5.1 mix definitely expanded the horizons of the latter, it didn’t do so to a tremendous degree. During much of the movie, the soundfield essentially remained monaural. Music and effects demonstrated some minor spread to the sides and the rear; for example, at times I heard cars as they zoomed from one area to another. However, the track stayed largely focused in the center, so don’t expect any audio gymnastics from it.
Sound quality seemed acceptable but lackluster. Speech often sounded somewhat flat and indistinct, but the lines always remained easily intelligible, and they showed no signs of edginess. Effects were similarly clean but they displayed little dynamic range; overall, they came across as relatively accurate but showed no power. Music seemed pretty flat as well; though the club scene added some depth, the score generally seemed bland though still clear. Bass response rarely mustered more than a vague rumble. Overall, this was a listenable track that appeared acceptable for its era and budget limitations, but it seemed fairly lackluster nonetheless.
On this special edition DVD, we find a reasonable roster of extras. MGM have championed the cause of the DVD-14. As also seen on their releases of The Terminator and Jeepers Creepers, this offers one dual-layered side and another single-layered side. The two versions of the movie appear on the dial-layered portion, while most of the extras show up on the single-layered reverse.
However, we find a couple of items on side one, and we begin with an audio commentary from director of photography David Eggby, production designer Jon Dowding, special effects technician Chris Murray, and historian/collector Tim Ridge. The first three men clearly were recorded together, but it sounded as though Ridge was taped separately; he only turns up on occasion, and his remarks seem somewhat detached from those of the other participants. That said, Ridge’s work is integrated awfully cleanly, to the point where I believe he didn’t sit with the others, but I’m not positive
Whatever the case may be, this is a reasonably interesting track. Not surprisingly, technical issues dominate the piece, and those elements add some useful information to the package. We learn about a variety of production elements, many of which revolve around the challenges created by the low budget. At times, the track sags, but as a whole, it seems reasonably entertaining and instructive.
In addition, you can watch the film along with Road Rants. Billed as a “trivia and fun facts track”, this subtitle stream provides just what it indicates. A variety of factoids pop up fairly consistently throughout the movie, though quite a few empty spaces occur. These tell us about the film’s vehicles, its actors, production details, goofs, translations of Aussie lingo, and a few other elements. It can’t be called a tremendously informative program, and it gets some facts wrong - such as its claim that only six women appear in Max - but it adds some interesting details to the mix.
As we move to side two, we discover two different documentaries. First up is Mel Gibson: The High Octane Birth of a Superstar. This 16-minute and 40-second featurette features movie clips for Max and a couple of other Gibson flicks from the era along with new interviews from some folks who worked with Gibson in the early days. We hear from college acting teacher Betty Williams, producer Phil Avalon and actor John Jarratt - who worked on Mel’s debut flick, Summer City - plus Gibson agent Faith Martin, Max casting director Mitch Mathews and director of photography David Eggby, as well as director Michael Pate and actress Piper Laurie, who knew Gibson during his follow-up to Max called Tim.
Abandon hope all ye who expect substantial information here! Instead, “Octane” is a painfully superficial discussion of how everyone knew Mel would be special. We learn how talented and handsome he was and how he was destined for greatness. The program is insanely fawning and gushing as it piles praise upon praise. A couple of minor factoids add slight interest, but overall, this is a very bad program.
The second documentary - called Mad Max: The Film Phenomenon - isn’t great, but it’s a substantial improvement over its predecessor. This 25-minute and 30-second piece combines a little behind the scenes footage and some more movie clips plus additional interviews. We hear from DP Eggby, production designer Jon Dowding, special effects technician Chris Murray, Australian film critic David Stratton, American critics Andrew Johnston and Kirk Honeycutt, and Max historian/collector Tim Ridge.
On the negative side, “Phenomenon” is also pretty gushy as it frequently tells us what a great movie Max is. However, at least this one includes some actual information. Due to the personnel involved, it tends toward the technical side, and frankly, it seems rather redundant since we hear from so many of the same folks in the commentary. It really could have used a wider scope; the absence of director George Miller or any of the actors is a definite problem. Overall, “Phenomenon” is a decent but excessively fawning and hyperbolic documentary.
A few minor extras round out the package. We get a dubbed US trailer from the film’s original release; the DVD states that it offers the Australian clip, but that’s clearly incorrect. In addition, we see four TV spots from the US release. Don’t watch these first if you’ve not seen the movie; they reveal an awful lot of the story. An International Poster Gallery includes 16 images, some from a later reissue of the film; these call it Mad Max 1. Finally, the DVD’s booklet provides some information about Mel Gibson, George Miller, and the movie’s stunts.
Though undeniably influential, I didn’t think Mad Max offered a terrific film experience. The flick had its moments, and I could definitely see its impact on later movies, but the flick itself seemed decent but unspectacular as a whole. The DVD provided a very strong picture with acceptable sound and a fair though somewhat drab pile of supplements. As a whole, this was a nice DVD, and the movie deserved a look due to its place in history, but frankly, little about the enterprise excited me.