Thursday, May 3, 2012

Movie Review: "Mad Max" by David Pretty

Hey, kids!  Remember when Mel Gibson was only crazy in the movies?  Yeah, sadly neither can do I, which is why I sat down recently to revisit Mad Max.   
There are two major actor archetypes: character actors like Gary Oldman and Billy Bob Thornton and then there are leading-man types. Like Harrison Ford and Cary Grant, Mel Gibson always seems to be riffing on variations of a certain cinema identity ... read more Now there are two types of actors out there: brave chameleons who willingly vanish inside the skin of oddball characters and leading-man types who don't like to stray very far away from playing idealized versions of themselves.  Whether it be by chance or deliberate engineering, Mel Gibson has always gravitated towards roles that depict him as noble but kind of unhinged.  Not only does this place him squarely in the latter category of actors it also serves as rich fodder for legions of armchair psychologists.  

Which begs the question: how much of this was a conscious decision on Gibson's part and how much of it was casting to type?  This sort of chicken-and-the-egg speculation occurred to me back in 2010 when Gibson attempted to resuscitate his tarnished career by starring in Edge of Darkness, playing a character not dissimilar to "Mad" Max Rockatansky.

Before proceeding down this strange and deadly highway, here's the film's scruffy-looking trailer:

Back in the mid-Seventies visionary film-makers George Miller and Byron Kennedy came up with a concept for a dystopian future that was both dynamic and reasonably cheap to realize.  Fueled by cautionary headlines about peak oil, increased lawlessness on the road and Miller's own stint in an emergency crash ward, the concepts coalesced into one of the biggest domestic hits in Australian cinema and the perfect foundation for a new sci-fi franchise. 

Set in a future only "a few years from now", Max's world is clearly beginning to collapse into a quagmire of greed and chaos.  Fuel has grown increasingly scarce and roving gangs of motorcycle-driving lunatics are terrorizing pedestrians and motorists everywhere.  The only levee standing against this tide of anarchy is a nominal, understaffed, and possibly privatized highway police unit: the Main Force Patrol. 

Their star player is Max Rockatansky, who manages to put public enemy number two, the so-called Nightrider, out of commission in a brutal, high-speed game of vehicular chicken.  The pendulum of the plot then swings into the realm of revenge when the gang's defacto leader, The Toecutter, seeks payback for the death of the Nightrider.  After Max's worst nightmare is realized, he struggles to hold onto his veneer of civility and sanity. 

Despite the film's microscopic budget, the costumes, props and cars all help to sell the film's low-fi vibe.  The innovative and gutsy actions sequences never cease to amaze and I can't help but ponder how many non-unionized stunt workers were maimed while shooting this.  The vehicular mutilations that occur on screen during this film really defy description. 

The film's skid-row aesthetics really drive home the perception that society is both morally and financially bankrupt.  Mad Max is certainly the product of a long-gone era and the film's financial challenges add to its bizarre appeal. The soundtrack is completely over the top: soft and saccharine when Max is at home with his beloved wife and brassy and anthemic during the action scenes. 

Gibson himself was only twenty three when he made Mad Max but even at that young age he's completely self assured and has "star power" written all over him.  He plays Max as a pillar of the community with staunch beliefs, who only becomes corrupted when dire circumstance and the cruelty of EVIL MEN reluctantly casts him into the realm of anti-hero. 

His on-screen wife, played by Joanne Samuel, is both winsome and feisty.  She has a fantastic rapport with Gibson, making the film's inevitable denouement all the more painful.  Knowing that he's been cast as head freak amongst a spectrum of degenerate weirdos with names like "Mudguts" and "Bubba Zanetti", Hugh Keays-Byrne goes for broke as The Toecutter.  Every time he's on-screen he's appropriately off-kilter and quietly menacing. 

Again, there isn't a lot of cash up on-screen here but there are just so many odd, cock-eyed little moments to look out for it never fails to arrest my attention. The film is also tonally schizophrenic, veering drunkenly between scenes of roadside mayhem and moments of mundane bliss as Max and his family take off for an incongruous road trip to the country. 

Anyway you cut it, Mad Max is a very odd and unique little time capsule, the angry bastard child of Australia's emerging film industry and Grindhouse-style exploitation. 

Tilt: up.
There have been a few rare but memorable instances as a film fan when I've been watching an adaptation of some fantasy property and felt a rush of giddy excitement when I realize that the director has hit a home run. It happened watching Bryan Singe... read more 

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