I first saw this film at a friend’s house when I was 13. His father’s Betamax copy of Mad Max was out of bounds, but we had to see it (mainly because we knew there was a nude couple “doing it” at the beginning). I remember it being very badly acted, which means that I was watching the U.S. dubbed version. The film was dubbed because they thought that the average audience member wouldn’t understand the Australian accents. As a result Mel Gibson got great critical acclaim for this movie and it launched his career even though the U.S. audience never heard a word he uttered!
Mad Max was shot on a budget of 400,000 Australian Dollars, which is a tiny budget for such an action packed film. Up until Blair Witch it held the record for greatest profit to budget ratio (It grossed $100 million USD eventually). The film was shot by a group of enthusiastic young filmmakers who were willing to risk life and limb to get the film made. This meant that a lot of cameramen were far too close to the stunts and guns fired real rounds when they had to hit something.
The plot is a fairly simple one (It’s really just a Western with cars and motorbikes) although fans argue about it’s setting. Some say it is post-apocalyptic and others say that it is simply showing Australian society in a state of advanced decay. I personally think it’s the latter and the nuclear war occurs between Mad Max 1 and 2. Unfortunately you won’t get any answers from this disc, as even the guys on the commentary track seem unsure when they mention it.
Set against this backdrop, violent biker gangs roam the highways of Australia killing and raping any vulnerable unfortunates they meet. The only defence is the MFP (Main Force Patrol) who try to keep some semblance of law and order despite a lack of funds, a derelict station and a corrupt legal system. The main two officers we follow are Jim Goose (Bisley) and “Mad” Max Rockatansky (Gibson). They have several run-ins with a bike gang lead by the Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Unfortunately due to the aforementioned legal system the only member of the gang they capture is released.
Due to several factors Max decides to quit the force. His superior persuades him to take a leave of absence to mull things over and Max takes a holiday with his wife (Samuel) and son. Unfortunately the Toecutter gang are still around and cause Max further trouble, which leads us to a breathtaking finale.
As I said before the film is a Western set modern day with machines instead of horses, however it is a triumph. The story and pacing if anything mirror the apocalypse, which is about to encompass the Earth. The last few defenders of society are overstretched, underpaid and on the point of giving up. I don’t believe that a collapse of society has ever been dealt with as brutally or as bleakly as it has been here. The film in places is intentionally washed out to add to the desolation. There is no layer of gloss added here as there is in many Hollywood films. Everything is gritty and dirty, most towns are ghost towns and civilisation is at it’s lowest ebb.
The performances throughout are very strong. Gibson is superbly moody as Max with a real soft side to him. Bisley, playing his partner Goose, also puts in a great performance especially in the scene with the lawyers. Joanne Samuel puts in a wonderfully naturalistic performance as Max’s wife. The rest of the cast are also excellent and I really couldn’t pick out a bad performance amongst them. Special mention must go out to Hugh Keays-Byrne as Toecutter. His performance is exemplary as the mad leader of the bike gang.
There is very little to criticise in this film. The direction, script and pacing are all fantastic. The use of wide-angle lenses, the unusual camera angles and the dangerous car chase camerawork are all exemplary. Someone in the commentary says that there isn’t a wasted frame of film in this movie and I couldn’t agree more. There is no fat on this film, it is a very lean 91-minutes. The cutting is fast; the violence isn’t glorified and is still horrific to watch in places. My only slight reservation is that I feel the music is a little overdone in places (Brian May was the composer). Also the tight pacing and fast cutting makes me think that the finale is a little rushed.
Despite my slight reservations you can see that I love this film. As I had already seen the film before I had a rough idea of a score before I started watching it again. I have had to revise this score up, as this film is much better than I remember it being. I have no interest in cars whatsoever. However this film seems to tap my testosterone reserves and makes me want to go out and buy a big car with a throbbing V8 engine.
MGM have a patchy reputation in the DVD field. This release is a special edition so we shouldn’t have too much to worry about. The disc is double-sided; the film is on one side and the extras on the other. The menus show clips of the car chases with options over the top. This makes for a good atmospheric intro to the disc and ensures that the options can be quickly chosen without five minutes of animation that some discs insist on whenever you press a button. The film is split into 32 chapters, which is more than enough given the 91-minute running time.
As stated above the film was shot using anamorphic wide-angle lenses. As a result the picture we are given is anamorphic 2.35:1. At least that’s what it looks like; some reviews say it is 2.10:1 (I don’t agree). The film is pretty clear of damage throughout with only the odd fleck that doesn’t distract. As I mentioned above the film seems washed out in places, but this is intentional. The transfer itself is pretty good all round. The colours seem strong and the detail is high. Shadow detail isn’t an issue as the film is predominantly shot in daylight. Even though the picture is grainy in places this all adds to the gritty nature of the film so I have no complaints. There is some artifacting, which is slightly disappointing although it isn’t too noticeable (I’m sure those with projectors will see it though). This maybe due to an average bit rate of 5.59, this could have been higher if we didn’t have a pan&scan version available on the same disc as well.
We have a choice of soundtracks here. The mono track with the American dub is hilarious and irritating in equal parts. I can’t believe the U.S. market put up with it for so long. We also have the original mono Australian track for the purists and a new remixed 5.1 Australian track. The mono tracks are clear enough and do their job well. The new 5.1 track is not as gimmicky as some I have heard. Some directional effects have been added but not enough to distract the listener. The soundstage seems very natural (a result of not overusing the rears as many remixes do).
As stated above, most of the extras are on the flip side of the disc and are the usual mixed bag…
The film side of the disc has a Mad Max Fact Track, which pops up snippets of information in a box throughout the film. The facts go from interesting to downright patronising through to completely irrelevant (“5-8% of adults suffer from recurring nightmares” was my favourite). I had this on whilst I listened to the commentary. This is a group commentary done by Jon Dowding(Production Design), David Eggby (Cinematographer), Chris Murray (Special Effects) and Tim Ridge (Mad Max expert). The track is informative and packed with detail in places. There are many anecdotes about the production and how effects were achieved. Unfortunately it is also quite dry and the banter between the participants is very limited. Not one for repeated listenings I think.
Side two of the disc has the rest of the extras. First up there is a documentary on Mel Gibson entitled “The High Octane Birth of a Superstar”. This is basically a fluffy piece of fawning rubbish. We do learn some new things about Gibson, but the sycophantic ramblings may put you off before the 15-minutes are up.
The second documentary, “Film Phenomenon”, is a 25-minute making of documentary. This covers many aspects of the production and includes interviews with all the main players (except Miller and Gibson who don’t appear anywhere on this disc). This is far better than the Gibson piece even though it still uses the ridiculous deep voiceover guy.
Apart from that we have a couple of trailers and a poster gallery. Despite the menu claiming one of them is the Australian trailer this is not the case. Firstly the trailer shown is dubbed the same as the U.S. film and it ends by telling you it is an R rating! The poster gallery contains 16 stills showing promo posters for different territories.
This film is well worth anyone’s money. There aren’t too many films that are so spectacular on a tiny budget. The disc package is a little bit disappointing given it’s Special Edition status. The picture and sound are mostly impeccable although the extras are merely OK. Even though the commentary is entertaining, the documentaries are disappointing with the director and main star conspicuous by their absence. Admirers of the film should still take the plunge with this, as it is the best edition so far. Let’s hope someone revisits Mad Max 2 soon.