Long before he put the Mel into meltdown and shovedhis hand up a beaver puppet’s bum, ‘Mad Mel’ was famous for being Mad Max.
Between1979 and 1985, George Miller’s automotive-apocalypse trilogy turned the unknown Australian into a worldwide star.
It was a role to kill for: sitting behind the wheel of his 1973 Ford XB Falcon GT351, his eyes narrowing over the supercharger sticking out of the bonnet, policeman Max Rockatansky is a man who’s lost everything.
By the endof that first movie, his wife is dead, his kid is dead, his world is dead too – a post-peakoil future in which civilisation has turned into a three-lane pileup.
Gibson, who turned up to auditions for the original film in 1977 looking like a “black and blue pumpkin” after a drunken brawl the night before, gives Max an insane intensity that earns him his moniker. A revving revenger in black leather, he’s Clint Eastwood on four wheels.
The first Mad Max, which charted its hero’s slide from family man to demon of the road, was a slice of pure Ozploitation. But it became an unexpected phenomenon.
Made for $350,000 AUD, the first movie grossed more than Star Warsin Australia and over $100 million worldwide. Its bleak, starklysketched apocalypse connected with audiences living through the ’70s energy crisis, anxious that their world was teetering on the brink of collapse.
The script by Miller and his journalist co-writer, James McCausland, took that sense of The End and turbo-charged its engine until the cars themselves became metaphors of a global crash’n’burn.
Every stunt, every smash, every twisted metal wreck retools Armageddon as Carmageddon. Miller, a former ER doctor, had seen the human wreckage of road-traffic accidents close up.
Mad Max’s shoot had its fair share, too: in the first week of shooting, stuntman Grant Page and lead actress Rosie Bailey broke their legs while riding to the location in amotorbike accident. (Bailey was replaced by Joanne Samuel; Page later returned to work). That sense of danger infused every frame.
Even though the film is essentially a western on wheels, Americans didn’t get Mad Max. The cast’s Aussie accents were considered incomprehensible (and so badly dubbed), while the Outback locations didn’t quite feel like the American frontier.
When Mad Max 2was released, Warners sensed its potential and picked it up for distribution, but changed the title to The Road Warrior to prevent any box-office contamination from the original.
“I made this film almost to overcome all my frustrations on the first Mad Max,” says Miller on the sequel’s commentary track, the only notable extra, “because that was such a low-budget and such a tough movie that I had all this pent-up energy for the story and the filmmaking, because the first Mad Max was very, very tough.”
Written, shot and released in a year, between the Christmases of 1980 and 1981, Mad Max 2 is a stone-cold classic. It strips down the original plot’s engine until only the bare-essential moving parts remain.
As Max helps defend an oil refinery from bondage-dressed, mohawk’d marauders led by The Humungus (Swedish Olympic weightlifter Kjell Nilsson), Miller sets up automotive action sequences – like the epic fuel-tanker chase – that are still unmatched.
British novelist JG Ballard, who eroticised car-nage in Crash, wasn’t wrong when he dubbed the film “punk’s Sistine Chapel”.
Mad Max 2 is in-your-face aggressive,loud and relentless. It’s so desolate even Max seems like an anti-hero. “There’s something very charismatic about Mel,” says Miller. “One of thegreat things about it is, in the movie, he never opens his mouth to smile and he only gives three little Mona Lisa kind-of smiles.”
The Road Warrior’s success in the US meant that the third film inevitably became the biggest of the trilogy.
Set 15 years after its predecessor, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) takes Max to the frontier settlement of Bartertown, where he clashes with its leader, Aunt Entity (a chainmail-clad Tina Turner). Yet, no one remembers Beyond Thunderdome for its car stunts.
It’s all about Turner’s ’80s hair (and hit ‘We Don’t Need Another Hero’), the ingenious fight between Max and midget/muscleman duo Master Blaster and Max’s unexpected redemption – “Jesus in leathers” as co-screenwriter Terry Hayes put it.
With Miller now shooting prequel/ sequel/spin-off Fury Road, which replaces Gibson with Tom Hardy in the driving seat of the police Interceptor, this Blu-ray set is perfectly timed, but feels like a stop-gap.
One commentary track (on Mad Max 2) and a few trailers don’t cut it for a boxset, especially since it’s missing two essential ingredients:a director’s commentary for Mad Max andany input at all from Gibson himself.
No doubt a future release, after the much-delayed Fury Road has had its moment, will give the franchise thefuel-injected extras it deserves. For now, though, 34 years afterthat first installment, the Mad Max trilogy remains the pinnacle of cinema’s love affair with destruction derbies.
Shotbefore digital cinema, made by a cast and crew who feared injury every day, thetrilogy has a rough-hewn rawness that’s the total opposite of the Fast & Furiousseries’ slick, studio spraypaint. Buckle up.