Friday 17 April 2015

Mad Max

Far From The Mad “In Crowd”

Mad Max
Australia 1979
Directed by George Miller
MGM Blu Ray Region B

Warning: Some Mad plot spoilers in this.

Up until this week, this is the only one of the Mad Max franchise that I’d ever seen and, truth be told, the other time I saw this, in the very early 1980s, I really didn’t think much of it. But I should add here that, in those days, the odds were stacked against anyone into films really responding too much in terms of video releases because you probably weren’t going to be getting any idea of what the film was actually like from the home video version anyway. I remember renting this, at the time, from the Off Licence situated the next road along from me... the Off Licence is still doing a roaring trade to this day, in fact, but I think he ditched the video rental part of the business sometime in the early 1990s.

I must have been about 14 or 15 when I first saw this but I was already familiar with the adverts for the vinyl soundtrack album to this one on the back of old Starlog magazine covers... so I was quite looking forward to it but, like I said, the odds were stacked against me. Quite apart from being a typical, low quality video picture, the film had been dubbed into American English, I believe, and so I’m guessing the UK home video version was probably the one with the bizarre, alternate Amercian sound to it rather than the original Australian English language version.

Worse than even that though, and this is something that a generation of movie watchers below me may not realise, the majority of home video releases back in those days were pan and scanned from the original ratio and dumped into, what was then, a standard 4:3 aspect ratio. This causes havoc to the way you perceive films because, quite apart from the obvious problem, you also have the presence of shots where a camera is moving over either a static or already moving shot, changing the way you perceive the image and the speed at which you are supposed to be “reading” that image. You also have single shots cut into two or more shots, if the person doctoring the video to fit the standard 4:3 television sets of the day decided that the information on both sides of the screen was worthy of inclusion. This also, obviously, completely messes up the way your brain receives the film in question. I hate to sound like an old fogey but, seriously, kids these days with their widescreen TVs and perfect transfers don’t know how good they have it. That being said, certain companies like Warners, I’m told, have started chopping the tops and bottoms off of old TV shows in order to make them fit perfectly on widescreen TVs so... seriously people? Have they learned nothing?

Anyway, I wanted to check out the Mad Max films for a couple of reasons, even though I avoided the sequels back in the day due to my first, less than ideal, home viewing of this one. Reason number one is that a fourth installment in the series is coming to our cinema screens in less than a month and people have been getting quite excited about it, for some reason. I have to say that, when I watched a trailer for this in a cinema the other day, in front of John Wick (reviewed here), I thought I was watching an advert for a cartoon or animated feature for the first 30 seconds or so... the CGI was, well, less than realistic looking. To these eyes anyway. Still, it would be nice to take a look at it and if I’m going to do that then... I have watch the original trilogy.

The other reason I thought I should finally give these films another chance was that, for many decades, people have been asking me to check out the sequel, The Road Warrior. People have always told me it’s a much better movie and some folk even say that it’s inspired by a Judge Dredd story I read and loved, week by week, in the late 1970s: The Cursed Earth... which in itself is a good reason to give the second film a go (although The Cursed Earth was obviously inspired by the Roger Zelazny novel Damnation Alley... which was itself made into a movie).

So I guess all this meant giving the films a proper go at some point before the new one comes out and so, arming myself with a cheap boxed set of the trilogy in a nice Blu Ray transfer, this is exactly what I’ve done.

I have to say, now I am able to properly appreciate the way the film is photographed and edited without the whole 4:3 thing getting in the way, that it’s a much more interesting film than I’d originally given it credit for when I saw it back in the early 1980s. There’s certainly a raw, low budget edge to the look of the shots and, considering the subject matter of a group of motor bike riding thugs causing mayhem in a rundown landscape, it doesn’t detract from the movie in any way and it all feels about right for it.

Future star Mel Gibson’s Mad Max character is set up with a very long and spectacular, in terms of stunts, car chase with several police vehicles pursuing a gang member who has stolen a car with his lady friend. During the various hijinks of this opening chase, we get glimpses of Max monitoring the progress of the chase on his police waveband as he takes care of his well oiled machine (his car, okay?) and instead, we get shots of his boots, his coat and sun glasses from behind. Character details like that start to gradually build as he begins to “tool up” but we never see his face... the information of what he actually looks like (which to be fair, is nothing special) is withheld to give the audience a suspenseful introduction to the character so that when we finally get to the moment of being able to look him in the eye, it’s coupled with a heroic and violent resolution to the criminal problem, thus subconsciously identifying him as a hero figure in the collective, audience mind through release of tension. When Max makes that first kill he whips off the glasses and the music finally kicks in and swells up to further enhance the psychological manipulation. Simple and effective.

Now the film is a revenge movie but it takes until, literally, the last 20 minutes or so to prepare us for this character’s vector. Although his friend Goose is killed off viciously about two thirds of the way through, it’s not until right near the end that the real motivator of his sudden, vigilante (if you read it that way) crusade is put into place. After that initial chase, the director starts hitting the emotion pedal by showing us an idyllic lifestyle when Max is not on duty. A simple man at peace with his girlfriend and young son. It’s revisited again after Max tries to quit the force following the death of Goose but, instead, is given some time off to think it over. It’s at the end of this last part where things go really wrong and the gang in question wait for Max to leave before visiting their own twisted revenge on him (for the events that take place in that opening chase sequence, right at the start of the movie) and run over his girlfriend and kid. When it comes time to switch the life support off on his dead family... Max goes on his rampage.

However, unless I missed something or it wasn’t made clear enough, he never actually gets the villain of the piece, just one of the guys responsible for the vendetta against Goose... so it’s kind of a strange movie in that the thing doesn’t actually get resolved*. I know there’s The Road Warrior up next, and I haven’t watched that one as yet, but I’m guessing, from checking the cast list of that one, that this revenge spree is left curiously unresolved in the scheme of things. So I did find that kinda strange, to be honest.

Now this is quite a gritty film, dealing with adult issues and done so in the grubby syntax of the period it’s shot... which seems to my mind to possibly be a little post apocalyptic, which would explain the lack of police helicopters and dilapidated, unkempt look of the police headquarters in this film. That being said, my cousin now lives in Australia and he said the place where they filmed this movie... always looks like that. So not really sure whether it’s supposed to be post-apocalyptic or not but... my guess is yes.

I also find it quite interesting that, for such a grimy film, the director shies away most of the time from actually showing the audience anything too graphic. I think we see the burnt hand of Goose but we never see his burnt face, for example, just Gibson’s reaction to it. And this kind of modus operandi is employed throughout the duration of the film. When a man is terrorised and his woman raped, for instance, we cut away from them being dragged away from their car to some nice, artistic shots of a crow flapping its wings etc. Instead of showing Max’s girlfriend and young son killed, we are just shown the aftermath of a shoe and a ball as a metaphor for what just happened. Now while it’s good that the director realised that a lot of the really horrible stuff would be made even worse if it was left to the imagination, it means that the actual graphic content of the film is surprisingly small and I do find that this particular visual cocktail film comes up a little short in a couple of places where showing just a little bit more (definitely not the whole hog, so to speak) would maybe have been a little more effective.

That being said... what do I know? It’s obviously an influential film, especially in terms of the spate of American and Italian post apocalyptic, gangs of thugs movies which came after it. I was thinking about this while I watched it and, honestly, I think even the villainous characters in a movie like Paul Veerhoven’s Robocop would be hard to imagine if Mad Max hadn’t come along first. They all seem to be very close cousins. And obviously, Neil Marshall’s own tribute to those films, Doomsday, also owes a tremendous debt to this film and, probably, The Road Warrior too (I’ll know soon enough, I guess).

Of course, Mad Max also has its own share of influences and with its motorbike drag scenes and Django-like scene towards the end, where Max has one of his hands run over and broken just like Franco Nero had decades before. It all points to the director being a fan of Westerns, if I’m not much mistaken. Mad Max and all those later derivatives seem to be about cowboys fending off against the marauding Indians... with the cowboys being the forces of law and order and the Indian tribes being renegade bike gangs soaring across their own desert land... their four legged friends replaced by two wheels and a big engine.

All in all, the film is a lot better than I was expecting and it has some nice photography to boot. Brian May’s score is a little bit overdone in places, I think, but overall it’s of its time and, although I can’t imagine a score like this being written for that kind of picture today, it gets away with it here I think. Not a great film but probably, in some insane B-movie parlour sense, a bona fide classic and, hopefully, the best is yet to come. Check back here soon for my review of... The Road Warrior.

*Since publishing this review, Grindhouse Dave has made clear to me that the villain of the piece does, indeed, get his come uppance... although before Max sorts out the guy who kills Goose. I've watched the clip and realised that it wasn't obvious, to me, that this death scene was indeed supposed to depict Toe Cutter, the gang leader, and personally I don't think it's very clearly presented but, it does seem to be in there. So thanks to the Twitter realm for clearing that up for me.

Mad Max @ NUTS4R2

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