Among other things, this boasts one of the best line-ups of bad guy names ever.
You know something? It really annoys me that at no point does any character say to Mel Gibson – ‘you’re mad, Max’. Oh, I suppose perennial annoyance Johnny the Boy does scream out something similar in the final scene, but it just doesn’t play out the way I want it to. I think that’s my grumblings out of the way, although other viewers might find more to complain about, the main thing being that this isn’t Mad Max 2. As everybody knows, such was the obscurity of this first film in the US that that when the sequel did arrive, it was retitled The Road Warrior so as not to put off anyone who might have been put off watching a sequel to a film they never saw. As a result, George Miller’s original was seen by some after watching the astonishing sequel, and some may have felt let down. I mean, Max doesn’t even go mad until the last ten minutes. He’s pretty intense and wound-up before that, but certainly not a permanent resident in the valley of the MAD. Also, apart from the bookending sequences of on-road carnage, there’s surprisingly little in the way of action. For the most part, Mad Max is a slow-burning thriller that gradually pieces together all the elements that will lead to Max’s world being torn apart.
Given the low-budget, Miller works wonders in delivering a high-impact atmosphere – his use of the desolate highways are very effective and certainly the last place you’d want to get chased down by The Toecutter and his gang of cycle-psychos. Set ‘a few years from now…’, the bikers rule the roads and only a handful of cops look close to taking them on. When Max’s high-speed pursuit of bat-shit bonkers The Nightrider at the start leads to the latter’s explosive demise, The Toecutter demands vengeance, and it isn’t pretty. It’s amazing to see just how young Gibson is here – in just a few years he would fully inhabit the movie-star persona that would make him huge, but here he’s an understated, human presence – the moments between him and his family are rather sweet and tinged with hopelessness given what’s to come. Supporting performances are far more vivid, especially from Hugh Keays-Byrne as The Toecutter, a savage, campily malevolent nasty who bullies, hisses and licks your ice cream without being asked to do so. He’s an utter delight, though not as out-and-out crazy as Vince Gil’s brief but bonkers opening turn as the Nightrider, a textbook piece of roadscum if ever there was one. It’s a good thing he blows up ten minutes into the film, he would have burnt the film’s goddamned celluloid if he survived any longer. So yeah, the opening and closing scenes – this is what lovers of the sequel will be happy with. Miller remains the king of high-speed car action (he really does, the new Mad Max film is amazing) and his handling of destruction and tension is excellent. It’s spectacular, but never forgets to emphasise the knife-edge danger of it all – when people get hurt, they get hurt. Brian May (not that one)’s music score is outrageously excessive and wildly melodramatic – right from the opening credits, he grabs you and doesn’t let go. A little over the top, maybe? But when that title slams into the screen and the orchestra goes ballistic, I can’t resist.
So yeah, the sequel’s better, but the original is still totally unique, dramatic, powerful and often breathtaking.