Sunday, May 10, 2015

Summer School: 'Mad Max' (1979)

With so many summer franchises returning this year, I'm catching up on previous installments.

Of all the blockbuster series coming back this summer, Mad Max is the only one that I wasn't previously familiar with. I never saw the original Mad Max movies as a kid, and I don't remember having any friends who were into them, either. Maybe I am a little too young to have been part of the original target audience, but the movies were all on video when I was growing up, and for whatever reason they just never reached me. So my only sense of Mad Max going into this movie was from various parodies, references and homages, which are apparently all based on the style and plot elements of the second (and most beloved) movie in the series. Imagine my surprise when I put on this movie expecting to get a gritty post-apocalyptic action movie full of grotesque villains in leather outfits and instead got a mildly futuristic revenge/exploitation movie with a couple of decent car chases.

None of the hallmarks of the series' post-apocalyptic world are explained or even apparently present in this movie; the world doesn't look post-apocalyptic at all, really, just a bit dingy and under-populated. "Mad" Max Rockatansky (an impossibly young-looking Mel Gibson) is a cop who specializes in intercepting criminals on the run, and the movie opens with its best scene, a dynamic and exciting car chase as Max and his fellow officers pursue a gangster who killed one of their colleagues. Director George Miller stages some seriously impressive stunts on what was obviously a very small budget, and the opening promises a fast-paced action movie to come.

Unfortunately, that's not what we get. What follows is some familiar B-movie sleaze with the biker gang terrorizing a small town and attacking a young couple, then killing Max's partner after he roughs up one of their members. In between there are dull scenes of Max at home with his wife/girlfriend (never exactly clear) in a nice suburban house that doesn't look post- or even pre-apocalyptic. Once Max's partner gets killed, Max decides to quit the force, and what follows is a dull stretch of Max on vacation with his family, which now includes a baby boy (who either showed up out of nowhere or appeared so briefly in earlier scenes that I completely missed him).

Eventually the action picks up again when the gang comes after Max's family, and there's another fairly exciting action sequence to end the movie. But the whole revenge storyline doesn't get going until the movie's almost over, and the plot up until then is pretty slow and meandering. Miller is often praised for his world-building, but the world of Mad Max is pretty thin, made up of a handful of cool-looking cars and some leather police uniforms. Had I not known that this was the start of an immensely popular film series, I'd dismiss it as a mildly entertaining '70s Ozploitation movie, and not a particularly distinguished one.

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