"They say people don’t believe in heroes anymore. Well, damn them! You and me, Max, we’re gonna give ’em back their heroes!" Those empty words come from the chief of police (Roger Ward) to his top dog on the force. Mad Max, read as a fairy tale horror film, follows the logic of a Jacobean tragedy. The hero has everything he loves stripped away, then enacts a horrible revenge on those who wronged him. George Miller, who went on to direct the two sequels and the more benevolent Babe, crafted a low budget vision of slow burning madness on the road through a series of high-octane chase sequences.
Set in Australia "a few years from now", things have fallen apart. A handful of die hard policemen operate out of their cars (labeled "Pursuit" or "Interception") to fend off roving bands of biker gangs. Those roving marauders pillage, rape and destroy everything in their path along the handful of thinly populated shanty towns or, more often, the long, lonely stretches of road through empty wastelands.
Thrown into the fray right from the start, a brutal chase sequence offers a highway’s eye view of a police car zooming after some bushwhacking thug known as the Nightrider (Vince Gil), who, together with his floozie girlfriend, has been tearing up the roads. After demolishing the pursuit vehicle and nearly killing one of the young cops on his tail, riding through civilian areas nearly taking down an innocent baby in his wake, the cops send in Max Rockatansky, played by 23-year old Mel Gibson. Max relentlessly chases the Night Rider down and stampedes him into a dangerous construction area. It’s a killing on the road, death by fire.
After the Nightrider is brought to justice, his vicious crew of friends ride into town on their bikes (led by Hughs Keays-Byrne’s wild-eyed Toecutter). After a series of incidents where they brutalize some civilians for fun, particularly a hippie couple that suffers a disturbing fate (after their car is demolished, of course,) they go after Max, his partner, and his family.
Mel Gibson brings a strong presence and easy confidence to Max, before his star vanity kicked in with the Lethal Weapon series. He’s young, troubled, trying to do the right thing. He’s loving and gentle with wife, paternal with child. In the scenes on the road, however, Gibson’s steely-eyed resolution is not unlike Gary Cooper in High Noon. And after Max leaves the police force mid-film to take his family off to the country (and away from hell), the villains will follow and ultimately transform him (through bloodshed) into something new, no better than they are. That’s the tragedy of Mad Max, and the lasting impact it has beyond the superbly orchestrated chase setpieces (perfected in George Miller’s follow-up, The Road Warrior). Max’s personality burns away until he becomes part of the car, or the gun — a machine intent on two things: speed and death.
Hey, we don’t need another skid mark.
Review by Jeremiah Kipp © 2001 filmcritic.com