Running time: 88 min.
Release date: April 12, 1979 (Australia)/March 21, 1980 (USA)
The time frame for the action that occurs in Mad Max is not exactly known, just that its "a few years from now...". This film could be branded a post-apocalyptic film, but all indications are that an apocalypse has not happened as of this unknown date; all indications are, however, that mankind is barreling headlong into it very soon. Lawlessness is the norm in director George Miller's vision, and members of the MFP (Main Force Patrol) are almost helpless to stop any of it from happening. The message in Mad Max is clear: We're speeding toward our inevitable just desserts.
The movie opens with a maniac calling himself The Nightrider (Vincent Gil), accompanied by his girl, racing through the Australian Outback in a stolen police cruiser, having just killed an officer to make his escape. He is pursued by members of the MFP, who constantly bungle their way down the highway after him. There are some terrific action sequences right out of the gate, pumping up the collective adrenaline of the audience. The action is also very tense, as innocent bystanders are threatened by the speed and impact of this psycho behind the wheel. The MFP notify their best driver, Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson). The ineptitude of the other MFP members and the maniacal taunting of the Nightrider helps build to Max's first appearance, providing the film with a possible hero; a guy who can hopefully end this lunacy. Indeed, the Nightrider breaks down in tears when he discovers that he cannot outrun Max. This scene ends as explosively as it started, both literally and figuratively.
This takes us into a meeting with the antagonist of the film, a man with the honorable name of Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his gang of outlaw bikers. They show up in town, vandalizing and terrorizing. This includes chasing down a young couple, destroying their car and committing unspeakable acts to both of them. One member of the gang, Johnny the Boy (Tim Burns), gets left behind because he's too high to realize that everyone has left. Max and his friend/partner Goose (Steve Bisley) arrive on the scene and take Johnny in. MFP headquarters is located at the "Halls of Justice", a building that is crumbling and decaying, much like the infrastructure of society depicted in the movie. Johnny gets off on a technicality, that technicality being that no witnesses bothered to show up for his trial. Despite Goose's violent objections, Johnny goes free, warning Goose "We know who you are".
The next day, Goose is out on patrol with his motorcycle, which has been tampered with. He crashes into a field, but unharmed. He borrows a truck to run his motorcycle back to headquarters but is attacked by Toecutter and Johnny and burned alive. When Max shows up at the hospital and sees the state of his best friend, he decides to quit the force, fearing that he would turn into one of the roaming psychos. His superior, unfortunately named Fifi (Roger Ward), convinces him to take a vacation rather than resign, which Max agrees to. He drives into the Outback with his wife, Jessie (Joanna Samuel) and his infant son, Sprog (Brendan Heath). I'm unfamiliar with Australian baby-naming traditions, but Sprog wouldn't be my first choice. George Miller provides us with wide-framed shots of the expanse of the Outback. However, the entire film has been underscored by violence at every turn, showing that even peaceful-seeming rural landscapes are not safe from the ugliest, basest instincts of man. Indeed, Jessie runs afoul of the gang, which leads to the most shocking scene in the film. It's also a turning point for Mel Gibson's Max, as he makes that turn into the thing he was in fear of becoming.
Mad Max then becomes a high-octane revenge film in its final moments. Prior to that, the movie provided us with a commentary on the state of mankind and where things were heading for all of us. Everyone drives very fast, with the movie telling us that we're all driving headlong into lawlessness and anarchy without an iota of concern for those innocents around us. Society is decaying before our eyes and we either accept it or ignore it, but we're not doing much to change it. This is an impressive debut work for George Miller. He has taken the camera and provided the audience with a wide view of the open space surrounding the action, as well as providing a low-level view of the high speed action involving the vehicles. That fender-level view helped heighten the speed at which everything was moving. The stunt work was well-shot and framed and logically set-up. Mel Gibson was an unknown at this juncture of his career, and that helps to focus on the story. Gibson hit the right notes with her performance, however. He's assured and maybe cocky behind the wheel but when the violence comes down around him, he's scared at first. However, when it hits home, he reacts as most of us would: he gets angry and takes matters into his own hands. A solid performance by the film's lead.
If the film has a fault, it's with the plot. There are many holes to ponder, such as characters who happen to be in the right place at the right time with no logical reason for even being there. The narrative is very loose at times, but at least it has a beginning and end point. Some may find fault in the movie's dour tone, but the tone is pitch perfect for the material. These are not happy times; in fact, everything is careening toward an end. You can't even stop and enjoy an ice cream cone without finding trouble. If you're looking for a movie with a happy ending, this is not the movie for you. In fact, the ending shot of a dark and desolate road being driven at high speed indicates that we don't know where we're going, but we're in a hurry to get there.