Last month’s blistering Mad Max: Fury Road trailer brought the series back into the public consciousness in a big way, compelling me to finally watch the original trilogy. The Comicon trailer was packed with such astounding imagery and electrifying action that George Miller instantly became a director I couldn’t wait to explore further.
I’d gathered that Mad Max 2 (aka The Road Warrior) was widely considered to be better than the first and the reason the series isn’t just a milestone in Australian cinema, but adored around the world. That certainly seemed likely as I watched Mad Max: there’s definitely room for improvement.
George Miller and his team were first-time feature filmmakers and didn’t have much money, so a lot of the first film’s shortcomings are forgivable. While the character work is mediocre at best, the stunning action compensates for it. Miller stages some incredible car crashes and stunts on such a low budget, shooting and editing them with confidence and adrenalin. When Mad Max settles in for car chases across the Australian landscape, it’s gracefully destructive fun, especially the vengeful climax that gives the film its name.
The rest of the film falls pretty flat. Mel Gibson doesn’t exhibit the charisma and charm he became known for, reducing Max to a surprisingly bland lead. The rest of the cast are serviceable but nothing special. Hugh Keays-Byrne’s Toecutter isn’t nearly as intimidating a villain as the film seems to think, his erratic moods atonal and bewildering rather than convincingly unhinged. As drug addict Johnny the Boy, Max’s victim in the famous final sequence, Tim Burns spends most of the film writhing around hyperactively, more irritating than unsettling. Everyone’s trying, but often too hard.
The setting was a surprise, because it’s not nearly as dystopian as I expected. Australia is struggling for resources and gangs roam the highways, but this is a more functioning society than the apocalyptic wasteland that pop culture associates with the Mad Max films. TV stations are still operating, families go on holidays, and diners operate much as they did in the 1970s. Perhaps the sequels become more desolate. Fury Road certainly looks to be.
Mad Max’s contribution to Australian cinema is abundantly clear. It’s easy to imagine how surprising it was for the burgeoning local industry to produce not only a genre film, but such a capable and energetic one. But as a film experience in its own right, it’s too uneven and creaky when viewed today. I suspect the sequel will be more satisfying.