Action Junkie: Mad Max (1979)

With such an entrance Max is treated from the beginning as something of a wonder, a mythic figure in a mythic world.  What we do learn about the films’ setting is that society is running down, reducing itself to the primitive. As I mentioned before, this is never explained in the film and adds a complex layer to the movie. The film itself is considered by many, even its own makers to be set in a Post-Apocalyptic environment; however this is, in my opinion, really never indicated. Instead the setting seems to be more in the process of going through the apocalypse then existing in its aftermath. There are still signs of some form of society, the first indication of that is the existence of the MFP itself. It has funding, and vehicles, and answers to a commissioner. Then there is the fact there is still television and news broadcasting, meaning that there has to be people, and enough of them to warrant its continued existence. While some film critics point out there are no regular people littering society in the film, I argue there are, the children who approach Bubba Zanetti at the Halls of Justice and inquire about the damaged vehicle in the courtyard, and the bystanders in the films’ opening sequence who almost become victims of the chase. If anything, the settings for most of the film do not require that we see people, and could still lend itself to the fact society is in a state of decay, not attempting to rebound from its apocalyptic conclusion.

The action in Mad Max is where the film truly soars. Combining the visual spectacle of car chases and stunts with the emotional spectacle of the sort of suspense you normally would find in a horror movie, George Miller is able to bring the audience into this dystopian world. Doing what few, if any, other action film director had done prior, Miller mounted cameras rigs onto the vehicles themselves to capture the exhilarating veracity of the stunts by placing the audience in the center of the action, this coupled with the evolution of both Max, and the setting, as developing characters, arrive together for a dazzling and thought provoking film. The film’s opening action sequence sets the stage for everything else to come. The first villain, the Nightrider, is a true animated force of anarchy and tests the will of Max’s entire department. Breaking police custody and stealing an MFP cruiser the Nightrider, as he and his female companion burn across the highway, seem to aim at nothing more than creating chaos. Along the way we are treated to breathtaking, yet neck breaking, car stunts. Boiling to a confrontation with Max, who’s been presented as the most bad-assed of all the patrolmen, the film makers achieve a crescendo by placing on the Nightrider’s car, which is a black V8 Interceptor, the same car Max later wields like cowboys did horses, a nitrous rocket.  The rocket goes off, sending flames from the rear of the car and accelerating it to speeds of 180kph plus, right as it plummets into a wreckage of vehicles in the middle of the road.

After the beginning of the film resolves, the aspects that define the root of Max’s character begin. We see his home life immediately and are given the impression his character is in the same boat that befalls most characters in Police Procedural films, torn between his duty to his family and his duty to his job, which in this case bears a heavy responsibility. As society is obviously breaking down he is one of the last standing vestiges of law and order, not something to be tossed aside lightly. Deep down though Max’s true motivations at this early point in his life, before the change into the title’s bearer, Mad Max, is presented by his Captain.  After the downfall of Max’s partner, Goose, Max hands in his resignation. Refusing to accept it the Captain tells Max to take a few weeks for vacation and then decide if he wants to quit, Max ensures him he won’t, and on his way out the Captain yells after him, “You’ll be back Rockatansky. You’re hooked Max.  And you know it!”  While being the only time we ever hear Max’s first name it’s also the most telling moment of Max’s character, he’s an action junky at heart.

The death, or downfall of Goose, is in itself something that adds to the film’s complexity. The moments leading up to his accident are some of the most suspense filled moments in the action genre, not only does he get taken out by the villains once, but just as we’re gaining a sense of safety back he is taken out a second and final time. In the hospital, after Max is informed of the situation, Goose lays hidden underneath a small tent over his bed, a result of the violence done to him by the villains, the Toecutter and his motorcycle gang. Max enters the room and even though he has been warned of what he will see, decides he needs to look at Goose for himself. He does so, and in result storms out of the room professing, “That thing in there… that’s not the Goose.” The only further indication we have of the Goose’s actual demise is when Max is resigning and the Captain mentions, “So the Goose bought it…”

The true complexity of Max as a character is shown in a moment that comes after the Toecutter has run over with his motorcycle, Max’s wife, Jessie and their infant child, Sprog. A scene inside the hospital reveals that Jessie’s vital signs returned the night prior, but that she suffers from a laundry list of physical complications. The doctor tells the nurse to inform Max that she is going to be all right, and not to worry.  We pan back to a shot of Max outside the room listening in. The scene that follows is Max outside his home, sitting in a chair overlooking the ocean, a symbolic reference that is just as vast and ominous as its physical stature. Here Max expresses his grief for a dead wife and child, which is made obvious by the Halloween mask he grips tightly in his hands, a reference to an earlier scene indicating the times with his wife he will miss. We as the audience are never given exact closure to the death of Jessie, if it actually occurs, we are only privy to Max’s decision to exact revenge for what we can only assume is her death. Perhaps Max, like we witnessed earlier with Goose in the hospital, has again abandoned the situation before its proper resolution, only to immediately or prematurely jump on the catharsis bandwagon of revenge. It is definitely a trait of anger, or being Mad.


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Benjamin Nason is a writer, film-maker and critic from the Pacific Northwest, where he lives with his cat Lulu.

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