Action Junkie: Mad Max (1979)

The villains tear themselves into the film’s narrative as viscerally jarring representations of anti-establishment. Capitalizing on “normal” society’s fears at the time of the Punk Rock scene, the Toecutter and his crew are physically the opposite of Max and the MFP officers. While Max and his crew are adorned in black fetish style leathers that look something between a motorcycle cop’s attire and a glamour rock star’s, coupled with visible protective pads like on a football uniform, are sleek and even cutting edge. The Toecutter’s crew is dressed in dirty rags and wears punk rock styled hairdos. They are dirty, unkempt and are of a childishly violent disposition. Both of these styles serve very little in the way of function, but instead represent the need for intimidation from and for either side. The villains, as such are only against order. They have no true agenda, calling to mind the biker gangs of the 50s and 60s exploitation films; they, like what Max becomes, are simply a force.

The bleak, mysterious setting, the tense exactitude of the action, and Max’s degeneration as a person stripped of humanity, come to a head in the climax. Max begins his final acts of revenge while coming upon a portion of the motorcycle gang as they are stealing gas from a moving tanker. This is an interesting moment because it establishes a theme that will become the center focus of the sequel, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, the world’s continuous need for fuel even after the apocalypse it caused. Here we witness Max viciously run down these bikers. Placing a camera mount on the top of Max’s V8 Interceptor, which in its own way is a character in the film, we see firsthand Max barring down from behind. As he kicks in the car’s methane booster the frame rate is speed up, treating the audience to a blast of adrenaline. Max continues the Interceptor ahead and swings it around to take those remaining on head first, shot from the mount on the front of the car we quickly cut away right before impact, switching to a shot below the bridge the scene takes place upon. We see two bikers, arms flailing as they and their bikes careen off into the water below. Cutting back to the bridge, we witness in slow motion the aftermath of those unlucky enough to stay behind, as they go tumbling along the asphalt, their bikes with and on top of them.

As Max chases down the remaining three villains, he must follow them into the Prohibited Area, as is marked by the road sign he passes, one he pays no mind to. This shot represents Max’s collapse into the same state his environment is in now. Carrying out his revenge means he’s just as primitive as the criminals he’s hunting down and the land they exist in. After falling prey to an ambush Max is shot in the knee, and has his arm run over, but now, more of a force than a human, Max manages to grab his gun and blow Bobba Zanetti away just as he was about to run Max over with his bike. The scene is enhanced by Brian May’s score as it blasts Max’s anthem, again triumphantly. Finally, in the most spectacular stunt of the film, Max chases down the Toecutter, who famously winds up driving straight on into an oncoming semi. With a touch of a cartoonish turn we see the Toecutter’s eyes literally bulge from out of his skull right before the moment of impact. This little piece of Looney Tunes flair caps onto the film a playfully devilish tone that sits perfectly between the punk rock outlandishness of the characters and the setting.

While the film climaxes with the death of the Toecutter we then segue into its resolution with a hallucinatory transition. Max drives on into the night forcing himself to stay awake, for there is no stopping until his goal is complete. Rain and jazz music pours down onto the Interceptor. Continuing on into the next day Max comes upon the last piece of his revenge, Johnny the Boy. What happens in these closing moments seals Max’s fate for the remainder of the trilogy. While some film critics view it as complete catharsis and nothing short of what Johnny the Boy deserves, others see it as Max exhibiting his final regression into the primal. I myself, feel it is both acting at the same time and thus displaying one of the greatest attributes of the Action film, the hyper ability to deliver thought provoking concepts, themes, and characters through the adrenaline inducing spectacle.

If taking the film and viewing it in the context of its two sequels we can see that both the character of Max and the setting he inhabits mirrors each other’s continual development throughout all three movies. Mad Max by itself is simply a great action story of revenge, but when placed inside the context of a trilogy it becomes an origin story, both for the character and the world.

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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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