“Born with a steering wheel in his hand and lead in his foot, he is the Nightrider, cruising at the speed of fright! This is the Nightrider, and we ain’t never coming back. I’m a fuel-injected suicide machine…”
Long before Mel Gibson’s troubles involved real-life police officers and a bad case of “foot-in-mouth disease” that has made him his own worst enemy, Mel had more dramatic enemies to deal with. The unknown Australian actor was only 22 years old when he starred in the Outback production that would put both Mel Gibson and his native Australia on the filmmaking map. The movie was originally a very low-budget film. It was made in an attempt to show the world that America wasn’t the only place you could make a non-stop action film. When American audiences got their first glimpse of the unique post-apocalyptic showcase, they still didn’t get a real dose of Mel Gibson. All of the Australian actors, including Gibson, had been dubbed to lose the accents. If you saw Mad Max in the cinema in 1979 or 1980, you heard someone else’s voice coming out of Mel’s mouth. Too bad he didn’t have that option a few years back when he was stopped for a DUI and proceeded to offer up a rendition of History of the World according to Mel, only it wasn’t Mel Brooks. The anti-Jewish rant and belligerence has thrust the once-superstar into a decade where he hasn’t had a real starring role.
But those days were decades in the future for a young and promising actor in 1979. He starred as “Mad” Max Rockatansky. He was a member of the Main Force Patrol. These cops drove around in super-charged muscle cars trying to keep the streets safe. But, this was no modern world that Max and his pals protected and served. The film hints at a post-apocalyptic event that has left the world a bit less technologically dominated. Buildings are dilapidated and run down. We get the idea that civilization is only now at the brink of restoring some kind of normalcy to the savage world. Enter The Nightrider (Gil). He’s blown away some cops, and he’s on the run with his pedal to the metal. He’s taking out any patrol car he encounters along the way. This is death race 2000 stuff here. Only one officer stands in the way of his escape. It’s Max in his interceptor special. Max puts an end to the carnage by putting an end to Nightrider. That isn’t going to go over too well with the outlaw band of biker thugs led by Toecutter (Keays-Byrne). The gang terrorizes the local population and takes out one of Max’s friends on the force. The series of events has led Max to rethink his job, and he attempts to quit. He’s talked into taking an extended vacation instead, to think it over. So he gathers up his wife and young son and hits the back roads. Unfortunately, the family encounters the bikers, and after an extended game of cat and mouse, tragedy befalls Max’s family. Now he’s out for only one thing…revenge.
There are a few things that occurred to me as I watched Mad Max in high definition for the first time in over 20 years. I was quite taken at how unrecognizable the young Mel Gibson was on the screen. This was Mel’s second film and his first starring role. Even with that young inexperienced mug, he manages to offer up huge glimpse to why he would become the powerhouse star that he was before he derailed his own career. Gibson doesn’t really say, or for that matter, do a heck of a lot in this film. The final showdown doesn’t even come until the final 13 minutes of the movie. It’s not what he said or did that created this iconic character. It was his demeanor that made the world take notice. Mel was a natural.
The next thing I noticed was how little action there really was in the movie. It’s the kind of film you remember as being packed with action. The truth is, there is very little violence in the film. There are only a few action-packed sequences, but they are powerful scenes that dominate anything else the movie offers. The final few minutes of the film offer a Clint Eastwood “do you feel lucky” moment that tells us more about the kind of person Max has become, living up to the name that appears on the screen. It’s really not surprising that these are the images that have stuck with me the most over two decades.
The movie spawned two sequels with the third film arguably the best in the series. What we remember from Mad Max comes more predominantly from those sequels which take the action and violence to much higher levels. The gladiator style of Beyond Thunderdome is the image most of us carry about the franchise. But the original film was much more subtle and much more clever. Fox has given us a wonderful opportunity to relive those original engaging moments with a rather nice high-definition release of the original Mad Max on Blu-ray. What were they waiting for?
Mad Max is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC/MPEG-4 codec at an average of almost 40 mbps. The film itself suffers the limitations of a low budget and a rather dreary setting for the film. But don’t make the mistake that such limitations make a high-definition release unimportant. The level of detail here really is something to marvel at. While you may not be blown away by pretty pictures and glossy production values, you will really see the film for the first time here. The picture is a bit washed out, so contrast levels won’t deliver the sharpest of lines. Still, you’ll appreciate the close-up images and the condition of the aged print. There are a few specks and other print artifacts from time to time, but there is an obvious attempt to do some restoration here. There are a few spots I think there might have been some heavy-handed DNR work, and that’s my only real complaint about the print. Black levels are a little above average.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 does offer the advantage of the original soundtrack. These are not the American-dubbed voices you saw at the box office over 30 years ago. I was a bit disappointed in the dynamic range of the sound. I expected a lot more rumble and better performance out of my subs. I guess that might have required more tinkering than I might have liked for the film anyway. Dialog comes through just fine. You won’t get that immersive experience as these super-charged vehicles race across the wasteland.
There is an Audio Commentary by several of the film’s crew. It’s an interesting track that sounds like some of them might not have been together. The topic of conversation is almost always the low budget and the creative ways the production staff delivered with those limitations. It’s an informative track, if not all that entertaining.
You get a copy of the original two-sided DVD (both wide and full frame versions of the film). This disc includes all of the extras the disc originally offered.
The Blu-ray also provides:
Mad Max – The Film Phenomenon: (25:35) SD This is strictly a promotional piece with trailer-style narration and fluff comments.
The Mad Max franchise is about to be resurrected with a new reboot/remake/reimagining coming very soon. I’m not sure this is the kind of franchise you can simply start over and have the same kind of success. There is a unique combination of talents, circumstances and situations that came together to kick off the franchise in 1979. I’m not sure any of those elements exist today. I predict disaster for any kind of retelling of the Mad Max mythos. This movie is a throwback to something simpler and far more compelling. Forget about the new film. Pick up this original on Blu-ray. “They say people don’t believe in heroes anymore. Well damn them! You and me, Max, we’re gonna give them back their heroes!”