ACTION JUNKIE: MAD MAX (1979)

*Article originally appeared on the MacGuffin: http://macguff.in/macguffin-content/action-junkie-mad-max-1979/

When George Miller’s first feature film, Mad Max was released to audiences worldwide in 1979, the genre of the Action film did not exist as a genre like it does today. This is in part because films like Mad Max helped to define and establish such a genre. Taking a story idea and boiling its’ narrative down to a simple spectacle driven element gave Miller room to impose the aspects of typical film storytelling conventions, like character development and setting, and compress and infuse them into the action. With the films’ use of imagery, symbolism and metaphor account for most of the dramatic elements that would otherwise be found in dialogue and exposition in broader, more conventional films. Instead, that time is spent forwarding the plot with brilliantly crafted stunts, using innovative techniques. In this way George Miller was able to direct the visual narrative of the film into an experience as well as a story. This was the beginning of the modern day Action genre and few films could present a finer example of its burgeoning viability.

The first twelve minutes of Mad Max presents some of the hardest evidence in film of character, setting and plot compacted into sheer spectacle. From the opening shot we are being fed images of information that are never spoken of in the rest of the film. We fade in on, accompanied with the score’s triumphant anthem, the entrance to the Halls of Justice. The shot comes from street level, tilting slightly up, presenting the building as one of importance. It will come to be the film’s only physical structure representing the establishment. When we look closer at this shot though, we can see the minute complexities that litter the film. Framing the right side of the building’s entrance, yet obviously existing in the space before it, on the street corner, is a Stop Sign. Presented in this way it acts not as just a direction for the traffic, but a sign of caution in relation to the building. This begins a theme of intimidation that will run through all the films in the trilogy, to survive there must be the appearance of toughness, but underneath is just frailty mixed with hope, weaknesses in a lawless world. Looking at the words that hang above the entrance, Halls of Justice we notice that the letter U in Justice hangs a bit, and looks as if it has been that way for some time. Behind the entrance, examining the building itself, we see it looks rather in disrepair. Its physical appearance is rundown and used. The brick around the entrance is dirty and decaying. For a building representing the establishment’s form of order it is not paid much, or any, attention to at all, esthetically. More tellingly, perhaps upkeep is a luxury not afforded in this world. Such signs and vagary leave us wondering, what is the rest of the world like? What brought it this way? These are question the film never answers.

The opening shot quickly fades into an image of a desolate road lined with telephone poles. Across the screen appears to the sound of a typewriter, the words, “A Few Years from Now…” indicating to us that this is an undetermined point in the future. The shot quickly continues to fade to an image of a Skull and Crossbones painted with a stencil, in the middle of the road. That image fades out and we then fade in on a road sign that reads, “Anarchie Road 3 km“, panning to the left of the sign we see a yellow, blue, and red police cruiser parked on the side of the road. The road sign of course plays an integral part in the film’s hyper imagery. The word Anarchy, in this case misspelled, means a lack of order, and then there is the fact it is the name of a road, indicating the, what and where, at the core of the film. Order and chaos are going to fight for the right to dominantly exist and they will do it on the road.

The final bit of exposition the introduction gives us comes when the camera sweeps across another road sign. This one reads: “Highway 9 Sector 26, High Fatality Road – Deaths This Year: 57, Monitored By Main Force Patrol” The letter O in Force is crossed out and written above it in red is the letter A, spelling out, Farce. The camera continues to pan from the sign to another yellow, blue, and red police cruiser, parked on the side of the road, this one is under repair. Our introduction to the film’s protagonist, Max Rockatansky is one, like the setting, shrouded in mystery. As he works to repair his vehicle we are only given low, close shots of Max, nothing that reveals his full features, face or otherwise, and continues throughout the opening action sequence until its climax when Max emerges from his vehicle and removes his sunglasses, giving us a full introduction shot.

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.

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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