Before he took a trip down Fury Road or went Beyond Thunderdome, there was simply a skilled policeman named Max Rockatansky who was trying to make the world a little safer in a dystopian Australia. Mad Max was the debut film from the incredible auteur George Miller, who brought to life a “near future” Australia facing societal collapse. Miller was inspired by his work as a doctor in a Sydney emergency room where he tended to many injuries and deaths, which he ended up reflecting in the film. Throughout his lifetime, he witnessed countless car accidents growing up in his rural homeland, and he could never quite shake these morbid thoughts. Miller wanted to take these ideas and channel them into a simple narrative that could be told in action-driven manner. When Mad Max was released in 1979, no one could have predicted the cult following that the film would develop, eventually spawning multiple sequels. Mad Max: Fury Road even bucked the odds by becoming one of the few pure action films to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. This world has opened up to some incredible places, but it is worth checking out the modest, thrilling beginning that kicked off the whole journey.
The world of Miller’s Mad Max is one that presents as on the brink of full-on lawlessness, but it is restrained enough to feel like this could be a believable future. This is one of the most effective things about the film; this is a story that is hard to put away as a work of pure fiction. The journey begins with a keyed up member of a motorcycle gang killing a rookie officer, which leads to one of the most thrilling chase scenes I have ever seen committed to film. Audiences have become conditioned to quick cuts and digitally enhanced shots, but witnessing a down and dirty chase in which vehicles get absolutely wrecked and you can feel the RPMs radiating off the screen is an experience that has mostly been lost. This entire sequence is not just some indulgent car chase scene thrown into the film just for thrills; rather, it is a necessary shorthand to convey the sheer depravity that has infected this world without having to spell it out with clunky expository dialogue. The highly destructive chase is brought to a fiery conclusion with the help of Max (Mel Gibson), the police’s top pursuit man. This is just one of many signs of the dark path the world is going down, and it is up to Max to maintain some semblance of peace.
The agents of chaos in this film are Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his band of ruthless motorcycle-riding outlaws. They are the type who blow through a town and leave nothing but the studs. They terrorize residents, steal fuel, destroy property…all the typical bad guy stuff. When Max and his colleague Jim (Steve Bisley) get on the wrong side of Toecutter and his gang, it leads to a series of violent exchanges that will epitomize the threat of lawlessness in the face of attempted civility. The dialogue in the film is very sparse, instead allowing the visuals to tell the narrative for the most part. The most dialogue-driven aspect is Max’s homelife with his wife (Joanne Samuel) and infant son. Gibson shows early signs of the charm he would exhibit during his prime. The gentle scenes with his wife are necessary part of coming down from the high-octane action sequences where you can rev back up for the finale. Max is a character that is easy to get invested in, which makes the tension from the peril his family faces in the latter half of the film so effective. Keays-Byrne proves to be the perfect counter-balance to Gibson, as his unhinged performance makes you feel as if he is capable of anything.
Mad Max is an amazing low-budget action film that says a lot about the state of the world without spoonfeeding you the message. Director George Miller does so much with so little here, which you appreciate even more when you see where it would eventually progress. The subtle touches that Miller establishes here provide a hint of was to come in future installments, such as the gang using poles to vault on to the tanker full of gas. The film also adds a real lived-in quality to the world through the expressive costumes and dilapidated production design. In terms of raw thrills, Mad Max has to rank among the some of the top action films of all time, at least in this budget range. It is a visceral experience brought to life by a director that knows how to convey tension like a conductor in a bonkers orchestra. These films would eventually get bigger and more ambitious over future installments, but Mad Max proves to be the perfect entry point into Miller’s vision of the future. Safety guidelines will probably prevent a film from being made in such a way again, so appreciate this for the dangerous gem that it is.
Mad Max comes to Blu-Ray with a digital AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 2.34:1 that appears to be derived from a master used for the previous Blu-Ray editions. The main reason for this re-release is the 4K UHD Blu-Ray that is also being released on the same day, but that was not made available to me for review at this time. The presentation is pretty solid throughout most of the runtime, even though source limitations do keep it from being pristine. Instances of print damage are speckled here and there, but overall clarity and detail is stunning. This transfer maintains the natural film grain of the presentation with only minor instances of it seeming a bit clumpy. The picture can run a bit soft in long shots, but colors are well saturated in a visually splendid way. Skin tones are natural and consistent with subtle facial features easily noticeable in closeup. Black levels hold up well with very little in the way of crush. This presentation is quite impressive, but those who are capable should probably spring for the 4K UHD Blu-Ray presentation.
This Blu-Ray comes with a lossless DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track of the original Australian version of the track along with DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio tracks of the original Australian, as well as the dubbed American version. Unless you have a particular fondness for the American dub, it should probably be avoided to preserve artistic integrity. The remixed track provides a lot of great atmospheric effects in the action-driven portions of the film that engage the surround speakers including the roar from engines. The track can be a bit reverb-heavy in a way that is not a problem in the mono track. Dialogue comes through clear in the front channel without being overwhelmed by any sound effects or score. The track has a good sense of directionality with sounds always coming from the appropriate channels. The movie makes good use of the action beats in the surround channels, as crashes feels appropriately heavy in the mix. The mono track is where the action is for purists, as it gives you a stellar version of the film as it was intended to be heard. Both tracks maintain excellent fidelity throughout the runtime. This audio presentation is a pretty great effort that brings the film to life in a thrilling way.
- Audio Commentary: Filmmaker Tim Ridge moderates a very engaging audio track with Art Director Jon Dowding, Cinematographer David Eggby and Special Effects Artist Chris Murray. It has been quite a while since many of them have seen the film, but together they conjure up some very entertaining anecdotes that reveal how truly dangerous this production was in a way that would not fly today. The reason the special effects look so amazing is because they were putting themselves in harm’s way a lot of the time. These stories are crazy and worth listening to if you are a fan of the film.
- Road Rage – New Interview with Director George Miller: A 30-minute interview with Miller recorded during quarantine in which he offers up many fascinating recollections from the making of the film. One of the most interesting bits is discussing how actor Hugh Keays-Byrne (Toecutter) and the rest of the Toecutter gang transported the motorcycles across Australia as a real motorcycle gang to save on plane tickets, much to the ire of the authorities. This is extremely informative and well put together considering the limitations of COVID restrictions.
- Interviews with Stars Mel Gibson & Joanne Samuel and Cinematographer David Eggby: A nearly 27-minute series of interviews in which Gibson offers up some intriguing details about his casting, Samuel reveals how she got the part because of a motorcycle accident sustained by the original actress, Eggby offers up more harrowing tales from the set and more. This is another essential piece for fans of the film.
- Mel Gibson – Birth of a Superstar: A 17-minute vintage retrospective which takes a look at the early career of Gibson including interviews with his acting teacher, early costars, talent agent and more. The participants help round out a period for Gibson that you may not know as much about.
- Mad Max – The Film Phenomenon: A 26-minute vintage featurette which does an excellent job of delving into various aspects of the film such as the costumes and production design, the narrative, the rocket-powered cars, the epic opening chase sequence and more. Participants include some of the crew members from the films along with film critics and other noteworthy people. Some of these stories are touched upon in the other features, but there are some fun nuggets that are worth exploring in this one.
- Trailers From Hell with Josh Olson: A two-minute overview of the film by Olson in which he shares some of his experiences with the film and points out some of the noteworthy aspects of the movie. He also points out how Gibson was originally dubbed when the film came to America.
- Radio Spots: Two minutes of radio spots are included here which are a fun listen.
- TV Spots: A minute-and-a-half collection of television spots that do a nice job of highlighting the action of the film.
- Trailers: Two trailers are provided which highlight a lot of the same content as the TV spots.
- Stryker Trailer: A two-minute trailer for this Road Warrior rip off is provided here.
Mad Max is an absolute blast from beginning to end thanks to the fearless direction from George Miller. Mel Gibson delivers a star-making turn here as an understated badass. This is a franchise that has taken many bold leaps in filmmaking, but you have to respect what the original entry was able to pull off. Kino Classics has delivered a very solid Blu-Ray with a strong A/V presentation and a host of engaging special features. If you are 4K-capable, you should probably spring for that version if you want the best, but those who are still riding with Blu-Ray will find this a worthwhile addition to your collection. Recommended
Mad Max will be available to purchase on 4K UHD Blu-Ray and Blu-Ray on November 24, 2020.
Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the Blu-Ray.
Disclaimer: Kino Classics has supplied a copy of this disc free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.
Dillon is most comfortable sitting around in a theatre all day watching both big budget and independent movies.