In the not-too-distant future, all Hell has broken out across Australia. Society is breaking down, the criminals and outlaws are getting more vicious, and the police in turn, must become even tougher. Of these officers, "Mad" Max (Mel Gibson in his leading actor debut) is the toughest. Dressed from head to toe in leather and padded armor, and driving a tricked out police car, no one can outrun him. Least of all is Nightrider, an outlaw who is part of The Toecutter's gang. When Max kills Nightrider on the road, Max and his friends becomes the target of the Toecutter's vengeance. After one of Max's friends is murdered, Max heads into the outback for some much needed vacation time, with his wife and baby. But close behind is the Toecutter, and if they push too far, they'll find out just how Max got his moniker.
In the late 70's, exploitation films that pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in film were being churned out one after another. Although many of them became fodder for filling double-feature bills, a precious few were marked as something more, something powerful and raw. MAD MAX is amongst those films, and it is mostly in thanks to debut director and writer George Miller, for his anarchic vision of the future, and his DIY spirit that brought the film to life. Through death-defying camerawork (more on this in a moment), movie magic, pure adrenaline attitude, a few well used clichés, and the bleak wasteland backdrop of rural Australia, a terrible post-apocalyptic future is beautifully woven that is still just cool enough and habitable enough that you almost want to live there. And this is half of the makes this style of film memorable and successful.
The other half is having a character that you can route for and whose reinforced boots you want to be in. Stepping up to this challenge is a very young and still baby-faced Mel Gibson, who takes up the title role. The film follows Max as his last bits of humanity are slowly stripped away as he deals with balancing being in the most dangerous legal profession where ever second can mean life and death and raising a baby with his young wife, where every time they kiss goodbye could be the last time they see one another. Gibson handles what is notably some heavy emotions in an otherwise nitro-fueled action film. Gibson, with his limited acting experience at the time, does well enough, and perhaps a stronger actor could have handled the romantic scenes better. But when the film turns to the dark revenge sequences in the last reel, which are the most justified killings this side of the Punisher, Gibson's young features act as a stark contrast to the character's actions as Max's humanity is completely lost.
Mel Gibson aside, what this film delivers in spades is speed, speed, speed! George Miller sets up some incredible action sequences that will have any jaded chase sequence fan on the edge of their seats. You can almost feel the wind ripping across your face as the cars and motorcycle rip across the screen at 100+ kilometers per hour. Equal credit for this must go to cinematographer David Eggby, who put his life on the line multiple times during production to get as close to the vehicles and the asphalt as he could, and uses an almost documentary-style approach to bring the chases to life. What makes his work here the most appealing is that you do not see this kind of dangerous camerawork anymore, at least not without the aid of computers and digitized effects.
MAD MAX has gone on to collect a well-deserved following around the world, has helped to launch the career of Mel Gibson, and its low-cost production contains hints for upcoming directors short on cash, like if you don't have the money to buy a car to smash just use your own, pay your extras in beer, use nigh-abandoned factories for settings, use vinyl instead of leather for costumes, and if you want to give a lasting impression of gruesomeness don't show anything at all. Gibson, Miller and the rest of his crew would reteam for two sequel, THE ROAD WARRIOR and MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME. The three films create a long character arch for Max, as he loses, rediscovers and redeems his soul, and creates a much grander impression of the character than he was probably ever supposed to get. Here though, you'll just see him mad and burning to get even, so grab an oil can of Fosters, rev that engine into the red, and get ready to burn some rubber!