In 1979 something incredible happened: I was born. But seriously, that’s also the year of some amazing cinema, including Alien, The Amityville Horror, Apocalypse Now, and The Warriors, but the one I’m most enamored of is Mel Gibson’s second major film, and the one that rocketed him to stardom, Mad Max.
The Mad Max series rocketed back into cultural consciousness two years ago with Fury Road, but before Furiosa and Immortan Joe, before Tina Turner singing “We don’t need another hero,” before the ever-expanding desert and the gyrocopter and the weird kids-only cargo cult, we had Max Rockatansky, an Australian highway patrolman operating a pursuit vehicle at the ass-end of civilization as society breaks down around him. We aren’t given a specific time period, just “a few years from now,” and there are still vestiges of contemporary life, but the apocalyptic events that shape the world of the later Mad Max sequels are clearly ramping up.
Of course, that information all comes over the course of said sequels, and George Miller’s explanation of setting is not nearly so clear in the films themselves as it is in hindsight with audience interpolation and extrapolation. Miller chooses not to have a ton of voiceover, long expository scenes, minutes-long text scrolling, or characters all but talking to viewers, as some other, lesser films tend to do. Instead he packs every scene with visual cues, exhibiting an attention to detail that is rivaled only by the best directors in film history, people like Alfred Hitchcock, Walter Hill, Brian DePalma, Ridley Scott (before fame ruined his directorial focus), James Cameron, and Stanley Kubrick (when he wasn’t being a monstrous jerk to his actors).
At the beginning of the film, Max is called out to engage and bring to justice a motorcycle gang member known as Nightrider after Nightrider has killed a rookie police officer. After a high-speed chase in his now-iconic Interceptor (a 1973 Ford Falcon XB GT), Max manages to force a crash that kills Nightrider. Some later events regarding the lack of true justice for a rape committed by the same gang makes Max question the efficacy of law enforcement as the world begins to eat itself, and he tries to resign and make do with what life is left in the collapsing world. He’s convinced to take a vacation instead, but there are no Disneys in this world, and vacations aren’t exactly something that happens in the apocalypse.
What starts out as a relatively straightforward action cop movie shifts gears and becomes a straight up revenge film as Max forgoes any objectivity or belief in justice after watching his wife and infant son run down and murdered by a biker gang. Far be it for me to spoil a 38-year-old movie, but Max gets his vengeance and leaves the last vestiges of his humanity behind him as he moves on to become the ultimate survivor we meet in the three follow-up movies.
This film absolutely fits into the pulp aesthetic, at least as far as I’m concerned. There may be room for some reasonable disagreement on this point, but revenge plots where main characters seek out their own personal justice against the people who have done them wrong are as pure pulp as exists. The sense of right and wrong is also pretty clear cut, which some of the pulp revolution crowd insist on when they describe pulp. I’m not so set on that, and any in-depth foray into Black Mask or Detective Fiction Weekly will put the lie to that idea. In any case, there is clear motivation, all the action is driven by character decision rather than authorial intrusion or outside circumstances, and the resolution is satisfying if morally gray, lending viewers a definite feeling that justice was served, but at a significant personal cost.
To modern audiences, Mad Max might appear a tad slow, which I grok, as even for a fan like me it does seem to drag on at times. Compared to Miller’s newest sequel (or even its excellent immediate sequel Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior and the less-than-stellar-but-still-enjoyable mid-1980s trope defining Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) Mad Max seems positively glacial.
If your only foray into the world of the desert diesel-punk post-apocalyptic world that is Mad Max was 2015’s Fury Road, then you need to do yourself a favor and queue up the original, if for no other reason than to see where it all started.
In next week’s article, Matt will be discussing Fury Road, so stay tuned for more Mad Max love. While you’re at it, join us on Facebook. We just launched a group where we can engage more directly with fans of Broadswords and Blasters or pulp in general.