Like a Kurosawa samurai movie with Ford Falcons taking the place of horses, George Miller's 1979 directorial debut Mad Max uses the grim possible future of "a few years from now" as the setting for a gritty action film whose visceral thrills arrive fused to a deepening bleakness. Not quite post-apocalyptic in the style of its sequels (The Road Warrior, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome), Mad Max imagines a time in which civilization hasn't so much collapsed as wound itself down. Cops and criminals vie for control of the roads, and from the film's first breathless chase scene, between a hapless highway patrol and an AC/DC-quoting "terminal psychotic," it looks like the criminals have the edge. Only Mel Gibson, given the best entrance since Clint Eastwood in A Fistful Of Dollars, has the ability to stand in the way, and from the start Miller links that ability to an appetite for self-destruction. It takes a while for that appetite to manifest itself fully, however. Miller places his hero at the center of a three-way tug of war between the violent anarchy of the outlaw, the barely suppressed fascism of the authorities, and the domestic comforts of his wife and child. That last one never has a chance, given the genre and Mad Max's slow-burning nihilism, but Miller does make it more than a perfunctory trigger for revenge. As Gibson slowly loses his capacity for shock and outrage, his ability to be at once tight-lipped and expressive shoulders much of the film's emotional weight. (Looking back, it's little wonder that his charisma made him a star, but has anyone but Sting suffered such a sharp drop-off in coolness since the 1970s?) When the time for action does come, Miller places his camera in the thick of it, capturing it all in a fashion that seldom betrays his film's slim budget and even slimmer shooting schedule, which are recounted in detail on this new DVD version's sometimes overlapping supplements. These include a pair of fluffy documentaries, a boisterous crew audio commentary, and informative trivia subtitles. Best of all, the DVD finally offers American audiences the original and colloquial, but far from incomprehensible, Australian dialogue track, after years in which only a misguided, often comic dubbed version was available. The restored version appreciably enhances Gibson's descent into the sort of bad mood that only the sequel's full-on apocalypse could contain.
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