madmaxLarge numbers of movies get released and make no money. The traditional indie counter-manoeuvre is to spend no money making the movie in the first place.

Mad Max was such a movie, and the result is a classic. The series really finds its voice with The Road Warrior, but the first one is good, too – an edgy and stylish movie that combines a peak oil-induced apocalypse with Australian muscle car culture.

The setting is familiar, and the Mad Max franchise made it that way. Civilisation is winding down due to depleted fuel reserves, and road gangs have turned the roads into battlefields. Max Rockatansky is an officer in the collapsing house of cards that is the local police force, and he’s getting uncomfortably happy with the violence his job requires. When a fellow officer is burned alive in an ambush, he begins a transformation into a vigilante who doesn’t just throw away the rulebook, he does wheelies over it with his supercharged Pursuit Special.

After an energetic opening scene that hurls cars around and showcases the series’ love of outrageous trash talk (Ayatolla of Rock and Rolla, etc), Max hits its stride: a gritty and atmospheric movie with solid writing and acting. Considering the budget, the action scenes are impressive and occasionally spectacular – but the thing that really brings this movie together is the characters.

Gibson is particularly good. He’s calm, but it’s a calm that makes you uncomfortable. He seems like a benign cloud cell that could mutate into a hurricane. He doesn’t overact – far from it, he’s usually quieter than he needs to be. But he has a strange power over the screen, and his quietness is part of what makes the final scene so chilling.

There’s a bunch of crazy desperadoes with ridiculous names like Mudguts and Toecutter, and they’re also handled with a nuance that isn’t typical in this kind of movie. I like how Nightrider goes from insane tirades to tears, and Johnny tries to escape Max’s vengeance by claiming mental problems. The villains have a nice bit of…humanity, which reminds us that Max himself might not be too far behind.

Max isn’t perfect. As an emotional experience it has an odd plateau-like quality, and it lacks a big epic scene like the road chase of the second movie or the Thunderdome battle of the third. The music hasn’t aged too well. Mad Max has an ill-fitting jaunty score that makes me think of Adam West punching out bad guys with “WHAM!” and “POW!” appearing on the screen.

But the movie is still impressive for what it is. Few films do so much with so little money (imagine if Blair Witch had car stunts), and it’s influence etc cannot be overstated. The odd thing about Max is that you’ve witnessed its spirit even if you haven’t seen the movie, because so many of its ideas have seeped into the work of other directors.

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