The Blu-Ray Dissection: Mad Max
Posted by Chad Webb on 11.02.2010
Max Rockatansky tries to rule the road in High-def. Is the Blu-Ray release worth the upgrade? Click to find out...
Mel Gibson: Mad Max Rockatansky
Joanne Samuel: Jessie
Hugh Keays-Byrne: Toecutter
Steve Bisley: Jim Goose
Tim Burns: Johnny the Boy
Roger Ward: Fifi
Directed By" George Miller
Written By: James McClausland and George Miller
Theatrical Release Date: May 9, 1980
DVD Release Date: October 5, 2010
Running Time: 93 minutes
Mad Max, the first installment of George Miller's post-apocalyptic trilogy, is a tale of vigilante justice, a premise that has been recycled time and time again. When the Australian import was released in 1980, it had a limited theatrical run in the states and swiftly disappeared. When the sequel, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, emerged 2 years later, Warner Brothers actually used an advertising campaign, and turned it into a wide release. It was a huge success, and the rest is history. This is not a perfect movie, but it doesn't need to be. Mad Max, as well as its sequels, stuck to their strengths and managed to keep them fresh and exciting. What more could you ask for?
The backstory was always a bit vague, and in Mad Max 2 a narrator would divulge information involving a nuclear battle, presumably between the U.S. and Russia, combined with energy shortages, resulted in the gradual collapse of law and order. The police can do little to protect the population. This is the world the Main Force Patrol operate in, and as Mad Max opens in the Australian waste lands, they are pursuing criminal gang member Nightrider (Vincent Gil). He gives them a run for their money, but when Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) joins the fray, Nightrider meets his demise. The motorcycle gang leader, Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) learns this and sets out for his revenge on the MFP. First he targets Max's best friend Goose (Steve Bisley), and then begins to terrorize Max's own family. He had thought about leaving the force for a relaxing life, but these new developments send him into a revenge-fueled frenzy.
Max Rockatansky was Mel Gibson's third role as an actor, and his range was evident. After Gallipoli and the sequels to this franchise, Gibson would go on to become a mega-superstar. Comparing Mad Max to say Lethal Weapon 4 is interesting because as a youthful Max, Gibson evokes an intensity, passion, and drive that was considerably clearer and more vivacious early on in his career. His abilities make certain that the tender moments with his wife are not schmaltzy, but instead are meaningful glances at Max's softer side. He convinces us that Max is capable of being pushed to the edge, to the point where we agree that he has only one option left.
It might shock some fans to know that Hugh Keays-Byrne, the man who portrays Toecutter, is a classically trained Shakespearean actor. Upon analyzing his quirky performance after knowing that bit of trivia, one can spot those influences in his delivery. He modeled Toecutter after Genghis Khan. If there is a weak aspect of Mad Max, it is the biker gang. Hugh Keays-Byrne and his gallery of thugs veer too closely in the cartoonish territory, and do no come across as a legitimately dangerous threat. I credit Gibson's turn and Miller's sense of atmosphere and dread to disguising the silliness of the goons. And as much as I loved hearing the Knightrider spout lines from AC/DC's "Rocker" before crashing and burning, his over the top yelling gets old, and his fate is welcomed. The rest of the supporting cast is solid and fair with Steve Bisley and Roger Ward doing well as Goose and Fifi, while Joanne Samuels nailing the innocent routine without trouble as Mrs. Rockatansky.
Apart from landing a superb star to attract viewers through 3 films in 6 years, George Miller's Mad Max series thrives because of the energetic, straight-up gritty action. He keeps giving the audience what they want without abusing his repetitions. The chases are not as spectacular as those in Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry or Vanishing Point, but they are competently staged and executed with a raw slickness. Movie fans love them because car chases done well never lose their brilliance, and car guys love them because Miller displays a number of vehicles that are now instantly recognizable from speeding down straight roads or being destroyed in this film. Among them: HQ LS Holden Monaro, Ford Falcon XB, 1972 Ford Falcon XA, 1959 Chevrolet Impala, Mazda Bongo, and 14 Kawasaki motorcycles.
Two of the chases I possessed a higher appreciation for following my recent viewing are those concerning Max's wife Jessie. The first is where she knees Toecutter in the groin and flees the scene, and the second is on foot in the woods when she returns home from the beach. Miller's approach is wise in that the ominous feeling, white-knuckle suspense, and our fear for her is undeniable. Every bone in our bodies tells us that her life is in jeopardy even when she is just strolling casually. The intermittent lighthearted music contradicts the knowledge that Toecutter's minions are lurking somewhere with their odd mannequin mascot and their cheesy makeup. Miller's adeptness is not in building the greatest action sequences of all-time, but in giving good action sequences genuine emotion. It is a simple requirement that is becoming increasingly rare in cinema these days.
Despite not making a loud bang in the US, Mad Max raked in plenty of money overall worldwide. It was filmed on a small budget of around $200,000 and pulled in over $100 million in the end to mark it as an enormous financial success, so much so that it held the Guinness World record of the highest profit-to-cost ratio for nearly 2 decades. Of the three Rockatansky stories, Mad Max would probably be last on my list if forced to rank them, but at the same time, I would rate each installment about the same. The sequels just seemed more honed and settled into their universe than this launching pad. It is definitely the most austere of the trio, and has a seriousness that would be allayed with The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome.
With The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Miller's dystopian universe would expand and become progressively more fascinating. The vast Australian outback enhances the tension, illusion, and adds elements of mystery and spontaneity to the plot. If Mad Max was a stand-alone effort, it might still be a cult favorite, but the course of the trilogy as a whole augmented the first story considerably. It is better to picture the Mad Max movies as one saga rather than individual titles of a trilogy because each adventure offers something distinct and satisfying. Knowing what paths Max will walk down in the future, and how the events in Mad Max will shape his personality, make repeated viewings significantly more enjoyable.
Mad Max is presented to you in Blu-Ray's 1080p/AVC transfer with 2.35:1 non-anamorphic widescreen. For its age, this film is rendered as very good in high-definition. The colors are significantly brighter and given more clarity. They also seem more accurate, which can sometimes be a concern with older movies. The picture is not spotless. Taking into account how it was shot and how old it is, one will notice some minor issues here and there, but nothing to get in a twist over. The black levels are ok, but not very deep because this transfer can only be improved so much. The use of video artifacts is kept to a minimum and the digital noise reduction is balanced throughout. There are times when the video quality is a bit wobbly, but this is still the finest version of the movie to date.
The audio history of Mad Max is worth mentioning because when it was initially released in theaters, it was dubbed with American voices, and no one in the US had a chance to hear the original Australian track until the 2002 Special Edition DVD came out. Those audio options had everything, even the dub for those who cared. On this updated release, you have DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio in Australian and English, which sounds suitably loud and crisp. The dialogue is lucid for the most part, which makes the decision to create a dub somewhat perplexing. If the accent is a problem, subtitles are a great help. They give us English and Spanish. Occasionally the talking is overwhelmed by the score, but it's not as bad as other DVDs I've reviewed. You also have a Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono track in English and Australian and a Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono track in Spanish.
The Blu-Ray release of Mad Max is distributed in two types of cases. You will find it in a regular slimline blue case normal for Blu-Ray titles, as well as a standard black keep case. The copy I was sent is the standard DVD packaging. The menu screen features shots of chases, and is easy to navigate.
As I said earlier, a special edition DVD of Mad Max hit stores in 2002. I owned this, and was excited at the announcement of a Blu-Ray, and subsequently disappointed when I discovered that the sole new extras were mere trailers. Everything on the Blu-Ray is recycled from the standard edition.
Audio Commentary - This track features Art Director Jon Dowding, Director of Photography David Eggby, Special Effects Supervisor Chris Murray, and Historian Tim Ridge. There are some minor dead spots every now and then, but with a group of 4, they shouldn't have too much trouble keeping a conversation afloat and for the most part these guys don't. Eventually they settle into a smoother groove. They discuss the nature of the characters, scene specific details, and many stories which are fun. They also mention that 20% of the chase scenes planned for the film were not shot. Damn.
Mad Max: FIlm Phenomenon (25:30) - This is a tidy little mini-documentary that starts off talking about where it was shot, which was Melbourne, and that George Miller and company had no money. You see interviews from some crew members and a few critics that praise the editing, camera work, suspense, acting, and so forth. This is acceptable for what it is, but I find it just a bit lazy that no one could throw together an updated interview with George Miller. I realize getting comments from Gibson would be a long shot, but surely Miller has some thoughts. The most interesting this piece gets is addressing how the film is anti-establishment and a new take on the western. Everything from here down is only available on the special edition/standard portion of the set.
Mel Gibson: The High Octane Birth of a Superstar (16:41) - This one is difficult to watch with a straight face because it is 16 minutes of random people gushing over Mel before any of his heavily publicized problems. Still, I tried to read between the lines and find the good bits. The interviews are from members of the crew and the critics from the above mentioned documentary extra. Gibson's director on the flick Tim pops up as well. They discuss his early days, his audition for Mad Max, the plot, and how truly life-altering certain sequences are. The whole thing is incredibly generic, but that's what you get.
Mad Max Trivia Track - These are always fun, and you can put this on while the commentary is going so you will be bludgeoned with trivia and info on the movie. This particular trivia track is old school and takes up a hearty portion of the screen each time.
Theatrical Trailers and TV Spots - This is the Australian trailer (1:58) that is fairly typical. It is followed by 4 TV spots called: The Only Law, Law & Order, Hope and Civilization, and Fuel Injected Vengeance. You also have a trailer for The Terminator: Special Edition DVD, which would have been cool 8 years ago.
International Poster Gallery - You have 16 different posters here. I dig the still in general, but especially glancing at all the posters.
The Film: 8.0/10.0
The Video: 8.5/10.0
The Audio: 8.0/10.0
The Packaging: 7.5/10.0
The Extras: 5.5/10.0
The 411: It's tough to imagine that we would not have the Saw franchise without Mad Max, but the fact is, Max's big finale with Johnny the Boy is the reason for Jigsaw's torture games. Mad Max is a suspenseful, action-packed, and even compelling film. It is not a four-star masterpiece, but it marks the beginning of an awesome trilogy with Mel Gibson as another "Man with No Name" (as the character is later called). For fans though, this Blu-Ray is not really worth the upgrade unless you are a audio/video nut. The picture quality is better, but nothing else has been added aside for some insignificant trailers and the recycling is just plain lazy. The Road Warrior received similar treatment and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome has yet to arrive on Blu-Ray. I'm not sure what the deal is, but hopefully this trilogy will be re-released down the line with all the bells and whistles we crave.