Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Film Appreciation - High Fatality Road

Film Appreciation steps on the gas as Cody Hamman takes a look at 1979's Mad Max.

Australian filmmaker George Miller has been revered by the film community for decades now, but at one point his cinematic aspirations were sidelined while he pursued a career in the medical profession. He finished med school and became a doctor, but the first indication of his interest in film arose in his final year of school, when he made an award-winning one minute short. That same year, he attended a film workshop and met Byron Kennedy, a twenty-two year old who had already been producing short films for four years through his own company. Kennedy and Miller teamed up to make a short entitled Violence in the Cinema, Part 1.

Miller worked in a hospital, but during his downtime he would crew on movies. In 1975, he formed a production company with Kennedy that they named Kennedy Miller. With the aid of a cinephile journalist friend named James McCausland, Miller began writing the script for what would become his feature directorial debut, an idea that took inspiration from Australian car culture, the fact that Miller had lost friends in car accidents during his teenage years, things he had seen while working in an emergency room, the 1973 oil crisis, and the recently released post-apocalyptic comedy A Boy and His Dog.

Around two years passed between the time Miller and McCausland started writing the screenplay for Mad Max and when the movie went into production, during which time Miller raised some of the money needed for the budget by working on emergency medical calls, Kennedy driving Dr. Miller to where he was needed. The rest of the budget came from investors who responded to a 40 page presentation the pair had put together.

With a budget somewhere in the range of $350,000, Mad Max began filming at the end of 1977.

Most directors get their start with something low-key, often a story set in one location. Characters trapped in a house, or in a cabin in the woods, or going through their daily routine at a convenience store. Miller blows away first time filmmaker expectations right off the bat, launching Mad Max with a 12 minute action sequence.

Set "a few years from now", in a time when society appears to be on the decline, the film begins with criminal biker Nightrider having escaped from police custody, killed an officer, and stolen a cop car, a Pursuit Special. With his girlfriend riding shotgun and both of them acting completely out of their minds, Nightrider tears through the Australian countryside with Main Force Patrol officers on his tail.

As the chase passes through town, property is damaged, vehicles are totalled (Miller sacrificed his own van for the film), a camper trailer is smashed, a toddler narrowly avoids being run down, and all of the cops following Nightrider are taken out of the chase. That's when motorcycle cop Jim Goose grabs his radio and calls in a man named Max.

Throughout the chase, there are cut-aways to an MFP officer with his car parked on the side of the road. He cleans up from doing work on the vehicle, puts on his jacket, sunglasses, and gloves, all while listening to the reports of the chase. We never see his face. This is Max, and when Goose calls him he rides into action.

Max gets his Interceptor vehicle on the road ahead of Nightrider, and the biker greets him to the chase by playing a game of chicken with him. Max doesn't swerve. Nightrider has to, and that causes an immediate shift in his demeanor, from gleeful self-aggrandizement to total despondency.

Nightrider is right to be despondent, because Max's car is much more powerful than the other officers' were. He rides right on Nightrider's bumper, honking his horn. The chase clearly won't last much longer... And it does end very quickly, when they reach an unrelated multi-car pile-up blocking the road. Nightrider smashes into the already wrecked vehicles and his car goes up in a massive fireball.

Getting out of his car to look at the wreck, Max pulls off his sunglasses as the camera pushes in on him and we get our first good look at a then-unknown Mel Gibson in the role of Max Rockatansky.

It's a fantastic way to start a film and introduce its hero. Miller shoots the chase like a seasoned pro and it looks as good as anything Hollywood had done. With this opening sequence, he already earned himself a career.

Max, a character who would end up carrying a franchise, is the MFP's top pursuit man, but he has also recently become a family man. He's got a wife, Jessie, and a young son, Sprog, and his job is clearly causing friction in his marriage. He's thinking of quitting the force. To make sure he doesn't, Captain Fifi McAfee, a man who wants to prove to the people that heroes still exist, pulls some strings to get Max a costly gift - a new car, "the last of the V8s", a black 1973 Ford Falcon with a supercharger.

Throughout the beginning chase, Nightrider's rants and raves included shout-outs to someone called Toecutter. Nightrider really wanted to impress this Toecutter guy. As it turns out, Toecutter is the head of the nomadic biker gang Nightrider belonged to. We're first introduced to this gang, including Toecutter's right hand man Bubba Zanetti and loose cannon new member Johnny the Boy, when they ride into a small town to pick up the remains of Nightrider at a train station.

Toecutter is played by respected theatre actor Hugh Keays-Byrne, and he helped cast his gang by filling roles with his theatre buddies. These actors' theatrical roots are quite apparent, because this bunch is one of the most flamboyant groups of oddballs ever put on film. I'm surprised they didn't work in any Shakespeare quotes. Around these guys, the gang was filled out with members of an actual biker gang.

While picking up the coffin, the bikers wreak havoc in the small town, their antics escalating from them being a nuisance to dragging a bystander down the street behind a motorcycle. When a young couple races away from town in a tricked-out 1959 Chevy Bel Air, the bikers give chase, running them off the road and smashing the vehicle to pieces before having their way with the occupants. Some of the bikers may be goofy and over-the-top, but in this moment they are scary, and this sequence is deeply disturbing to me.

It seems like Max's job is about to get a whole lot more dangerous when word gets out that Toecutter's gang is coming after him, seeking to avenge the Nightrider. But, that's not really what happens.

The MFP officer who actually bears the brunt of the biker gang's vengeance for something done in the line of duty is Jim Goose. Johnny the Boy is arrested at the Bel Air crime scene, having been too wasted to get away with the rest of the gang. Eventually, Johnny has to be released because none of the gang's victims from the small town show up in court, so there's no case against him, no charges filed. When Goose hears this, he flips out. He does his best to try to keep Johnny in custody and gets so out of control he even throws the guy on the ground and beats on him a bit. Goose has to be physically restrained by other officers as Johnny is escorted away.

The gang responds by forcing Goose into not just one but two vehicular accidents. He ends up trapped upside down in a wrecked truck that's leaking gasoline. And Toecutter makes Johnny the Boy toss a match...

Shaken by the death of Goose, fearing that if he spends any more time working on the road that he'll become another "terminal crazy" like the bikers, Max delivers to Fifi a letter of resignation. Fifi refuses to accept it, but Max will never work for MFP again.

Max goes on a road trip vacation with Jessie and Sprog, just wandering the countryside. During their travels, Jessie crosses paths with Toecutter's gang while on a side trip of her own - seemingly by pure coincidence. Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't get the indication that the gang has been following Max. It appears that they just happen to be at the same place at the same time. Attempting to escape from the bikers, Jessie inadvertently causes gang member Cundalini to lose a hand.

Then it's time for Toecutter and his guys to seek revenge again, this time directly on Max's family. Not for the Nightrider, but for Cundalini's right mitt.

The family stops for a stay at a farm owned by an elderly woman named May Swaisey so Max can do some work on their ailing vehicle. This is where the bikers catch up with them, and the sequence here plays almost like a horror movie. Jessie walks through a woods to a beach, where camera angles suggest she's being spied on. She falls asleep, the family dog leaves her side. When she wakes, Jessie walks back through the woods... and this time there's no doubt that she's not alone. She finds the corpse of the dog, hung from a tree. The bikers are in the woods, moving from tree to tree. Jessie runs into Benno, the developmentally handicapped man who lurks around May's property (farm hand, neighbor, or her son, it's never clear) and the lighting on his face makes him seem frightening.

Alerted to the presence of the bikers, Max heads into the woods with a gun and Benno. But the bikers aren't in the woods anymore. They're at the farm. And they have Sprog.

Tense moments play out between the women and the bikers, but there seems to be hope for a happy outcome. Jessie gets Sprog away from them and they speed off down the road in the family car. But it hasn't been fixed yet. It breaks down. And Jessie doesn't realize that running straight down the middle of the road when being chased by people on motorcycles is not an evasive maneuver.

Mother and child are run down. Sprog is killed. Jessie is hospitalized with missing limbs and failing organs. It's devastating to watch play out.

The first 75 minutes of this 93 minute film are origin story. The build-up to Max gaining the "mad" in front of his name, becoming the terminal crazy he feared he might. His family taken from him, he has nothing to stop him from going over the edge anymore. He puts on his uniform leathers, steals the V8 from the station garage, and tears off on a mission of revenge.

With Max unleashed, Toecutter and his men don't have very long to live. The gang is quickly wiped out, and Toecutter may be the leader, but throughout the film the one who has come off as the most despicable, the one at the center of most of what has happened, is Johnny the Boy. So Johnny the Boy is saved for last, and Max even gives him a chance for survival - although it will require him to cut his cuffed foot off with a hacksaw before a stream of gasoline from the vehicle he's cuffed to reaches a burning lighter and ignites.

Many would say that the final moments with Johnny the Boy are directly responsible for George Miller's fellow Australians James Wan and Leigh Whannell coming up with the concept of Saw more than twenty years later.

As the film nears its end, Max drives into a part of the countryside that a sign with skull and crossbones on it warns is a prohibited area. The film doesn't tell why the area is so dangerous, but the sequels that follow will show us that Max finds himself at home outside of civilization. In fact, civilization won't last much longer anyway.

Mad Max may be, at its core, a simple drive-in exploitation (or Ozploitation) flick, but it's an incredibly well crafted one, made all the more impressive by its director's back story and inexperience. The storytelling isn't quite what you'd expect, the bikers maybe could have had more of a focused vendetta against Max, but it ultimately works.

Miller presents his scenes in such a way that they evoke exactly the response from the viewer that he was going for with them, he makes you feel what he wants you to feel. The action sequences are perfectly shot and edited so that they're exhilarating to watch, and it's mind-blowing to me that Miller and his crew were able to achieve what they did on the small budget. The scenes of suspense and terror are properly unnerving, the loss of the people around Max has impact, and the revenge he gets is satisfying.

There were already two installments in the Mad Max franchise before I was even born, and the third came along soon after, so these films have always been a part of my life, Max has always held on to "action hero icon" status in my mind. The films got a lot of viewings when I was growing up, and this first one is probably the one I watched the most. When I was a child, it seemed to be the one that got the most television play, and when I got older and purchased Mad Max and The Road Warrior on VHS (we already had Beyond Thunderdome recorded off of HBO or Cinemax), Mad Max remained the one I gravitated toward the most. It still is to this day. Low budget, down and dirty cinema has always been a strong draw for me, and Mad Max is one of the greatest examples of that.

The movies got bigger and more apocalyptic after this, but the original still shines as a stunning achievement in indie filmmaking. An Australian first timer directed a film that's worthy of ranking among the all-time best road movies.

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