And if you’re a bad guy with a really lame nickname, it really, really sucks. That’s because no matter how hard you lay on the gas, every time you look up into the rear view, you’ll see him hot on your tail; a black, rumbling demon made of metal and speed. He’s one of the good guys—maybe the only real one left. And he’s mad.
Boy, howdy, is he ever.
In 1979, while Rocky was fighting Apollo and Kramer was fighting Kramer, Australian highway cop Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson, in his breakout role) was fighting bikers with names like Nightrider and Toecutter in the dystopian hell that was George Miller’s iconic Mad Max. The film put Australian filmmaking on the map, and for years, stood as the most profitable film in history. It spawned two sequels and a re-envisioned fourth chapter that is expected to have a blockbuster opening in just a few days. But it all started on a desolate stretch of road in the middle of the Outback as white letters projected this foreboding declaration onscreen: “A few years from now.”
It’s never revealed in this first film how the future got so bleak (the second installment cites a major energy crisis as the culprit) but the Outback has been reduced to its primitive origins, save for a few withering cities, scattered settlements and muscle cars. Outlaw biker gangs, including the notorious Acolytes, terrorize the countryside, and it’s up to Max and his fellow Main Force Patrol brethren (the “Bronze”) to preserve the fragile peace.
When cop killer Nightrider loses a deadly game of chicken with Max, the rest of the Acolytes swear revenge. Reluctant to remain on the force, Max decides to stay when his superiors supply him with the ultra-fast Pursuit Special Police Interceptor, a nitrous-charged, hyper-horsepowered patrol car no gearhead could refuse. The Acolytes swear revenge and target the MFP, leaving a horrid path of destruction in their wake. When Toecutter and fellow thug Johnny “the Boy” cripple and scorch MHP bike patrolman Jim “Goose” Rains (Steve Bisley) beyond recognition, Max vows to hang up his badge for fear that he may go insane. His commanding officer convinces him to take time off before walking away, and Max retreats with his wife and son for some much needed R&R.
But no matter how fast he drives, Max, it seems, cannot outrun his fate.
While venturing out for ice cream, his wife and son are beset upon by Toecutter and his cronies. They barely escape, and together with Max, retreat to the farm of a family friend. Undeterred, the Acolytes pursue, biding their time. While Max is preoccupied at the farm, his wife and son enjoy an outing at the beach. But on their return trip, the Acolytes strike, running down Max’s family along a lonely stretch of road, that—like so many others for the MFP—has been both friend and nemesis. Max arrives just in time to watch his wife die, then returns to the decaying MFP headquarters to retrieve his weapons and car, tearing off after Toecutter and his minions.
One by one, he picks them off, until veering Toecutter into the path of an oncoming semi. Johnny remains the only survivor, but not for long. Max finds him scavenging a roadside crash, cuffs him to the fender, and ignites a time-delay fuse. He leaves Johnny a hacksaw, giving him the option to cut off the cuffs or his own arm to escape—the catch, of course, being that it will take much longer to work through the metal.
As Max walks away, the car bursts into a fireball, and the reign of the Acolytes presumably ends with Johnny. Max, now stoically stern, climbs into his Interceptor and speeds away, once more taking to the open road.
Part book of Judges, parts Jeremiah and Jonah, Mad Max is a gritty, sometimes downright weird story of an often reluctant hero who has to rise up amidst a world that has spun chaotically out of control. Max craves the tranquility and security of domesticity, but the high-octane thrill of adventure—and an inner sense of duty—continue to beckon him back to the road. Once he realizes that his concept of safe, comfortable idealism will never survive the new world that is, he transitions from wavering servant to tenacious punisher, a living embodiment of the declaration of Deuteronomy 19: 11-12: “But if there is a man who hates his neighbor and lies in wait for him and rises up against him and strikes him so that he dies, and he flees to one of these cities, then the elders of his city shall send and take him from there and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die.”
This arguably two-dimensional archetype expands in the sequels as Max undergoes an almost Mosaic transformation in The Road Warrior and is painted with overtones of Joseph, Joshua, and even Daniel in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. But if you’re looking for straightforward, Old Testament vengeance, you can’t beat the original. It set the bar for violent, post-apocalyptic action and there’s no wonder why –almost forty years later—audiences are still mad about Max.