Mad Max

Mad Max (1979)
MGM Home Entertainment
Cast: Mel Gibson, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Steve Bisley
Extras: Commentary Track, Subtitle Track, Featurettes, Poster Gallery, Trailers, TV Spots

"Mad Max" is one of those rare films that was so ingeniously original upon its release that it immediately spawned a number of pale imitations — as well as two sequels — and continues to this day to have a larger impact on the action film genre than its humble roots and low budget would seem to warrant. In fact, if you’ve never seen the film and this DVD is to be your first experience with George Miller’s masterpiece then you’re likely to feel that you actually have seen it before as everything from the post-apocalyptic fuel-crazed society to the over-the-top vehicle-induced violence has shown up almost verbatim in films such as "Waterworld" — although one could make an argument that "Mad Max" itself owes a debt of gratitude to 1975’s "Death Race 2000."

But "Mad Max" still stands as a ground-breaking film and at long last it is available as a fine special edition from the folks at MGM. The previous Image DVD release featured a lousy, non-<$16x9,anamorphic> transfer and omitted the original soundtrack in favor of the American-dubbed version that graced theatrical release prints here in the States. But this new special edition has it all with a nice new <$16x9,anamorphic> transfer (as well as a <$PS,pan & scan> version for those so inclined), the original Australian soundtrack in its original mono or new 5.1 remix (as well as the American dub for those who insist on reliving their theatrical experiences), and a whole host of new bonus features that really complement the movie nicely.

"Mad Max" was director George Miller’s debut film and was really the first "big" independent movie to be shot in Australia. Calling the movie "big" is a bit of a misnomer as the budget was almost non-existent but hey, you have to start somewhere. The film went on to great critical acclaim and financial success and shot its young lead, Mel Gibson, into the stratosphere of super-stardom.

Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) is one of the few cops trying to stem the tide of lawlessness raging after an apocalypse of some sort (it’s never clearly spelled out) has ravaged the world and left the island continent of Australia on its own and with very few resources.

Max is a family man who dotes on his wife and son and tries hard to leave the darker aspects of his job at work. But when in the course of duty a high-speed chase kills a motorcycle gang member, the gang’s notorious leader, Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), makes it his mission in life to exact revenge against the cops.

The gang does a number on Max’s friend and fellow cop, Goose (Steve Bisley), and then through a bad case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time they happen upon Max and his family heading out for a much needed vacation. As Max’s loved ones fall victim to Toecutter’s gang, Max is forced to seek vengeance on his own and he does so behind the wheel of the last of the V8 interceptors, a heavily modified black Ford XB Falcon.

"Mad Max" takes the fairly typical vigilante cop movie and turns it on its ear with the unusual setting and the use of muscle cars as the preferred weapon of destruction. The numerous stunt sequences are reminiscent of those in the original "Gone in 60 Seconds" as both films clearly teeter on the brink of very real danger in the pursuit of cinematic excitement. They just don’t make chase scenes like these anymore.

The film stands out due to the surprisingly fine performances by the cast and the hell-bent, breakneck pace of the direction. This is the kind of film that could only have sprung from the heyday of independent movies when filmmakers were still willing to take a chance and didn’t know that what they were doing wasn’t supposed to be possible.

This new DVD presents "Mad Max" in both new <$PS,widescreen> <$16x9,anamorphic> 2.35:1 and <$PS,pan & scan> 1.33:1 versions. Both transfers are on side one of the disc while the bulk of the extras appear on side two. The <$PS,widescreen> image is surprisingly good given the film’s meager origins. The image is nice and sharp with only a slight amount of edge enhancement marring the picture. Colors are very solid and stable but are intentionally washed out to give the post-apocalyptic world a somewhat hazy veneer. Black levels are more than adequate with fine detail in even the darkest scenes. There is a constant degree of fine film grain and a few minor blemishes but this really is a wonderful video transfer.

With the audio offerings we are presented the Holy Grail for "Mad Max" fans — the original Australian soundtrack. This track is available in its original mono version or a brand-new <$DD,Dolby Digital> <$5.1,5.1 mix>. This is a very nice remix that doesn’t try to do too much with the original mono sources. Dialogue is still firmly anchored to the center speaker but the musical score and sound effects open up a bit across the front soundstage with a few of the more aggressive scenes taking advantage of the surround speakers as well. Dynamic range is understandably constrained with very little deep bass and a somewhat harsh-sounding high end. In addition, some of the dialogue is overwhelmed by the sound effects so it’s especially nice the MGM has included English subtitles (which they rarely do) as well as English <$CC,closed captions> and French and Spanish subs.

Also included on the disc is the American dubbed version that was attached to all theatrical showings of "Mad Max" here in the United States. For some reason the powers that be at AIP thought that American audiences would have a hard time deciphering the Australian accent and slang and opted for a dubbed soundtrack. This track is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround and is fairly clear and offers a nice enough soundstage but, in the end, a dub is still a dub and the original Australian soundtrack is really the way to go.

"Mad Max" is presented on DVD as a full-blown special edition and fans of the film are in for a real treat. Side one of the disc features the film itself as well as two special features.

First up is a <$commentary,commentary track> featuring production designer John Dowding, cinematographer David Eggby, special effects supervisor Chris Murray, and film historian and collector Tom Ridge. This track focuses heavily on the very difficult task of filming "Mad Max" and the men frequently pose questions to one another resulting in a roundtable sort of discussion. The talk remains engaging and informative from beginning to end and sheds much light on the "Mad Max" mystique.

Next up is the "Mad Facts Trivia Track" subtitle track. Like the subtitle stream featured on the new "The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai" DVD, this track spews out endless factoids about the movie that fans are sure to lap right up. I first came across this type of feature on "The Abyss" DVD which had a subtitle commentary and it’s nice to see it being used by MGM for some of their "cult classic" offerings.

The rest of the extras reside on side two of the DVD. "Mel Gibson: The High Octane Birth of a Superstar" is a 16-minute featurette that offers some decent background on the star’s early years working in Australia. The fact that Mel himself isn’t involved in the production lessens its appeal somewhat but it’s still quite good.

"Mad Max: Film Phenomenon" is a 27-minute documentary on the film itself that offers up a surprisingly serious and almost scholarly look at "Mad Max." Like the <$commentary,commentary track>, much of the discussion here focuses on the hard work that went into creating this independent film.

Rounding out the extras are the film’s American theatrical trailer, four TV spots, a trailer for "The Terminator" special edition DVD, and an international poster gallery.

Oddly enough, director George Miller is nowhere to be found on these extras and the lack of his singularly important input is sorely missed.

"Mad Max" is a true original that has had a lasting impact on the way action movies have been made for the past 20 years. What is easy to overlook is just how good the film really is from the standpoint of story, acting, pacing, and direction. For a movie that spawned a whole host of violent, futuristic mayhem flicks, "Mad Max" is surprisingly restrained in its portrayal of violence and much of the grim activity occurs off-screen and is conveyed only through the reaction shots of the actors and well-placed cutaway scenes. The movie also takes it’s time in setting the stage for the final confrontation and in developing the characters. The real meat of the action doesn’t even occur until the final 15 minutes of the film. "Mad Max" is simply a finely-crafted action movie made by people who actually cared about what they were doing and very clearly had a wild time doing it.

MGM’s new special edition DVD is sure to delight fans of the film. The new audio and video presentations are top-notch and the inclusion of the original Australian soundtrack is most appreciated. As if that weren’t enough, the included bonus features are quite informative and entertaining and even the most die-hard fans are sure to learn something new. "Mad Max" comes very highly recommended.