Looking for a movie about a dystopia where roving gangs and refugees battle to the death over scarce quantities of oil? Don't look to 1979's Mad Max. Many of the defining aspects of the film series began with the sequel, The Road Warrior. No-one even mentions oil in Mad Max which is more of a combination of rogue cop film and 1950s teen gang film. It indulges in several clichés and the script has some weak points but creative action sequences, an intense performance from a young Mel Gibson, and the basic concept are enough to keep the film interesting.
We're introduced early on to a couple goons peeping on a couple having sex out in the open. The goons are wearing black leather jackets similar to the one Marlon Brando wore in The Wild One and suddenly our perspective is subverted when they receive a call from dispatch and we realise these goons are the cops.
All the cops are dressed like Marlon Brando--minus the hat--and police headquarters looks more like an abandoned warehouse. The gang they're up against look like they were produced by the late 70s punk scene.
But despite this visual dichotomy, there's no real ambiguity about who's who. All the cops want to protect people and stop the bad guys, all the punk bikers want to kill, steal, and rape. Well, one young member of their crew, who's captured briefly by the police, is hesitant to kill.
He's sprung from custody by group of lawyers in one of the film's weaker scenes. Yes, somehow in this future where society has crumbled and justice is a bone of contention between rival gangs, there's a bureaucracy that puts a member of the rival gang back on the streets, a cliché of cop films that sits particularly oddly here. Other clichés, like the murdered partner (Steve Bisley)--who's so obviously marked for death from the beginning of the film he might as well have been wearing a shirt saying, "I'll be dead soon"--whose death makes the hero real mad fit a little more naturally. Though Gibson, instead of vowing violent revenge, decides to quit the force because he's got a wife and child to think of. However, Captain Fifi (Roger Ward), a gregarious man chomping a cigar, is determined to make people believe in heroes again and talks Max into just taking three weeks vacation instead.
What do you suppose happens next, a nice family vacation? Well, so the movie's predictable. But there's a weird personality to the action sequences that's pretty fun--there's a tendency, right before someone dies to cut very quickly to a shot of their eyes bugging out of their skulls. It's not quite cartoonish, more surreal.
Young Mel Gibson as Max is barely containing a fury that might well be racism or anti-Semitism but we the audience can remain blissfully unaware enough to just assume it's a man pushed to the edge by having everything that he holds dear taken away from him. Though I guess that's probably what anti-Semites think the Jews are responsible for. Well, Gibson's crazy eyes are put to better use here.