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‘Downer from Down Under’: Read the original ‘Mad Max’ review in L.A. Times

Mel Gibson in 1979's "Mad Max." (MGM)

“Mad Max: Fury Road” is revving into theaters this weekend, accompanied by rave reviews and high box office predictions. But when the original “Mad Max” film arrived in the U.S. in 1980, film critic Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times called it “a textbook example of how not to make a film.”

Champlin criticized nearly everything about the movie, including young lead Mel Gibson (“boyishly bland”), the villains (“indistinguishable vrooming beings”), the set, the supporting characters and the “inappropriate” soundtrack.

Mel Gibson in 1979’s “Mad Max.” (MGM)

“You are left with a lot of burnt rubber and bent metal and little evidence of creative imagination,” Champlin wrote.

Champlin certainly wasn’t the only critic who wasn’t impressed by George Miller’s low-budget, post-apocalyptic action flick. The New York Times’ Tom Buckley criticized its “flimsy” plot and said the film was “ugly and incoherent, and aimed, probably accurately, at the most uncritical of moviegoers.”

Nevertheless, the film earned three awards from the Australian Film Institute, and four more nominations including best film and  director. “Mad Max” went on to become a cult darling and spawned two sequels, not including this weekend’s “Fury Road,” in which Tom Hardy takes Gibson’s place as the eponymous protagonist.

Here is Champlin’s original review of “Mad Max,” published May 2, 1980, with the headline “‘Mad Max’ Aussie Downer”:

The newsprint hasn’t had time to start yellowing beneath a story on the new vitality of the Australian cinema when “Mad Max” arrives, spraying doubts on the whole theory.

“Mad Max” is a road action picture of such awful, shallow predictability, populated by such uninviting and uninteresting people, that it is almost worth seeing as a textbook example of how not to make a film. It’s a downer from Down Under.

It has maybe a half-dozen resounding crashes, most of them concentrated in the first five minutes to grab the audience’s attention before it’s too late. Unfortunately, they take place before there has been time to set characters or plot line or create suspense, and you are left with a lot of burnt rubber and bent metal and little evidence of creative imagination.

I can’t offhand remember a movie that worked so steadfastly against its own intentions — setting up possibilities of surprise and suspense but then failing to pay them off, or waiting so long to pay them off that the climax becomes and anti-climax.

The time is said to be the near future, which functions largely as an excuse to use abandoned buildings as sets, things evidently having gone to hell in the near future.

The sound track has been dubbed into more or less American English, and some nuances of exposition may have been lost. But I think the idea may have been to suggest that the highway cops have become a bunch of lethally playful louts no better than the louts they chase.

Mel Gibson is one of the cops. He is a boyishly bland young actor, also credited as co-director, and lacks a presence to make the character work. He is meant to be the star pursuer of speeders, driven mad after a motorcycle gang has killed his sidekick (Steve Bisley), tormented his wife (Joanne Samuel) and run down their young son (Tim Burns).

Tom Hardy, tied to the front of the car, as Max Rockatansky in "Mad Max: Fury Road." (Warner Bros.)

Riley Keough as Capable, Zoe Kravitz as Toast, Courtney Eaton as Fragile, Rosie Huntington as Splendid, Tom Hardy as Max Rockatansky and Abbey Lee as The Dag in "Mad Max: Fury Road." (Jasin Boland / Warner Bros.)

Charlize Theron as Furiosa and Tom Hardy as Max Rockatansky in "Mad Max: Fury Road." (Jasin Boland / Warner Bros.)

Tom Hardy as Max Rockatansky and Charlize Theron as Furiosa in "Mad Max: Fury Road." (Jasin Boland / Warner Bros.)

Nathan Jones as Rictus Erectus and Hugh Keays-Byrne as Immortan Joe in "Mad Max: Fury Road." (Jasin Boland / Warner Bros.)

Nicholas Hoult as Nux, Courtney Eaton as Fragile, Riley Keough as Capable, Charlize Theron as Furiosa and Abbey Lee as The Dag in "Mad Max: Fury Road." (Jasin Boland / Warner Bros.)

The echoes are all familiar, and very nearly comical in the way the film makers have tried to copy the raw power and headlong narrative energy of the American road films out of the Roger Corman school in the early 1960s — many of them release by AIP, which picked up “Mad Max” not long before Filmways bought the company.

But making copies is not as easy as Xerox makes it seem. The vitality that the American pictures had involved vivid characters, economically drawn, and also some sense — however simplified it may have grown in the telling — that what went on reflected real tensions, divisions in the society.

The bikers in “Mad Max,” led by sadistic creep named The Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) are indistinguishable vrooming beings, pure evil in dusty denim. But pure evil is largely a myth and boring to watch as a fictional device, partly because it is incapable of surprise or change.

Taking one consideration with another, “Mad Max” proceeds from the obvious to the tedious to the exasperating. Characters are introduced without explanation or particular usefulness. Toward the end, an old woman’s hulking and idiot son appears and looks about and runs here and there, to no consequence whatever. God knows what George Miller, who co-directed with Gibson and also co-authored the script, with James McCausland, had in mind for him.

There is a theory in film making that enabling the audience to anticipate what is going to happen next is a good idea, generating a warm glow of self-satisfaction. It may well true. But “Mad Max” gets it wrong and the viewer is enabled to speculate continuously on what ought to have happened and how the same bare-bones plot could have — without upgrading or changing the basic intent of creating an exploitation action film — been made to work efficiently and well.

One exchange of dialogue could, for example, have established the highway patrol as the last good guys in a corrupt and decaying world, or Max as the last moralist with no choice at last (he thinks) but to become avenging justice, beyond the law, like Charles Bronson in the ghastly “Death Wish.”

Joanne Samuel and Mel Gibson in “Mad Max.” (MGM)

It wouldn’t have taken much to sharpen the contrast between sane Max and maddened Max, or to heighten the poignance by making his wife and child individuals not types, or to make the bikers a little more than leering and mindless monsters.

Gibson is so impassive an actor that there probably wasn’t much range to play on, but Roger Ward as the chief of police had some possibilities as a commenter on this nasty near-future world, if anyone could have written the material for him.

When things don’t work, they don’t work thoroughly. Brian May’s music for “Mad Max” is often quite pretty but in a lyrical and romantic way that is strangely inappropriate to the snarling clangor of the film.

On the other hand, the worst of the violence is implied rather than shown, or only glimpsed (a burnt hand, a severed hand). The R rating accurately reflects the violence you do see, but given the possibilities for visible horror, “Mad Max” inflicts mostly property damage.

“Mad Max” opens citywide today, and it generates new respect for the efficient storytelling skill and shrewd emotional dynamics of American program pictures. Students of what not to do may well want to have a look.

— Denise Florez | @LATHeroComplex

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