(1981) Directed by George Miller; Written by George Miller, Terry Hayes and Brian Hannant;
Starring: Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence, Vernon Wells and Michael Preston;
Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“In the roar of an engine, he lost everything. And became a shell of a man, a burnt out, desolate man, a man haunted by the demons of his past, a man who wandered out into the wasteland. And it was here, in this blighted place that he learned to live again...”
– Narrator (Harold Baigent)
The Road Warrior (known as Mad Max 2 outside the U.S.) is simply one of the finest action films every committed to celluloid. It helped spawn an entire sub-genre of (mostly lesser) post-apocalypse movies, and established Mel Gibson as an international star. Speaking of Gibson, let’s confront the pink elephant in the room and acknowledge that much has already been said about his recent transgressions and ill-chosen words. But conjecture about how he took a wrong turn or an in-depth examination of his ideologies is irrelevant to this review. The recent controversy has only marred the fact that The Road Warrior is an exceptional film, worthy of praise for its raw energy and spirited performances.
If Mad Max is about the vestiges of civilization, struggling to maintain law and order in a society moving towards lawlessness, then its superior sequel is about humankind’s complete descent into chaos and disarray. Director/co-writer George Miller introduces us to this new world disorder through black-and-white stock news footage depicting public unrest and war, intercut with scenes from Mad Max, to bring the uninitiated up to speed with the previous film’s events (a similar introduction was employed by fellow Aussie Brian Trenchard-Smith in Turkey Shoot). We’re introduced to Max as he roams a desolate highway with his dog, * vigilant for any scraps that the old world saw fit to leave behind. Gasoline, referred to as “juice,” is now more valuable than human life. The bleak desert landscape is inhabited by roving bands of thugs, intent on getting their share of what’s left while leaving death and destruction in their wake. Amidst this wasteland stands a tiny enclave of survivors, determined to protect the precious lives, and small oil refinery residing within their makeshift fortress walls.
* Fun fact: Max’s dog, a Blue Heeler, was rescued from a local pound, only a day before he was supposed to be euthanized. (Spoiler alert) Although the dog meets an unhappy end in the film, Miller stated that the actual animal lived out his days on a ranch following the shoot.
Miller stated that he made Mad Max 2 to “overcome the frustrations” of the first film. He wanted to speak through “film language,” rather than dialogue to get his point across. The film was shot in continuity, so adjustments could be made as the filmmakers went along. Contributing to its unpolished, improvised look, Miller employed an “immersion” approach for the cast, featuring discussions about their respective characters, rather than a formal rehearsal.
Max (Mel Gibson) is the epitome of the reluctant hero. Deprived of his former life as a cop and family man, he wanders the wasteland in a peripatetic haze, existing but not really living. Gibson’s nuanced, enigmatic performance recalls Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name (and to a lesser degree, Harrison Ford as Han Solo), as a laconic loner who’s disenfranchised himself from the rest of the world. Self-preservation takes precedence over concern for anyone else. There’s no room in his emotionally scarred heart to accommodate any new relationships. When the Feral Kid (Emil Minty) adopts him as an unwitting father figure, Max responds by pushing him away. In spite of himself, however, Max rises to assume the hero role. Although his motivations are outwardly governed by selfish reasons, a miniscule flicker of humanity still presumably burns within.
Miller reportedly studied the writings of Joseph Campbell in preparation for The Road Warrior; especially The Hero with a Thousand Faces. One common Campbell theme, archetypes, figures prominently in the film, with its assortment of eccentric and iconic peripheral characters. Bruce Spence stands out, quite literally, as The Gyro Captain. Resembling an Australian Ichabod Crane with his tall, gangly form, he’s determined to make the best of the paltry lot life has dealt him. Vernon Wells makes an impressive entrance as the sadistic, Mohawk-coiffed Wez, who lives to destroy. The Humungus (played by ex-Mr. Sweden, Kjell Nilsson), is the mysterious leader of a band of cutthroats. His body is a visual contradiction, with a perfectly sculpted muscular physique, but a mask that conceals his disfigured face. With apologies to the memory of Mr. Campbell, perhaps these archetypes could best be described, respectively, as The Opportunist, The Berserker, and The Despot.
Cinematographer Dean Semler helped bring Miller’s apocalyptic, kinetic vision to life, with his stunning camerawork. Through alternating frame rates, hand-held cameras, and inventive angles, the viewer is sucked into the action front and center. As a result, one feels more like an active participant, rather than a passive viewer in the final 13-minute road chase sequence.* One other factor that contributes significantly to the immediacy of the action is that all of the stunts were done with real people and real vehicles (elements that seem lost in today’s CGI-laden blockbusters).
* Due to an extremely tight shooting schedule, Semler was forced to shoot the final chase scene during different times of the day, resulting in varying light levels. While it might be a bone of contention among snooty cineastes, I tend to believe that most viewers will scarcely notice.
Clocking in at 95 minutes, The Road Warrior is a lean machine, with no scene out of place. It’s a thrill ride from start to finish. Miller perfected a formula that inspired a multitude of lazy imitators over the years – just throw a bunch of junk around, add punk rock-look bikers, and voilà, you have an instant post-apocalypse movie. Thankfully, the saga of Max didn’t end with this film, but continued with an underrated sequel, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, and the upcoming, much heralded, and delayed, Mad Max: Fury Road, with Tom Hardy assuming the lead role. While it will be interesting to see what Miller does with his latest iteration of Max, The Road Warrior will likely endure as his masterpiece. Accept no substitutes!