A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

MAD MAX 2: THE ROAD WARRIOR jjjj

25th Anniversary Retrospective Review

1982, R, 91mins.

 

Max: Mel Gibson / Wez: Vernon Wells / Papagallo: Michael Preston / Lord Humongous: Kjell Nilsson / Gyro Captain: Bruce Spence

 

Directed by George Miller / Written by Miller, Brian Hannant, and Terry Hayes

MAD MAX 2 – aka THE ROAD WARRIOR – is the kind of action film that punches you in the gut and continues to mercilessly pummel you while you’re writhing around on the ground. 

That’s a sincere compliment.  THE ROAD WARRIOR, and the two other MAD MAX entries, are cherished action films because the viewer always feels like there are in the stunts and mayhem, not outside of them.  George Miller’s landmark sci-fi trilogy is a marvel of lean, mean, and economic action filmmaking.  THE ROAD WARRIOR is the prime example of this; there is not one erroneous section in it.  All of its fat has been trimmed off, making for a tense and taut thrill ride.  It also shows how a tiny budget cannot in any way limit one’s imagination and inventiveness. 

Compared to other sci-fi escapist films, like the STAR WARS and THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogies, the MAD MAX series is a grand out-of-body experience in how sparsely evocative they are.  Modern fantasies use their million dollar CGI visuals to lend credence to their narratives, but the MAD MAX films – and, to a larger degree, THE ROAD WARRIOR – are much purer in terms of their use of cinematic trickery.  Miller had always envisioned these films as “pure cinema,” using images to tell his stories.  Like the Western, one of the most evocative of all genres, THE ROAD WARRIOR places its stock on simple themes and noble-minded anti-heroes.  It also works stupendously as a pure jolt of adrenaline.

If there is anything that I'll always remember fondly about the second MAD MAX entry then it will surely be its breathless pacing and incredible action sequences.  The final 30 minutes of the film, culminating in a daring and bold multiple car chase, has to rank up there as one of the most astoundingly envisioned and fearsomely mounted series of stunt and action set pieces ever.  It’s car porn for those that have a fetish for auto-crashes and death-defying stunts.  There is a level of childlike, giddy pleasure that is derived from seeing Miller orchestrate such reckless carnage and mayhem.  You also respect the artifice as well: this was way, way before the advent of any serious computer enhancements in the movies.  Engineered before the dawn of such technology, one can appreciate THE ROAD WARRIOR for the sheer levels of perseverance and ingenuity that Miller and company had in order to film these moments of vehicular mayhem.  Void of any sort of special effects tools, the rigid real world approach to the action scenes gives them an odd hyperrealism, which is why we, more or less, respond to them so feverously.

That final sequence, showing Max (played in a simplistic, but career making performance, by the then 23-year-old Australian unknown, Mel Gibson) speeding away on an oil tanker with a series of endless, monstrously cannibalized cars driven by sociapathic, road raged induced hooligans - is one of the best sustained action scenes of the movies.  We are not just talking about one semi and a few cars here, folks; Miller throws in every twisted thing but the kitchen sink: we have motorcycles, sports cars, dune buggies, gyrocopters, and vehicles that look like a cross between jet engines and Corvettes.  One of the pursuers even uses human bodies as bumper shields and has his main henchman tied to his vehicle via a dog collar and chain.  No doubt, it's the rough and rugged Australian terrain and the barren highways that are THE ROAD WARRIOR’s main characters: Miller’s universe is populated and dominated by a vengeful and cruel asphalt playground.

The sick maniacs throw everything they can in the way of stopping Max, and the sheer imagination that Miller showcases here is limitless.  He has populated his post-apocalyptic world with wondrous sights: Yes, his futuristic Australian wasteland may not be presented with the same sort of high budget sheen that many other fantasies have, but THE ROAD WARRIOR creates a sense of minimalist escapism, using sparse sets, simple costumes, wildly imaginative cars and costumes, and archetypal cinematography to tell his stories.  The film may have cost significantly less than any of the original STAR WARS films, but they still create environments that are as unique and otherworldly.

Perhaps if there were any overall similarities to Miller and Lucas’ trilogies then it would be in their respective influences.  Both filmmakers have professed to find inspiration in the work of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films and the book "The Hero With a Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell.  The Western genre also is echoed in both works, perhaps a bit more so in THE ROAD WARRIOR.  It used classic motifs, such as the besieged community of decent people whom all feel violated and harassed by vicious bandits, not to mention the lone hero, who feels stepped on by the world, so much so that he is eventually able to re-connect with his humanity by assisting the beleaguered people.  These type of motifs saw the light of day in countless other great westerns, not to mention that Gibson’s lone star hero is in the same decided mould as Eastwood’s "Man With No Name” drifter as portrayed in the 1960’s European produced Westerns.  That’s one of the keys to THE ROAD WARRIOR and most other well conceived fantasies: they forge worlds that are fresh, but they breathe with an understated familiarity.

Noteworthy elements of the film include cinematographer Dean Semler's widescreen photography of Australia's vast desert landscapes, which also help to embellish the film’s western influences.  Yet, beyond its cinematic antecedents, THE ROAD WARRIOR also works by being a parable.  The beginning of the film offers us a very brief prologue to its 1979 low budget prequel MAD MAX, where we witness that a series of uprisings and an extended war due to energy shortages plunged Australia into complete chaos and anarchy.  This noteworthy theme of energy shortages drives the plot of all the MAD MAX films and reflects the social conditions that plagued Australia in the 1970s, when a genuine lack of a health care system and social welfare network exacerbated international crisis.  The growing scarcity of petroleum in the nation and abroad also typified these times.  As a piece of social commentary, THE ROAD WARRIOR is like a hallucinogenic nightmare about the effects of a resource scare and the damming effects of the resulting road rage. 

Perhaps more importantly, THE ROAD WARRIOR helped to firmly establish the post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller.  All of the MAD MAX stories are set in the “near future” where the Cold War led to a nuclear exchange between the US and the USSR (Australia was involved, but on a less severe scale).  Of course, with the economic and resource collapse in the nation, law, order, and most of civilization is gone.  The small segments of police forces that are left can’t maintain the peace on the roads, where marauders in their beast-like cars desperately wage war against one another for petroleum supremacy.  Of course, this type of futuristic story is hardly nothing new, but it’s great how Miller uses it so simply as a launching point for the rest of his film.  Other directors would have dwelled on post-nuclear visuals and vistas; Miller, by contrast, let’s simple Australian landscapes - barren, hot, and void of life - do all of the expository scene setting.

The very first MAD MAX introduced us to this premise, and to the trilogy’s hero, Max Rockatansky, who was once a police officer that took it upon himself to secure the nation.  As detailed in the first film, Max’s wife and infant child were brutally murdered by a ruthless road gang, so he swore vengeance against them and enacted it to successful fruition.  However, like other classic drifter figures, his revenge gives him little more than momentary satisfaction: he still remains alone in the world and hardened by his experience, distrusting just about anyone.  All of this is very subtly hinted at in the opening montage of THE ROAD WARRIOR, but the film  never dwells on it and hurtles viewers head on into a miraculously conceived car chase, showing Max, now a hopeless anti-hero, fleeing from a group of devilish marauders.

There is not much left of Max the family man.  Dressed in what remains of his torn leather police uniform, he roves the desolate highways of the Australian outback in his super charged V-8 Pursuit Special, desperately scavenging for any type of fuel he can get his hands on.  He does have companionship in the form of a mangy mutt and a sawed off shotgun.  However, the dog does not emote too much, and bullets are as rare as gasoline.   After a stirring and frantic high speed car chase with a gang, lead by a biker warrior named Wez (Vernon Wells, playing it balls-to-the-wall with insanity and immorality), Max scavenges some gas and comes across an abandoned autogyro and eventually meets up with its owner (played in a humorous performance by Bruce Spence).  Of course, the autogyro pilot thinks he has set a trap for Max, but when he turns the tables on him, the pilot sheepishly pleads for his life.  To stay alive, he gives Max some highly valuable information about a small working oil refinery that has all the fuel he could need.

As Max and the pilot scope out the refinery and its settlers, he also witnesses a gang of hellish marauders that come driving in on a series of cars and motorbikes that seem to have erupted straight from hell.  The costume design of these villains also remains a staple quality of these films.  Costume designer Norma Moriceau's mohawked, leather bondage gear-clad bikers look like a cross between circus freaks, hockey goalies, and S&M store owners.  The gang is lead by a humongous, muscle bound monster whose faced is obscured by a goalie mask and is named, very appropriately, Lord Humongous (Kjell Nilsson).  The Lord certainly makes a grand statement when he arrives.  He is himself an imposing sight, but his vehicle alone is a not-so-subtle bit of psychological warfare (human bodies – some still alive – are tied up to his car’s front hood). 

Humongous has simple wishes worthy of any dictatorial tyrant: He wants to offer the refinery settlers and their leader, Papagallo (Michael Preston) safe passage if they simply leave the refinery and all of its contents to him.  Max, being a shrewd businessman, secretly offers up the clan an alternate offer.  He will retrieve an abandoned semi tanker truck that he came across and return it for all the gas he can take.  The refinery people, then, can use it to store their “precious juice” and escape out of harm’s way.  

Things don’t go all-too-smoothly for Max.  While he does secure the tanker, he does not do so without injuring himself, not to mention destroying his car in the process.  Realizing he has nothing to lose, he asserts himself and offers to drive the Mac truck through Humongous' entourage and to safety.  With Max behind the wheel of the truck, and with several refinery setters driving alongside him to offer help and protection, the film then dives head first into its climatic highway chase sequence which, as described, is a pure, unadulterated bit of indescribable stunt coordination and spatial inventiveness.  Whereas other milestone car chases of the past were great (like the ones in BULLITT and THE FRENCH CONNECTION), the one in THE ROAD WARRIOR dwarves those completely.  By the end of the sequence, we are simultaneously dazzled, exhilarated, and winded by the whole experience.  Using breakneck editing, high speed cameras, and unflinching pacing, Miller forges one of the most energetic and visceral of any modern action scene.  It is his revolutionary style that paved the way for the DIE HARD, TERMINATOR films, and most other prevalent action series of the 80's.

THE ROAD WARRIOR was originally released as MAD MAX 2 in its native Australia in 1981 (it was also the country’s most expensive film made at its time).  It was subsequently released in the US the following year as THE ROAD WARRIOR, perhaps in an effort to not confuse any American filmgoers.  The first MAX film was coolly received in the US and only saw the light of day on limited screens, so calling the sequel MAD MAX 2 – despite being highly appropriate – would have been debilitating to the film’s box office success.  Even the trailer itself for the film did not focus one shot on its star, but instead honed in on the action and spectacle.  Hindsight has proven this be to a solid choice, as the ROAD WARRIOR was a solid success in the US.

Not only that, but it also securely put Mel Gibson on the action film map and in the consciousness of American filmgoers.  When the first MAD MAX made its way to US theatres, the 21-year-old Gibson was such an unknown that distributors even had his dialogue dubbed, fearing that his thick accent would be frustrating for viewers (having seen the original audio version of MAD MAX on DVD, their fears are largely unfounded).  Yet, when THE ROAD WARRIOR was being shot, Gibson was becoming known, especially for appearing in Peter Weir’s GALLIPOLI.  After filming WARRIOR and before filming its sequel, MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME, Gibson cemented his street credentials as an actor by being in THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY and THE BOUNTY.  Then came LETHAL WEAPON and the rest is history.  Make no mistake, though: it was his initial exposure with THE ROAD WARRIOR that helped catapult his career from unknown actor, to action hero icon, to eventual Oscar winning director.

Then there is George Miller, whose career also took him to such varied directorial choices such as one of the segments of TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (1983), the third MAX entry, BEYOND THUNDERDOME (1985),  THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK (1987), LORENZO’S OIL (1992), and eventually to his more recent family friendly fare in BABE: PIG IN THE CITY (1998) and the most recent CGI animated film, HAPPY FEET (where Miller saw his fourth Oscar nomination).  Perhaps Miller’s most noteworthy accolade is that he is a natural storyteller, not impeded by the subject matter and material.  The fact that he has boldly made films involving everything from post-apocalyptic wastelands, to witches, to talking pigs and penguins is revealing.  It takes a filmmaker of skill and precision to make the unbelievable believable.

After viewing THE ROAD WARRIOR recently on its glorious new Blu-Ray disc transfer, my feelings and reaction to the film remain unchecked.  I still completely marvel at the film’s wickedly boisterous and kinetic action sequences, and the ballet of vehicle-induced carnage at the film’s climax is still and show-stopper.   The film will not be fondly recalled for its stirring characters and story (Gibson’s Max only has 17 lines of dialogue in the film and the story is just window dressing for the stunts and action), but does that matter?  Like all great works of escapism, THE ROAD WARRIOR is a powerfully mounted entertainment that forces open the eyes of viewers and makes them stay glued to the proceedings.  We don’t watch this type of film passively; we actively engage in it and respond, and Miller has crafted in his post-apocalyptic, gasoline stripped future a world as fresh and as well realized as the galaxies of Lucas’ STAR WARS saga.  The film remains one of the best concocted action extravaganzas of its decade and some of its stunt set pieces remain unchecked in the history of the genre. 

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