‘The Road Warrior’ is Better With Every Rewatch
Mad Max 2, or as it is more commonly recognized in North America, The Road Warrior (upon its release not enough people had actually seen Mad Max, therefore prompting the title change), begins with a brief montage of archival documentary footage and scenes from the first film that set up the world viewers are about to launch into. Society has now collapsed. When resources became scarce, the people revolted. The institutions tried to retain order, but it was too late. What was hinted at in 1979’s Mad Max is now a harsh reality, with the titular character (Mel Gibson) driving the dusty Australian roads in search of food and resources for his amazing car, the Ford Falcon. This time his efforts at scavenging are temporarily thwarted by the pilot of a gyro (Bruce Spence), with whom he forms an uneasy alliance. The pilot suggests they go to a nearby outpost, a commune of sorts, where a group of people is pumping out oil from the ground. As it turns out, Max and the pilot are not the only ones eyeing the tiny, barricaded village led by Pappagallo (Michael Preston). Nay, a vile clan formed of punks and mercenaries, led by Lord Humungus (Kjell Nilsson), have surrounded the compound and threaten the community with death if they do not flee the premise. Max sees an opportunity…
The Road Warrior, as it shall be referred to for the remainder of the present article, wonderfully expands on the universe created by George Miller and company two years prior, in the initial entry in the series. Aided by a greater budget and a bigger crew, the director offers viewers a brilliantly harsh, violent, vast region in which every decision made by a character can make the difference between life and death. At this stage of the world’s future history, there are precious few rules governing the people that roam it. Toecutter’s biker gang from the 1979 film looks like quite amiable fellows in comparison to the extremely gaudy, bloodthirsty army commandeered by Humungus. In nearly every facet, the second film strives to improve on the first, making it one of the rare instances when the age-old movie-making philosophy of the sequel always having to be bigger ends up reaping fantastic dividends.
Much like with the original picture, Road Warrior opens with a frantic chase sequence, only this time the cinematography, signed by Dean Semler, is stunning for how it beautifully captures the grittiness of the scene. More to the point, virtually every shot in the film looks as amazing, impressively conveying the expansive Australian desert and the few individuals that have crazily chosen to brave it. Why Max would want to traverse this most treacherous of regions is anybody’s guess as the film never provides a clear explanation, but it serves the film well insofar as viewers are gifted with a sublime if equally frightening window to this very mad world.
The Road Warrior Rules the Road of Vehicle-Centric Cinema
Just as the 1979 film was spruced up by an intelligent script that made do with the crew’s limited means, the sequel’s plot shows intelligence in storytelling even though the filmmakers have much more reign and could, in theory, aim for something vastly more grandiose. At this point, Max is a lost soul. His family and friends are presumed long dead, leaving him and his dog to fend off for themselves, experiencing the world without a care for anyone else. The mantra is evidently to kill or be killed, and Max apparently enjoys hanging onto life even though he has lost all that made him happy. His survivalist instinct means he thinks little for others, perfectly exemplified in his refusal to let the gyro pilot, played with just the right amount of subtle comedic undertones by Bruce Spence, off the hook, or chains in this case. Even after the pilot’s demeanour softens somewhat, clearly suggesting that he is not nearly as bad as the real evildoers who abide by Humungus, Max still treats his companion like a slave. In fact, at no point does Max ever seem to go through an obvious character arc. He remains essentially the same person from start to finish even though some of the acts he commits hint at some form of altruism.
The people at the commune do not take a liking to him at first, chief among them the resident woman warrior (Virginia Hey). And why should they? The only reason he brought back one of their injured own is to earn some gasoline in return. From there, virtually every time Max engages in a mission that in some capacity aids the village and demonstrates that, despite it all, the protagonist does adhere to the deals he makes, he is, in truth, selfish. He retrieves the tanker seen in the opening because he expects to get his car back. He finally acquiesces to driving said tanker while the rest of the group flees basically after Humungus’ thugs thwart his own escape and kill his dog. Only minutes before the de facto leader Pappagallo pleads with Max, trying to pry a positive response out of his conscience and moral compass, yet the latter will have none of it. The feral kid (Emil Minty), who, of all the people in the community, shared a bond of some kind with Max, is shunned by the titular road warrior and told to leave him alone. Really, Max only changes his mind once his dog dies. It represents courageously cynical storytelling. If some want to see it as Max earning redemption because he does help the good people, they may. Those who interpret it as Max finally opting to kick Humungus where it hurts most for selfish reasons and nothing else may do so as well. Both interpretations are valid, but the fact that the second is even a legitimate possibility speaks volumes about the sort of anti-hero the audience follows. This is Sam Spade on wheels in the post-apocalyptic Australian outback.
The action is, predictably, bigger and louder this time around. Thankfully, it is just as visceral if not more so than in the first film. Director Miller and his crew pull out all the stops whenever the engines are revving and the testosterone shoots up to the umpteenth degree, and in this case, even the women get in on the action. The opening chase is a neat appetizer. The tanker scene in the middle section is a swanky plate. The picture’s climactic highway pursuit is the five-course meal that earns a restaurant its five stars. Running 13 uninterrupted minutes, it is a crowning achievement in action movie filmmaking. The stakes are as high as they can be, there are multiple players involved, the numbers of vehicles employed is astonishing and the stunt and effects work is second to none. It goes on, and on, and on and on! The most fantastical element is that it never becomes tiresome, like so many other action movie climaxes can be accused of. There is always something new happening during this chase, something daring, and much of it looks as though, if something had gone wrong, somebody would have surely died on set.
The icing on the cake is the cast of characters. No one is a brilliantly three-dimensional personality worthy of Pulitzer Prize recognition, but nearly everyone has at least one great moment in the film. Sometimes it is because of the writing, sometimes the performances, sometimes it is just for their look or their gaze. Michael Preston comes across as a decent man and a courageous leader, Bruce Spence is equal measures of whimsy and slimy, Vernon Wells is ferocious as Wez, the bandit with the red mohawk, Virginia Hey is stoic and powerful as the primary soldier the community can count on, Emil Minty is memorable as the oddly feral little boy who runs around the compound, wielding his metal boomerang weapon, Lord Humungus is a bizarre mixture of brute force and diplomacy. There are so many little character moments that highlight the picture, some strange, some amusing. Even Mel Gibson is better in The Road Warrior than in Mad Max, more self-assured, playing the role of a tired, weather-beaten but still crafty and deadly loner.
The cast and crew outdo themselves in The Road Warrior. While the budget was raised in comparison to that of the original, the film still has so many markings of a very individualistic personality and a fervent spirit. It is what any film buff and action movie junkie wants when a gifted filmmaker and his or her team are given the means they need to translate all of their dreams to the silver screen. The film concludes with the feral kid, now the grown leader of his tribe, narrating off-camera that they never saw the road warrior again after their adventure and how he lives only in his memories. Thank goodness we can watch and re-watch The Road Warrior any time and however many times we like.