Mad Max 2 (The Road Warrior) (1981)

"It was here, in this blighted place, that he learned to live again"

I see why this was marketed as “The Road Warrior” as often as it was “Mad Max 2” — indicating it as a sequel to Mad Max is a bit deceptive*. It stars the same actor playing the same character, but the films are not cinematic siblings. They’re practically different genres. Whereas Mad Max is a terse, quirky little microbudget Ozploitation number, Mad Max 2 is a dystopian road epic.

And it’s not just any dystopian road epic… It is prototypical and quintessential. Coming at Mad Max 2 with fresh eyes, it suffers a bit simply for being the basis of every instance of post-apocalyptic worldbuilding in the decades since. But it has been so influential because it is an excellent film, and quality like this endures. Whenever you see or read about a dusty, junkyard, lawless, retro-industrial society in speculative fiction, it’s indebted to this film.

Mad Max 2 shows George Miller blossoming into a genuinely great director in just his second film ever. The sense that his imagination was constrained by budget in his debut is validated here: Every scene, every art detail, every outrageous action sequence is bursting with memorable images and touches. (And it’s still really not that big of a budget at all: $4.5 million Australian dollars, which ballparks to $10 million USD today; or just a fraction of the budget of, like, Renfield, let alone real tentpoles.)

The production is bananas and maximal. There’s a slight tint of kinky camp and homoeroticism to it — the ostentatious costumes and theatrical posturing that make up much of the film would not be entirely out of place at a weird sex club. And yet, at its core, it’s in service not of something trashy or exploitational, but a heart-pounding thrill-ride with terrific craft and an endless sense of invention.

Whereas the screenplay for Part 1 feels hastily, almost whimsically, composed, Mad Max 2 is very intentionally a hero’s journey. Max (Mel Gibson) has a great gift — driving — which he gradually discovers, cultivates, and shares with the world. He and the rest of the characters in the story — and especially the audience — know Max is the only one who can lead the great final journey to paradise, escaping Lord Humungus and Wez. (Thus it’s a bit of a twist ending when their salvation lies with others.)

Max’s quest has two main witnesses, both nameless: First, a gyrocopter pilot (Bruce Spence) who first tries to entrap Max but eventually becomes his ally. And, second, a feral boy (Emil Minty) with a razor-sharp boomerang and who admires Max. The pair are, like Max, outsiders to the fuel compound at the center of the story, but both are important figures in its legacy.

The story traces a besieged fuel depot in an increasingly inhuman dystopian world that had been merely suggested in the original. As a band of marauders grows bolder and more invasive of the gas cache, the peaceful inhabitants of the depot need to find a way out while protecting their goods. Enter Max, who recalls an empty, abandoned tanker truck he saw at the start of the film

The film is filled with great vehicular set pieces. You can’t go more than about four minutes without some unusual action sequence, and there’s an astonishing variety to them given that feel so unified in vision. Sometimes they’re shot in visceral close-up, sometimes from a distance; sometimes standing still and chest-thumping, sometimes driving 100 MPH (or 161 KPH since this is Australia). The entire film clocks in at a wonderfully-paced 95 minutes including credits. You never quite get a chance to catch your breath (in a good way).

The real barn burner is the final chase sequence. It brings to life what I imagined SNES Mario Kart to be in my head when I first played it when I was seven years old: A cutthroat, whiplash violent race filled with stunts and sabotage and inter-vehicular weaponry. It possibly tops even the truck chase of Raiders of the Lost Ark in the pantheon of imaginative, precisely-rendered, vehicle stunt action scenes.

There are only a couple things holding me back from declaring Mad Max 2 a masterpiece. First is that the entire affair is a little bit silly. I can’t quite put my finger on whether its merely Miller’s irreverent Australian sensibilities shining through, or whether he erred too much on the side of goofy-fun cheese for my own taste. The result is that I never really felt a sense of danger or immersion as I watched: it’s sheer spectacle, which is fine, but puts a ceiling on its stratospheric greatness.

The second is some missing element of the film’s soul in its soundtrack. I’m not saying Mad Max 2 should have had a full-on romantic symphony for a score, a la John Williams’ work in Star Wars, but as Miller shifted the story from the ramshackle Mad Max to something more epic and classical in narrative structure, a more grand musicscape would have gone a long way. Bringing back Brian May (unrelated to the Queen guitarist) as composer is one of Miller’s few missteps here.

Regardless, Mad Max 2 is an absolute gem of a film, a real coming-out party for the immense imagination and prodigious talents of director George Miller and action star Mel Gibson, who is imposing and excellent here. From the title and screen caps, you might suspect a run-of-the-mill cornball genre flick, but The Road Warrior is something extraordinary.

* (The real reason for the Road Warrior marketing and branding, as far as I can tell, is that Mad Max didn’t have the name recognition in the west at the time of its release, and distributors didn’t want to turn off newbies who would avoid it having missed the original.)

Is It Good?

Very Good (6/8)

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4 replies on “Mad Max 2 (The Road Warrior) (1981)”

Well now you’ve got me wondering what a MAD MAX film with the famous Brian May on soundtrack duties (Presumably with the rest of Queen) might have sounded like.

Having gifted the Internet such a happy fantasy, this Article has clearly accomplished its Best and truest purpose in existence! (-;

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