The Road Warrior (aka, Mad Max 2) (George Miller, 1981)
Bad-ass leather-clad mad-man Max (Mel Gibson) is back (though with his last name as far as I remember never mentioned again past the first “Max” outing), a figure of now even fewer words, in the great action hero tradition (and even shortened moniker with his last name of Rockatansky, I believe, dropped, like a memory from his tragic past, forever more after the first film). Last seen having thrown away – like a renegade post-apocalyptic Dirty Harry, having had enough of the mamby-pamby liberal punk-protecting ‘system’ — his career of cracking skulls and destroying all sorts of vehicles in high-speed pursuits along the desolate highways as a super-cop of the near future, the now emotionally-empty Max wanders the barren desert landscape alone in his super-fast car (with a switch that shoots it up into even crazier over-drive), with his loyal mangy mutt he’s named ‘Dog’ (with things kept wisely and necessarily simple… with just the perfect dash of gallows humor all throughout) his only human connection to anything, ever in search of the same thing all the other wasteland dwellers are after – namely, gasoline — to fuel their cars, to feed their generators – only to stumble across the motherlode – an oil refinery, held by a last besieged community, fending off relentless attacks from the marauding crazy-vehicle driving rogues gallery of bloodthirsty villains, led by the monstrously buff, bald-head-veins-bulging, hockey-mask wearing head crazy man known as The Humungous (Kjell Nilsson).
Yes, yes, it’s true that while some of my on-going, long-form retros (i.e., the concurrent Lang/Mabuse one, the “Halloween” series, the “Alien” franchise with all of its offshoots, the Cheech & Chong films, the all-things cinematic Stephen King and on and on) might be years in the making (though trust me, I haven’t given up on any of them! The only thing that may – and I stress may – put the kibosch on any of them reaching their conclusion is if the Grim Reaper tricks his way in, like a young Robert Redford playing Death disguised as a wounded cop to gain entrance into the home of the aged recluse in that brilliant OG episode of “The Twilight Zone”, before I can complete those last remaining movie write-ups!), after screening the original “Mad Max” for my daughter (and ex-wife), I made the executive decision to pre-empt as much as possible and jump right in, as soon as possible (schedule permitting – and getting a 16 year old girl to commit to a leisure activity event with her parents isn’t easy), into the even wilder – and superior — follow-up The Road Warrior (or Mad Max 2, if you’re from anywhere else other than North America – the one place the original film wasn’t a big hit).
As impressive cinematically and adrenaline-rush inducing as the original “Max” was — merging a knowing sense of visual myth-building, a kick-ass attitude of unrepentant exploitation and one hell of a series of incredible vehicular stunt work — as it recounted the tragic origin tale of our titular (mad) hero, as he irrevocably transforms from young and hopeful (if more than a bit fascistic – though, hell, speaking straight from the cuddly 80’s right-wing action movie sensibility of the time, sometimes you gotta break the law and bust some heads in dealing with the crazies riding the roadways in this kind of post-apocalyptic landscape!) celebrated highway cop to emotionally-empty heat-seeking missile of irrevocable vengeance, determined to spectacularly take out – one-by-one – the colorful motorcycle punks who killed his loving wife and toddler, Miller’s vision comes across a tad hampered by budget and early filmmaking jitters… but with its bigger budgeted follow-up, The Road Warrior?
The kinks have been shaken out and the budget is all there. The trial run, while pretty astonishing in its own right, was over. And, man, did Miller respond by breathing greater life and breadth into the canvas. No matter how many times I see the film (which is a lot, as I saw it upon its theatrical release as a high school teen, completely enthralled, entirely ignorant that there was even a previous film, one that I would one day joyously discover on VHS), especially when in close tandem with its predecessor, I never cease to marvel at what an astounding filmmaking leap — in maturity of storytelling, in further creation of iconic mythology, in filling out of the post-apocalyptic landscape that is only hinted at as a backdrop for the original — this second film in the series was for Miller. Talk about a filmmaker fulfilling his potential (at that point anyway) – displaying initial talent with an exciting debut, then taking it to the next cinematic level in every way with its follow-up sequel.
The wasteland world created by Miller is brought to much greater life, through its creation of many a varied character and situation – from the previously mentioned cartoonish marauding gang of villains (with the baddies having moved from vaguely loosely sexually ambiguous in the original, to straight-out openly BDSM and kinkified, exemplified in inspired and amusing fashion with the open-ass chaps worn by perhaps the most memorable of all the henchmen, Vernon Wells’ psychotically snarling mohawked Wez), to the desperate group of survivors hold up in the oil refinery desperate to keep control over the gas that everyone seeks, including the grunting and growling, yet completely engaging adolescent ‘Feral Kid’ with the deadly boomerang (I mean, where did the casting folks find that perfect little sucker?), to the comic-relief of Bruce Spence’s oddball Gyro Captain, a resourceful, if goofy, wanderer scavenging for fuel and supplies who keeps wanting to team up with the uninterested Max (with the sympathetic captain providing an engaging entry point for the audience, allowing Max to retain the more enigmatic, distant position his iconic status requires to work as powerfully as it does) — bringing a determined emotional core to the film. Scenes such as the captain’s horrified slow dawning realization at realizing he’s about to watch a rape and murder he can do nothing about from a distance through binoculars, brings a poignancy and sensitivity that Miller clearly recognized the film could use to make what we’re seeing more palatable (as well as to accept Max’ indifferent response, still a hollowed-out human at this point in the story) – while no less powerfully brutal — to a larger audience.
As with all great action films (and many a great film in general), all this cinematic creation blossoms out from the simplest (near primitive) of storylines; essentially, a series of mind-blowing extended action sequences (and if you wondered how nobody got blown-up in the stunts making the first film, this one will have you sure someone did) – Max’s arrival into the oil refinery compound, his escape out then driving a fuel tanker back in, then capture, then the last breath-taking white-knuckle finale of the descent of Humungus’ gang on the last escaping tanker, as the community tries to get away with fuel intact (culminating in a very nice, unexpected surprise at the end). The Road Warrior is just spectacular, from start-to-finish, with wall to wall swelling music that adds immeasurably to the rush.
And let’s not forget Gibson himself, right there, front and center. Don’t know if it’s the luck of casting or what, but who cares, as within the two years between the films, Gibson’s face – and his entire cinematic presence — matured in absolute sublime fashion, in direct proportion, with the character of Max. He was perfect as the fresh-faced, naïve uber-cop from the first, right on into the hollowed-out self-serving (yet profoundly captivating) wandering loner who learns to care again (by helping save the folks in the compound and essentially, let’s be clear here, guys and gals, re-asserting traditional – heterosexual — values over the wild and dangerous ambiguity the bad guys represent) of The Road Warrior.
With its closing voiceover, delivered by the surviving Feral Kid, telling how he never saw the saviour Road Warrior again, with the imposing figure of Gibson’s Max disappearing visually into the road and symbolically into legend, it made me think as I watched this time that if the Max saga had ended here, this would have been perfection.
It didn’t though, and if memory serves, while Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome isn’t bad (even with the child tribes that kept had me thinking of Ewoks, ironically with those silly-cute creatures coming from the third, also lesser entry in Lucas’ original “Star Wars” trilogy), I remember it feeling like a toned-down, more family-friendly, somewhat unnecessary entry. And the super-slick, pretend-feminist CGI-sploogefest with the epilepsy-seizure-inducing rapid-fire editing of a fourth entry that followed so many years later that every infantilized over-forty fan boy went gah-gah over? The worst one (though gonna give it another chance with the ex and kiddie… projected on 3D Blu-ray no less!).
Eh. Always the chance they’ll improve with one more look.