In the annals of action movies few can compare with The Road Warrior, a full-throttle epic of speed and carnage that rockets you into a dreamlike landscape where the post-nuclear future meets the mythological past. More simploy, it’s also one of the most mind-blowing stunt movies ever made. Mel Gibson plays Max, the heroic loner who drives the roads of outback Australia in an unending search for gasoline. Arrayed against him and the other scraggly defends of a fuel-depot encampment are the bizarre warriors commanded by The Humungus, notorious for never taking prisoners when they can pulverize them instead. When the battle is joined, the results are savage and spectacular.
Mad Max 2 7.5
eyelights: the setting. the cinematography. the direction. the costuming. the set design.
eyesores: the drawn-out plot.
“I am gravely disappointed. Again you have made me unleash my dogs of war.”
After the unexpected drive away success of ‘Mad Max‘, it would be very tempting, at the very least for financial reasons, to hammer out a follow-up. But writer-director George Miller had other plans: he decided to make a horror film instead.
With time, however, knowing that he would have a much larger budget, giving him the luxury of a more ambitious production, he became more interested in making a sequel to his international hit. And thus, in 1981, ‘Mad Max 2’ was unleashed.
Known in North America as ‘The Road Warrior’ (because ‘Mad Max’ had not been properly released there, and the studio wanted to hide the fact that this was a sequel), the picture was a monstrous hit everywhere, propelling rising star Mel Gibson.
The story returns us to the Outback, where Max is fighting off a roaming gang on the deserted Australian highways. To situate the audience, there is a short prologue that describes the global conflict that led to this post-apocalyptic setting.
It also introduces our “road warrior”.
Shot in black and white (using tons of historical footage blended with clips from the previous installment in the series) and in a 4:3 format, this brief is narrated by an aged man, giving the impression that we are being recounted a tale. Or a legend.
Then the film goes widescreen, to Max on the road, chased by gangs. Of course he is. Interestingly, he’s now quite weathered and he seems much older (he even has a silver streak in his hair). He’d also lost what little baby fat he had before.
The plot is pretty simple: through chance, Max hears about a bunch of settlers who are holed up in the Outback with a small oil refinery. He decides to visit it, and finds that the gang he fought at the opening have laid siege to the compound.
After saving one of the settlers (who had tried to escape with a few others but were caught by the gang), he gains access to the compound. After some tense moments, he offers to help them find a truck to take their tanker elsewhere.
Although it’s action movie, most of ‘Mad Max 2’ takes place in and around that compound, then the biggest set created for an Australian motion picture. It’s a siege, and there’s very little reprieve for the settlers as they are continuously attacked.
But… guess who wins?
I first saw the picture something like 15 years ago, when a close friend and I decided to do a ‘Mad Max’ triple-feature one day. The library had all three on laserdisc and we’d both heard terrific things about them for so many years. It was time.
Time to be disappointed, actually.
Although we’d liked ‘Mad Max’ (despite all its gritty imperfections), we were pretty bored by ‘The Road Warrior’ – as we knew it back then. The action was plentiful, but it lacked the high-octane road rages that were the high point of its predecessor.
Now, I must say that I’ve totally reassessed it: I rather like ‘Mad Max 2’. It’s by no means a perfect picture, but what it does it does well. And it holds quite a few surprises that earned it some respect in my eyes. For instance:
- The cinematography is gorgeous – this is the first thing I noticed. This looks and feels like a professional picture, whereas the previous one was clearly cobbled together as best as the filmmakers could with limited means. Here there are aerial shots, crane shots, …etc. It’s slick enough that some of the highway duels reminded me of the Death Star sequence in ‘Star Wars’.
- Although Miller was ambitious, he had self-control. I like that, instead of throwing one twist at us after the other, he constructed the whole picture around just a few set pieces and let real events drive the story – vaguely in the same way as Akira Kurosawa’s ‘ Shichinin no Samurai’ did. Although it’s by no means entirely realistic, it’s very much plausible. In that context. With those characters.
- Similarly, I like that Mel Gibson has few lines throughout (imdb reports 16 lines in total, but I can’t confirm that). This makes his character akin to Toshiro Mifune’s in ‘Yojimbo’ and Clint Eastwood’s in ‘Per un pugno di dollari’. He’s a man of few words, but his presence is felt continuously. Unsurprisingly, Miller said that he was greatly influenced by Kurosawa in the making of ‘Mad Max 2’.
(Actually Max also reminded me of Han Solo in some ways: principled but selfish. He even leaves with his loot at one point, much like Solo did at the end of Star Wars. Naturally, he returns….)
- I like that some of the unresolved issues of the previous film are settled here. The most important of them all is the setting, which hadn’t been properly established but which is dealt with in the intro (which, it must be noted doesn’t exist in the Aussie version of the film). The second is the matter of Max’s shot up knee. Here, to settle the matter, he has a metal leg brace to support his leg.
- I like that the gangs are even more inspired by the punk subculture here than in the previous one – it feels like the natural extension of the other. It flirts with absurdity in one instance, however: gang leader Humungous, who looks like Jason Voorhees would if played by Kane Hodder with no shirt on. He’s unforgettable, but he looks sort of ridiculous, like a comic book villain.
- I like that the women are involved in combat. Whether it’s in a small role or at the frontlines in full warrior gear, the women in ‘Mad Max 2’ aren’t wallflowers that trip all over themselves and need to be saved by men; they are collaborators in a common goal. In 1981 this still wasn’t commonplace, but it’s not atypical of punk-themed media; the women are usually far tougher, more independent.
- I like that the picture is unsentimental about its characters – that there aren’t characters that are so likeable that they can’t get hurt. In ‘Mad Max 2’, everyone’s expendable. This, to me, is more in line with the setting, which supposes that there is no justice and that one must struggle against terrible odds to survive – and sometime will fail.
- Finally, Brian May’s score is quite excellent here; it’s better-suited to this adventure-type picture, giving it an epic quality. Although it’s bombastic, it doesn’t bury the dialogues and scenes along with it like he did in the original. I was suitably impressed with his work here.
Naturally, there are a few things that could have been better, but it’s nothing that greatly deterred my enjoyment of the picture:
- One of the characters is a feral kid with a boomerang who’s been hiding in the desert. Naturally, he and Max befriend each other, wordlessly. This is about as bad an idea as giving Indiana Jones a kid side-kick; it’ll delight the kiddies, but it’s in no way credible. Thankfully, feral boy doesn’t take up too much space and doesn’t lead the film down slapstick territory. But I could do without him.
- To give the vehicles more momentum, some of the shots are sped up. This is an old trick that doesn’t look real – you can immediately spot it, thereby ruining the illusion that they’re trying to create. A couple of notches faster and it would have had a Keystone Cops quality to it. Thankfully, this was used in relative moderation; most of the action is in real time.
- Max is far too easily pecked off by the gang after he decides to leave the compound with his loot. For a gritty warrior who is all too aware of the dangers of the road, he seemed to be asleep at the wheel – it was as though he didn’t see them coming (even though I’m sure you could see them and hear them from a mile away). Miller should have tried a little harder to sideline his hero.
- Why in the world would The Humungous ram the tanker head on? Okay, okay… the battle wasn’t going well and he might have thought it was a valiant last effort. Except that it’s utter suicide to pit a small vehicle versus a truck of that size. And, case in point, Lord Humungous, Warrior of the Wasteland, got wasted. Maybe he couldn’t see too well with that hockey mask on…
In the end, though, ‘Mad Max 2’ is a pretty decent low-budget actioner: it’s much more cinematic than its predecessor (it’s better constructed, it’s a nice-looking film), it has a decent script, a terrific pace and it holds true to its intentions.
But, most of all, it also delivers a more well-defined anti-hero. If anything, ‘Mad Max’ was the origin story to a film that probably rightly should have been called ‘The Road Warrior’. In ‘Mad Max 2’, a fully-fleshed icon has risen from the Aussie dust.
And he is not one to easily be forgotten.
“My life fades. The vision dims. All that remains are memories. I remember a time of chaos. Ruined dreams. This wasted land. But most of all, I remember The Road Warrior. The man we called Max.”
Date of viewing: February 11, 2015