REVIEW: Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior [1981]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 94 minutes | Release Date: December 21st, 1981 (Australia)
Studio: Warner Bros.
Director(s): George Miller
Writer(s): Terry Hayes, George Miller & Brian Hannant

“I’m just here for the gasoline”

Welcome to the “Wastelands”. This is the Mad Max I remember—a desolate post-apocalyptic future riddled with mohawk-toting, S&M leather-wearing marauders bearing teeth and chaining submissives/human guard dogs on leashes until the fight needs some extra wild. It’s no surprise Hollywood changed the name from Mad Max 2 to The Road Warrior before release while refusing to call attention to it being a sequel in promotional materials because it’s a different beast altogether. With Mad Max‘s unparalleled international success positioning George Miller to choose his next project, foregoing other inklings to revisit the violent Australian outback with a larger budget allowed his vision to reach its full potential. All remnants of police order were expunged, the no-holds-barred life on the road increased exponentially as it took center stage, and Max (Mel Gibson) was officially left with nothing.

The introductory narration by Harold Baigent—while supplying straightforward answers for what went wrong in the world rather than leaving us to infer the truth (my favorite part of the original film)—made me breathe a sigh of relief as it rendered Mad Max a footnote. I thought I was too hard on that supposed “riveting classic” (New York Times), but the way Miller and collaborators Terry Hayes and Brian Hannant compress its story to a five-minute montage shows how little plot was present. Mad Max proved nothing but an overlong origin story for a man to which we were about to be reintroduced. A cop who lost wife and son to the monsters most of humanity have now become, his rebirth as the “road warrior” was complete. Alone in his Interceptor, he scavenges the desert for survival.

With a decent supply of Meat & Veggie dog food to satiate his and his four-legged friend’s appetite, Max’s main pursuit is gasoline. Fuel became the only form of monetary compensation left and the desire to stock up had turned man cruel and unusual. We saw a bit of this transformation with Nightrider and Toecutter, but they were still men clinging to civilization albeit with animalistic tendencies. Murderers and rapists alike, they hadn’t yet morphed to build a nightmarish army like that possessed by The Humungus (Kjell Nilsson). Only when you leave society and infrastructure fully behind can you devolve into a force of nature. Rather than entering a crumbling city as an outsider, Humungus and his cronies claimed the fringe as their own. There it’s the kind-hearted who are invaders and the home team takes no prisoners.

So when a rag tag bunch of nomads plants a flag in the sand like Pappagallo’s (Michael Preston) fellow settlers around a still fertile pocket of crude oil, Humungus’ “warrior of the wasteland and ayatollah of rock-and-rollah” takes umbrage. Max isn’t interested in the impending war between these two factions, he merely wants to fill his gas cans and be on his way. Unafraid to kill the horror-movie dirt-bike vandals—he’d love to put a bullet in the head of loose cannon Wez (Vernon Wells)—he knows diplomacy is his best avenue. He sits back as Wez and a few of Humungus’ other soldiers rape and beat two of Pappagallo’s scouts, biding his time until he can eventually swoop in to save one of the victims and hatch a deal for gas in return.

This of course puts him inside the compound just as Humungus returns to bang on its doors. Blood is spilled, fire is thrown, and Max reluctantly joins the settlers in order to sweeten the pot of his spoils. The plot is therefore very easily packaged in good versus evil compartments, but when you look objectively you’ll see there isn’t really room for such labels in this new world. Both sides are killers; both sides merely wish to live—their extracurricular proclivities becoming the main detail separating them from one another. And Max in the middle might be the worst of them all because he has no motive other than himself. The settlers fight for the future, Humungus for the present pleasures. Max simply wanders because he has nowhere to go and no sense of hope to sustain him.

He’s the antihero we watch and wonder about. Will he finally break and become as bad as Wez and the others or will someone like Pappagallo, his Warrior Woman (Virginia Hey), or the not-so-innocently young Feral Kid (Emil Minty) save him from the void? A choice like this can never be easy for someone who has endured what Max has, though, and Miller never even attempts to pretend it can. Instead he brings in another stranger with the Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence), a happy-go-lucky optimist flying around the desert without a shred of malicious intent to go with his surprising cunning. His inclusion allows the filmmakers to keep Max as stoic and dour as possible while not rendering the movie so painfully dark that we lose interest. Gyro’s comic relief and heart keeps Max’s ambivalence authentic by contrast.

How Max and the rest of the “not-so-bad guys” are painted with a three-dimensionality for us to accept their plight and condone their actions is a vast improvement over the sentimentality of Mad Max‘s characters sleepwalking through a contrived existence. But it’s the reworked aesthetic that stands out most to make The Road Warrior a science fiction classic where its predecessor fell short. The action is shot with more excitement (seeing vehicles roaring in the distance through the window of Max’s vehicle is an exhilarating feat); gruesome injuries are graphically shown (for the most part since edits were made by Australian censors before even the MPAA got involved); and the costumes finally vault what’s onscreen out of contemporary times. Where Mad Max was a dressed-up 1979, The Road Warrior has become a completely different universe.

A playground of carnage, it exists as a product of 80s sensibilities. Wez is a hair band brawler while The Humungus’ masked face makes him a punk rock Darth Vader. Even Pappagallo’s crew is steeped in the decade with padding that looks like they raided a jai alai locker room. Because they, their vehicles, and the environment have been ravaged by death, dust, and destruction, however, what we see exists beyond time. Miller’s moved beyond characters that lived before and after by introducing children inside his new world order. So while the plot is an Alamo-like last stand, the film delivers much more through its visuals and performances. And with Happy Feet‘s abhorrent diatribe politicizing our youth in the guise of entertainment, this is obviously Miller’s idea of Earth’s future—our future—above any imaginative fantasy.

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