In the part two of 'Max Revisited', I examine the brutally simple The Road Warrior, the sequel to Mad Max. You can find my review of Mad Max here. As always, spoilers for the entire series follow. I'll review Beyond Thunderdome, Fury Road, and end with my overall impressions of the series in the coming days.
"If it's all the same to you, I'll drive that tanker."
Oh what a difference two years makes.
Minutes into The Road Warrior, it's obvious director George Miller has grown as a filmmaker. Every aspect of The Road Warrior is an improvement upon Mad Max and Miller shows both great restraint and unhinged dedication to his insane vision of the future. The result? Everybody wins.
The Road Warrior was released in 1981, two years after Mad Max took Australia by storm. It once again brought Miller and Mel Gibson together. While Gibson got noticed in Mad Max, one could argue that it was really The Road Warrior that vaulted him to the stardom he would so recently squander. The film is actually titled Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, but Mad Max had been seen by so few in the U.S. that studios thought audiences would ignore it since they hadn't seen the first one. Netflixing it to catchup wasn't an option in 1981. So they dropped the Mad Max 2 prefix altogether and titled it simply The Road Warrior. Thankfully it stands well on its own for those who can't stomach Mad Max.
The film begins with a narration that shows how the world has changed. The vaguely defined dystopia of the last film has become a full-on apocalypse this time around. There is no law and order, no MFP, no nations or governments. All that is left are people scrounging for the necessities to survive. Already this narration solves the problem of exposition that nearly crippled the first film.
We are reunited with Max who still rocks the V8 Interceptor. His only companion is his loyal dog, named Dog. Max and Dog scrounge the wasteland picking at wrecks and salvaging what they can. Max soon crosses paths with one of the series' more memorable characters, The Gyro Captain. Their standoff is straight out of a Western, and they quickly form a tenuous relationship. To keep Max from killing him and raiding his supplies, The Gyro Captain tells Max that he can direct him to all the oil he could dream of. He takes Max to a barricaded refinery that has been reactivated by a small community of survivors. Unfortunately their oil production has put them in the crosshairs of a dangerous gang of bandits who also want that oil, and will rape, pillage, plunder, and kill to get it. The bandits are led by Lord Humungus (not a typo), one of Miller's most iconic freaks.
When Max sees the bandits ambush a group of the survivors, his dormant morals kick in and he ends up fighting the bandits off, rescuing one of the survivors in the process. He takes the survivor to the compound, hoping his good deed will earn him enough oil to be on his merry way. But the survivors, led by Pappagallo, know Max can be a strong ally in their plans to take their oil and get to the shore, away from the bandits.
Max spends much of the movie trying to deny his humanity, resisting any emotional attachments. The survivors look to him to be their hero, but Max just wants to get the gas and leave. By the end, Max finds himself becoming the reluctant hero, even after he tries to abandon them. However, while Max may have a conscience he can't ignore, it only extends as far as it has to. By the end of the film, Max has ensured the survivors will succeed in their plans and as such his contract is done. He no longer cares about them, it's business as usual.
Mad Max was at best a B-movie with lots of potential, and at worst a disjointed tonal mess. The Road Warrior by comparison is some of the leanest filmmaking to date. There isn't an ounce of fat. The film crescendoes with a thrilling thirteen-minute car chase (that holds up incredibly well), but as soon as it finishes, Miller wastes no time in wrapping things up. Get in. Get out. And leave them wanting more. (Though the 'more' they got might not have been so great.)
Miller also finds the right balance of grounded realism and his own particular take on the insanity. Max is a quiet presence. He is tough, but not intimidating. He is capable but not showy. He's smart, but too smart to play the fool. Mel Gibson only has 16 lines of dialogue throughout the entire film, but you'd swear there were more. Miller smartly shows, not tells, us all we need to know about Max. This reinforces that Miller is one of the stronger visual storytellers out there. It's these subtler moments of character building would make an auteur like Hitchcock proud.
In comparison though, the Bandits, survivors, and other characters are all colorful and insane. It's an absolute delight watching them bounce off of Max. Whether it's the shifty and talkative Gyro Captain, the kindred spirit Feral Kid, or the psychotic Wez, everybody around Max is, well, mad. But Miller isn't scared to let the freak flag fly. The result is that The Road Warrior, and Miller's version as a whole, feels unique.
Oh, and let's not forget the cars. Max and the freaks aren't the only players in Miller's future. Cars and various modes of ground (and air) transportation are just as much a part of the character list. And for a film that now has to stand on its own in a Fast & Furious world of vehicular mayhem, it's incredible how well The Road Warrior still works. The final chase alone could go toe-to-toe with any modern car chase (yes, really.) And much of that is directly because of George Miller.
Obviously this is still before CGI was the filmmaking crutch it is today. So all you see is real. Miller was not shy about putting his stuntmen in real danger. The chases and choreography are mind-bogglingly risky. The result is a visceral experience of twisted metal, blood, and sand. It's not pretty or acrobatic, and it's not meant to be. It's pure automotive action at its finest.
This is where I have to compare Miller's chases to modern ones, because it really is miraculous how well the car chases in this movie hold up. Compare it to any of the recent Fast & Furious films. In those, the stuntwork is real, but it's also choreographed in a way that (with some CGI aid) makes impossible stunts a reality. While they are loads of fun to watch, they're too cartoonish to feel real. Which is sad because those films do go to great lengths to film what they can. But the nature of the series forces them to get even more outlandish.
The Road Warrior by comparison doesn't break the laws of physics with reckless abandon. It goes over the top, but even at its most extreme, it's still real, grounded, and most importantly...messy.
Which brings me to another point that makes The Road Warrior stand out from modern films. Max is not invincible. Max gets shot up and battered and bruised in a way most modern action heroes don't (Daredevil on Netflix being a notable exception). But seeing Max get his ass handed to him hearkens back to seeing Indiana Jones getting shot in the arm in Raiders or John McClane's problematic lack of shoes in Die Hard ("Shoot the glass!"). Max is the most grounded part of the entire film, and that's part of the reason it all works. Even a man who is so emotionally distant is still vulnerable, and as such believable. In the age of superheroes and superspies who can take every punch in stride, seeing Max struggle to survive is a refreshing change of pace. In fact, action icons who are physically vulnerable really feel like a product of a bygone era. Even when Jason Bourne sprains his ankle, or John Wick gets stabbed in the abdomen, they still muster the ability to ignore the pain and fight on. Max on the other hand is impacted by his injuries.
There is a lot to take in with The Road Warrior that I haven't really touched. There are lots of touches that are simply delightful. Things like the twist regarding the tanker at the end of the film. Or Dog holding the Gyro Captain hostage with the shotgun rigging in the V8. Or the Feral Kid and his unsafe-for-children-under-five boomerang. The list goes on and on. It reminds me of the first Anchorman in that every frame can be lovingly referenced in some way. Despite my spoiler warning, I would much rather you go out and experience it for yourself.
The Road Warrior is the high point for the Mad Max series (though early reviews for Fury Road would suggest that it is a true challenger for the coveted 'best' status). It's also a film that stands confidently on its own. It's part of a grander story, but not at the risk of forgetting to tell its own tale. It's both straightforward and extravagant. It's one of the most enduring Action films of all time, but not without a welcome dose of Western and Post-Apocalyptic seasoning. For a film as iconic as it is, it doesn't feel dated or overplayed (the way Star Wars now does.) It helped pave the way for a decade of fantastic hard R-rated action cinema. But setting aside the impact it left on moviemaking for decades, at it's core it's an example of tight and effective storytelling and perhaps that's mostly why it still holds up so well.