“Mad Max 2: the Road Warrior” is a sequel that surpasses the original in every way. It’s an actual “true” sequel too, not just a rehash of the first story. That earns it extra points in my boat. It takes the character of Max (Mel Gibson) and asks, “now that he’s lost his humanity, where does this world that’s devolving into absolute madness take him?”
Nuclear war has devastated the planet and in Australia, the people who have managed to survive struggle to cling to sanity. After a gang of thugs in the first film killed “Mad” Max Rockatansky’s family, our hero has become a marauder, caring for little other than his dog, his next meal and the fuel he needs to keep drifting aimlessly. When his path crosses with the last reasonable people on the continent, he finds himself in a position where he has to help them against the Lord Humungous (Kjell Nilsson) and his gang of sadistic motorists. This reluctant hero is their only hope of escape to a land of safety.
“The Road Warrior” excels at doing a lot with very little. There’s a tangible immediacy to this story and even though many people have few or even no actual lines, director George Miller immerses you into this world so well that you never really notice. For example, Max only has about 16-20 lines in total and he’s the main character. The genius is that you get to know him through his actions, but also his inactions. Sometimes it’s about what he says, but more often that not it’s about the words he chooses to say it and about when he decides to open his mouth rather than just say nothing. There’s a brutal attack towards the beginning of the film and you think that Max is going to intervene. I think most traditional heroes would, but our “hero” does nothing. It’s not that the people of this world find what happens to be “not that bad” or that they’re used to it, it’s that our main character is a broken man. Had he been a conventional hero and gone to the people’s rescue, you wouldn’t have really learned anything about him. Good guys intervene when other humans are in danger right? That’s nothing new. But what does it say about a person who DOESN’T do anything when they could? How does he morally justify standing idly by while other people suffer? How will he break the news to the mourners if they ask how their friends/family died? Will our hero eventually turn around and feel guilt over his actions? If he does, what will he do to redeem himself in his eyes? What will the film do to get us to forgive this apathetic transgression? All of these character defining questions arising from the single act of nothing. That’s what I mean when I say that this film is as much about what our hero does than it is about what it doesn’t do. It’s a blueprint on how to write an anti-hero.
We have a complex and layered protagonist set in an interesting world. We’ve also got a conflict with an iconic villain. Once you see Lord Humongous in action, you can’t forget him and the same goes with his minions. The next essential ingredient to make a great action movie is the action itself. “The Road Warrior” delivers in spades. Throughout you’ll find castle siege-like battles and high-speed chases, all leading up to one of the most exciting climaxes you can treat yourself to. It all goes by so fast, so smoothly that it’s actually difficult to isolate what technical aspects of the film bring what to the final product, so I’m going to break it down for you as best I can.
First of all, there are the vehicle, costume and weapons designs. This film is set in a post-nuclear, post-apocalyptic wasteland. Nowadays we have an idea what that looks like. Everything’s dusty, people drive around with crossbows (bullets tend to be a little rare without manufacturing plants) and medieval weapons. You’ve got makeshift armor to protect yourself from other warrior but instead of horses, fighters ride modified motorcycles and cars. To intimidate others you probably slap on some war paint and adorn your mighty steed with skulls, spikes and barbed wire. That sounds about right, and the source of this look? It’s “Road Warrior”. As the progenitor of the post-apocalyptic high-speed world, it’s one of the best at it. It looks cheap in the sense that it actually feels like the people working on the vehicles cobbled them together from junk, but it’s never put together cheaply. Just looking at the dragsters you feel like one wrong movie and the whole thing could go up in flames or blow up. With a budget that surpasses the first film, you can bet on the fact that they will.
The stunts and editing throughout the 96 minute running time are spectacular. You’ll see someone fly through the air as their vehicle gets reduced to shreds in a collision and you’ll sit there mouth agape. Did they actually smash that car?! And how did they manage to prevent the driver from killing himself when he went soaring?! What fabulous coordination and camera work that allowed us to see so many feats which had to be done in a single take, with no chance of being re-created without re-shooting the entire picture. During the long and satisfying action scene of the film it keeps going continuously, always adding to the carnage and topping itself as the weak get culled from the pack and the only heroes and villains left are the most savage and resourceful ones. Editors David Stiven, Michael Balson and Tim Wellburn must have been surgeons in a past life because the editing is so clean. The flow of energy never stops. It sucks you up into its world and only when the credits start to roll do you realize how tightly you were clutching the armrests of your seat.
The chases are faster, the crashes are bigger, the stunts are more impressive, the characters are instantly branded into your brain and the story flows more smoothly. “The Road Warrior” is spectacular from beginning to end. The more I see this film, the more I appreciate it on a storytelling and technical level. Even if you haven’t seen the first “Mad Max”, I highly recommend this follow-up because it tells you everything you need to know at the beginning. “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior” is a bolt of lightning in a bottle. It’s a visceral action flick that re-energizes you, and a personal favorite of mine. (Theatrical version on the big screen, February 6, 2016)