Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)
by Steve Habrat
In 1979, a small little Austrian action thriller called Mad Max was given a limited release in the United States. The film made a measly $8 million in the U.S., but worldwide, the film took in over $100 million, which caught the eye of Warner Bros. The studio convinced director George Miller to come up with a sequel to his uneven and ultra-violent revenge tale and the rest is history. In 1981, American audiences were re-introduced to Mel Gibson’s Max Rockatansky in Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, a leather-clad follow-up that easily roars past the original film and leaves it choking on its dust. Released under the title The Road Warrior due to lack of audience familiarity with the first Mad Max film, Miller’s follow-up is just as high-octane and colorful as his first film, but The Road Warrior possesses a consistency that the first film didn’t quite enjoy. There is no abrupt revenge climax and the best action sequence doesn’t come blasting at the viewer in the first fifteen minutes. The Road Warrior saves the blistering best for last, a heart-in-the-throat chase executed with real death defying stunts and gnarled steel. And then there is Gibson, turning his vengeful Max into a silent legend who is only looking out for himself.
The Road Warrior begins with a flashback that explains that oil supplies have nearly run dry, and an apocalyptic war has wiped out all remaining law and order. The roaming gangs and surviving humans are locked in a constant battle over the remaining tanks of oil. Among the survivors is Max (played by Mel Gibson), a scowling loner who is still licking the wounds of his family’s brutal demise at the hands of ruthless motorcycle gang leader Toecutter. After narrowly surviving an attack by another motorcycle gang, Max stumbles upon a wandering Gyro-Captain (played by Bruce Spence), who attempts to ambush Max while he tries to steal fuel from his autogyro. Max disarms the Gyro-Captain, who quickly tells Max about a local oil refinery that has been taken over by a band of survivors. Max forces the Gyro-Captain to take him to the oil refinery, where he discovers that the same gang that attempted to attack him on the highway are also attacking the refinery. After the attack, Max finds a wounded refinery survivor, who tells Max that if he gets him back to safety, he can have all the fuel he wants. Max takes the man back to the refinery gates, but the leader of the group, Pappagallo (played by Michael Preston), refuses to make good on the deal. The refinery survivors take Max prisoner, but the gang that has been terrorizing them soon returns to their gates looking to strike a deal. The gang’s leader, The Humungus (played by Kjell Nilsson), explains that if the survivors will hand over their oil, then they can have safe passage from the gang’s territory. The survivors are about to agree when Max steps in and explains that there could be a way for the survivors to protect their precious fuel and escape the gang’s clutches.
After a slightly disturbing, stock-footage heavy stage setter, The Road Warrior jumps right into another high-speed pursuit across the barren wasteland. Miller smashes up more cars and sends more leathery punks careening right at Max’s armored Interceptor, which roars triumphantly along the highway in intimidating black. Motorcycles and supped up rides smash through highway wreckage and bodies go tumbling like dummies through the air. Barely a word is spoken as the carnage blasts the picture to smithereens. Unlike the first Mad Max, this car chase isn’t the highlight of the entire film. Further down the line, we are treated to wide shots of the gang relentlessly attacking the oil refinery, jumping their motorcycles at the walls like the crazed maniacs that they are. With the lack of computer effects (it was 1981, folks), these attacks are so white-knuckle because they are being executed with real flesh and real machine. There is not a phony stunt to be found within the action. Miller is just teasing us, as he works up to a car chase finale that involves a rusted tanker, a slew of armored dune buggies, the autogyro, and more high-speed destruction than you can handle. And believe me when I say it looks and sounds absolutely fantastic, better than anything we see in the CGI-heavy blockbusters of today.
Standing out amongst the twisted metal are the flesh and blood characters, especially Gibson’s animalistic Max. Stripped of his family man warmth, Max has let himself be overcome with his vengeance. He no longer fights for others and even if he wanted to, the Main Force Police is long gone. He looks out for only himself, scavenging to make it from day to day while chowing down on some dog food that he shares with his four-legged pooch. Near the end, when Max sits behind the wheel of the tanker, we catch a glimpse of the man he once was, a man fighting for those who are unable to stand up for themselves. Preston’s Pappagallo is the figure the guides Max back onto the helping track. He pleas for Max to help them make their escape from the bloodthirsty gang that won’t let them go. Spence’s Gyro-Captain is more of a cartoonish sidekick to Max, but he turns out to be pretty useful with a Molotov cocktail. Nilsson’s homoerotic villain The Humungus conceals a mutated mug behind a futuristic hockey mask and enjoys keeping any gang member that displeases him on a leash as his personal pet for a day. Vernon Wells turns up as The Humungus’ crazed lieutenant, Wez, who leads the early highway attack on Max. Emil Minty is present in a small but significant role as the Feral Kid, a grunting little runt with a seriously deadly boomerang.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of The Road Warrior is how surprisingly violent the film actually is. While there were a few gruesome deaths and images in Mad Max, a good majority of the violence was kept off screen. The Road Warrior is a completely different story. People are thrown off motorcycles, strapped to the front of dune buggies and then tortured, rundown, or taking a boomerang right to the side of their head. This is a shocker considering that the original Mad Max was a foreign import made outside the studio system. In addition to the amped-up violence, there is a strong sexual and homoerotic feel to some of the characters, especially in The Humungus and Wez, but this touch is oddly fitting for the film. It also gives way to one of the film’s greatest sight gags, which involves two of The Humongous’ gang members having sex in a tent, only to find themselves out in the open after a car goes roaring past. Overall, with timeless effects, distinct characters, and skull-crushing action, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior has stood the test of time and become a highly influential action classic. It is a massive step up for the Mad Max series and it ranks near the top of the greatest action films ever made.
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Mad Max (1979)
by Steve Habrat
In 1979, a violent little dystopian action thriller from Australia introduced a majority of the world to an unknown actor by the name of Mel Gibson. Made for only $400,000, director George Miller’s Mad Max barely made a ripple in the United States, and it wouldn’t be until the 1982 sequel Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior that American audiences would be familiar with the gruff Gibson. Today, many genre fans consider Mad Max to be one of the greatest action films ever made, second only to it’s follow-up, but the original film actually fails to live up to some of the hype that surrounds it. There are spurts of exploitation violence, high-octane car chases, and fiery car wrecks that are sure to please anyone who considers themselves a fan of savage cinema from the 1970s, but the revenge aspect of Mad Max, which reveals itself in the last fifteen minutes of the film, seems crammed in and brushed over. Despite the flawed climax, Mad Max does have plenty of apocalyptic action and death-defying stunts to keep you pinned to your seat (Holy destroyed camper, Batman!) and there are colorful characters galore. The major draw here is Gibson and his performance as Max, an upstanding Main Force Patrol officer who is the king of the gang-infested highways.
Mad Max opens on the desolate highways of Australia, which is in ruin due to the dwindling supply of oil. The highways are infested with motorcycle gangs who crash into small towns, raid their supplies of oil, and terrorize the town citizens. The only ones fighting for law and order are the Main Force Patrol, a leather-clad police force who battles the gangs in their supped up Interceptors. One of the best officers working for the MFP is Max Rockatansky (played by Mel Gibson), who is extremely skilled when it comes to high-speed pursuits. After Max runs down escaped motorcycle gang member Nightrider (played by Vincent Gil), vicious gang leader and Nightrider’s friend Toecutter (played by Hugh Keays-Byrne) vows to track down the MFP officers responsible for Nightriders death. Max and his partner, Jim “Goose” Rains (played by Steve Bisley), respond to attacks by Toecutter’s gang in a local small town and when they arrive, they arrest Johnny “The Boy” Boyle (played by Tim Burns), Toecutter’s protégé. It doesn’t take long for Johnny to find a way out of jail and while he is being escorted out, he makes violent threats against Max and Goose. Johnny meets back up with Toecutter and the two start plotting revenge against Max and Goose. The gang soon makes good on their violent threats against the MFP officers, which forces Max to consider retirement from the force. However, when the gang attacks Max’s family, he takes to the highways to dish out a little revenge.
Early on, Miller sets the bar high with a breakneck car chase that features more destruction and more eye-popping stunts than any CGI offering of today. A family’s camper is turned to dust as a car goes ripping right through it, Interceptors spin and tumble wildly about the highway, and Max watches over all of it with calculation, waiting for the proper moment to strike. It’s like a futuristic chase through the Wild West as Miller pulls his camera back to reveal the parched and rocky Australian landscape. Miller follows the chase scene up with an intimidating raid on a rundown town, which acts as our brutal introduction to Toecutter. It drips in exploitation even if some of the nastier stuff if kept just off screen and it nicely builds up a slew of despicable villains that we sincerely dislike. As Mad Max speeds on, the film slowly starts to loose the momentum that it gathered in those opening moments. Each new attack or action sequence seems to pale in comparison to what we saw early on. Miller gets back on track briefly when Max’s family is horrifically attacked while they flee on foot down that dreaded highway, but then the film takes on a hurried tone, almost like Miller just wants to finish the revenge side of the film off. The climax is way too brief considering its importance and it fails to really let the viewer feel or savor any one moment. However, the final sequence that finds one character handcuffed to a wrecked vehicle is undeniably influential.
While the action and suspense of Mad Max may slowly slip, Miller makes sure that his cast is one of the most memorable in the action genre. Gibson is electrifying as Max, a skilled MFP officer and softie family man who fears the horrors of his job may push him over the edge. Some of the scenes between Max and his wife, Jessie (played by Joanne Samuel), are a bit too sweet for some of the harsher moments of the film, but these scenes make Max’s violent transformation all the more intense. When Gibson unleashes his gruff vengeance, you can tell that he was born to be action star. Bisley is enthusiastic as Goose, Max’s ruthless, motor-mouthed partner who meets a particularly grisly end. Tim Burns gives a dazed performance as Johnny, Toecutter’s depraved protégé who enjoys rapping and attacking anyone who dares cross him. Hugh Keays-Byrne gives a particularly disturbed performance as Toecutter, a shaggy biker who is calm one minute and then foaming at the mouth the next. His fury over the death of Nightrider is guaranteed to send a chill. Roger Ward has several great moments as Fifi, the hulking MFP captain with a strong man mustache and a bald dome. There is something exciting about the way he encourages his officers to track down this bloodthirsty gang by any means necessary and he reveals a softer side when he tries to convince Max to stay on the force.
Despite its abrupt climax, Mad Max does have an unusually fast paced feel about it. It comes, it entertains, and then it speeds off down the highway. The style that Miller applied to Mad Max has also clearly rubbed off on many action and science fiction directors over the years, especially the look of the cars, which all have an armored predatory aesthetic about them. It is also worth tracking down the film just to admire a film that applies real stunts over computer fakery. It truly is amazing to see what Miller was able to pull off with so little. It lacks polish but the action is unshakably raw and in your face. As far as the violence goes, there is a hearty dose of blood and gore, but most of the really nasty stuff is implied. I don’t think there is anyone out there who would want to see what Toecutter and his gang do to Max’s son. There is an extra graphic scene near the end that finds our hero stumbling down the highway with a smashed up hand and a bloody leg. Overall, for all the action junkies out there, Mad Max is certainly a must-see if you haven’t already experienced it. It isn’t the smartest film you are ever going to see, but its impact on action cinema does make it an essential film within the genre. However, the sins of the climax prevent it from truly becoming a classic.
Mad Max is available on Blu-ray and DVD.