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.