Homemade summer movie marathon: Mad Max 2/The Road Warrior
Mad Max 2/The Road Warrior (1981, George Miller)
Following the reasonable success of their original Mad Max film (although that success was not tasted in North America), writer director George Miller, star Mel Gibson and the rest of the crew launched themselves towards the logical next step in the movie business: it was time to make a sequel. By the closing scenes of the first instalment, our hero is a changed man. His war against the biker gangs may have resulted in a victory in that each member was nothing more but a rotting corpse, but he left the battlefield with a broken heart having lost everyone dear to him. To be honest, for an action-packed adventure thrill ride, Mad Max offered quite a downer for its conclusion, with Max riding off on the highway, unsure of what the future had in store for him.
The opening of Mad Max 2 features a clever fictional montage of archival footage depicting how the world we know it entered a post-apocalyptic stage. A narrator provides some context to the footage, although the identity of said narrator remains a secret. Mankind, in its never ending lust for power and resources, turned on itself in major warfare and rebellions to control the world’s resources, most notably oil. The aftermath has resulted in humans fending for themselves either in small bands or alone (guess who’s doing it solo) in a world where might is right. Max, now with a dog as his partner, roams the open road in search of resources too and oftentimes encounters some rather nasty and unsavoury characters reminiscent of the freaks who populated the first film, only crazier and more evil of course. His travels lead him to a desperate and whimsy autogyro pilot (Bruce Spence) who takes him to a settled community where people are working oil refineries. Naturally there is a hefty squad of marauders, led by the imposing Lord Humungus (Kjell Nilsson). The community and Max need each other if they are to survive on approaching onslaught.
The rule of thumb with sequels is that bigger is necessary because bigger is somehow better. George Miller does apply this famous rule to The Road Warrior, which in many respects surpasses the original , especially in terms of scope, cinematography and the intensity found within the action sequences. Dean Semler was the cinematographer on set and worked some kind of magic that is rarely found in action films. The Australian outback is gorgeously captured on film, with sunsets and sunrises displaying an incredibly rich golden texture to the picture, the terrain is appropriately harsh and dusty...everything looks very handsome in the film. We don’t often witness action oriented films for which it is plain to see that time and care went into the cinematography as is the case with The Road Warrior.
As far as the action goes, almost everything we see in this outing trumps what occurred in the first film, notwithstanding a few solid head bumps that I’m still thinking about over a week after seeing them. The film offers pure, unadulterated violent road smashing. The stunt work, on almost every level, surpasses what we’ve already seen. The chases are possessed with a frenetic pace and a sense of desperation, of urgency. What the film does so well is consistently build up the scale of the action, with each and every sequence providing more ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ than the last, but also unabashedly showcasing more intense and shocking violent deaths. The buildup for each sequence is also quite deliberate, particularly in the first half when the direction allows all the time necessary to set up the context of all that is to follow. This eventually culminates in a 13 minute marathon of a tanker truck, car and motorcycle chase which serves as the climax. There are so many instances of brilliant camera and stunt work which forced me to hunch my back forwards, with my hands wrapped together as I eagerly anticipated the next moment that would blow my mind. Not one to disappoint, the climactic battle on the road delivered every single time. I was stunned at how consistent and present the tension was, especially when one considers this is in a chase 13 minutes in duration. How often do we see that? What’s even better is that there are some brief character moments which hit the spot as well. This being the climax, not everyone is left standing by its end, but almost all the protagonists earn some special moments.
Larger scope in a sequel also equates to a greater number of characters, yet another rule the movie abides by. This is perhaps the one department for which I was slightly less thrilled with. I thought it a bold move to have a Max as a broken man who finds a variety of redemption by coming to the aid of the community living in the oil refinery, although his actual arrival at the decision to help them does not occur until late in the film. But unlike in the first film in which I felt Max’s character resonated clearly, here there are several stretches when it felt Max was playing second fiddle to his new acquaintances. The gyro pilot, the leader of the settled community, even Lord Humungus, who is surprisingly articulate and charismatic for a guy who looks like a WWE wrestler, are given some terrific scenes which explore their characters. All the while Max is typically watching these players engage in exchanges, and at one point is literally tied down and unable to go anywhere. There was a point where I was under the distinct impression to be watching a post-apocalyptic tale that just happened to have Mad Max as one of several characters. I’m sure there are those who adore the movie (and there are plenty of such people) that are ready to disagree with me, and they’re more than welcome to. Truth be told, this wasn’t a major gripe I had with the film. For one thing, I did like the new characters written for this sequel, so it wasn’t as though I was stuck with a cast of misfits while Max stands idly aside, which he doesn’t quite do either. Whenever the action ramps up, Max is always front and center, but I did find that his character was not as deep as in the previous chapter. The script is also a tad formulaic and it was relatively easy to predict the direction in which the plot would venture, It’s a redemption story about a glum man who believes he has lost everything, there aren’t many places for such a plot to go. Still, the individual character moments were more than strong enough to carry the movie.
While the setting and central character may be identical, a lot feels different and quite frankly better in The Road Warrior. There are some very intense moments throughout, but the film also reminds us that we are experiencing just a darn fun adventure story.