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Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior

Starring: Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence
Director: George Miller
Rated: R
RunTime: 95 Minutes
Release Date: May 1982
Genres: Action, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Suspense

*Also starring: Vernon Wells, Emil Minty, Mike Preston, Virginia Hey, Kjell Nilsson

Review by Dragan Antulov
4 stars out of 4

The author of this review considers late 1970s and early 1980s to be the Golden Age of Science Fiction cinema. In that relatively short period we were introduced not only to the best science fiction films in the history of the genre; we were also witnessed somewhat rare phenomenon of sequels being superior to the original movies. Of course, film aficionados often ignore this phenomenon because the original movies were classics as well. Best known example is THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, 1980 sequel to original STAR WARS. However, a year later the audience was introduced to the sequel to MAD MAX, surprisingly successful action film from Australia. MAD MAX 2, also known as THE ROAD WARRIOR, was not just the superior to its original; it was also remembered as one of the most influential films of its time. Its great commercial success spawned the entirely genre of post-apocalyptic action films that would, decades later, lead to WATERWORLD and POSTMAN. It was also the film that finally launched successful careers of its lead actor Mel Gibson and director George Miller. THE ROAD WARRIOR was also the film that finally showed that Australian filmmakers could compete with Hollywood, which allowed Australians to pride themselves with one of the most vital film industries in the world.

Plot of this movie takes place few years after the events in MAD MAX. Sorry state of the civilisation, only hinted in the original, deteriorated into total collapse, following the World War 3 that had deprived the world industries of necessary fuel. All mechanism of the societal order had crumbled and in the ensuing anarchy the roads became the domain of gangs ready to wage wars over a single drop of fuel. Max Roxatansky (played by Mel Gibson) is former policeman who is roaming the wastelands of Australia with his V8 Interceptor, living on canned dog food and often having to fight just to live another day. Along the way he meets a bizarre character Gyro Captain (played by Bruce Spence) who informs him about the chance to get huge quantity of fuel. Somewhere in the desert there is a still operating oil refinery, run by Papagallo (played by Michael Preston) and his followers. However, this group can't have much use of their precious fuel because their compound is being besieged by the gang led by evil Lord Houmungus (played by Kjell Nilsson) and his psychotic lieutenant Wez (played by Vernon Welles). Max decides to get part of that fuel in exchange for helping Papagallo's people reaching safety.

Few films could be cited as the better example of ingenious and effective filmmaking than THE ROAD WARRIOR was. When George Miller shot this film, the budget looked huge compared with the original, yet it was shoestring with similar Hollywood projects. However, same as in the case of MAD MAX (with second-hand cars as good illustration of industrial decay), lack of finances turned into advantage for Miller. Locations of New South Wales, with unforgiving, harsh nature and road as the single and almost unnoticeable trace of civilisation, provided the perfect setting for this tale of post-apocalyptic world (and provided a cliche later overused by Miller's less inspired imitators). By creating this world, inspired by Herrman's cult comic book JEREMIAH, Miller didn't have to spend a lot of money - the "futuristic" clothes, vehicles and buildings aren't futuristic at all, since they have been simply scavenged from the remains of the civilisation. However, what Miller did with such details made all the difference. Most obvious example is use of fashion for the purpose of characterisation. Good guys wear white robes (except Max), while Bad Guys have strange combination of punk rock hairstyles and black leather clothes more appropriate for the protagonists of BDSM videos (that would also later be used as post- apocalyptic cliche).

Another thing that turns THE ROAD WARRIOR into the triumph of creative filmmaking are the action scenes. The post-apocalyptic world is rather unspectacular by itself; but the brutal realities of such world - prospect of murder, rape, pillage, all presented in very naturalistic and often gory fashion - face the protagonists with the need to act fast in order to survive. So, the film is full of superbly edited, ingenious and suspenseful action scenes. One of the excellent examples is the final battle, breathtaking yet able to provide us with unexpected twists, black humour and even the scene that could match Hitchcock's PSYCHO with the shock value. And all that was done with small budget, without computer graphics with small, but dedicated and talented band of stuntmen doing most of the work. Those scenes are extremely violent, but all that violence does make sense in the context of the story.

Of course, that doesn't mean that this film lacks good characters and plot. Some of the critics were put down by the lack of dialogue and often considered this film as nothing more than the cheap excuse for 90 minutes of violence. It may look that way on the surface, but this film has more depth that any other action film. First of all, bleak future presented in this world didn't look that fantastic for the audiences of the early 1980s; the new oil crisis and resurrection of Cold War after the decade of detante created rather pessimistic worldview in which the collapse of civilisation really looked close. Same as CONAN THE BARBARIAN, another forgotten and ignored masterpiece of 1981, THE ROAD WARRIOR dealt with society deprived of civilisation. That was the perfect setting for Miller to portray the eternal conflict between Men As They Should Be and Men As They Are. The simple plot, borrowed from classic westerns, provided an interesting and thought-provoking contrast between two groups. On one hand we have Good Guys - idealists who work very hard to keep the values of old world, even when such values, like democracy, happen to be rather impractical in the new circumstances. And while they argue about their course of action, Bad Guys don't have any dilemmas - those who don't have scruples and who use brute power are those who are adapted for this world. Although the viewers sympathise with the former, they know that the latter would win.

Into this conflict comes the mysterious, lone figure in the form of Mel Gibson. His character doesn't talk much, but his actions are short, decisive and quite obvious, as well as his motivation. But in the course of this film Max slowly transforms into the real hero, the same one which inhabits collective unconsciousness of every culture on this planet - lone person that would make the difference and save people from grave danger. His mythical figure is accompanied with the whole bunch of interesting and memorable characters that paint broad pictures with small gestures and details. We have obligatory comic sidekick in the form of Bruce Spence as Gyro Captain, who is less troubled with the collapse of civilisation than with his personal sexual frustration. The other characters are also fleshed-out (for example, child actor Emil Ginty as Feral Kid and Virginia Hey foreshadowing feminist role models of the 90ies as Warrior Woman) and it is real shame that most of the actors playing them didn't enhance their careers afterwards. The sole exception is Vernon Welles, whose homosexual villain (rather rare thing in cinema, especially these days) later brought him numerous roles of heavies in 1980s.

THE ROAD WARRIOR, unfortunately, shared another thing with CONAN THE BARBARIAN - infantilised and uninspired sequel in mid- 1980s. However, those who really appreciate good, thought provoking yet entertaining films would never fail to see THE ROAD WARRIOR as true masterpiece.

Copyright 2003 Dragan Antulov

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