Movies Retro Review: THE ROAD WARRIOR written by Robert Reineke March 28, 2015 “In the roar of an engine, he lost everything. And became a shell of a man, a burnt out, desolate man, a man haunted by the demons of his past, a man who wandered out into the wasteland. And it was here, in this blighted place, that he learned to live again… “ THE ROAD WARRIOR (aka MAD MAX 2) is the film that firmly defines the franchise in the pop culture consciousness to this day. It made Mel Gibson a star. It cemented in place the post-apocalyptic action sub-genre. It made George Miller a name director. And it ushered in 1980s film making as surely as anything made by someone other than Steven Spielberg. It’s THE action film of 1982 and one of the best action films of the 1980s, comfortably fitting alongside RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, DIE HARD, ROBOCOP, and THE KILLER. Where MAD MAX drew from films like DEATH WISH and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, THE ROAD WARRIOR draws from sources more traditional, STAGECOACH, Sergio Leone’s The Man With No Name trilogy, and YOJIMBO, and wilder, the post-apocalyptic A BOY AND HIS DOG (which I recently podcasted about) and even comic books like KAMANDI (it’s worth considering that the two most successful franchises in Miller’s career involve post-apocalyptic action and talking animals). And, of course, the love of tricked out cars carried over. The result is something much imitated although never quite duplicated. THE ROAD WARRIOR is epic compared to MAD MAX, which George Miller makes clear visually after a short montage shown in a smaller, Academy ratio frame, including a shot sequence which recalls the introduction of John Wayne in STAGECOACH, followed by a cut to black, and then pulls out of the blackness of Max’s blower intake to glorious color widescreen and Max in the middle of a life and death chase with the barbarians of the Australian Outback in fast pursuit. These savages just happen to be dressed in punk / gay bondage gear to unmistakably mark the era in which THE ROAD WARRIOR was made. THE ROAD WARRIOR’s style would mark the era. It’s not a subtle style, but it is an unmistakable style which THE ROAD WARRIOR can claim for introducing. In addition to style, there’s clear non-verbal storytelling on display. We get a hint of backstory, as Max’s dog makes it clear that he’s been through all this before and lets everyone in the theater know things are getting serious when Max has to turn off the blower to preserve gas. And, it’s just plain exciting action filmmaking demonstrating just how quickly George Miller’s action chops had grown in only his second film. Beyond that, the opening sequence is a wonderful example of just how lean and efficient THE ROAD WARRIOR is. Instead of being disconnected from the main story, as many James Bond openings of the period are, the opening sequence accomplishes the following by its finish; 1) the world, which is now in utter chaos which differentiates it from MAD MAX, is established, 2) a nemesis for Max, in the form of Vernon Wells’ Wez, is established, 3) additional motivation for the nemesis is set up, 4) a semi truck is introduced which becomes vitally important later, 5) Max discovers the remains of a music box which will help him bond with the Feral Kid later in the film, and 6) a gag involving Max’s shotgun is set up. That’s great, efficient storytelling, even more impressive in that Max doesn’t utter a single word. And because so much is set up, without it being at all heavy handed, the film doesn’t have to stop and explain what it’s doing later. The result is a movie that’s almost as lean as Max’s dialogue. The second major sequence of the film introduces us to the rubber faced Bruce Spence as the Auto Gyro Captain who will provide the first human connection for Max in a long time, although their relationship starts out not on the best of terms. We’re not introduced to quite as many things in the second sequence, but they all count. And, then, after a master class in how to set up a story, we’re off to the main plot, a refinery, literally being circled by the savages of the wasteland who want the gasoline of the refinery, and Max also wanting the gasoline more than he wants to help the people within. Between the gorgeous widescreen cinematography of Dean Semler and the images being invoked, it’s clear that THE ROAD WARRIOR is an updated Western with a clear “stranger wanders into town” template. This may be a post-apocalyptic town, but it’s a template that would be well suited to John Wayne, Toshiro Mifune, or Clint Eastwood. And, in this case, we see Mel Gibson demonstrate the screen presence to join that pantheon, as he wordlessly surveys the scene looking for a way into the fortified compound. Mel Gibson still had some young, innocence in MAD MAX, an unconvincing innocence at times, but here as the grizzled, cynical, road warrior, with a streak of gray on his left temple, he’s a totally convincing presence and a star is born. It’s not long before Max does find his way into the compound, perhaps trapped there as much as the inhabitants when the gang of savages returns. At which point, we’re treated to one of the great 80s villains, the Lord Humungus. A strikingly large figure in an s & m outfit and a hockey goalie mask with his own PR flack. “The Warrior of the Wasteland! The Ayatollah of Rock and Rolla!” Lord Humungus is undoubtedly the inspiration for the Mutant Leader in THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, but despite the appearance he’s more wily and strategic minded than that villain. He knows how to play psychological games and bide his time. He knows the allure of a reasonable promise to desperate people, even as his men are stringing up the refineries scouts as Christian martyrs. He’s scary because he’s not merely a savage berserker but a shrewd and practical leader of men. His men may come off as savages, but he’s not to be underestimated any more than Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun. And, he has a great collection of followers. A less confident director might worry about all the various types overwhelming the main villain and the hero. Instead the production design just cuts loose with all manner of characters. And, foremost, is Vernon Wells’ Wez. Vernon Wells is probably most famous for being told to “let off some steam” by Arnold Schwarzenegger in COMMANDO, but his pink mohawk and assless chaps creates a fully memorable character in appearance, and he is just an unleashed dog in performance. Even moreso when his partner is taken out of the picture and he just goes insane in rage. It’s a joy to watch all these characters appear on screen. In some ways, it’s like the Cantina sequence in STAR WARS writ large. The sense of joy in character designs exists on the other side of the equation as well, although not as starkly with the exception of the Feral Kid. The Mechanic swings around on an improvised rig (the repurposing of common items is one of the joys of the production design), there are warrior women and men, the Auto Gyro Captain (of course), and a leader in Pappagallo as portrayed by Michael Preston. Pappagallo, in particular, that gets to accurately call out Max on his selfishness and it’s clear that while Max is the main character, George Miller harbors no illusions about his actual character. None of these characters are particularly deep, on either side of the equation, but none of them are boring to watch strut their stuff on screen. It’s an eccentric, entertaining collection of characters and that goes a long ways in genre entertainment. The plot is as lean as efficient as Max’s dialogue. The refiners want to get out with a load of gasoline and they need a rig to haul their tanker. Everybody wants the gas. Max knows where there’s a rig. And when he retrieves the rig, circumstances dictate the Max ultimately volunteer to drive that rig on what looks like a suicide mission. And that suicide mission is one of the great action set pieces of the 1980s, undoubtedly inspired by STAGECOACH. It’s kinetic, visceral, and imaginative as George Miller stages the action above the action, courtesy of the auto gyro, and all over the semi-rig, picks off characters ruthlessly, showcases some great, incredibly dangerous stunts, manages to fit in a great jump scare, delivers one great crash at the climax, and then throws in a final twist. It’s a spectacular ending. And it’s delivered all in a lean 94 minutes. Moreover, by framing the story as an oral tale told by an old man, it allows the story to be considered a tall tale with Max as an epic eternal warrior. It frees the franchise from the constraints of continuity, and allows Max to enter the realm of myth and legend like Gilgamesh. Maybe in another version of the story, Max and the last of the V8 Interceptor’s lives on. It’s just as valid if that’s the case. It wouldn’t matter if the movie didn’t excite the imagination, but THE ROAD WARRIOR excited a whole generation. It’s why that the name MAD MAX is still vital and that the generation that grew up with it, and is now making decisions on what to green light, made the decision to green light a revival. It’s why MAD MAX still matters. Retro Review: THE ROAD WARRIOR was last modified: February 21st, 2016 by Robert Reineke Related Mad MaxRetro ReviewThe Road Warrior 3 comments 0 Facebook Twitter Google + Pinterest Robert Reineke previous post Ryan Reynolds Introduces DEADPOOL next post Weekly Ratings Roundup: March 22 to March 28, 2015 You may also like The Fear of Artificial Intelligence in Hollywood:... April 7, 2015 DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES... December 18, 2013 Open Forum: KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE February 12, 2015 Open Forum: CHAPPiE March 5, 2015 Nolan Personally Ushers ‘Following’ to Blu September 19, 2012 The Indomitable JURASSIC WORLD Super Bowl Spot February 2, 2015 Paul Walker: 1973-2013 December 1, 2013 TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES’ Gets A New... June 25, 2014 Alan Taylor In Talks To Direct TERMINATOR... September 6, 2013 JAWS and the Mostly Forgotten Allure of... June 8, 2015 CaptainJack Another great article Robert; especially liked how you pointed out the “tall tale” storytelling aspect which I hadn’t considered – it really does create a separation from the first film, and makes Max somewhat less of a sympathetic mortal figure, and more of an immortal, unknowable legend worthy of being recounted in fables or campfire stories in the post apocalypse. Great insights as always! Michael While we’re on the subject of Westerns that may have influenced “The Road Warrior”, it was clear to me the first time I saw it that the film’s narrative owed a huge debt to Shane (1959). This was later confirmed during a “Fury Road” footage presentation at the South by South West film festival. Robert Reineke Yeah, SHANE is an excellent point of comparison/influence. Good call.