In 1982, a picture under the name of The Road Warrior came in to the USA from the Australian outback and, alongside Peter Weir’s Golden Globe-nominated Gallipoli released the previous year, made a household name out of Mel Gibson and got him the attention of Hollywood (the movie was released in its native Australia on Christmas Eve of the year prior as well). Unbeknownst to most of that US audience that was enthralled by The Road Warrior, it was re-branded under that title due to the fact that it was a sequel to a movie that didn’t really get much of a proper release in America. Smartly, WB (who did NOT distribute the previous film) figured that people would be more likely to see Mad Max 2 if it didn’t arrive in the US with a title that implied they had to have seen a previous movie to understand it and that paid off a hell of a lot The Road Warrior became a big smash hit in North America, easily outgrossing there than it did in Australia (just to note: I’m going to refer to Mad Max 2 as The Road Warrior simply because it is easier for me to distinguish it from its predecessors that way).
Of course, while The Road Warrior stands alone as a self-contained narrative from Mad Max as all four films do, there is some amount of reward to watching it with the previous film in your mind. For one thing, the Australian outback backdrop of the previous already felt sparse and erratic has now become bone-dry bare and primal. Now that the passage of time has come between the two movies we can actually see that post-apocalyptic world that defined the franchise and was teased by the inevitable decline witnessed in the previous movie. But largely, to me, the biggest reward is how they thematically comment upon each other. For Mad Max was a movie that left our hero an absolute shell of a man, now his lack of character coming as a result of what’s happened to him rather than the unfortunate mix of uneffective acting and writing in the previous film (though I still love that movie with all my heart, as I do for the the entire series).
The Road Warrior begins in a manner of mythic storytelling from an unseen character describing Max (Gibson) as simply “The Road Warrior” and how he had performed the heroic deeds to be described in the picture and how he “learned to live again”. The Road Warrior already states in its opening that we are about to witness Max redeeming himself from his fall from humanity in the acts of revenge he performed in Mad Max, even if the environment itself won’t become any healthier.
By the opening of the second movie, Max has now become an island to himself, wandering the roads searching for precious relics of the world that died. He’s still getting into shit with gangs, though. Particularly one biker who takes a predatory manner to Max by the name of Wez (Vernon Wells) is after him at the opening and Max is just barely able to shake him off. In the hunt for gasoline, Max is also able to catch himself a prisoner of a Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence) who leads him to a nearby small community based in an oil refinery to spare. Arrangements get mixed up and Max ends up an unwelcome prisoner of Pappagallo (Michael Preston) and his community while Wez’ gang – headed by the true antagonist of the picture, the menacing and gladiator-esque Lord Humungus (Kjell Nilsson) – begins to threaten to run down the refinery’s inhabitants to take their precious guzzoline. Max makes a deal to help in their escape of Humungus’ attack with their gas and so begins his personal quest…
It’s actually a pretty sparse premise, with a straightforward arc for Max as a character. In fact, the plot is so bare bones, many of the characters aren’t really given names so much as acknowledgments to how they functioned in the credits. And yet I’d never think to call the film empty – as the substance lies in how much of the world is built in the backdrop of Max’s story and the personality that gives the film. Desolate, desperate, with Norma Moriceau’s costume design and Grace Walker’s art direction taking care to pick and choose what remnants of the old world of today should be given flashing glimpses in this broken one, and how should they be twisted to fit into the resourceless environment. At the same time, while tackling that concept, they also have to make sure to juggle between having it grounded with the viewer yet evoke some amount of epic mythic quality for the identification of our narrator – who elicits our excitement for what is to come before returning in the end to confirm how Max learned to give hope to others, even if he had very little in himself to spare. It very effectively is the sort of story one has to take from Mad Max, where our hero finds himself at lows he didn’t imagine being at the beginning of his plight, before deciding the only direction left for him to go in this world is up. And by painting these in broad strokes with the script, it allows the more subtle facets like how these characters use ammunition sparingly or have to choose carefully their alliances and antagonisms lest it break their chances of survival. It’s a big world out there implied that is made small and personal here.
And it’s still epic alright. Even, if the narration and the design didn’t give you that feeling, the final truck chase should cement that once and for all. Director George Miller and cinematographer Dean Semler bring back all that shockingly effective energy from this movie’s predecessor back by giving it the look of invention among the ragged armored manner of the vehicle, while editors David Stiven, Michael Balson, and Tim Wellburn begin to restrain themselves just a bit from the “BOOM! and then POW! and then CLANG!” of the first movie to allow the audience to behold the impressive scale of both our heroes’ scrappy machine and the villains’ predatory fleet. That probably comes from how remarkably minimal the action setpieces are in this film (I was actually very surprised there was not more action), but that doesn’t stop the three from kicking up the film’s momentum the moment any semblance of violence or tension comes to our heroes, particularly where the film is able to segue between Max’s charge past Humungus’ army with a tanker back into the oil refinery suddenly into an attempt to kick out the intruding Wez by any means without me even realizing this happened until everyone’s safe and I can catch my breath with them. It may just be the few action scenes, but they carry punch and weight and never seem to just be there for the sake of it. It’s a logical approach.
Watching The Road Warrior for the very first time in anticipation of Mad Max: Fury Road made me extremely fearful. The Road Warrior is such an amazing work of confidence in storytelling mixed in with once again shoestring economic filmmaking that I began to wonder if it was worth daring Fury Road to actually live up to the high bar The Road Warrior left, not only in action cinema. But in cinema as a whole. This is a movie that is able to feel larger than life and get away with it.