The world has produced entirely too many movies (and other forms of fiction) built around what Joseph Campbell termed “The Hero's Journey,” but it's easy to understand why so many filmmakers return to that particular well over and over again: the movies that nail it are bona fide classics. The successful variations on this formula are films that have enough unique vision to distract us from the fact that we're seeing something old and familiar – Star Wars, The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings spring to mind. George Miller's Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior belongs somewhere near the top of the list of Campbell-inspired films, setting a tale as old as time within the framework of a breathtakingly distinctive post-apocalyptic setting.
The first Mad Max film was a terse, savage little Ozsploitation film which fused scenes of gentle domesticity with a violent critique of the world's oil obsession. It offered a portrait of a good man being stripped of his humanity – over the course of that film, Max (Mel Gibson, Lethal Weapon) made the transition from noble cop to renegade outlaw, from loving husband to pitiless killer. The Road Warrior opens two years later, and Max has settled into his new identity as self-assured lone wolf. We've seen this man before: he's The Man with No Name, Sanjuro and Han Solo. He travels the Australian wasteland with his pet dog, fighting off bandits and scrounging supplies. Fuel remains the world's most valuable resource, and everyone is desperate to get their hands on “the precious juice.”
The members of a small local compound have collected enough fuel to make a long journey to the coast – they just need a tractor-trailer big enough to transport their massive oil tank. Unfortunately, a local crime leader named The Humungus (Kjell Nilsson, The Pirate Movie) gets wind of these plans, and threatens to massacre everyone in the compound unless they hand over the fuel. Max see a business opportunity, and volunteers to help the frightened compound members find a rig in exchange for a generous portion of fuel. Predictably enough, what begins as a one-time freelance gig eventually becomes something more.
The Road Warrior has many virtues, chief among them one of the greatest action sequences ever committed to film. The tanker chase (which occupies the bulk of the film's third act) is an astonishing spectacle of practical effects; a masterfully-constructed wagon chase sequence which substitutes weaponized vehicles for horses and all manner of handcrafted weapons for pistols. Tires squeal, dust flies, molotov cocktails are thrown and barbed wire is climbed while dozens of vehicles roar across the desert. A whole lot of movies have borrowed bits and pieces from this sequence (James Cameron's Terminator 2: Judgment Day – one of the founding fathers of modern action movies – owes a huge debt to this chase scene), but I'm not sure anyone has ever matched its adrenaline-pumping clarity and precision. There's a fluidity to Miller's direction that brings a certain thrilling elegance to the violent savagery on display. You're always aware of where everyone is, what they're doing and what the stakes are.
The film's other chief virtue is the distinctive design of its world, which borrows and refines elements from the first film. Again, the visual flourishes have been copied and pasted so many times that they feel oddly familiar at this point, but how wildly original all of this must have seemed in 1981. The Road Warrior is a world of spikes, leather, shoulder pads, metal, rubber, dirt and assless chaps – there are many shots here that feel like something from a classic western's BDSM-themed nightmare. The characters, vehicles and locations are so well-drawn that a quick glimpse tells us everything we need to know. The resilient Big Rebecca (Moira Claux) never says a word, but her headband, bow and steely grimace make her instantly memorable.
Max rarely speaks, either. Like the Clint Eastwood characters that preceded him, he's the sort of man who only speaks when a glare, scowl, smirk or punch won't do the job. There's a swagger in Max's step for much of the film, but those who have seen the first movie know that he's still a broken man grieving the loss of his family. When one of the other characters begins to question Max about his past, we see new expressions crossing Gibson's face – a fleeting sneak peek at the emotionally volatile characters that would soon become the actor's specialty. It's no wonder that Max forms something of a bond with The Feral Kid (Emil Minty, Fluteman), a boomerang-wielding child who communicates solely through growls, grins and violence.
The Road Warrior is just as bloody as its predecessor, but considerably less nihilistic. Yes, it still adopts a cynical view of the world and suggests that the apocalypse will inevitably lead to barbarism – but this one suggests that it's possible to retain your humanity even when all else is taken from you. Max is carrying a heavy tragedy on his shoulders, but his visit to the compound forces him to acknowledge the fact that almost everyone else in this world is doing the same thing. Max sees their humanity, and finds his own reignited in the process. The world may have gone to hell, but as long as there are people who care for one another, it's a world worth protecting.
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 95 minutes
Release Year: 1981