CINEMA CLASSICS: Mad Max 2 (The Road Warrior, 1981)

Mel Gibson returns as Max and becomes a superstar in George Miller’s superior sequel. No pressure, Fury Road…

Who made it?: George Miller (Director/Co-Writer), Terry Hayes, Brian Hannant (Co-Writers), Bryon Kennedy (Producer), Kennedy Miller Productions.

Who’s in it?: Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence, Michael Preston, Max Phipps, Vernon Wells, Kjell Nilsson, Emil Minty, Virginia Hey. 

Tagline: “Only one man can make a difference.”

IMDb rating: 7.6/10.

1981’s Mad Max 2 (or, to give it its American re-branding, The Road Warrior) is surely one of the greatest sequels ever made. George Miller’s follow-up to his wildly-successful $400,000 cheapie is a completely altered beast; a pumped-up, full-throttle reinvigoration that uses a greatly-expanded two million budget to produce a vision of a post-apocalyptic Oz that still has the capacity to delight, shock and exhilarate. This upgrade in craftsmanship is signified by a US-dictated opening narration recorded in good old-fashioned mono. The slightly cheesy recap, complete with aged footage of a globe lost to the ether, then cuts abruptly to the present with a stereophonic punch that announces, triumphantly, that the adventures of Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) now have corporate sponsorship.

Events begin in an indefinable time following 1979’s Mad Max. The dystopian Australia we saw in Miller’s debut has only gotten worse; that all-important and increasingly scarce fuel is the only currency that matters, life is cheaper still, and birth-given monikers are better left unsaid. This is a country populated by Men with No Name. Whether it was a world war or a gross human miscalculation that damned us is anyone’s guess, but little of the society we hold dear is left operating in The Road Warrior. We find Max in this desolate wasteland with only his trusty V8 Interceptor and a loyal dog for company, doing everything he can to live one more day in a world gone utterly, unapologetically bonkers. All that matters is keeping his V8 running and staying one step ahead of the outlandish gangs terrorising the outback.

After an encounter with a crafty “Gyro Captain” (Bruce Spence), Max learns of a community built atop a plentiful supply of luscious petrol. But his bid to fill up the Interceptor with as much juice as possible is hindered by wildly OTT megalomaniac “Lord Humungus” (Kjell Nilsson), a troubled fellow sporting a hockey mask pre-Jason Vorhees and a penchant for histrionic speeches. If he’s going to get his hands on that precious resource, Max is going to have to join forces with the innocents and take Humungus’ thugs down. In the process, he might just reclaim his tarnished humanity…

I’ve seen Mad Max 2 many times over the years and it never fails to rouse as a piece of stripped-down escapism. Miller was rightly acclaimed for the set-pieces he pulled off on a shoestring in the first film, and those palpably dangerous car stunts are only exaggerated here, beginning with an opening that flings us straight into the delirium with reckless abandon. Cinematographer Dean Semler’s widescreen compositions perfectly capture the foreboding openness of an already-spartan Oz, and he fearlessly puts us right alongside Max for the film’s white-knuckle chases. Graham “Grace” Walker’s ingenious production design has also become iconic and endlessly pilfered, and it’s hard not to shake a sense of déjà vu when watching The Road Warrior. Its universe of crazed punks and fetishistic costuming has been copied by so many filmmakers that newcomers may be unable to recognise how bold and inventive this was in 1981.

While the stunts are half of the reason for why this sequel has become so beloved, hitting a crescendo with the climactic tanker truck pursuit, it also works thanks to its star. Gibson is a figure who understandably divides people today, but there’s no denying that Mad Max 2 sees him become a full-blown star right before our eyes (amusingly, the then-unknown actor wasn’t even featured in the promotion). The youthful and slightly awkward Gibson we saw in the original has matured into a thoroughly expressive performer, becoming Miller’s answer to Clint Eastwood’s poncho-sporting anti-hero. The future Martin Riggs has less than twenty lines of dialogue in this film, relying instead on finely-tuned body language and a mournful mug that rarely reveals the Max Rockatansky of old.

Gibson’s portrayal of wounded masculinity completely trounces the efforts of a game supporting cast, composed of archetypes like Vernon Wells’ effervescent biker Wez and Virginia Hey’s “Warrior Woman.” Even the presence of a razor-sharp boomerang-flinging “Feral Kid” (Emil Minty) isn’t enough to divert attention away from the lead, who effortlessly turns Max into a protagonist of mythic proportions.

Mad Max 2 is a delightfully simple and unpretentious masterpiece, but a masterpiece all the same. Aside from Brian May’s amusingly melodramatic score and some hilariously sped-up footage in the final reel, there’s little here that hasn’t withstood the ravages of time. This is a hugely influential work by dedicated individuals who put their own sanity and lives on the line to deliver spectacle of unbelievable power. You’re with Max from the opening screech of tires to the bitterly ironic final revelation. This is, quite simply, the finest apocalyptic action movie ever made.

Best Scene

The closing tanker chase is one of the most breathless and perilous in screen history. Aussies are insane, aren’t they?

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • After Mad Max (1979) was finished and before that film’s release, all of the cars were supposed to be destroyed, including the black Interceptor, but someone thought the Interceptor was too good to lose, so they saved it from the crusher. When the sequel was in its planning stage, someone found out the Interceptor had somehow survived, so they tracked it down, and bought it back.
  • According to trivia book Movie Mavericks by Jon Sandys, one of the more spectacular stunts in the film was actually a serious accident. One of the motorcycle-riding raiders hits a car, flies off the bike, smashes his legs against the car, and cartwheels through the air towards the camera. This was a real, genuine accident: the stuntman was supposed to just fly over the car WITHOUT hitting it. But the near-fatal incident looked so dramatic that it was kept in the movie. The stuntman broke his leg badly, but survived.
  • The dog used in the film, named simply “Dog,” was obtained from a local dog pound and trained to perform in the film. Because the sound of the engines upset him (and in one incident, caused him to relieve himself in the car), he was fitted with special earplugs. After filming was complete, he was adopted by one of the camera operators.
  • The tanker roll stunt at the end of the chase was deemed so dangerous that the stunt driver was not allowed to eat any food twelve hours before they shot in the likely event that he could be rushed into surgery.
  • Humungus was originaly supposed to be Max’s former partner Jim Goose. They decided against this, but left a few hints, such as horrible burns behind Humungus’ goalie mask, his raider’s use of police vehicles, and his own use of a similar weapon to the MFP’s standard sidearm.

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at SquabbleBox.co.uk. Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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