The Road Warrior (1981) / Action-Adventure
aka Mad Max 2
MPAA Rated: R for strong violence throughout, brief nudity, and some language.
Running Time: 95 min.
Cast: Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence, Emil Minty, Mike Preston, Max Phipps, Vernon Wells, Kjell Nilsson, Virginia Hey, William Zappa
Director: George Miller
Screenplay: Terry Hayes, George Miller, Brian Hannant
Review published May 3, 2015
No wife, no child, no job, and no home, The Road Warrior finds the titular hero of Mad Max just living from day to day in pursuit of enough food and gas to make it to the next. His wanderings take him to a fortified oil refinery where there's plenty of precious fuel, but a vicious gang of murdering marauders wants to get their hands on it, giving the residents an ultimatum of imminent death should they not comply with their demands. The colony living there needs to escape in a hurry, but wants their fuel. Max (Gibson, The Bounty) strikes a bargain -- he'll secure an abandoned big rig for them to haul their fuel in exchange for as much gas as he can carry away in his car. The problem is that the marauders aren't going to let anyone escape without a fight.
Sequels that are better than the original films are few and far between, but The Road Warrior is a prime example of one that is superior, almost without question. It has a better story, more explosive action, crazier stunt work, more adept direction, more gorgeous cinematography, and, this time, a score that actually enhances rather than detracts from the momentum. It continues portraying Max as an anti-hero, perhaps even more so in this film as he is no longer bound by his duty as a cop, and is exceedingly reluctant to choose sides in the battle to come, even though he clearly views them as good vs. evil.
As with Mad Max, George Miller (The Witches of Eastwick, Happy Feet) makes this simple premise work by being edgy and unpredictable. Characters are fallible, and some you'd think are slated to live at the end up biting the dust before it's over, and there are a few other surprises strewn about. Although still a motor vehicle western in story, Miller takes less of a spaghetti western stylistic approach than in his previous effort, going more for the George Lucas/Steven Spielberg way of filming that was rampantly popular in the early 1980s, snatching Lucas' penchant for taking elements of Akira Kurosawa's samurai films (something Sergio Leone had been enamored with as well for his Westerns), as well as his adherence to Joseph Campbell's "hero's journey" blueprint for storytelling.
As for Spielberg's style, The Road Warrior and Raiders of the Lost Ark, which came out the same year, feel very similar in the way they're shot with zooming close-ups. Both films also feature extended battle sequences for control of a large truck, though in Miller's film, it's the main set piece of the climax, making it the most important part of his film. Spielberg liked Miller's work so much, he hired him for his next production, helming the best of the four stories for Twilight Zone: The Movie, "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet".
Gibson is as assured a hero as he has ever been, but the real star of the movie is the stunt work, which is absolutely insane. It's hard to believe stunt men weren't severely maimed or killed on the set on a daily basis, given how dangerous and destructive many of the stunts look to be. It's bonkers, and then some. It might be built on a thin comic book premise, but for all-out action movie fans, it doesn't get much more thrilling and exhilarating than this.
-- Followed by Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome
©2015 Vince Leo