This Week’s Movie: THE ROAD WARRIOR

I love George Miller’s breakout film Mad Max, but one thing which eats me about that film is that it doesn’t look too much like its setting. For a post-apocalyptic picture, everybody looks fairly clean and well-fed. Max himself is a policeman, implying that government and the rule of law have survived. And the Australian countryside looks a little too idyllic, like a nice place to be as long as you’re not on the highway. Probably due to budget constraints, Mad Max doesn’t look so much like post-apocalypse as it looks pre-today. With the sequel, The Road Warrior*, Miller had power and money enough to do what he liked, and what he liked was insane.

Mel Gibson is still Max, he still carries the sawn-off shotgun, and still drives the souped-up Ford Falcon. In between the two films, though, the world around Max seems to have gone entirely to hell. There is a voiceover at the beginning claiming that the first film was pre-apocalypse, but that seems like revisionist history to me. Mad Max seemed to be taking place after/during a societal collapse, and the second movie needs an excuse for looking so much grimier, hence the voiceover.

The criminals opposed to Max are more psychopathic and wearing less clothing than before. The best example of their aesthetic is Kjell Nilsson’s head villain, a nearly-nude, muscle-bound giant in leather straps and a metal hockey mask who is credited simply as “The Humungus.” Vernon Wells is on hand as his right-hand man, and if you’ve seen Wells’ bonkers villain in Schwarzenegger’s Commando then you know that Max isn’t the only madman in this movie. Much like the previous film, the villains here are so over-the-top that the film’s barren look might be a result of an apocalypse, or it might be because all of the scenery got chewed apart.

There is a wisp of a plot, about one of the few remaining outposts of civilization needing Max’s help against the Humungus’ gang of anarchic savages, but you’re not watching this picture for nuanced plotting. You’re watching it to see what George Miller can do with a judicious amount of money applied to the action sequences in Mad Max, which were tense and riveting on a small budget. In the sequel the cars are nightmarish, the sort of death machines that a child might assemble from the remains of shattered toys. The action sequences become long ballets of highway collisions at high speed, as visually distinctive as a John Woo shootout or a Bruce Lee fight.

There’s not much to say about the acting in this film; it’s not much more than a way to mark time between car chases. Gibson seems to be going for the same sort of performance that Clint Eastwood gave as The Man With No Name: quiet, serious, growling his lines through clenched teeth. He doesn’t have to do much in order to be heroic, because the actors playing the villains are so out of their minds in every scene. I actually don’t like him that much here – crazy Mel Gibson from the Lethal Weapon movies was always my favorite – but just like the plot, his acting isn’t really what we came here to see.

The Road Warrior concludes with a 20-minute-long chase that ranks among any action setpiece in any movie, ever. This is what we came here to see, an extended siege of a moving tanker truck by a battalion of cars, motorcycles, and vehicles so cobbled together from spare parts that they defy description. A Hollywood film might shy away from such a scene – Gibson can’t be too dynamic, because he’s behind the wheel of the tanker for the scene’s duration – but that’s exactly why it works. No one had ever seen anything like it, and we’ve only rarely seen it since.

It’s virtually impossible to make a movie simpler than The Road Warrior. Everything is stripped down except the action sequences, which are most impressive for how elaborate they are. That, plus the crazed performances of the marauders, lends a dreamlike quality to the movie. That’s why the film’s popularity persists even as other films have more skilled stunt drivers or computer-generated crashes, and why Hollywood wants to go back to the Mad Max well next year with Tom Hardy in the title role. It’s as though George Miller had a nightmare, and found some way to translate it directly onto the screen.

Reviewed by Mark Young

*The title Mad Max 2 was used in Australia; The Road Warrior was the title in America, for audiences who might not have been familiar with the first Mad Max film.

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