Release Date: January 19th, 1982 (UK); May 21st, 1982 (US)
Genre: Action; Adventure; Science fiction
Starring: Mel Gibson
When it comes to writing, you get the sense George Miller (and co-writers Terry Hayes and Brian Hannant) can’t wait to put pen to paper. It is an eagerness that translates across the whole Mad Max franchise, one that permeates each film from the word go. The Road Warrior begins in much the same vein as its predecessor, with lots of revving and car acrobatics and dodging and crashing.
Only this time Max (Mel Gibson) is the hunted and not the hunter. Nightrider has nothing on Max’s new curtain-jerking nemesis — a sign of crazier things to come. The red-Mohicaned Wez (Vernon Wells) and Max race to a stalemate (there’s that western influence again), which sees the former pull an arrow from his injured arm and evoke an unmoved screech.
This local impasse is indicative of a much grander one to which the film builds. The world has emerged from its process of environmental, political and economic degradation and is now in a state of total desolation. Max, alone following the tragic events that went before, must decide whether or not to assist a similarly cut off community in their fight against an oil-hungry motorcycle cult.
The former patrol officer runs into another drifter after his aforementioned interaction. The drifter, therein known as the Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence), exclaims: “You’re quick, very quick! Never seen a man beat a snake.” That’s where Max is now, instinct fully developed, greatly skilled in the art of survival. He is the road warrior. Max’s only companion is a scruffy dog, who amusingly entrusts with the Gyro Captain’s life — a scene involving an errant rabbit is absurdly hilarious.
As opposed to phones or wallets, people carry around spoons in the hope that they will find some leftover food rotting away in a tin can. The enforced partnership between Max and the Gyro Captain — the latter’s existence in exchange for direction — offers a bout of light relief from this demoralising and harsh landscape. Spence’s character is a sort of Ragetti figure (or perhaps Ragetti is more of a Gyro Captain), which is a welcome contrast to Max’s more sombre, uptight self.
Miller incessantly plays up his anti-hero’s transformation. Later in the film, Michael Preston’s settlement leader Pappagallo laments Max’s lone wolf status: “You think you’re the only one who’s suffered? We’re still human beings with dignity. You? You’re out there with the garbage. You’re nothing.” While his words ring with truth, we still feel compelled to sympathise with Max given his unfortunate past. The character’s evolution, or devolution, from a wholesome upholder of law to a lawless, fractured outcast is believable not only in accordance with society’s lack of structure, but more so because both Gibson and Miller consistently afford the character thoughtful consideration.
Marauding car sequences come with extra bite. At one point we see Max and the Gyro Captain peer through a telescope at a grisly runaway attempt. We become part of their distance spying, which adds a sense of realism to an otherwise unrecognisable world. The telescopic view carries the same rawness as modern amateur news reporting. In a way there is more at stake now that the landscape is completely barren; everyone is out for themselves, there is no more justice via the Main Force Patrol and instead barbarity is fought with barbarity. This shift towards more brutal action is a lot like shift in tone from The Terminator to Terminator 2: Judgement Day.
Classic genre tropes are at large, including a classic Mexican standoff that sees an invading army attack the resource-rich town where Max ends up stranded. When guns are unavailable, blunt arrows and skull-cracking headbutts take centre stage, emphasising civilisation’s retreat back towards more archaic times. A finger-slicing boomerang finds its way into a brilliant scene, compounding the unadulterated madness of Miller’s film which, despite his no-nonsense approach, is thankfully still around.
Lord Humungus (obviously) is Max’s new nemesis. He dons a Jason-esque hockey mask and exudes the soothing pitch of an experience cult leader. “There has been too much violence, too much pain… just walk away and there will be an end to the horror,” Humungus decrees to the people defending their refinery. Kjell Nilsson is great to watch, sounding like an enigmatic overseer who has all the answers and looking like a monster who could do serious damage. He adopts Hugh Keays-Byrne’s intellectual Toecutter vibe but matches that with brute strength and sense of imminent physical threat.
One of The Road Warrior’s more abstract moments is a distorted scene which resembles something out of a Cecil B. DeMille horror flick: a loud brassy score with shots overlapping one another as enemy characters wail and gesture violently. There are aesthetic echoes of Charlton Heston’s Moses presenting the stone tablet to his followers in The Ten Commandments, oddly. Here, Humungus appears to take on the mantra of Hades, vehemently spouting threats as he stands before what appears to be the fiery pits of hell. It’s a bizarre scene, but the film’s genuine self-awareness justifies its inclusion.
Since release, The Road Warrior’s many admirers have catapulted the film into cult status. It is more aloof and less predictable than Mad Max. But it also favours simplicity in the right areas, affording more time for the development of its central character who is now a very different person. Just as Max has changed through circumstance, the world has changed with him. The symmetry is admirable, if expected. The execution is expectedly excellent.
Images credit: IMP Awards
Images copyright (©): Warner Bros.