Starring Mel Gibson and Bruce Spence
Co-written and directed by George Miller
Here's one of the less prevalent posters for "Mad Max 2", found online, Marketing-wise, the film might have suffered something of an identity crisis, as it was re-titled simply "The Road Warrior" for its US release (audiences there probably wouldn't have been familiar with the original "Mad Max" of 1979 as it hadn't been widely received there), and was therefore mostly known by that name. And in retrospect that's no bad thing, because this film, whilst taking place definitively within the world created by the original film, and featuring the same central character, stands perfectly independently as one of the great action adventures of its time. It's vastly different to the first film too. With "Mad Max: Fury Road" currently roaring onto screens and tearing up box-offices, it's worth looking back at its origins.
The movie opens with a narrated, potted history of how civilization came to fall apart, and how we arrive at this state of anarchy depicted onscreen, with savage gangs roaming the outback, and survivors desperate to make it. In the original film, the title card wisely pitted it as "a few years from now." (I hate it when futuristic movies put a definitive date on their vision, because it's never right.) So the viewer can heed the warning despite, or because of, the lack of a definite date and time... it just means, this could happen any time soon. This film slyly uses archive, black and white footage of civil unrest in the post WW2 world to depict the crisis which let to the apocalypse in which we have arrived. It's brilliant, because it clearly projects something non-specific from the past into this imagined future, so doesn't suffer the temporal jar encountered by many dystopian works... it says, this is where we are, the past is messed up, it could have been 1960 or yesterday... but this is our world. It's such a strong point for the film's environment.
There follows a stunning, wordless, eight-plus minute sequence depicting our anti-hero Max attempting to acquire some petrol (gas) from a ruined tanker which he discovers whilst riding the wilds of the desolate Australia. He encounters a hostile group of scary, threatening raiders, led by the strikingly red-mohicaned Wez, Max faces them off, and sees them off, and returns to the road. But Wez's departing screech commands a future encounter between the two... Petrol, it's established, is the most valuable commodity around, because it allows for mobility, and the potential escape from the barren world in which the characters find themselves. Max encounters, is captured by, but shortly outwits an oddball fellow survivor, pilot of an antiquated gyrocopter. Bruce Spence's portrayal of "Gyro Captain" - latterly named as Jedediah in the film's sequel - is fantastic, full of quirky tics and sly looks behind Max's back, and allows for some of the funniest and most human moments in the film, what with his harlequin multi-coloured costume sprites the screen. Having taken him captive, Max one night chows down on a tin of dog food, some of which he spares for his dog... Spence's creeping attempts to get some food for himself are at once hysterical and tragic.
The pair happen upon a community which seems to sit upon a petrol refinery; so they are in charge of a huge stock of the most valuable thing around. Wez's companions, the wasteland raiders, led by a character named "The Humungus" who are intent on a battle to retrieve the gas, and destroy the little community. There has been some speculation that "Humungus" was actually originally meant to be Steve Bisley's character, Jim Goose, from the original film. This could have worked, but in the context of this film it's maybe safer to avoid specifics. The plot, as it were, is essentially threadbare, but that really doesn't matter, because it's a two-part thrill ride which comes completely out of the blue. The first half of the film is surprisingly bereft of dialogue, it's actually striking how few lines of dialogue Gibson has in the first half of the movie.He is, however, excellent in the part. Mostly silent, brooding... he does this really neat little thing where he licks his lips, showing he's thinking... it's a great performance.
There are huge amounts of humour in the film too., mostly involving Max's interaction with Jedediah. There's a brilliant moment when they are both spying on an atrocirty being carried out by our antagonists, Max regarding though a small pair of binoculars, Jed watching through a giant telescope... Max just looks up and grabs the telescope, no questions asked... A smile evoked during a moment of horror. There's a great deal of silent comedy too, which is perhaps missed on first viewing.
There are so many tiny parts in the film also which give it huge memorability. Spence, obviously, is the mainstay, as he essentially plays second-fiddle to Gibson's titular character, and plays off as the comedy sidekick to Mel's decidedly dour (and rightly so) straight man. Most notable is Emil Minty as "the Feral Kid", a tremendously outrageous savage who has associated himself with our band of heroes, and who has a truly awesome line in razor-edged boomerangs (no, really). His guttral grunts of pleasure at an opponents demise are a thing to see. Mike Preston is grave, serious, and brilliant as Pappagallo, Vernon Wells' Wez is one of the most memorable villains of 80s Cinema. And as for Humungus... how can you top a leather-masked microphone-talking bad-guy dressed as a gimp...
Where the film really kicks into gear, however, and takes its opponents to town, is in the final third, when the chase sequence kicks in. Max relents and decides to rescue the tanker full of fuel from the camp, and undertakes a spectacular mobile battle with his enemies. This is an exercise in action cinema at its finest. I can't think that it has been rivaled in the realm of automotive chase sequences ("The Cannonball Run" gets an honourary bye though), unless arguably until this year with another film in the same franchise... . There are some brilliant set-pieces... as the raiders attack the refinery, the inhabitants defend with spectacular flamethrowers. The elongated chase scene at the climax is about as spectacular as they come. Miller's direction is unquestionable; Brian May (not that one) provides a score which initially seems excessively melodramatic, but settles in nicely on repeated viewings; and the use of silence on the soundtrack is equally effective. Perhaps most importantly, the scene created a definitive look. Cinematographer (and future Oscar Winner) Dean Semler paints a red-brown desert landscape which lives long in the memory. The budget is obviously limited, and once or twice noticeably so, but what's created is a huge achievement, and the limitations might even have benefited the film, particularly in the area of costume (keep an eye out for a cricket glove on one of the survivors!). Some comments are thrown around regarding Max's integrity... is he noble and a good man, or is he just wasteland garbage? It doesn't matter. He reminds me in a way of Rooster Cogburn in "True Grit". It adds a dimension to the film which prompts thought. And it makes it a step above the original, and indeed most adventures of 80s cinema. Where the film in retrospect seems most inventive nowadays, in light of the current trend of "reboots" is that it takes things from the first "Mad Max" and does something new with them, so it's not really quite a sequel, more of a progression.