Surely one of the weirdest, or at least most atypical (least typical?) film franchises has to be George Miller’s Mad Max saga, which became some of the biggest hits in Australian film history and a pinnacle of the Aussie Exploitation booms known colloquially as “Ozsploitation.” After 30 years, a fourth entry is coming out this May, subtitled Fury Road, and it looks to be exactly what fans of the franchise want in a Mad Max film. But, what people think of as “a Mad Max film” actually stems entirely from the second film in the franchise, the one that introduced most Americans to the concept and to star and future Hollywood bigwig (and even futurer Hollywood nutcase) Mel Gibson, Mad Max 2, released here in North America as The Road Warrior.
The first Mad Max film, released in 1979, was not really at all like what The Road Warrior became. It’s basically a cop movie set in the dystopian future of energy-short Australia. Max Rockatansky is a highway patrolman in a badass suped-up car going up against a vicious biker gang led by the demented Toecutter. There are other police officers, Max has a wife and a kid, and with the exception of the setting, it could easily just have been any other cop-revenge flick. Like Dirty Harry and Bullitt with a little Death Wish added in for color. It became the biggest financial success in Australian film history and assured that director George Miller and his producing partner Byron Kennedy would make another, which would be much larger, about ten times the budget of the first film.
But, Mad Max didn’t get much of a release over here, and so in 1981 when the second film was to come out, calling it Mad Max 2 would have confused the vast majority of filmgoers. And so, the decision was made to call it The Road Warrior. Unlike the first film, this second one is after the complete collapse of civilization, presumably following a huge nuclear event. Gasoline is now the only power anyone has, and leather-clad gangs of psychopaths roam the desert looking to rape, pillage, murder, and steal. Small outposts of humanity are all that remain and have to constantly fortify their perimeter lest the gangs murder them. It’s a very particular image; deserts, makeshift vehicles, leather, and the open road.
The film picks Max up being chased by members of a gang, including the be-mohawked Wez (Vernon Wells) who has a pretty young blonde lad on the back of his bike. After Max makes all the vehicle but Wez’s crash and takes the gas, he and his dog head off in his awesome customized V8 Interceptor. He comes across a weird and gangly man flying a gyro-copter (Bruce Spence) who attempts to steal his gas but who gets easily bested by our hero. While posing not much of a threat, the Gyro Captain is not necessarily an ally to Max for quite some time. He shows Max a community in the middle of the desert who have a decent stockpile of fuel in their refinery who are constantly being attacked for said gas by the Great Humongous, the Ayatollah of Rock and Rollah, and the rest of the gang.
In the film, too, is a character known as “The Feral Kid” (Emil Ginty) who is exactly that: a kid who is feral, who can’t speak, and who throws a razor-sharp boomerang which kills Wez’s boy. Humongous, a beefy bald fellow who is clearly disfigured facially in some way, tells the poor people that they have one day to surrender the gas or more of their tribe will die. Max, in exchange for fuel for his own car, agrees to retrieve the abandoned semi-truck from the first scene in order for the townsfolk to haul their gas and make a break for the coast. He does this, but still wants to leave, claiming he kept his part of the bargain, despite their pleas. Upon his leaving, though, the gang catch up to him, wreck his car, and kill his dog before being blown up by his car’s boobytrap. He then offers to drive the truck anyway, in exchange for nothing, just to get back at the Humongous, Wez, and the rest of the gang.
There isn’t much to this in the way of story, and actually Miller and company tailored most of their script to Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey,” as did George Lucas in Star Wars. But the story only needs to be simple when you have as much action and atmosphere as this film has. The image of a man wearing torn-up leather, with a number of weapons and tools on his person, with a dog and a super-charged car is one that will absolutely stay with you. Equally memorable are all the pseudo-S&M baddies, especially Wez who is terrifying and formidable even in assless chaps. This is a movie that looks and feels unique, and this version of the post-apocalypse was something maybe hinted at in other media (Miller was a big fan of L.Q. Jones’ film A Boy and His Dog), but was never done this exact way before. It’s all of these elements that have made people’s immediate response to hearing “Mad Max” be this:
Mad Max 2 is also notable for having possibly the best car chases/automotive action in any movie ever made. There are about four such sequences in the movie, which is a brisk 95 minutes, and the final one comprises a full 13 minutes of screen time. What is most exciting about these is that, being in the early 1980s, there were no digital effects, and there were also no miniature effects. It was just real cars and a lot of dummies getting run over, and a lot of stunt men performing big, huge wrecks. The final wreck where the semi flips several times was so dangerous that they instructed the stunt driver not to eat for 12 hours before performing the stunt in order to make surgery that much easier, since surely that was going to be necessary. (It wasn’t.)
The Road Warrior is plainly and simply one of the best action movies ever made, as well as one of the most iconic. How many post-apocalyptic films have been set in a similar, gasoline-deprived world in the past 34 years? Quite a lot, actually. It ushered in what would be a banner decade for R-rated sci-fi/action movies, including The Terminator, which James Cameron said was heavily inspired by Miller’s work here. And if not for The Road Warrior, nobody would have remembered what Mad Max was anywhere but in Australia, and we certainly wouldn’t be getting a much-anticipated sequel this year.