In ramping up to the release of the hotly anticipated Mad Max: Fury Road, we continue our journey through George Miller’s original trilogy. Where Mad Max felt like a test run, the superior 1981 sequel The Road Warrior was Miller and his producer, Byron Kennedy, firing on all cylinders, creating not only the best Mad Max film, but one of the finest action films ever made.
The name was changed from Mad Max 2 to The Road Warrior for American audiences, as the original was never given wide distribution stateside. Mad Max 2 is still the title card for this 1981 film, but enough about that. The Road Warrior opens the floodgates of madness in this universe, as the world that was holding on by the thinnest of threads in the original picture has entirely disintegrated into tribes of maniacs and desperate societies always fighting for oil. It opens as if shot out of a cannon, with a visceral car chase sequence that sets the stage for the entire film.
Miller has fully realized Max here, tapping into the common mythology of a renegade hero, a loner and vigilante familiar to Westerns and Samurai pictures. Max is reluctant to help anyone but himself and his dog, but when a thief with a gyrocopter tells him about a small society rich in oil and a tanker full of gasoline, he suddenly becomes interested. Because oil supersedes all. Max and The Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence) travel to this small colony in the middle of the desert, only to discover that a gang of insane and eccentric bandits is trying to get the oil themselves.
This renegade band is one of the best creations in Miller’s universe. Led by The Humungus – also given the wonderful nickname the Ayatollah of Rock and Rollah – a hulking figure in a hockey mask, and the psychotic Wez (Vernon Wells, also the villain Bennet in Commando), the band of miscreants tell the defensive society, “walk away, and we will spare your lives.” They know better, and vow to defend their spot on the earth despite being outmanned and, clearly, not insane enough to battle this band of renegade nihilists.
Max has a plan to get the society and their fuel out of this dangerous setting, and this leads to a thrilling thirteen minute chase sequence across the Outback. The Road Warrior holds on to its charm as a true action film, one of the truest, and maybe is more potent today because everything we see is real. Cars barrel into one another full speed, tanker trucks roll across the desert at 60 miles per hour, and the intensity of the kinetic action sequences create a stunning visual experience. And how about those cars, chaotic creations of what has been left behind in this wasteland of twisted metal and madness. An entire world has been created within these frames.
I suspect The Road Warrior was the film George Miller always wanted to make with these wonderfully vibrant characters, but he needed Mad Max to exist in order to set up his hero’s loss of humanity, his wife and son run down in the street. This was the film that opened the doors for Mel Gibson, who plays Max with an appropriate coldness and steely determination, his dialogue only filling about fifteen minutes of screen time.
The disenchanted singularity of Max would not be anything had it not been for the story which unfolded in the 1979 film. Here, however, Max becomes an iconic cinematic creation, and The Road Warrior will forever remain a template for how to effectively shoot an action film.