Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior Review
If Mad Max was the solid start to a great idea, The Road Warrior (known as Mad Max 2 internationally) is George Miller's vision fully realized. Released two years after the original film, The Road Warrior is in many ways the total opposite of its predecessor. Where Mad Max was slow building, small and deliberate, Road Warrior is faster, bigger, weirder and relentless, the kind of punk rock concert on wheels that has only been captured one time since, in Miller's even more bonkers, more relentless Mad Max: Fury Road. And while Fury Road is definitely the masterpiece of the Mad Max franchise, The Road Warrior is a close second, as thrilling and as interesting an action film you're to find anywhere. It's also the best film to ever feature a villain in a Jason mask, hilarious when you consider that the Friday the 13th series has had twelve chances to stake that claim and has failed.
Sometime after the events of Mad Max, former cop Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) has drifted into the wasteland, his humanity slipping away from him, much like his wife and child did. Seriously, the only thing Max appears to be living for is to wake up the next day and full tank of gasoline. When his car runs low on fuel, Max is forced to seek the help of small town/oil refinery, only to find himself caught up in a war between the town's citizens and a nomad war party of punk rock bikers, led by the charismatic/mysterious Lord Humungus (Kjell Nilsson) and the psychotic Wez (Vernon Wells). With no other choice, Max agrees to help the citizens escape from the refinery with their oil, in exchange for a great deal of fuel. The group is assisted by the Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence), the pilot of a makeshift auto gyro aircraft, and the Feral Kid (Emil Minty), a mute young boy armed with a metal boomerang as a weapon.
Miller initially hadn't planned on doing another Mad Max film, claiming that he'd had a terrible experience working on the first one. Thus, he prepared to move on, considering an offer to direct Rambo: First Blood, while also working on a script for a rock and roll film called Roxanne. After both projects fell apart however, Miller started to explore the idea of a sequel, on the condition that his budget would be bigger. The terms were met, and Miller, Roxanne co-writer Terry Haynes and second unit director Brian Hannant wrote the script soon after.
One difference you'll immediately see between Mad Max and Road Warrior is that there's far less plot, something that appears to be a preference of Miller. With no need to explain or build to anything (other than a quick recap video following the credits, Road Warrior gives no backstory), the director is allowed to cut right to the chase, starting the film with another fantastic car chase and never letting up. Some may find such limited plot to be a negative, but Miller is a director who clearly believes that less is more. He doesn't want to tell you what's happened to his characters, he wants to show you, wants you to figure each character's story from their actions, their emotions, hell even their expressions. Fury Road would ultimately use Miller's idea to perfection, but those same ideas are on display here in The Road Warrior, and used quite well.
Of course, the main draw for the Mad Max films has and always will be the visuals and the action. Shocker of all shockers, both are excellent here. Road Warrior looks great, dare I say even better than the first film, which at times wasn't all that convincing of a post apocalyptic setting. Here, there's no question that we are looking at a wasteland, and a unique one at that. Whether it's the nomad look of the oil refinery citizens, the retro attire of the Gyro Captain (the dude looks like he got lost on his way to the Raiders of the Lost Ark set) or the hardcore punk image of the Humungus' villainous gang, everything here looks interesting and appropriately odd. As for the action, Miller uses the expanded budget to include more of what made the first film more popular. Road Warrior is book ended by two excellent chase scenes (the last one is legendary, on par with some of the Fury Road chase sequences), and rarely lets up in between. Someone is generally getting shot at, chased, engulfed in fire or in one instance scalped by the Feral Kid's boomerang. This isn't a family film people. Supposedly, Miller was forced to cut some scenes that were even more gory, which makes you wonder what else he had up his sleeve for this film. Even without those scenes, the Road Warrior still accomplishes what it wants to do, which is present an action movie that never truly lets up.
Mel Gibson is absolutely fantastic as Max, a vastly improved performance from his original effort in Mad Max. While the budding star wasn't bad his first time around, it's clear to anyone who has seen the original that Gibson was still trying to figure out what the character was up until the film's explosive climax (some of that blame should go to Miller too in fairness). Here, there's no figuring out; Gibson is ready to go from the start, and he's incredibly effective as the broken road warrior looking to just get through each day with his life and a tank of gas. Perhaps the best part of Gibson's performance is that he and Miller never allow Max to become a complete hero. While Max does form a bond with Minty's Feral Kid (as badass a child character that we've ever seen in film quite frankly), it's pretty clear that Max at no point ever goes out of his way to help those at the oil refinery. Yes, he ultimately does assist them in their cause, but only because it fits into his own agenda; survival. Kudos to Gibson and Miller for not turning Max into something he isn't, and leaving him as the anti-hero we all know and love.
One area where The Road Warrior is weak in is its supporting cast, a downgrade from the original film. Bruce Spence provides most of the film's comic relief moments as the Gyro Captain, while Kjell Nielsson is chillingly charismatic as the masked Humungus (though his appearance is truthfully more effective than the performance is). The most intriguing of the other players is Vernon Wells' Wez, a sociopath on the surface who is actually much more like Max than first glance. Certainly Wez isn't a nice guy from the moment we see him, but he does care for people, and his rage in the film's second half is due to the death of his lover from the Feral Kid's hand (Wez is actually gay, which Miller thankfully handles very subtly. Even in the 80's, the man was progressive). Even if you take out that character development, Wez is someone who will stick with you once the film ends. The rest of the cast is sadly underdeveloped, or uninteresting. There's also strangely a lack of major women roles in Road Warrior, largely because it seems Miller wanted to avoid putting Max in a potential love story following the events of the first film. While the two main actresses to appear in the film, Virginia Hey as a warrior of the village and Arkie Whiteley as the Gyro Captain's love interest, both give decent performances, we're left wishing there was more to them than a couple of lines.
The common belief about sequels is that they're supposed to be bigger than the predecessor, even if that doesn't mean better quality in the long run. The Road Warrior is both bigger than Mad Max and better, a fully realized vision of George Miller's concept that never stops moving and never stops being interesting. No, it's not perfect, but overall, The Road Warrior is the action film done right, an enjoyably odd and wild ride that's just as exciting as the film was influential. It's without a doubt one of the greatest sequels in film history, and belongs right up there with Mad Max: Fury Road as one of the two best films in the Mad Max series. What a lovely film indeed.