With his low-budget revenge movie, Mad Max (1979), Australian filmmaker George Miller created one of the most kinetic action spectacles by choreographing car chases in a way that was unique. They were depicted viscerally, putting you right in the action. The film was a massive success, launching the careers of both Miller and its young star, Mel Gibson. The filmmaker briefly pursued another, unrelated project while turning down several offers from Hollywood before deciding to make sequel only with much more money that would allow him to push his brand of visual storytelling to a new level. The end result was Mad Max 2 (1981) a.k.a. The Road Warrior, an unrelenting journey into a post-apocalyptic world that would prove to be hugely influential, spawning numerous imitations and two sequels that Miller would helm.
After briefly recapping the events depicted in Mad Max, we meet Max (Gibson), a hardened scavenger eking out a desolate existence in the wasteland. Miller wastes no time launching into the film’s first action sequence as Max is pursued by three vehicles populated by leather-clad marauders armed to the teeth and whom he handily bests. This sequence sets the tone for the rest of the film and serves as an introduction to its style. Like any good action director, Miller understands how an action sequence is edited is just as important as how it is choreographed. There is a wonderful economy of style as he conveys the speed and ferocity of violence in this world. He also demonstrates a confidence in his ability to tell a story visually with the first ten minutes devoid of any dialogue save for the voiceover narration that briefly establishes the backstory of this world.
The first bit of dialogue comes from a fellow scavenger known as the Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence) that Max encounters. He’s the complete opposite of Max – chatty and high-strung. Max bests the Gyro Captain and he tells him of a fortified oil refinery a few miles away. The settlers that populate it are under constant siege by a large group of marauders led by the muscle-bound Lord Humungus (Kjell Nilsson). Max’s run-in at the beginning of the film was with members of this gang – one of whom survived and goes by the name of Wez (Vernon Wells). The two men will mix it up repeatedly over the course of the film.
Miller makes a point of showing just how ruthless these marauders are when a bunch of them intercept two settlers trying to escape in a vehicle. They are captured and after gravely wounding the man, rape the woman, killing her afterwards. This scene is important because it shows how the marauders differ from Max. He’s not like them. He may be an opportunist out for himself but there is still a shred of the good man he was in Mad Max.
Max bargains his way into the settler’s camp and visually Miller sets them apart from the marauders with their white tunics and body armor, which is in sharp contrast to Humungus and his black leather-clad bikers. We soon get a proper introduction to the nasty marauders with a darkly comic scene that sees Humungus announced as the “Ayatollah of Rock-and-Rollah” by one of his hapless subordinates (Max Phipps) who foolishly tries to catch a sharp, metal boomerang only to have several of his fingers lopped off. This scene also provides intriguing insight into the tumultuous relationship between Humungus and Wez, an impulsive mohawked biker, and his best enforcer. Miller does a fantastic job of conveying the dynamic of this gang by the way they act and how their attitude is embodied by Wez. It’s a fascinating albeit brief window into how they work, leaving us wanting more because they are such a colorful, outrageous bunch, much like the biker gang that terrorized Max in the first film.
The settlers are led by a man known as Pappagallo (Michael Preston) who dreams of escaping their compound with a tanker of gas to the ocean and he strikes a deal with Max to find a rig that will haul it. Of course, it’s never that easy as the film hurtles towards the inevitable confrontation between the marauders and the settlers. Along the way, Max is befriended by the Feral Kid (Emil Minty), a wild child whose only form of communication is grunts and growls, and who is the owner of the aforementioned boomerang. He, more than any of the other settlers, is responsible for awakening Max’s humanity, giving him something to care about once again. Despite his best attempts, the setters’ plight affects Max and, coupled with no other option left to him, decides to help them.
Mel Gibson delivers a deceptively complex performance as we see Max go from a man that cares only about himself to a man that helps others. It is a tough journey as he initially rebuffs the settlers despite Pappagallo nailing what makes Max tick: “You happy out there, are ya? Wandering, one-day blurring into another. You’re a scavenger, Max. You’re a maggot. You’re living off the corpse of the old world.” These words and prodding into his tragic past get to Max and he finally reacts emotionally – the first real time he’s done so since the film began. It’s a pivotal scene because it is the beginning of Max caring about something other than himself. Alas, it is going to take hitting rock bottom for him to finally come around. Gibson does a good job of showing the inner conflict playing out over Max’s face in this scene.
Bruce Spence’s gregarious Gyro Captain provides the film with welcome comic relief and he plays well off Gibson’s stoic Max. He, along with the Feral Kid, help humanize Max. The Gyro Captain talks a good game but is a bit of a scammer only to find a purpose among the settlers. Wez is Max’s opposite, a wild animal that has to be kept on a leash, literally, to curb his wilder impulses only to be cut loose when his primal instincts are needed. Miller sets up the conflict between them right from the start, having the two men cross paths repeatedly until the exciting climax where they finally settle things once and for all. Vernon Wells delivers a larger than life, muscular performance, playing a memorable baddie that is exciting and scary because Wez is such an unpredictable character.
Mad Max 2 culminates in a much-lauded extended chase sequence as Max drives a tanker truck through the marauders. The action is beautiful orchestrated vehicular mayhem as cars and people go flying through the air, metal is twisted and mangled – all in the pursuit of the precious gasoline. The end result is one of the best chase sequences ever committed to film. Everything has been building up to this point and we’ve become invested in not just Max’s story but also that of the settlers. We want to see them survive.
After Mad Max grossed $100 million at the box office, Warner Bros.’ international marketing division encouraged director George Miller and producer Byron Kennedy to make a sequel. For the latter, the impetus to make it came from liking “traditional Hollywood American film, and I want to make those sorts of movies.” Mad Max 2 was an opportunity for Miller to work with a larger budget of $4 million – ten times the amount of the first one, which was made for $400,000 – which allowed him to have better equipment. This enabled him to stage more elaborate stunts and shoot in a more remote location with a bigger, more professional crew. One of his frustrations making Mad Max was that he made it with a television crew that were used to doing things a specific way. His new crew, including cinematographer Dean Semler, was more adept and willing to “give anything a go – it’s crazy but give it a go, we’ll back you all the way.”
Miller started off with a basic story and a premise:
“That, suddenly, there would be no energy. No electricity. So, people would rush down to their supermarkets and take whatever was left in the refrigerators. They would find other people already there. There would be fights. We would have no gas for our vehicles. Very quickly, things would reach a Darwinian stage where human beings would have to survive as best they could. Some would, undoubtably, choose a brutal lifestyle, consuming whatever was left, since no more goods would be manufactured. But there would be pockets of people who would try to make a new beginning…”
For the marauders that terrorize the settlers, Miller imagined them as warriors:
“He would, therefore, need a bike for mobility, and also because it uses less fuel than a car. He would need to be protected, so he would need weaponry. If he can get a gun, he can’t find bullets, so he would fashion a kind of crossbow, which he would wear on his arm. That way, it’s also easier to fire when he’s riding a bike.”
Mad Max 2 was shot in the desert, in and around Broken Hill, a mining town 800 miles west of Sydney during the Australian winter of 1981 over 12 weeks with 120 crew members, 40 actors and over 80 vehicles.
Mad Max 2 received mostly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave it three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “The filmmakers have imagined a fictional world. It operates according to its special rules and values, and we experience it. The experience is frightening, sometimes disgusting, and (if the truth be told) exhilarating.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “It has no pretensions to do anything except entertain in the primitive, occasionally jolting fashion of the first nickelodeon movies, whose audiences flinched as streetcars lumbered silently toward the camera.” The Village Voice’s Andrew Sarris felt it was like “experiencing a motorized Stagecoach.” However, Pauline Kael wrote, “There are perhaps 10 minutes of spectacular imagery, and if you think of George Miller as one of the kinetic moviemakers, such as John Carpenter and George A. Romero, he’s a giant, but he’s pushing for more and he apparently doesn’t see the limitations of the kind of material he’s working with.”
While it’s true that Mad Max 2 spawned many imitators – a cottage industry of post-apocalyptic movies – no one has been able to top it, not even Miller with its sequel, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), but he came close recently with the masterful Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), which proved without a shadow of a doubt that he is still an action movie maestro par excellence.
Mad Max 2 is essentially a western masquerading as a post-apocalyptic story with cars and motorcycles instead of horses. Max is a hired gun who comes in to help a group of settlers defend their land from an army of vicious marauders. He is reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name characters in the spaghetti westerns he made with Sergio Leone. Both characters are men of few words who prefer to let their actions speak for themselves. For all of its gritty action, Mad Max 2 is ultimately a mythic tale with Max as its iconic hero who we last see battered but not beaten, refusing to go with the settlers because he doesn’t belong in their world. He’s the classic uncivilized outsider, much like John Wayne’s character in The Searchers (1956), still out there, somewhere, surviving, as the voiceover narration intones with those classic last lines, “And the Road Warrior? That was the last we ever saw of him. He lives now…only in my memories.”
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Lofficier, Randy & Jean-Marc. “George Miller on Mad Max and The Road Warrior.” Starlog. September 1985.
Van Hise. James. “The Road Warrior.” Starlog. August 1982.