Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross
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First, before we get to the meat of this thing, I think The Road Warrior is an amazing title, an all-in-one package. It both scans well and connotes the car movie action, mythical trappings, and lone-hero context of the film; few titles are so precise that their form could not survive the removal of the definite article “the”. Because while the words “Mad Max” are just too delicious to leave out of any of this franchise’s titles, I love the phrase “The Road Warrior” (the full title given the film for its North American release) in quantities that no measly “2” could live up to (as it had to in every other market), so there it is. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. Consider my flag planted.

Second, before we get to the meat of this thing, Brian May, whose score for Mad Max I spent a good portion of my last review criticizing, deserves amelioration. May does absolutely wonderful work here, turning in what might be the finest pulp exploitation score I’ve ever heard. May had only completed one film score before working on Mad Max, but completed eight more in the two years separating its completion from its sequel’s production, and that experience shows: the themes are better-constructed and terrifically integrated, the big, blaring stingers are judiciously applied, and in spite of the second film’s much more operatic tone and scale, he exercises a great deal more restraint in its quieter scenes. And all that is to say nothing of the cue played over the prologue and end credits, which is now and will probably always be one of my favourite single film cues ever, a beautiful string melody connoting mystery, myth, and a pained personal history all at once before escalating into tones of conflict with the entrance of a militaristic drum beat, and then working through a crawlingly slow key change before introducing another theme and finally exploding into the action music for the opening chase. Even its double-duty status is brilliant; when it plays over the apocalypse recap in the beginning, it connotes endless conflict and uncertainty, but in context of the film’s ending, it conjures feelings of doggedness, bravery, and hope amidst strife. It’s a masterful cue in a great score, and its re-entrance 15 seconds into the initially silent credits never fails to give me shivers.

Now, the meat of this thing: I cannot think of anything wrong with The Road Warrior, and the film that represents a massive step up from its predecessor in every department. That’s no small feat for a follow-up to something that had already revolutionized its genre, but George Miller, given his success in turning out an enormous profit from such a small film, was aching to return to the universe he’d dreamed up with the added scale and ambition that his newfound finances and experience would allow.

One result is that Mad Max 2’s world is not entirely congruous with Mad Max’s; the still (barely) functioning society teetering on the edge of chaos in the earlier entry is much farther behind the sequel’s Australia than Mel Gibson’s barely-aged face could possibly imply. Not, of course, that that matters, as The Road Warrior stands totally on its own (indeed, much of its American audience had no idea it was a sequel), making no direct reference to any of its predecessor’s events save the prologue’s mention of the fate of Max’s wife and child.

Since then, Max has become a psychologically shattered scavenger in what is only known as the Wasteland, an endless expanse of dust and desert that seemingly stretches over the entire mainland. As marauding gangs and settlements begin to form and consolidate their strength with old-world technology, gasoline has become a most precious resource. And so we meet three parties warring over a massive repository of it: on one side, a small settlement based around a refinery, pumping gas as quickly as they can; on the other side, a massive gang of raping, murdering, leather-clad pillagers led by the goalie-masked Lord Humungus; and Max, who finds the first faction defending itself against an endless onslaught by the second. Max finds a wounded settler outside the compound and takes him back inside in exchange for all the gas he can carry, but is quickly branded a parasite by the uncooperative settlers.

What follows should be familiar to anyone who’s seen a western or two, as Max finds his motives for helping the settlers shifting further from self-preservation and closer to conscience, the Humungus gives the settlement a dubious offer to simply walk away in exchange for their lives, and everything finally rests on an all-or-nothing escape from the refinery to the distant coast. What distinguishes The Road Warrior is the utter originality it finds in its means of telling this story, much of which comes from visual confidence with which Miller, his cinematographer Dean Semler, and his team of editors assemble the film; the horizon slicing out the dusty tan of the earth with the burned-out blues of the sky, each angle chosen with such exactitude that one can’t imagine another order or rhythm for its images, each action scene’s movements and cuts paced and pivoted with far more grace than what a bunch of diesel-bellowing metal behemoths should be capable of.

The editing is a particular improvement on Miller’s part. Mad Max’s quick and jagged onslaught of dissolves, wipes, and smash cuts heralded a director unafraid of stretching his formal grammar, but at times the energy of its optical quirks felt trumped-up. Mad Max 2’s cutting takes on a dexterity and propulsion in its pulpish flourishes more akin to Star Wars than anything else, especially in its virtuosic dissolves, which in turns elide the time between their adjacent shots and emphasize their connective qualities. So confidently does the editing contribute to the tone that in the defining moment of Max’s mythical ascent from hypercompetent scavenger to saviour of the Wasteland it is the pace and placement of the cuts in the scene as much as anything (including Gibson’s quiet but considerable emotional range) that signals to us that this person has found a soul he thought he’d lost long ago, as he rises to take his place among the settlers.

That spirit and moral of hope is what endears me the most to The Road Warrior. After the first outing’s howl of disillusionment, Miller seems to have found even greater commitment to redemption and optimism among ruin. That idea is expressed in simple terms here, but it’s the emotional honesty and very real pain underlining the movie (which successfully makes tragedy out of the deaths of characters we knew only through a few defining lines) that raises it from hokum to profundity. Yes, the perfection of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior’s craft blows just about any action movie save a thimbleful out of the water, and every corner of the production suggests a carefully conceived history behind each detail in the props, performances, and settings. But all those things are there to underline the humanism that ultimately drives this rig to glory.

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