The Road Warrior (1981)
Pros: Great story and character development, killer action scenes, awesome visual designs.
Cons: Minor quibbles with one special effect and Max’s ability to drive a semi-truck.
Mad Max 2 (released as The Road Warrior here in the US) has been a favorite of mine since first seeing it back in the mid-90’s, and this isn’t nostalgia clouding my judgment. Through my tough standards of evaluating entertainment, The Road Warrior holds up in all the aspects that matter.
Set several years after the end of Mad Max, Max (Mel Gibson) has become a drifter into the post-apocalyptic wastelands of Australia as a burned out loner. By this point, society has totally broken down and people have generally fallen into a “dog eat dog” mentality, particularly in fighting for gasoline. After a series of small confrontations, Max sees himself caught in the struggle between a group of gasoline-producing people trying to restart normal lives and a gang of savages led by Lord Humongous (Kjell Nilsson). Max is looking out only for himself, but in this struggle lays an opportunity to regain his humanity.
This is an area where The Road Warrior shines, despite the fact that many remember this movie for its vehicular action scenes and distinctive post-apocalyptic vision. Max shines the most here, as his character is rife with ambiguity. Max is the protagonist, yet doesn’t have the robust moral backbone associated with most action movie protagonists. For the most part, he only cares about personal gain, especially with getting gasoline for his pursuit special. Max’s “morally ambiguous” character is fleshed out perfectly because he’s not the “boy scout” hero yet at the same time isn’t the overly grim antihero who does all the wrong things for the right reasons. One scene that I think was great for Max’s character was toward the beginning, when he finds part of a music box in the hand of a corpse inside the semi-truck he would later drive. He plays the music box (which plays the “Happy Birthday” song) and you can see that it reminds him of a better life he once had, but he remains detached from his more “human” side. Without spoiling much, there’s some dynamics going on with Max that while making him more interesting than if he remained static, the changes perfectly complement his character and don’t feel at all forced.
Other characters like the Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence), the Feral Kid (Emil Minty), and Lord Humongous have their own attributes that make them great characters in their own right. The Gyro Captain has some interesting dynamics within him because he’s at first a more selfish opportunist, but after being humbled a bit after encountering Max, becomes more likeable and even thinks of working for the greater good. The Feral Kid is perfect in Minty’s portrayal because just as the name implies, he acts just like an animal. Despite his animal-like personality, the Feral Kid has a sturdy moral code as he acts in ways to benefit others, such as helping Max escape one of Humongous’s men who gets nosy when he hears Max slip down a small hill in the night.
Lord Humongous and Wez (Vernon Well) are perfect villains for the movie. Wez doesn’t have much depth, but I’m glad he doesn’t because his more direct “savage” personality and grizzly actions make him perfect for the role. Wez, on the other hand, has some more depth all the while not taking away from his nefarious attitude and actions. He can dish out articulate speeches to his opponents and in a scene where Wez loses it, he restrains him and tells him about how he understands his pain and that they all lost someone they loved. These attributes make Humongous more complex and particularly with his little talk to Wez, indicates that he has some feelings that make him more than a self-serving villain.
All in all, the characters are great fits for their roles and I really wouldn’t change much in this area.
The crew that made this movie really did a marvelous job with everything associated with the appearance of The Road Warrior. Like a true post-apocalyptic setting in the middle of nowhere, everything looks beaten up (particularly the vehicles) and particularly with the weapons the characters use, they’re relegated almost entirely to using primitive weaponry like knives and crossbows. To add a sense of realism to the setting, gun ammo is extremely scarce; as only Max and Lord Humongous possess firearms in this movie (Max has a sawed-off shotgun while Humongous has a big revolver). It’s interesting that the compound settlers do have some technology that’s closer to what was had in the “old world,” such as electric-powered lighting and welding equipment, all done thanks to the small oil refinery they built.
The costumes are really well-done, and particularly with Humongous’s wasteland “war dogs,” many of them are dressed in a combination of bondage gear and primitive body decorations to give them a more barbarian appearance to better suit their cruel actions.
The special effects are for the most part, done very well. Many of the car chases, explosions, and even some gore are very convincing in execution. The whole ending chase scene is the best example of the vehicular special effects, while the scene towards the beginning where Wez pulls out an arrow that got shot into his arm looks quite real and is pretty painful to watch. The only scene where I thought one of the effects wasn’t pulled off well is that when a few of Humongous’s minions breaks into the compound, the Warrior Woman (Virginia Hey) cuts the minion’s throat, yet it didn’t really look like she really cut him. Oh well, that’s really the only blemish I could think of in the otherwise solid special effects and other visual elements.
Many know and love The Road Warrior for its action scenes, and I totally see why. This is one of the most thrilling vehicular action movies ever made. Many remember the “tanker chase” scene as the highlight of the movie (and it is, and I won’t spoil it because it’s just that awesome), though there are plenty of other action scenes that really bolster this film. In particular, the scene of Max driving the Mack semi truck and getting it to the compound settlers was very thrilling. It was simultaneously cool and funny to see two of Humongous’s men try to stop the truck by blowing out its tires with a customized truck armed with an air-powered arrow turret, but the Gyro Captain drops a snake on the arrow gunner, causing him to panic severely and accidentally shoot the driver, resulting in a fatal crash.
While I’m talking about the scene of Max taking the truck to the settlers, I do have a minor quibble with one aspect of it. Max is a former policeman, and it seems pretty odd that he’s able to fluidly drive a semi-truck in this movie. As someone who’s currently trying to get extra work driving a large commercial vehicle, I can tell you that the clutch on such a truck is harder to use than that of a regular car with a standard transmission. George Miller and Byron Kennedy could have resolved this issue by simply inserting a scene with Max driving the truck telling himself “Those truck driving courses were handy after all.”
Brian May’s score for the movie is a perfect fit for the movie. His orchestral compositions perfectly fit the moods of the scenes throughout the movie, and in particular with the ending chase scene, it’s interesting to hear the music sort of weave in and out of the scenes. In some parts of this chase you hear the music kick in and it’ll then stop to allow the viewer to focus on the chase and then start back up.
This is not a movie for the kids because there’s plenty of violent and even some grizzly sexual content in it. Among the bloody parts of the movie is a scene of Wez’s male lover getting a boomerang embedded into his forehead and Max getting pretty torn up after getting ambushed by Wez before the big chase for the fuel-hauling tanker truck. There’s also a scene where some of Humongous’s men rape and kill a female settler from a distance while mortally wounding her male companion, and even a scene where Wez shoots a hapless rabbit with his wrist-mounted bow. The Road Warrior has plenty of visceral content, but as a whole, it’s on the same level as many other action movies from the 80’s.
I would go as far to say that this is the crowning jewel of filmmakers George Miller and Byron Kennedy, along with actor Mel Gibson. If you love visceral post-apocalyptic action with robust story and character development, get it now if you don’t, and if you do have it in your collection, watch it again.