Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Road Warrior

There are two ways to approach The Road Warrior (or, Mad Max 2, as it is sometimes titled outside of the US).  On the one hand, you can see this is the sequel to a B-movie, which makes it, almost by definition, a C-movie at best.  On the other hand, you can see the promise that the original Mad Max had and hope that The Road Warrior capitalizes on what made that movie successful.  Hint: go with the second option.

After the inevitable nuclear apocalypse (have you seen Steel Dawn?), the world is plunged into an odd state; the machines that gave us power still exist, but the fuel for them is unbelievably scarce.  After the events of Mad Max, Max (Mel Gibson) has become a drifter, fighting death battles on the roads of Australia for as little as a few gallons of gas.  It's all right, though, he has a nice doggy to keep  him company.  While on his travels through the Wasteland (which is probably what Australia should call their Outback anyway), Max encounters a Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence, who eventually went on to voice the Eye of Sauron), who tells him of a place where a clever man could find more gasoline than he could carry.  The only problem with this place is that it has been surrounded by Humungus (Kjell Nilsson) and his gang of scavengers.  Sure, these oil refiners might have a semi-secure base, but they are stuck there; with Humungus and his men patrolling, they can never escape the Wasteland.  That is, of course, until they meet a handsome and dangerous loner named Max.
"Just walk away..."

The Road Warrior is that film anomaly in where a sequel far surpasses the original.  Mad Max is a pretty decent B-movie, but The Road Warrior is bad-ass beyond compare.  What makes it better?  Just about everything, actually.  Max doesn't have to waste time developing feelings or building up to be a tough guy; from the first scene, it is clear that he is not someone you mess with.  The characters are far more iconic, largely thanks to some amazing costumes and sets.  This is the movie that set the standard for post-apocalyptic films; the whole idea of leather-clad, S&M-styled people in a wasteland that use found junkyard technology for their own purposes comes from this film.  In other words, the visual style of pretty much every other post-apocalyptic movie made after 1981 owes a debt to The Road Warrior.  The villains are much more colorful this time around, too.  Lord Humungus (Kjell Nilsson) has a pretty iconic look going and he's eloquent, to boot.  Wez (Vernon Wells) added that extra-spicy element of danger as the ferocious, animalistic psychopath henchman.  Sure, this movie had a bigger budget, but even the story is better in this movie; the fact that Max's motives are not determined by rage or the urge to protect family makes this a much more complex and satisfying story. 
Tell me that this doesn't look awesome, I dare you.

What carries that story, though, is a stellar cast of unknowns.  Mel Gibson, Mad Max aside, was an unknown quantity in America at the time, so seeing him play such a dangerous, confident character must have been startling at the time.  What makes Max even better to watch is that, cool as he is, he still needs help.  His number one helper is the Gyro Captain, played by Bruce Spence; Spence is best known for his role here, but he eventually went on to small roles in the Star Wars prequel trilogy, the Matrix trilogy, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  In this role, though, he plays the kind of role that is now usually filled by Rhys Ifans.  He's quirky and a little dirty, but his heart is in the right place.  The only other interesting good guy role was Emil Minty's performance as the grunting and growling Feral Kid.
Kids should be seen and not heard, unless they're "Feral Kid" ugly.  Then they should live in underground tunnels and play with killer boomerangs.
If you want to see a child performance that isn't annoying at all, you apparently just have to give them zero lines of dialogue and have them murder somebody with a koala eucalyptus tree wallaby boomerang.  What makes this movie great, though, is just how well the villains stand up against Max's coolness.  Vernon Wells is very convincing as a chomping-at-the-bit psycho; it's not a tough role, but he is pretty damn energetic.  And I will say that he is one of the scarier characters I have ever seen that wears assless chaps.  Seriously, his performance puts him in the Henchmen Hall of Fame, right up there with Odd Job and the flying monkeys.
Can you believe that this awesome bad guy was the awful one from Commando?
The king of the ring, the "Ayatollah of rock and rolla," is still definitely Kjell Nilsson as Humungus.  What makes his performance great, aside from his voice, is that there are hints to a calm, logical person underneath the hockey mask.  He gives the refining people a chance to leave unmolested, a promise which he might not have actually kept, but it was a convincing argument nevertheless.  He was the only one of his gang to realize the danger of air support, which shows that he also has some brains behind the brawn, and he never comes close to letting his charismatic and bloodthirsty henchman, Wez, take control.  Humungus rules the wasteland, sure, but let's face it...Humungus just rules.
After the Apocalypse, Jason Voorhies moved to Australia.
George Miller directed this movie, as he did the Mad Max.  Like Gibson, Miller really turned in a surprisingly good performance for a relatively unknown quantity here.  Miller had already established that he could film violence and unpleasant moments, but he turned a cast of semi-professional actors into a memorable cast.  The pace of the film is action-packed, even when Max spends a couple of days just watching the Humungus' gang.  The big surprise is how much better the story is this time; there are no obvious plot holes and the motivations for the characters are varied and complex.

The Road Warrior is, in my eyes, the very best film to take place after the inevitable zombie nuclear apocalypse.  The hero is tough, but not invulnerable, and the man has pride.  The bad guys are bigger than life, and twice as ugly.  The influence of this movie on post-apocalyptic fashion alone makes it a classic.  What makes this movie so awesome is how incredibly well it stands up, almost 30 years later; the action movie genre is not one that is kind to older movies, but the characters are so much fun, the threats so vivid, that this can't help being one of the truly timeless movies of the genre.


  1. I have never put together that Wez is the same ambiguously gay villain in Commando. Huh. How disappointing.

  2. It threw me off, too. It does explain how the hell he got cast in Commando, though. "The crazy villain from The Road Warrior? Sure, sign him up." Little did anyone know he got chubby and non-threatening.

  3. The apocolypse was running out of oil or having it controled by the elite. Thats a plot hole cuz they blast around in gas guzzling vehicles but the metaphor is apt.