09 Jul The Road Warrior/Mad Max 2/Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior
(George Miller, Australia, 1981): Visually abstracting the playground potential of the Australian desert, George Miller’s second Mad Max movie qualifies as the most expressive open road movie since Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop, but where the American filmmaker evokes Antonioni on the highway, Miller is channeling Chuck Jones. The Road Warrior is a Road Runner cartoon with a post-punk nihilism and fashion sense, right down to the top feathers reconfigured as pastel-coloured mohawks.
A sequel to a movie that never had one in mind, The Road Warrior extends the diminishing fuel supply of the earlier movie into a near-apocalyptic global crisis, and makes a war of sorts out of the struggle to survive reduced to a matter of who’s got the most gas. The answer, of course, is Miller, who takes this comic-stripped-down premise and burns rubber from here to the horizon with it, resulting in a genuinely exhilarating, sometimes breathlessly inventive pulp experience, which owes nothing more to the first movie than a shared conviction that provided the momentum is maintained and the visceral accorded prime diversionary potential, we won’t care much what’s going on. Because what’s going on is its own means and end, and that’s speed.
That the mythic incidentals in Mad Max and its sequel, barely glimpsed as drive-by flashes in the grindhouse revenge narrative of the former and largely restricted to the opening and closing narration in the second, would somehow not only overtake the joy-ride thrills of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome a few years on but stall it entirely in a verdant Spielbergian Lost Boys paradise where Max (Mel Gibson) is literally crowned as the redeeming saviour of the fallen world, is an indication of Miller’s retroactive reckoning to the saga’s biblical allegory, and a fateful one. When he started thinking about Max in Christlike terms — leaving, for the moment, Gibson’s own bullying Catholic predilections — he took his eyes off the road and the franchise stalled for thirty years. By the time he got the ignition firing again with Mad Max: Fury Road in 2015, he’d restored to his vision the principle of speed as self-sufficient spectacle in its own right and then some. More than anything, Fury Road is The Road Warrior re-made on 21st century blockbuster scale.
For all its considerable but intermittent visual and pulp attraction, Beyond Thunderdome faltered because Miller was paying attention to the wrong mythic implications and antecedents of his taciturn free-agent hero, whom, if The Road Warrior made anything clear — except, apparently to Miller — was not an ashes-risen leather boy Jesus but Clint Eastwood driving an Interceptor through I Am Legend terrain. The story of Max’s bartering for getaway fuel with a besieged community hoarding a refinery under constant attack by a gang of monstrous motorcycle punks straight out of the Wendy O. Williams music video playbook, is pure, desert-anchored post-Spaghetti Western Western trope, a Fistful of Dollars, The Outlaw Josey Wales and Pale Rider especially. The unaffiliated and emotionally-damaged stranger rides into a town beset by external forces of evil, and is eventually cured — or perhaps only temporarily relieved — of his self-serving cynicism by the commitment to something bigger and outside of his own interest. By committing to the needs of the group, he also let slip something he likely thought he’d lost altogether: a faith in something like a future.
Along with its mad skills as a live-action, pre-digital Road Runner riff — nowhere more sensationally manifest than in the movie’s climactic race from the frontier-town refinery with a tankerful of liquid gold, the punk-savages in hot, whooping, Stagecoach vs. Hell’s Angels pursuit — it’s the bone-simple frontier allegory that provides Miller’s movie with its hardest paved surface, and the only compelling case for messianic purpose in Max’s actions is the one that may lie arguably dormant or implied in any western about a violent individualist who redeems himself by taking action on behalf of a community. It’s not strictly a question of what would Jesus do, but doing what Jesus, upon consideration and only further on down the road, might have approved of under the circumstances. As he would become once again in Fury Road — but this time in the almost catatonically traumatized figure of Tom Hardy’s, post-personal-apocalypse-Gibson incarnation of Max — the warrior in The Road Warrior is really just a practical saviour doing a pro bono favour, more or less only doing what a man’s gotta do. Funny that it seemed to take Miller himself nearly thirty years to restore Max from his Mount Calvary to his cavalry mount, but it can’t be easy being demoted from prophet to gunslinger. (Warner)