When we last left him, former police office Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) lost his family and his best friend, and had fulfilled a most unfulfilling form of revenge on the now lawless highways of the Australian outback. He had lost and repaid the loss only to realize that there was nothing to be won back. When we last left him, there was nothing left for him but the empty road.
When we last left him, former no-name George Miller had given us one of the most menacing, sinister, full-throttle action pics ever released. Now a go-to guy, there wasn’t much keeping him from his distinctly more apocalyptic vision of dystopia and humanity left for dead, not to mention his vision of non-stop action filmmaking. With a greater budget and his original star Mel Gibson, then almost on the verge of becoming a major movie star and certainly a household name in the Australian film industry, in tow, his dreams would come true with the release of the 1981 The Road Warrior, one of the de facto “perfect” action pictures and still to this day among the true classics of the genre (a number that wallows and exists as a handful more than a genuine plethora).
Still, frankly, The Road Warrior probably isn’t the “non-stop action epic” he may have dreamed of; money breeds a certain increased need for social acceptance, which in turn requires a rounding-out of a film’s script away from its primal purity. At least ,that is usually the case, and it is the case with The Road Warrior, a work of better, more ostentatious action than Mad Max, but an undeniably wider focus that curtails some of the immediacy of that unblinkingly forward-pushing film. Mad Max was punishing, and The Road Warrior, perhaps as an attempt to justify its budget and prove it had more to do with the world thank simply perfect action, felt the need to do more. The Road Warrior stretches out away from the unremittingly curdled tension of Mad Max for something denser and more lingering.
Which is altogether lovely in its own way, and boasts rewards that are, if less focused in their threatening singularity, far more satisfying in many supremely sumptuous new ways. On a purely visual level, The Road Warrior is a monumental improvement, sacrificing some of the queasy qualities of the mundane world of the first film and replacing them with something that brandishes a much more mythic, more distressingly forlorn world of disparagingly hopeless post-Western malaise. The original Max has a slasher-like efficiency and a mercenary, post-Hitchcockian diabolical quality to its callous, wasteless carcass. This film takes its time to soak in the world, creating an outlaw intimacy that breathes and sops up the hopelessness to let it fester and grow in a heart that Mad Max, the original, never possessed.
It is much less manic altogether, although the mania is given an increased weight and viciousness when it does rear its head, especially in early action moments that come and go with abandon and burn even harsher because of how quickly they hurtle back into the darkness. The finale, the most sustained action sequence of the film, is a tour-de-force of pure cinema, at once more hearty and tactile than anything in the original film and more charismatically emotive and traumatically tragic. It is one of the great action scenes in cinema history, and perhaps the standout of the film.
Yet, it is what comes before that climax that earns this work the title of “classic” when all is said and done. The Road Warrior is more of a temperamental, deeply skewered take on the romantic Westerns of Ford and even Leone, finding Max wandering into an infertile desert town devoid of gas and offering, with what little he has, to give them aid in a time of need, in hopes of himself benefiting in the deal. Here, more than in Mad Max, Miller calls on film history to play around with the different textures of cinema, from lush romanticism to combative and spunky grindhouse cinema to the bruised beauty of the classic Western to the idea of the cinematic voyeur in the way Max spends so much time watching rather than acting in the film, itself a deconstruction of the burgeoning action cinema form of what would soon become the 1980s.
If nothing else, The Road Warrior calls on the works of John Ford with more lust and pensive horror than arguably any work since, and for anyone who knows a thing or two about the dozens and dozens of works every decade that know a thing or two about Ford, this is no small success for George Miller. If one is to simply look at the palette of The Road Warrior, it is immeasurably obvious that Miller was enjoying the increased budget for The Road Warrior, wielding cinematographer Dean Semler like the hand of god and smiting the screen with harshly beautiful, downright dirty vistas and down-tuned, devilish variations of the typical poetry of a great hopeful Western from the 1940s. What these two men achieve with their husky, harshly lined horizon is almost comparable to the untamed lateral majesty of Terrence Malick’s Badlands itself.
So it is a more beautiful, more romantically tragic film with a greater emotional haunt than anything in the first Mad Max, and a great deal of this lies in the treatment of Max himself. Ever the loner, Max speaks with an icy culpability and a determined, lost-in-the-desert stare that captures how his internal trauma has led to a light bemusement at the world around him. He has so little left to lose that, what little he finds can’t but fixate his id with a lightly tickling brutal humor. Of all the Max films, the physical connection between the character and the ever-unsure, ever-curious Frankenstein’s Monster is at its highest with The Road Warrior, Gibson finding a perverse pre-sexual joy in a non-sexualized world and Miller framing him with an eye for his stuttering, non-human movement and stop-start lumbering gait. This adds to the playful, naughty comic edge of the film, the onset of the circus that would drive the future films to the lascivious pageantry that would separate them from the tight and tense original. The third film, Beyond Thunderdome, would move too far in this direction for its own good, the comic edge becoming gentle and saccharine. Here, in the second film, there is a balance of whimsy and still-present menace.
A whimsy which only enhances the fundamental sadness and melancholy of the material, mind you, essentially invoking how much this world has lost to the point where all that is left for the survivors is to find naughty joy and pageantry in whatever vocal punk-rock identities they can find. It is for this reason that The Road Warrior is a much more openly filmic work, a work about people who lost their human identities and substituted them with the identities of pop-cultural figures they had known and loved in the past. Thus, the apocalypse-gone-punk nature of the film’s wonderful costuming by Norma Moircaeu is a statement to the way people utilize the openly fictional as a means of coping with the horrors of reality by turning that reality into a fictional playground. It is a statement to the human need to use film, to use pop culture, as a way to deal with trauma.
Which is, already and merely in the costuming, a greater thematic turn and a lusher texture of mise-en-scene and cinematic energy that anything in the original Mad Max. It is but one example among many of the interlining layers of depth and sinister romanticism inherent in The Road Warrior, of its awareness of filmic vocabulary and its expanded desire to explore the state of a world with existential malaise rather than simply construct a down-and-dirty beast of an action pic. It is also one way in The Road Warrior is, to this day, one of the great genre films of the modern era.