If Mad Max was the story of a law-abiding man who loses his friends and family only to find solace in brutal revenge, then Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior is about that same wild man driven by vengeance who is able to regain some of his humanity by aiding a group of survivors. There are heavy costs to pay in the telling of both tales and yet the sequel ends on a much more positive note than the original. But did the second film improve upon the first?
As discussed in my retrospective review of Mad Max, the surprising worldwide hit of 1979 was exemplary of Australian New Wave cinema. The sequel stayed true to its roots, playing up the ruthless violence needed for survival on the wide-open roads of the dystopian, post-apocalyptic world. However, Mad Max 2 made two substantial changes that deviated from the original film. The first was the storytelling style, which was less of a “figure it out as you go” narrative and more of a “legend in the making.” While the first film left viewers with little exposition to provide background or context, the sequel opens with a framing story that serves both as a refresher for the events of Mad Max and a historical waypoint. It seems that Max’s world takes place after a horrific world war that consumes most of the available fuel supply and sends civilization into chaos with scavenging, looting, and pillaging becoming the new norm. This reality was only inferred in the first film, so it was great to see that The Road Warrior confirmed it, especially because even the heroic Max could not escape the world war’s disastrous effects.
The second major change that occurred is easily the most striking. While Mad Max had its share of leather worn by both the Main Force Patrol and Acolytes alike, The Road Warrior ups the ante for Leather Daddies and S&M outfits. Captain Fifi was the most fabulously outfitted of the former film, but the sequel sports such zanily dressed characters as Lord Humungus, Wez, The Golden Youth, and even Max himself. (And don’t even get me started on Pappagallo’s Warriors in White or the caveman getup of the Feral Kid…) The big-haired, shave-browed visage of Toecutter has been replaced with the Humungus, an oiled-up, musclebound hulk of a man stuffed into a leather collar, chest harness, and codpiece, wearing a hockey mask to hide his burned and disfigured face. Miller really upped the strangeness on this one, a decision that only became amplified over successive installments.
Amplification is the name of the game for this sequel. The stunts are more brazen, the characters even more over the top, and the stakes are even higher this time around (plus there’s a dog, so the movie is already better). And while Mad Max was squarely in the mode of Australian New Wave, The Road Warrior borrowed heavily from classic American Westerns. A lone lawman rides into town for supplies and is unwittingly drawn into defending a small group of innocents against a band of outlaws … sound familiar?
Max, a lawless loner doing what he can to survive after the MFP goes defunct, uses his skills behind the wheel of his V8 Interceptor to outwit a band of motorcycle/dune buggy/roadster-driving gangsters. Though he does his best to get by on his own (with the addition of his trusty dog sidekick and a somewhat less trustworthy gyro captain tagalong), Max soon runs low on fuel. Luckily for him, his new partner leads him to a nearby oil refinery out in the desert. Unluckily for everyone else, that refinery is encircled by the violent gangsters led by Lord Humungus, with only a few defenders under the command of Pappagallo left to defend the facility. What’s a Road Warrior to do with all that crude up for grabs?
At this point in the film, Max has already run afoul of the gang and though he came out best in that particular skirmish, the injured Wez has now marked him for revenge. Max plays it smart and waits for the marauders to leave the refinery alone for the night, but his hesitation results in the rape and murder of a man and woman attempting to flee the facility. Ever the survivor, Max makes a deal with the man, Nathan, who’s just barely clinging onto life and acts as his ticket inside the heavily fortified walls of the refinery. Though Nathan dies, Max is able to offer up his services in exchange for as much fuel as he can carry. The plan is for him to bring a big rig back to the refinery so the defenders can load up their fuel tanker and get the Hell out of Dodge.
It’s a great setup, made even better by the white-knuckle chase scene that unfolds as Lord Humungus’ thugs try to run Max’s rig off the road. Of course, our hero gets the truck back to the refinery in one piece, more or less. (One of the best bits of humor in the film occurs while the mechanic and his assistants are trying to suss out the damage of the rig.) But in true Western anti-hero fashion, Max, having satisfied his end of the bargain, plans to take his fuel and hit the road rather than stick it out to see that the survivors successfully escape the facility.
This selfish behavior soon comes back to haunt him. Wez sees his opportunity for revenge as Max foolishly heads off into the desert on his own with full tanks of fuel but an absence of a convoy. Max’s vehicle is awesome, but it’s no match for Wez’s nitrous-oxide-boosted machine. Before long, his car is run off the road in a spectacular crash which leaves him injured, but alive enough to drag himself to safety. While Dog furiously defends Max from the approaching villains, he’s soon put down by a crossbow bolt. That’s where the movie really gets serious. Max is saved only by his car’s booby traps taking out the remaining low-level gangsters, causing a cloud of smoke that draws the attention of the Gyro Captain, who comes to his rescue and delivers him back to the refinery.
And now we get to the truly heroic turn for Mad Max, The Road Warrior. Burned, beaten, bruised, and bloody, Max offers to drive the heavily modified tanker truck to safety while a caravan of survivors heads off in the other direction. This is one of the best action sequences in cinematic history and it’s absolutely bonkers. Words can’t do it justice, but there are plenty of high-speed stunts that should probably have been illegal, character deaths that are equally tragic and hilarious in turn, and surprise moments that catch the audience completely off guard. Perhaps the best reveal is the final crash, which Max survives to find that the fuel he thought he was hauling was, in fact, only sand. His sacrifice was to be a diversion so that the others could escape and live to start a new civilization. Fantastic, Max.
And yet, The Road Warrior is not without its flaws. Fans may love the Gyro Captain and the Feral Kid, but I found them to be of the typical sort of sidekick characters who are there mostly for comedic relief and rarely for plot value. Of course, both of them helped Max out of a few jams, most notably the Gyro Captain rescuing him from his car crash, and Feral Kid helping to keep Max supplied with ammunition. The final reveal of the movie, which is not to say the best one, is that the Feral Kid grew up to lead the new tribe of humans, and is actually the one narrating the story, the legend of Mad Max, The Road Warrior.
Mad Max 2 was certainly an improvement on the original tale in almost all facets. The action is grander, the explosions are bigger, the cars are crazier and the leather is shinier. The sequel’s characters are larger than life (but will get larger in successive installments) which helps to fill out the depleted world of Mad Max; you feel like there are bigger stakes in the game this time around, the sense that the continuance of civilization actually depends on what these characters do in the here and now of the film. Mad Max: The Road Warrior is an epic tale in its truest sense, and perhaps the greatest road movie of all time.