George Miller, in his collaborative screenwriting efforts and virtuoso directorial performance, etched a piece of popular entertainment as combustible and cyclonic in its action as it is resonant and catholic in its moral foundation. The Road Warrior is a sequel to the 1979 Mad Max, about a man charged with serving and protecting innocents, turned vigilante, in post-Apocalyptic Australia, and loses his wife and child to the marauding, road-trekking barbarians who plague whatever is left of civilization. The original film is endearing as a “cult movie,” but its aspirations are limited, restrained by a tiny budget that renders much of it primitive in comparison to the orchestral roar of action of this picture—represented in purely cinematic terms such as movement, image, sound, all invaluably linked to one another through breathtaking choreography and geographical mastery. Miller's mise-en-scene is dazzling in its complexity, but what makes The Road Warrior most successful as a piece of pure cinema is its methodical and meticulous mythologizing of the hero.
The Road Warrior is firstly a tale about myth, like all stories, but most especially ones set in the past or future. Playing out in a barren, dystopic post-nuclear world where people have been reduced to hoarding their gasoline—the lifeblood of the modern, developed world, made literally the life-source of those who survived the abominable extinguishing of the planet in its beautiful form. The myth-making is apparent immediately, as a sage narrator explains the background to the generation he is presumably entrusting to follow him. Like all older, wiser men telling pertinent tales of the foolishness of man, he doubtless hopes that the generation that succeeds him will not repeat the recurring mistakes of man.
“My life fades. The vision dims. All that remains are memories. I remember a
time of chaos. Ruined dreams. This wasted land. But most of all, I remember The
Road Warrior. The man we called 'Max.' To understand who he was, you have to go
back to another time. When the world was powered by the black fuel. And the
desert sprouted great cities of pipe and steel. Gone now, swept away. For
reasons long forgotten, two mighty warrior tribes went to war and touched off a
blaze which engulfed them all. Without fuel, they were nothing. They built a
house of straw. The thundering machines sputtered and stopped. Their leaders
talked and talked and talked. But nothing could stem the avalanche. Their world
crumbled. The cities exploded. A whirlwind of looting, a firestorm of fear. Men
began to feed on men. On the roads it was a white line nightmare. Only those
mobile enough to scavenge, brutal enough to pillage would survive. The gangs
took over the highways, ready to wage war for a tank of juice. And in this
maelstrom of decay, ordinary men were battered and smashed. Men like Max. The
warrior Max. In the roar of an engine, he lost everything. And became a shell of
a man, a burnt out, desolate man, a man haunted by the demons of his past, a man
who wandered out into the wasteland. And it was here, in this blighted place,
that he learned to live again...”
The screenplay, written by Miller, Terry Hayes and Brian Hannant, gives the hero-myth that animates so many, from the man wanting to take his mind off his troubles for ninety minutes to the late Joseph Campbell, an appropriately gauzy starting point. Seeing the original 1979 movie is unnecessary firstly because this picture asserts itself with such an involving and propulsive beginning by itself, so as to leave the first chapter in the saga otiose in comparison and secondly because the above narration is visually reinforced by imagery from the first picture, most importantly the slaying of Max's wife and child “...[i]n the roar of an engine...” The film, having solemnly promised to be nothing less than a rollicking artistic avatar for the ancient tradition of proliferating the “Creative Mythology” of a people, to appropriate Campbell, bolsters its myth with the avoirdupois of human nature. Any film so self-possessed in its confidence, pursuing the strategy inherent in its raison d'etre, naturally borders on grandiloquence. Here, the narrator's words are supplied with historical weight. “For reasons long forgotten, two mighty warrior tribes went to war and touched off a blaze which engulfed them all.” Surely in the late 1970s and early 1980s fears of nuclear annihilation—the most unthinkable possibility, nevertheless repeatedly flirted with throughout the Cold War's duration—were justified. Ironically, those fears' salience, their being so easily reduced to being incorporated in the makings of pop entertainment, whether in the '40s, '50s, '60s or thereafter, compellingly prove the case.
Miller allows the pyrotechnics obligatory in his film's world blanketed by madness to commence the moment the prologue ceases, eschewing any further build-up in favor of christening the audience in the baptismal fire of a gripping chase sequence. Max, played by Mel Gibson (who starred in the 1979 picture and would later reprise the role in the 1985 Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome), is pursued by a group of rapacious bandits. Outwitting them, Max ensures that he can survive for another day. And that is what he most definitively cares about. Max has indeed been stripped of his humanity by the inhumanities from which he has suffered so greatly. Like a more cynical and coldblooded Han Solo from Star Wars (1977), Max is unwilling to enlist in causes, no matter how just; his particular steely iciness and emotional self-denial encapsulates the lengths to which he will think of himself in all situations. Or so he has forced himself to believe. In a manner befitting the soul-drained knight of this adventure, Gibson's performance reminds one of other ruffians or stoic doers of justice, convincing themselves that they were instruments of more elemental contrivances. Like John Ford's Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1956) or Akira Kurosawa's Sanjuro Kawatabake in Yojimbo (1961), Max here is a largely pensive, bottled-up protagonist. Gibson rightly plays the part with a deadpan asceticism. He is playing a part whose role is determined by the characters who surround him. It is they who make Max a hero, in many ways; it is literally and lyrically foretold. He shall be lionized. What those who encounter him bring with them is what paints the portrait of Max. That portrait's coloring fluctuates between the begrudging respect earned from comic relief sidekick “Gyro Captain” (Bruce Spence), righteous indignation by the leader of the tribe vainly trying to get Max to drive a tanker truck full of the surviving community's gasoline named Pappagello (Mike Preston) and adulation from an eight-year-old who growls, grunts and laughs in a constant state of delirium named Feral Kid (Emil Minty).
That Feral Kid attacks one of the film's more considerable forces of evil, a malevolent marauder named Wez (Vernon Wells), who hops about uncontrollably, his facial warpaint and tomahawk hairdo adducing his unrefined truculence. The Feral Kid flings a lethal metal boomerang in the direction of Wez, but the wicked warrior avoids it, leaving his ostensible male lover doomed to receive the instrument, which lands squarely in his head. The pain Wez feels is palpable. What follows is fascinating. The boomerang flies through the air again, and the event is made into a joke by the evil and destructive Lord Humungus's (Kjell Nilsson) pathetic court jester, who, in his ridiculous effort to catch the metal boomerang, loses several fingers. The roaring laughter throughout the ranks of Lord Humungus's men serves as a prudent drawing of the historic role of the court jester, and how expendable he is in the grand scheme of history.
Viewed through the prism of economics, of the issues of energy and industry, of self-sufficiency and the undeniably important role gasoline plays in the functionality and networking of modern society—afforded paradoxical weight by Max's vehicle being a super-charged car—The Road Warrior is altogether arresting. The Mad Max series, made in a post-'70s energy crisis time period, posits the shattering but familiar future reality of nuclear annihilation, cinematically pervasive from Chris Marker's La Jetee to James Cameron's The Terminator, as a testing-ground for man, his machines and the fuel without which those machines are useless. With the building blocks kicked over by irrationality, man must revert to sheer basics in all existential matters.
Dean Semler (whose latest work can be found in Appaloosa) aids Miller in providing splendid cinematography, aligning Miller's compositional genius with a vibrancy of light that is quintessential in the making of the director's expansive vision. The sun, and the gradations of the light it bestows upon the earth, is made a character itself, hovering above the action. Miller's handling of the action, however, the robust technique of his prodigious filmmaking, is what makes The Road Warrior a uniquely sensational work, its excitedly humming filmic engine capable of taking the viewer to places at almost peerless speeds. It is in the conflict between the perdurable forces of good and evil that this film finds its sparkling soul. Art, no matter how wonderful, cannot stand as the justification for history: from Homer and Euripides through Tolstoy and Hemingway, art could only meagerly attempt to reconcile and record the tragedy, depravity and horror so prevalent at different times. The future, fertile though it may be, can only cohere to such an elucidation, something many Road Warrior knock-offs such as the bloated wet '90s version, Water World, failed to understand. As the rebellious American colonist Patrick Henry noted in his speech to the Virginia convention of 1775, “I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know no way of judging of the future but by the past.” The picture's title, The Road Warrior, describes the title of this tale's heroic figure, mythically impenetrable and distant. As the heroes celebrated, for instance, in Plutarch's Lives were endowed with awesome monikers, so too have people throughout all of time given their precious heroes momentous titles.