Friday, April 9, 2010

The Friday Night Late Movie: An Unlikely Hero Emerges in "The Road Warrior"

The Road Warrior (aka Mad Max 2) is a rarity in cinema—a sequel that surpasses the original in every way. Whereas 1979’s Mad Max drowned in a bleak view of a post-apocalyptic future, The Road Warrior creates a mythic portrait of its hero and presents a world with a glimmer of hope. It also doesn’t hurt that The Road Warrior features some of the most exhilarating chase scenes ever filmed and a star-making turn by Mel Gibson.

Set in the barren Australian outback, the minimalist plot places cop-turned-loner Max into the middle of a conflict between a bloodthirsty gang of road scavengers and a “tribe” of families searching for paradise. Max and his trusty canine companion, Dog, try to not to get involved. But fate intervenes and Max finds himself forced to become an unwilling hero.

Writer-director George Miller acknowledges the influence of both American Westerns and Japanese samurai films. Indeed, the first time I saw The Road Warrior, it reminded me of George Stevens’ Western classic Shane. Like the former gunslinger Shane, Max is a loner who reluctantly comes to the defense of peaceful folks trying to fend off villains who want their land (well, their gasoline in The Road Warrior). Shane tries to put his past behind him and considers joining the farmers he defends. Max accepts his past, although I think he briefly contemplates joining a “family” again. And, finally, both Shane and Max forge friendships with young boys.

The relationship between Max and the Feral Kid is economically conveyed in a handful of choice scenes. Miller and his co-writers link that friendship to the film’s narration—which goes a long way toward establishing Max as a truly mythic figure.

Of course, for many viewers, The Road Warrior is simply a superbly crafted action picture. The 17-minute chase climax combines tense editing, terrific stunts, and—like all great chases—a collection of interesting mini-dramas as Max drives a tanker with the villains in pursuit. My favorite sequence occurs when Max’s shotgun shells fly through the blown-out windshield frame and roll down the hood of the speeding rig. At Max’s prompting, the frightened Feral Kid crawls out to get them—only to encounter a nasty shock.

Alas, the Feral Kid was nowhere in sight when Miller and Gibson teamed up again for a second sequel with 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. It recycled some of the same elements (instead of Max and one kid, why not Max and a bunch of them?). Though better than the first film in the trilogy, it lacked the power and sense of destiny that makes The Road Warrior such a memorable movie.


  1. Finally, one of your Friday night movies that allows me to leave an educated comment! I like the first Max Max better, but I also like the sequel--the third movie is not good in my opinion. Anyway, what I like about this film is the exhilirating end. You are right on about how tense the ending is. In addition, I think the prophetic insight into having gasoline be the most valued commodity in the post-apocalyptic world was inspired. Thanks for your great review.

  2. Rick I saw The Road Warrior at a midnight "sneak preview" as the bottom of a 4 film Wes Craven (The Hills have Eyes, etc)mini festival at the Fox Venice in Southern Cal months before the general release. To say it blew away the audience would be a understatement.The editing is first rate.I've frame by framed the motorcycle under the tanker truck so many times and I still can't find the cut. One of my favorite George Miller films.

  3. Kim, I saw MAD MAX at a drive-in after I saw THE ROAD WARRIOR. It was the U.S. version in which Mel's voice was dubbed. It was interesting, but--for me--it lacked the driving narrative and mythic nature of ROAD WARRIOR. I agree that THUNDERDOME was easily the worst...certainly watchable, but mostly a rehash. Paul, I saw ROAD WARRIOR when it first came out. Other than a rave review in TIME magazine, I don't recall it getting a lot of attention. So I had no expectations and it blew me away, too. When I saw it again years later, I liked it even better.

  4. Excellent film, Rick. I agree that it surpasses the original, which is also very good although bleak and actually a little depressing. The stunts are incredible. The one I will always remember is a man hitting a car and flying off of his bike. This was an accident. He was supposed to just go over the car, but the stunt man's leg hit the car and he spun well past his mark. It looks amazing, and since the man survived with only a broken leg, they kept the footage. Thanks for a great Friday Night Late Movie, Rick. It makes me want to have a MAD MAX marathon... sans THUNDERDOME.

  5. This is an excellent choice for a late night weekend movie. The story is fascinating but it is the relationship between the boy and Max that is truly interesting.

  6. Rick, this is my personal favorite Mel Gibson movie. I just love this movie and own it on DVD. I have seen all three Mad Max movies, but this one is by far the best. It is an original movie when it was made and is still so today. Well, for that matter all three are original movies. It has the most exciting vehicle chases of any movie. Oh, I love the music in THUNDERDOME and yes, it is on my iPod. Enjoyed your excellent review, but then all your reviews are excellent.