“I remember a time of chaos. Ruined dreams. This wasted land.”
So begins the opening narration setting the status quo of Mad Max 2 (known to many folks stateside as The Road Warrior). Nearly thirty-five years on from its initial release, the first Mad Max sequel is that rarest of cinematic beasts: The Perfect Movie. At just over ninety minutes, there’s not an ounce of fat on the thing, and it whizzes along like the souped-up V8 Interceptor that the title character tools around in. If the first film represented director George Miller’s tentative initial forays into the world of high stakes, high impact filmmaking, the second is the auteur fully embracing the freedom of imagination that can only come from making the then-most profitable film of all time.
When the original Mad Max earned twenty-five times its meager $400,000 budget at the global box office, a sequel was all but assured. And though the suddenly-hot Mel Gibson quickly filled up his dance card with prestige projects like Peter Weir’s Gallipoli and Michael Pate’s Tim to cement his status as an Actor to Watch before returning to the Rockatansky road, Miller, who also had his pick of projects after the first film brought him to Hollywood’s attention, chose instead to set about fashioning Max’s encore alongside producer Byron Kennedy and screenwriters Terry Hayes (who had written the Mad Max novelization) and Brian Hannant.
Mad Max 2 premiered in Australia in late 1981, just two years after the first Max hit theaters (although it wouldn’t hit the States until May of ‘82), and it presented a post-apocalyptic vision of the near future that was at once more dire and, paradoxically, more hopeful than what we saw the last time around. Set a handful of years after Max dispatched the Toecutter and set out towards an uncertain future, the interim has seen civil society collapse completely (detailed for us via a found footage montage accompanied by the narration noted above), with roving bands of marauders having overtaken the roadways.
After an indeterminate period of wandering, Max comes upon an oil refinery in the middle of the desert, being used by a colony of survivors who plan to use the processed petroleum to help beat a hasty retreat from the rapid encroachment of the Humungus (Kjell Nilsson), a musclebound monstrosity wearing a Jason Vorhees mask, who threatens to overtake the compound and steal the gasoline for himself and his minions (foremost among them the leather-clad, mohawked Wez, played by a pre-Commando Vernon Wells). It all culminates in a final breakneck action sequence featuring a tanker truck barrelling down the highway at full speed while various marauders attempt to hijack it, which remains to this day a marvel of practical effects and stunt-driving.
What becomes clear upon examining Mad Max 2 is how much Miller and Kennedy were intent on surpassing the first Max in every way possible. The budget is bigger, the scope is wider, the climax is explodier. Still, even with a far more ambitious palette, they also make sure to service the main character at its center. Rather than simply place him in front of, or around a series of elaborate set-pieces, they flesh out an arc for Max that sees him flirt with assisting the besieged survivors and ultimately coming back around from the soulless automaton the soul-crushing events of last time turned him into, allowing him, as the narrator tells us, “to live again” through the bonds he forms with a feral boy (Emil Minty) living in the encampment, and the “wacky sidekick” gyrocopter captain played by Bruce Spence.
The key to making it all work is the way the Miller maintains absolute fidelity to Max’s point-of-view. If he doesn’t see it, we don’t see it. Further, he clearly establishes him as a fundamentally good, decent man. Though colony leader Pappaggallo (Michael Preston) berates Max at one point for his reticence in aiding them, saying, “We’re still human beings, with dignity. But you? You’re out there with the garbage. You’re nothing,” the character we see throughout goes out of his way to help others even when it would be easier to look the other way and give in to the new normal. But no, there’s a clear line drawn between the Humungus’s followers, and everyone else.
This in turn underscores what I alluded to earlier, about how for all the horror it depicts, Mad Max 2 is still about hope. This isn’t a story about humanity’s end, it’s a story about humanity surviving. This isn’t a story of bad people and worse people. These are characters worth rooting for, whose stakes we have an investment in. Further, as we close, the narrator returns, contextualized as many years after the events we’ve just witnessed, and in turn providing further evidence that mankind not only made it past this period of sustained anarchy, but found its footing enough to restart some semblance of civilization.
In addition to setting the narrative and temporal context, the device of the opening and closing voiceover also serves the dual purpose of elevating the character of Max Rockatansky above and beyond the “shell of a man,” the “burnt-out desolate man” he had turned into at the close of the previous film. Instead, Mad Max 2 transforms him into a mythical, larger-than-life figure spoken of reverently by the narrator for the brief, integral role he played in facilitating their continued survival. “And the Road Warrior?” the voice intones ominously as we watch Gibson’s wounded, battered Max recede into the distance, “That was the last we ever saw of him.”
Of course, the rapturous reception afforded to Mad Max 2 during its 1981-’82 release window would put the lie to that statement. Distributed globally by Warner Brothers, not only did the sequel more than make back its $4.5 million budget (itself ten-times larger than its predecessor), it found a receptive audience in the United States, the same market that had summarily rejected the earlier entry. Further, it was embraced by contemporary critics, and remains a beloved exemplar of action cinema to this very day. Of course, while the post-apocalyptic genre had been a fixture for decades, the success of the Mad Max franchise brought all manner of imitators out of the woodwork.
And as for the actual Road Warrior? Well, unlike the characters in the film, audiences would get to see him again in three short years. But things would be slightly different for his third go-round.