Part post-apocalyptic Western, part midnight motorcycle flick and part Rocky Horror Picture Show, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior is, when you add it all up, a nutty, B-movie masterpiece.
Working with cinematographer Dean Semler, director George Miller does an immensely better job of world-building this time around. If Mad Max was a clunky low-budget riff on the future, The Road Warrior is an all-encompassing, immersive experience, one defined by pomegranate skies and endless dust. As Max (Mel Gibson) races along barren roadways, avoiding marauding bikers while searching for precious gasoline, desperation drips from every frame, along with a pulsing excitement. Living on the edge of existence has rarely seemed so fun.
That’s partly because Miller brings a rave-like sensibility to the proceedings. The bad guys here are led by a nearly nude muscle man in a hockey mask who calls himself The Humungus (Kjell Nilsson). His main henchman (Vernon Wells) sports mascara, a red Mohawk and a blonde boy toy chained to the back of his bike. As they surround an oil outpost with plans to pillage it, their motor-revving ways have the feel of a drug-fueled desert party. It’s as if the sand people from Star Wars went to a leather bar and came out with a new branding strategy.
It’s as if the sand people from Star Wars went to a leather bar and came out with a new branding strategy.
Into this mayhem drives Max, who also sees the outpost as his best chance for survival. So he offers his services to the people there, volunteering to help them escape their assailants. This involves a series of brilliantly staged car stunts that far exceed anything pulled off in Mad Max, including a climactic, tour de force truck-driving scene that can hold its own against the one Steven Spielberg managed in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The Road Warrior also offers a number of unnervingly indelible characters, from the gamey gyrocopter pilot (Bruce Spence) who becomes Max’s unlikely ally to “The Feral Kid” (Emil Minty) who equally insists on being by his side. Both attempt to pierce the stoic, antihero exterior that Gibson delivers, and it’s a minor pleasure to note the small ways he lets them in. This is a brutal world Miller and his filmmaking team have envisioned, but against all odds they keep it from becoming a hopelessly bleak one.