dir. George Miller
If you’ll indulge me to paraphrase Marty DiBergi, “Mad Max 2” has earned a distinguished place in movie history as one of the loudest of all action films. Between Brian May’s near constant, pulsating score and the crash of all of George Miller’s disposable vehicles, I first finished the film with a psychical feeling of exhaustion. The only other action film that I can recall to give me the same feeling of breathlessness is James Cameron’s “Aliens”. Plot-wise the film has all the complexity of a Chuck Jones cartoon. However, it’s executed like a piece of classical music that keeps building towards a crescendo, but sustained for a ferocious 94 minutes. It’s obviously a sequel to the 1979 Australian grindhouse film “Mad Max”, but back in 1981 there was a good chance that you wouldn’t have known that. Released simply under the title “The Road Warrior”, the studio than assumed that most moviegoers wouldn’t bother to see a sequel to a film that wasn’t a household name at the time. So how does it work as a sequel? Amazingly, very well. Unlike, say, the “Matrix” films, the “Mad Max” series has never been determinedly linear. The individual films themselves are more like vignettes set in the same universe and with the same protagonist than a continuation. But against all odds “Mad Max 2” not only plays off the preceding film in a logical way, but far surpasses it. Louder, bigger, slicker, but most of all, smarter. It’s everything that the perfect action film should be; masculine without being sexist, fast without being furious, and B-movie without being B-grade. It’s also one of the best films to emerge from the 80’s in any genre.
Mel Gibson stars again in the breakout role that made him an archetypal cinema badass. It’s a surprisingly charismatic performance for a man of such few words. In fact, Max himself has only 16 lines of spoken dialogue in the entire film, and not always particularly memorable ones at that. In one scene the Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence) spills the beans to a skeptical Max about an oil refinery in the middle of the wasteland that’s been pumping large quantities of gas. “Crap!” is Max’s reply (in the original shooting script it was “Balls!”). But the writing works perfectly for the tone and type of character that Miller is going for. Like Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s “Man With No Name” trilogy, Max Rockatansky is the quintessential western hero. Just look at character names in the opening credits; Warrior Woman, Feral Kid, Gyro Captain. These are not real people but character types. We’re not meant to connect with any of them, but rather use them as vessels to enter the world that Miller has created. Max does have a traceable arc over the course of the first two films that is oddly well drawn for a character of this kind, but it’s given away in the first two minutes of opening narration as if Miller is telling us to put aside all notions of traditional storytelling. It’s a simple heroes’ quest, owing more than it’s fair share to the work of Joseph Campbell and in turn George Lucas. There are themes of redemption, community bonding, and warfare but when the engines start reeving, that’s when Miller puts his foot on the accelerator and doesn’t let up.
None of this would work without George Miller. Quite possibly the most skilled action filmmaker since… ever? At the very least, Sam Peckinpah. His action is never supplemental. His characters don’t speak much, but that’s because his visuals do all of the talking. There is a rhythm and tempo to his chase scenes that borders on ballet. Even his cutaway shots that last for a fraction of a second contain more film-making panache than what you’ll see in today’s action cinema. Take the Gyro Captain, in his flying contraption, dropping a snake on one of the goons chasing Max. Miller inserts a fantastic shot of the snake’s head in the foreground, in shallow focus, while the action rages on below. Or when the ruthless thug Wez (Vernon Wells) headbutts one of Pappagallo’s men and Miller splices a single white frame in between the action. It’s a minute detail but one that gives the gesture so much more impact. There is also a terrific sequence where Max and the Gyro Captain are up on a cliff and observing the oil refinery below as the Humungus gang wages an attack. A wide shot, the sun slicing the horizon in half, of all of their vehicles driving off with puffs of dust being kicked up from behind belongs in a David Lean film. If you compare one of Miller’s chase scenes to a poorly done one from a lesser film (they’re pretty easy to find, especially nowadays), you’ll have a greater understanding of his craft. Miller knows exactly when and where to cut, and for how long to hold a shot. The renowned climatic chase scene is a tapestry of action that has as much moving parts as a Rube Goldberg contraption. Yet the audience is constantly aware of where everyone is in relation to each other, and in which direction they’re going. The geography of a bad chase scene often results in a sloppy array of cars flying this way and that, going in one direction and then suddenly in another (if you want an example of a lousy chase scene, look no further than the opening of “Quantum of Solace”, where even the editor has no idea what’s happening). But it’s not just about the action. George Miller is also wise in the ways of visual storytelling. Almost all of his world-building takes place in the background, except for a few expositional nuggets that are needed to establish the story, which are given to us in the opening narration. This isn’t one of those fantasy films (*cough*HarryPotter*cough*) that stop to give us a verbal discourse every time a new object or character is introduced into the action. Notice the gun used by the Humungus. Striking in how clean it is and kept preciously in an ornate case. When he fires one of the few bullets at Max you can literally see his hesitation beforehand. Or when one of Pappagallo’s colonists hands Max a bag full of ammunition shells, we don’t need words to understand the gravity of the gesture.
The plot, if you could call it that, consists essentially of elements and tropes taken from western and action films. There’s a lot of Kurosawa in there, and traces of the two western legends, Leone and Peckinpah. A mysterious and haunted stranger finds the conscience to protect a peaceful community from a ruthless horde of bandits. We’ve seen it before. The genius is in the execution. There’s the leader of the thugs, the Humungus (Kjell Nilsson), who looks like something of a cross between Jason Voorhees and a WWE wrestler. And Wez, a step below in rank, who sports a red mohawk and and a shirt collar that looks like it was made from a dead bird. There’s obviously a hierarchy to the gang but Miller never wastes time to explain it. Again, it’s all relayed visually. At the beginning of the film Wez rides with a young, baby faced blonde kid who wears a collar and chain around his neck. We’re left to assume that this is some sort of S&M pecking order. Then when Wez later betrays the Humungus by acting without authority he is seen shackled as well. The Humungus refers to his goons as his “dogs of war”. However, there is a certain nobility there too. In one gonzo sequence involving the Feral Kid (Emil Minty) and a boomerang, the baby faced blonde is killed and Wez mourns the body. Miller paints a post-apocalyptic wasteland that is occupied, not by good and evil, but by two clans who’ll do whatever it takes to be free. The Humungus clan: nihilists who are willing to kill and wage war for a “tank of juice”, and Pappagallo’s clan: idealists with dreams of building a better tomorrow, grasping desperately onto civility. Then there is Max: the neutral party torn between both sides. What begins as a petty bargain between Max and Pappagallo for a percentage of the gas becomes an alliance of honor. “We’re still human beings, with dignity.” Pappgallo (Michael Preston) tells an unruly Max in a scene that paints the divide between them. “But you? You’re out there with the garbage. You’re NOTHING.” Even before Max abandons the colony in their time of need, after simply keeping up his end of the bargain, Pappagallo observes, “He fulfilled his contract. He’s an honorable man.” To him, that is even more important than the prospect of death.
Not that it’s necessary in order to enjoy “Mad Max 2”, but knowledge of the first film helps one to appreciate the arc of the character. It’s a simple arc, again, laid out for us in the opening narration, but more effectively formed than is usually the case for these types of films. The final image of the initial film saw Max ominously riding out into the wasteland with dark storm clouds ahead. Now, after an undisclosed amount of time, the world has devolved back to an almost prehistoric era. Gutted cars litter the roads like fossils from a bygone world. Guns and ammunition are sparse (the preferred weapon of the future being crossbows, along with snakes and boomerangs) and so is gasoline. And somewhere along the way Max has picked up a companion, a dog who surely gives one of the great dog performances in the cinema. The outfits that the characters wear are strewn together from all kinds of styles and eras. The hand-me-downs of various sci-fi and fantasy lore. Some look decidedly S&M inspired and some resemble knights and warriors from past ages. The Pappagallo clan all wear a robe/body armor crossbreed that looks like something from “Lawrence of Arabia”. White, of course, because they are the good guys. Max, of course, still dons his iconic black leather. It’s been copied and duplicated by so many films and art since 1981 that it’s easy to forget that Miller singly created the look that most of us associate with post-apocalyptic fiction. That it’s easy to forget is just a testament to the film’s paramount influence. There isn’t much exposition to fill the gap between films, mostly relying on implication. The story is framed by narration as if what we’re watching is a legend in the making, and as such, the details and fine points don’t really matter. In a nice ending reveal we come to understand that the disembodied voice is actually that of the Feral Kid, many years after the events of the film. If you can take it as it is, as a legend being passed down from generation, you’d do best to learn to subtract the meaning and action without questioning too much of the how or why. Max takes a heroic turn at the end despite having some pretty thin character motivation, but in juxtaposition to the preceding film, it provides a nice circular trajectory. You can almost hear Fifi’s words echoing down from that film, “They say people don’t believe in heroes anymore. Well damn them! You and me, Max, we’re gonna give them back their heroes!” Not bad for what is essentially an exercise in action film-making and style.
It’s hard to put into words what makes “Mad Max 2” such a special film. Sure, some of the acting is stale, and some of the writing is wooden, but it all just somehow works. The mood of the film and tone that Miller conveys excuses any of those faults. Like Max himself, a more polished or well spoken character (or God forbid a smart aleck) would have been a detriment to the film, not an improvement. Miller spares no time with distractions like character development – except in the most broad strokes – or comedy (even camp) – except some dry wit, courtesy of the Gyro Captain. Gone is the clumsy melodrama of the 1979 film. Here is a film that is relentless in it’s desire to excite. Edited with shrapnel. Brian May’s urgent score thrusts one scene to the next with a constant drive. Like “The Wild Bunch” or “Bonnie and Clyde” before it, it’s a wonderfully orchestrated piece of brutality. Think of it as violence as art. Long before the days of CGI. As the actors and stuntmen tear ass down the Australian outback you can almost taste the dirt being kicked up. Miller simply wants to raise hell, and he succeeds wildly. Is it possible to detract more meaning from the film than was maybe intended? Sure. However, it’s not necessary. “Mad Max 2” is an action film, pure and simple, but that doesn’t prevent it from being able to stand toe to toe with the best of cinema. If you’ll permit me another “Spinal Tap” reference – this one goes to 11.
Rating: A+ (MASTERPIECE)