Even after forty years, Mad Max 2 (aka The Road Warrior) still has the ability to astound and thrill. Making its stateside debut on May 21, 1982, George Miller’s (Mad Max 1979 – our retro review) post-apocalyptic actioner made an international megastar out of twenty-six year-old Mel Gibson (Lethal Weapon franchise) and maintains its ferocity due to its completely unique vision and amazing stunt work. It is my favorite of the four films in the series.
In the original film, we saw “Mad” Max Rockatansky—played by a charismatic and tough Gibson at the peak of his powers—dealing with a civilization on the brink of collapse. When we catch up with him in Mad Max 2, civilization no longer exists,, and Australia has regressed into a sort of Old Western-inspired anarchy where gasoline has become the most sought after of all resources. After a run in with the Gyro Captain (a lanky and opportunistic Bruce Spence: Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith 2005), Max learns of an isolated functioning fuel refinery. The catch is that the small fortress is under a near constant siege by Lord Humungus (an imposing Kjell Nillson: The Pirate Movie 1982) and his army of rapacious marauders, including the snarling Wez (fan favorite Vernon Wells: Kill Giggles 2020 – our review).
Max and the Captain eventually obtain entry into the meager stronghold and find out that the good people inside have a plan to reach a supposed paradise some two thousand miles away. Their upright leader, Pappagallo (Michael Preston: Homicide TV series), along with the Feral Kid (a young and impressive Emil Minty: The Haunted School TV series), attempt to persuade Max to help them. Max isn’t interested in paradise, though. He just wants to get back out on the road with plenty of gasoline. He soon faces some tough decisions.
Performances are great across the board. Gibson is magnetic as the conflicted but pragmatic Max. A deeply wounded man, Max oozes vulnerability all while showcasing essential strength and resourcefulness. Spence makes the Gyro Captain a little slimy but not irredeemably so, and his physicality provides some light humor to a somewhat dark film. Even though Humungus has relatively little to do, the ripped Nillson plays the hell out the wasteland warlord, despite wearing a mask that conceals his face for the entire runtime. No easy task, Nillson uses body language and line delivery to make the Ayatollah of Rock n Rolla memorable.
While Wez may not be the main villain in Mad Max 2, he steals almost every scene he appears in. Wells is just this side of over the top as the ferocious and acrobatic warrior. Minty delivers my favorite performance, though. His Feral Kid is believably animalistic and warm. The wrong child actor could have brought this film to a screeching halt, but he is absolutely perfect in the role. Armed with only grunts, growls, and loaded looks, Minty kills.
Flawlessly complimenting the performers, Mad Max 2‘s production design completely immerses viewers into the flick. Costumes in particular are inspired and are a huge reason for the film’s iconic status. Humungus’ squad sports punk rock BDSM getups that have been ripped off countless times over the decades and for good reason. They’re spectacularly bizarre and frightening.
The vehicles are also a huge part of breathing life into the Mad Max 2 world. From traditional muscle cars and motorcycles to repurposed buses and trucks to weird dune buggies and other modified four wheelers, no expense was spared in providing convincingly rendered post-apocalyptic chariots.
Locations and sets are the final elements of crafting a desolate vision. Dusty and bleak but not without a primal beauty, they work seamlessly with the camerawork to place viewers into the action while giving performers the ability to interact with a highly tactile environment.
Speaking of cinematography, the lensing by Dean Semler (Razorback 1984 – our retro review) is impressive and dynamic. He and Miller propel the story and create mind blowing action sequences. The editing is flawless and does not feel choppy like so many modern action films. Weaving in, out, and around careening vehicles and performers, Mad Max 2 looks fantastic and allows clear views of the stunning stunt work. There are real crashes, explosions, and people flying all over the screen. The amount of battered bodies it took to realize Miller’s vision is impressive in its commitment to verisimilitude. The stunts, combined with their artistic filming, are magnificent and a huge reason why the film has lost none of its power.
Miller, Terry Hayes (Dead Calm 1989), and Brian Hannant’s (The Time Guardian 1987) script for Mad Max 2 is lean and muscular. While it allows performers to maneuver, it still gives all the main players moments to shine. Momentum is all important here, and that is evident in the writing. Moments of introspection and character are brief but meaningful and only allow the audience quick respites from propulsive carnage. Though it defers to most of the other technical elements listed above, it still provides a strong framework for those aspects to lie upon whilst subtly mining Campbellian archetypal mythology.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the huge and rousing score by Brian May (Dr Giggles 1992 – our retro review). It works hand in hand with the script and performers to deliver on that aforementioned mythological component. These characters are larger than life and are provided music appropriate to their stature.
So, yes, George Miller’s Mad Max 2 is a masterpiece. I don’t think it’s out of line to say it’s one of the best and most unique action films of all time. Bleak but spiked with hope, it entertains whilst playing on some of our darkest fears. There’s a reason Mel Gibson’s star exploded after this movie. It’s a cracking good film, and he’s excellent in it. Always interesting to look at and providing thrills at a mile a minute, Mad Max 2 is a film that has stood the test of time, and I have no doubt it will continue to do so, based on the sum of its excellent artistry and craft. They literally do not make them like this anymore. Highest possible recommendation.