One of the most fascinating things about George Miller’s iconic Mad Max series is that after the first one, each successive installment feels like a reboot than a sequel. He takes scenes, themes and characters of his earlier work that maybe he could do better and gives them a fresh spin, apparently without fears that someone in the audience will accuse his epics of motorized mayhem of excessive retreading. Maybe that’s because in every Mad Max movie, Miller puts such an intense amount of effort into them, we can really see how he’s trying to reinvent a concept, driven by fresh inspiration, sending a different message, and delivering astonishing new thrills. However Miller works his magic, it’s on display in pretty much anything he ever puts to screen, whether it’s affiliated with Mad Max or not. But he first put his interesting brand of self-revisionism on display with Mad Max’s eagerly awaited sequel, The Road Warrior. Alternately marketed as Mad Max 2, or Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, whatever name this movie went by, once it hit the screens, road rage would never the same again.
The story takes place years after some kind of global military conflict has destroyed worldwide petroleum production and ushered in a state of rapid civilizational collapse. Deep in the badlands of Australia, a drifter named Max Rockatansky cruises the broken highways in search of food and fuel to scavenge. He still wears his old Main Force Patrol leathers from his days as a kind of high-velocity highway cop, he still drives his supercharged V8 interceptor, and he still wears a brace on his leg from where he took a bullet while slaughtering the biker gang that killed his wife and infant son. A leather-clad bundle of PTSD, Max is a human on autopilot, detached from the emotions that once made him a loving family man and worthy protector of the innocent. Now, all he’s got is his trusty dog and a wickedly serrated survival instinct.
Max discovers an outpost built around an old oil drilling and refinery station, but it is besieged by a large and well-armed gang of barbaric marauders—led by a hulking masked psychopath named Lord Humungus—who will rape, torture and kill whomever tries to escape the compound. Sensing an opportunity to score some loot for himself, he forms a wary alliance with the defenders and offers to deliver to them a semi cab that can haul the large tanker of gas sitting in the compound. After multiple twists of fate driven by the endless attacks by Humungus’ men, the defenders make one last break for it, with Max driving the tanker, putting his skills to the test, and acknowledging that there is still a shred of his old self in his head somewhere. The question is: will it ensure his survival…or blunt his edge and get him killed? Somewhere along the way, we realize that maybe staying alive doesn’t count for much if you can’t figure out what you’re staying alive for. And Max does, too.
The Road Warrior doubles down on the ambitious and bleak setting laid out in Mad Max, imagining a world that has fully given itself over to collapse and anarchy. This is a world no longer able to build much of anything, skilled only in scavenging the results of previous manufacture, and living through the first days of might be a very long Dark Age. The movie’s punk rocker, BDSM-inspired costuming, super-wide landscape photography, phenomenal stunt work, tight editing and hard-driving story all combine into something that have become one of the most accessible templates for post-apocalypse cinema on the planet. It is also an action movie of breathtaking and brutal virtuosity.
But the weird neo-savagery of this world is drawn most deftly by its cast of bizarre characters. There’s Humungus’ chief minion Wez, who looks like the star tight end for the varsity football squad of an asylum for the criminally insane. There is the Gyro Captain, a sketchy, bug-eyed fella who flies around on his ultralight and is perhaps more reliable than he initially lets on. There is Pappagallo, the defender’s leader, who looks suspiciously like Mick Jagger and echoes Max’s old police chief Fifi in insisting that there is still room in this world for people to do the right thing. And there is the Feral Kid, a child born after things went to hell and relies on animal instincts and a bladed boomerang that only he can throw and catch safely. With characters like these, we see how far everybody who has survived until now has had to deviate from the person they once were. All of these people used to be regular folks once upon a time. Now nobody is.
And then there is Max himself, played again by a rapidly ascending Mel Gibson. Here, we see Mad Max as an extended origin story (something the movie’s own prologue ensures by showing snippets of it to bring the uninitiated up to speed). Max’s every action here—as a survivor, as a guy slightly more decent than Humungus’ thieving minions, and ultimately, as a guy who can be trusted to do the (mostly) right thing—is a case study in what happens when a good man is broken by the world around him, but yet doesn’t fully succumb to his own inner darkness. There comes a point where Max turns his back on the defenders and pays a heavy price for it. When he returns for the movie’s finale, he insists on helping the same people he just left high and dry. It’s not for his own safety and it’s not for his own enrichment. It’s because once he has been brought to the edge of death, only then can he remember the man named Max, who wasn’t always quite so mad. For one last high-octane, eighteen-wheeled, shotgun-toting trip, he can be that guy once again, and nobody would dare deny him that.