Robert Tiemstra ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
If there is anything the 2010s will be known for by film historians of the future, it will be for the strange fascination in brand appeal, regardless of how obscure the title, or how dusty the source material. Since 2010’s Tron: Legacy, we are becoming disturbingly desensitized to enormous gaps between a film and its sequel. Up through the early 2000’s, Hollywood has let sleeping dogs lie, but is now intent upon waking them all with surface to air ballistic missiles if necessary. It has been 30 years since the Mad Max series roared off onto the dusty Australian horizon, and after decades worth of development hell, George Miller is back at the wheel for Mad Max: Fury Road, coming out this May. So there is no better time to take an objective look back at what is considered to be the best film in the Mad Max series, and a cult classic amongst action movie fans, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior.
Let’s talk context first. Mad Max was a dystopian action film co-written & directed by medical doctor George Miller, shot entirely in Australia on a shoestring budget. It has next to nothing to do with its sequels (except the titular character, played by a pre-crazy Mel Gibson, and the fetishistic car chases), and doesn’t hold up exceptionally well when looked at now. The production values are shoddy, the chases can get repetitive, and the pace drags impressively for a 93 minute film. However, the film was successful enough to merit a sequel, which completely overhauled the franchise, revamping it into the manic post-apocalypse we all think of when we think Mad Max. The title of the first film is a reference to Max’s vengeful rage as everyone close to him is killed or injured by marauding street-gangs, whereas the title has a different meaning when it is the whole world that has gone mad – mad to the max, as it were. Violent misanthrope Max finally has a place where he can fit in.
All of the baggage Max Rockatansky carries with him is implicit in his terse “man with no name” behavior in The Road Warrior, but it is by no means necessary to enjoy the film itself. In many ways, this is a full hard-reset, with Max’s past largely serving as grounding material for his Samurai-inspired desert wandering – only referenced once in passing in the film. This film borrows heavily from the Samurai/Western genre tropes, using the well worn “lone stranger comes to aid oppressed innocents from a marauding gang of psychopaths” formula. This bare bones structure retains its primal appeal, benefitting from being set within the film’s unique aesthetic – a hodgepodge of steampunk, western, and fetish gear that creates its own insane atmosphere that transcends the drab trappings of most modern post-apocalypses.
Its popularity amongst action movie fans notwithstanding, let’s not kid ourselves about what The Road Warrior is: it is a shameless exploitation film with about as much real intellectual heft as Bad Boys II. Its artistic merit begins and ends with the pulpy comic aesthetic, as the most interesting parts about its world were put in there simply to be weird. As edgy as it was in 1981 to make one of the principal antagonists a gay man who’s trying to avenge the early murder of his lover, it is in the film only because that’s what exploitation films do – put in everything that you can’t get away with in mainstream cinema. In particular, George Miller’s twisted sense of humor shows through in the many car chases, the kills ranging from dramatic to outright goofy (at one point during the climactic chase, a henchman foolishly tries to put out his cigarette on a moving tire wheel, with gruesome results). The closest thing to a message this film has is the possibility humanity is one drought away from devolving into savage beasts that rely only on gallows humor and remnants of the old world to survive – and this sort of subtext only comes from digging far deeper than one needs to in order to enjoy the film as a series of adrenaline-inducing sights and sounds.
But while its status as a shameless exploitation film allows it to have fun with itself, it is this same aesthetic that dates The Road Warrior quite harshly when viewed in the semi-enlightened era 2015. Most of the female characters exist as either victims or window dressing, the only exception being the “Warrior Woman”(played by Farscape’s Virginia Hey), who has some peripheral participation in a handful of action scenes, and a paltry handful of lines (which, in all fairness, is about as many as Max has on a scene by scene average). And rape scenes, while they are in for a very particular reason (i.e. establish the marauding bandits as complete hate-filled psychopaths), there is something unpleasant about their presence in a film that can otherwise be written off as cheerfully gruesome. The ratio of campy violence to grim and sickening violence is a steep one too be sure, and that’s where the Road Warrior can push into the realms of bad taste at several points throughout its runtime. Fortunately these scenes are innocuous enough that the bad taste they leave in your mouth is washed out swiftly by high speed carnage.
In the end, The Road Warrior ages best when compared to modern popcorn films. Writing off a movie as “good dumb fun” is the most defeatist way to brush off actually talking about the merits of action cinema, so lets recap why it is so fun, despite being so dumb. In the end, it is the visceral craftsmanship, western genre homages, uniquely patchwork aesthetic, and film school abandon that make The Road Warrior an unabashedly entertaining pulp action film that reaches just a branch or two higher than your average exploitation film. It establishes the bare bones of its dusty Australian setting, its protagonist, and its darkly humorous (or bleakly manic) tone. And, despite “the post-apocalyptic wasteland” being a go-to for gritty action thrillers, there has never been a movie quite like this one. Films have tried to ape the desert aesthetic of Mad Max movies, with middling success (looking at you, Book of Eli), but there is something gloriously, uniquely, delightfully, mad about the whole affair that no other post-apocalyptic romp has been able to recapture. And with the presence of Charlize Theron and a more mature George Miller, perhaps Fury Road will provide all of the high-octane thrills without the tasteless sexism. Although, perhaps it is a bit much to expect maturity from the man who directed both the Happy Feet movies.