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-[Film Reviews]-, Australian & New Zealand Cinema, English Language Film Industries

‘The Road Warrior’ (1981): Mad Max’s True Breakout


Directed by: George Miller || Produced by: Byron Kennedy

Screenplay by: Terry Hayes, George Miller, Brian Hannant || Starring: Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence, Emil Minty, Michael Preston, Virginia Hey, Kjell Nilsson, Vernon Wells, Max Phipps, Arkie Whiteley

Music by: Brian May || Cinematography: Dean Semler || Edited by: David Stiven, Michael Balson, Tim Wellburn || Country: Australia || Language: English

Running Time: 96 minutes

For the record, I saw both this and the 1979 original Mad Max well before the Comic Con trailers of the presumably awesome Mad Max: Fury Road (Q3, 2015) debuted. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the first MM, but I still respect its semi-original, half-cocked, dystopian attitude and its unique approach to hardcore action. Its first sequel, titled The Road Warrior (TRW), is widely considered the best in the series (so far), an assertion with which I agree.

Top: Vernon Wells (right) prepares to assault Mel Gibson’s caravan. Bottom: Gibson (foreground, right) chills with his loyal dog-companion amidst all the dreary post-apocalyptica.

TRW makes the smart sequel-move and ambitiously expands beyond the narrative premise of the original, as well as upping the ante with regards to every aspect of action-cinematography and genre-violence. The chases are bigger, badder, and the character-drama even more morbid and coldblooded than before. Mel Gibson’s Max himself is more reserved and emotionally distilled than in the last movie, recalling those classic vibes of the action-hero badass who lets his actions speak for themselves. Gibson has maybe 20-lines of dialogue in the entire film, yet his development as a lead-character is substantial, and his relationship with a ragtag group of post-apocalypse survivors is emotional enough to keep the story running true.

TRW’s world has further devolved from the maligned, skeletal dystopian society of the first film to a completely ruined post-apocalyptic wasteland. Many assert that the modern stereotypical vision of the ruined, desolate, end-of-the-world scenario did not exist before The Road Warrior, and given the film’s beautiful widescreen photography of the endless Australian outback, it’s easy to see how this claim bears weight.

What makes this sequel so powerful is its complete dependence on visuals to tell its story and its respect for character-driven violence to complete its visceral spectacle. Great action films tell their story through violence, and that’s exactly what The Road Warrior does for a solemn, brutal 96 minutes. 

This film’s villains are even weirder and more batshit crazy than the ones in the original Mad Max. Vernon Wells and Kjell Nilsson star as the despicable, leather-fetish bad guys who rape, pillage, and brutally murder struggling survivors of the post-apocalyptic Outback. Everything about these movies illustrate a universe descending into true madness. Chaos reigns supreme as heroes and antagonists shoot wrist-mounted crossbows, sawed-off double-barrel shotguns, and drop gyrocopter bombs at each other.

That being said, the film’s story couldn’t be simpler. Much of the action and personalities on-screen are completely insane, but TRW’s premise and plot are as straightforward as they come. A group of marauders, lead by the aforementioned Wells and Nilsson, threaten to destroy a village and steal their precious fuel, and Max must decide to help them fight against this formidable force or face the desert alone. The resulting conflict is a high-octane fight for survival that culminates in one of the greatest chase-sequences in movie history.

TRW is an awesome, incredibly fun movie, but it has some problems, namely to do with its budgetary restrictions of the time period and certain visuals that haven’t aged well. Now I haven’t seen the upcoming Fury Road yet, obviously, but based on the trailers and other properties that have been successfully updated from similar time periods, I’m anticipating writer-director George Miller taking full advantage of modern technology and limited digital effects to create a fresher look for the series. TRW feels violent, it looks unique, and it relies on good ole-fashioned stunts and practical effects, but like many of the classic James Bond films of old, it hasn’t aged the best in this modern age of HD-filmmaking. Many of the costumes, limited camera angles, and the overacting distract from the awesomeness at hand.

road warrior mad max 2 shoot shoot

Kjell Nilsson stars as “The Humungus” (left) taking aim at Bruce Spence’s “Gyro Captain” (right).

In the end, The Road Warrior is a great followup to the original Mad Max despite never quite transcending its 1980s time-period. Its bizarre blend of post-apocalyptic fiction, road-racing, hardcore violence, and Aussie-western trope inversions preserve its place in the irreplaceable 1980s action-cannon. I for one can’t wait for the modern “update” of this insane vroom-vroom action and leather-bondage madness, but even if Fury Road bombs, Miller’s iconic Road Warrior remains an unforgettable symbol of Mel Gibson’s budding badassery and one of the better films to come from the land Down Under.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Director George Miller stages some truly brilliant and vicious chase scenes, including and especially the 20-minute long tanker-finale. This film’s brutal car chases are perhaps matched by only The Raid 2’s (2014) in terms of sheer, unadulterated violence. The Road Warrior relies on harsh, disturbing visuals, beautiful establishing shots, and limited dialogue to tell its gritty story.

The story’s down-and-dirty attitude is refreshing compared to the over-CGI-ed, clean-cut look of today’s Fast and Furious (2001-present) franchise and their imitators. This film has grit, and it matters.

However… much of the film’s look feels dated. Some of the over-the-top villainous caricatures become so goofy they distract from their evil actions. The Humungus isn’t a memorable antagonist.


? Why would anyone in their right mind try to catch a boomerang? You know those things can cut off limbs, right?

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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