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On the roads it was a white line nightmare.

Mad Max 2
(1981)

Much has been written in praise of Mad Max 2/The Road Warrior over the years, rightly noting its enormous influence (albeit in tandem with a number of other science fiction opuses in the surrounding five years), but mostly concentrating on its abiding status as a remarkably executed, fantastically taut, kinetic thrill ride. This sequel sees George Miller coax and expand the kernel of the original, teasing out the mythical elements therein and producing a big, bold, super-charged action engine.


Mad Max 2 is an economical picture in storytelling, terms, just as its director recognises that grand spectacle is most effective when characters have been fashioned as easily identifiable “types”. Much has been made of Max speaking only sixteen lines (Miller has reportedly taken a similar approach with Fury Road), and Miller continually plays with his presence as the mythic outlaw; Max is defined as much by the reaction of others to him as anything he does, and because he is so taciturn he is ideal for observers to foist their own heroic ideals on him  (as they do when he first delivers the truck to the camp). Compared to your average hero, or even anti-hero, Max is decidedly vulnerable, even more so than Indy. He is tricked, bruised, beaten, bloodied, left for dead, and ends up with less than he started; yet this only adds to his status, as the keeper of the flame in a desert of savagery.


The broadness fits here, with the comic book design and frame-popping wide-angle lens exaggerating character and movement. Brian May’s score is now appropriate where previously it was overcooked (although Pauline Kael wasn’t wrong when she referred to it as “Jungian music”). Miller’s world is of grand flourishes, expansive stylings and iconic poses. Myth prescribes content, from the adult Feral Kid’s introductory narration onwards. This is the illustrated version of Homer’s oral history.


One might conclude this has all been laid on with a trowel; Harold Baignet’s voiceover talks up Max, and his post-apocalyptic world, and then some. Miller reached the conclusion that the first film’s success lay with the establishing of a heroic archetype; he embraced Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, just as George Lucas had with Star Wars. So with Mad Max 2 he stripped that to its essentials. Max is now the silent stranger who comes into town, defending the farming folk, dashing enough to attract the ladies and paternal enough to be worshipped by the children. And yet, to fulfil his design, he cannot really change or grow. Max’s explanation for why he wants to drive the truck (“Believe me, I haven’t got a choice”) is elusive, but then he’s a man of action who needs to live out his nature He must also remain a myth at the end, an enigma to all.


Miller touches on Max’s backstory, in the opening montage and in Pappagallo’s probing attempts to get a rise from him, but he does not make the mistake of over-explaining. It’s the death knell of the modern hero that Hollywood is impelled to over-examine and motivate, when the element of mystery – and the way in which it fuels the viewer’s imagination – is far more powerful; the audience can fill in the gaps for themselves. Leone’s Man with No Name is perhaps the exemplar of this, ensuring Eastwood is no more than a silhouette. There is nothing beyond his outfit and own amoral code to define him. Max gets more, but Miller proceeds to rub anyone up the wrong way who would wish to explore a firm continuity between his hero’s outings. He keeps moving the goalposts, and Baignet’s gravitas-rich tones sell us a Max with far more weight and inscrutability than that of the original.


Adult Feral Kid: My life fades. The vision dims. All that remains are memories. I remember a time of chaos. Ruined dreams. This wasted land. But most of all, I remember The Road Warrior. The man we called "Max". To understand who he was, you have to go back to another time. When the world was powered by the black fuel. And the desert sprouted great cities of pipe and steel. Gone now, swept away.

For reasons long forgotten, two mighty warrior tribes went to war and touched off a blaze which engulfed them all. Without fuel, they were nothing. They built a house of straw. The thundering machines sputtered and stopped. Their leaders talked and talked and talked. But nothing could stem the avalanche. Their world crumbled. The cities exploded. A whirlwind of looting, a firestorm of fear. Men began to feed on men.

On the roads it was a white line nightmare. Only those mobile enough to scavenge, brutal enough to pillage would survive. The gangs took over the highways, ready to wage war for a tank of juice. And in this maelstrom of decay, ordinary men were battered and smashed. Men like Max. The warrior Max. In the roar of an engine, he lost everything. And became a shell of a man, a burnt out, desolate man, a man haunted by the demons of his past, a man who wandered out into the wasteland. And it was here, in this blighted place, that he learned to live again...


It’s not just the reconfiguring of Max; Miller invites the sense of a long-dormant civilisation with his use of monochrome archive footage. This is far beyond the two years between releases of the picture. The pre-Mad Max newsreel could come from anywhere, while the white temples of Max, and the more haggard look of Mel, suggest it has been a decade or more (Evil Dead II amusingly riffed on this by suddenly turning Ash’s temples white).


The first film is retconned as post- the collapse; Max’s story is summarised following the info-dump of two tribes who went to war. And while he mentions they “touched off a blaze” there is nothing concrete here to suggest nuclear Armageddon; that’s wholly Beyond Thunderdome’s device. All we know is that all means of production have broken down, be it in the form of precious oil, prized tinned foods or scarce bullets. The verbiage may on the ripe side, but it palpably casts its spell. That, and May’s earnest score. The viewer is rapt. The spiel’s factuality can be viewed from either position; Miller is commenting on the inexactitudes of the oral tradition and how tales distort and grow through time and passing from person to person. Or, simply that the director is unconcerned with creating a cleanly defined continuation (despite  the care with the presentation of Max as clearly the same guy we saw from the first – his sleeveless jacket where his arm was run over, the leg brace, the grown dog, the Interceptor).


Max is not an indifferent Clint figure, and his presence serves to emphasis the disparity between memory and reality; we see doubt in his eyes when danger is imminent (although, if this is a tale told, rather than the accurate version, there should be none). Then, he is impassive when confronted by the bodies of the dead; this is a sight seen every day, and he is long since unshockable.


There’s a sense that Max only exists in this sliver of time, a nomadic loner arriving out of nowhere and ironically abandoned on the retreating highway.  Anything further breaks the illusion (as happens with Thunderdome). Only so much can be done to make him “learn to live again” before Max just becomes any old hero (by the time Tina Turner sang about him, we didn’t need another hero). Look what happens when Han Solo is tamed (Return of the Jedi); he becomes less interesting than the white hat (Luke Skywalker). It’s no wonder Miller has retreated to the Road Warrior era Max for Fury Road.


Indeed, Miller works to double-up the iconic loner status for Max. When he tells Pappagallo (Michael Preston) “I’ve got all I need here”, it is a precursor to the encounter that leaves him without even that. He doesn’t just lose his car, but also his dog! They shoot his dog! It’s only a cliché because it’s true that you can kill a human in a movie and the audience won’t care, but if you kill a pet they will be up in arms (the monkey of Thunderdome is small comfort). What would have happened if Max had taken up the Pappagallo’s offer of a future, “Rebuild our lives”? Would Max have been let in on the secret, or would he have been used as a means to an end just the same? At least his dog might have survived (unless they decided to eat it). Leaving Max truly alone on the road, the stoic warrior, serves to underline his heroic stature; he doesn’t ask the audience for idolisation and so he is rewarded with it ever more so.


Pappagallo tries to get a rise out of Max in one of the few speeches in the body of the movie itself.

Pappagallo: What is it with you, huh? What are you looking for? C'mon, Max, everybody's looking for something. You're happy out there, are you? Eh? Wandering? One day blurring into another? You're a scavenger, Max. You're a maggot. Did you know that? You're living off the corpse of the old world. Tell me your story, Max. C'mon. Tell me your story. What burned you out, huh? Kill one man too many? See too many people die? Lose some family? (Max glances angrily) Oh, so that's it, you lost your family? That makes you something special, does it?


The point is, it does make Max special. Even if we haven’t seen Mad Max, the introductory “scroll” informs us of Max’s pedestal. Pappagallo is being purposefully provocative, attempting to get a rise out of Max, albeit there is a certain truth to his words.

Pappagallo: Do you think you're the only one that's suffered? We've all been through it in here. But we haven't given up. We're still human beings, with dignity. You? You're out there with the garbage. You're NOTHING.


Max has lost touch with his humanity, but we want don’t want him to come back too far from the edge. Just as long as he remains the reluctant hero, doing enough to illustrate his credentials and stature but then retreating before being tainted with too much emotion. Miller is probably purposefully echoing the suffering line in the forthcoming Fury Road, where Max is told “Everybody’s out of their mind. You’re not the only one Max”.


But Miller has also learnt a few tricks from Leone, subconsciously or otherwise. For a Few Dollars More gives Clint a partner, and Mad Max 2 foists the never-actually-a-partner Giro Captain (Bruce Spence) on Rockatansky (although he’s not called that here). It’s with the Giro Captain that the picture is free to mine a rich vein of humour (a contrast to the chilly or queasy laughs in the original), and where, in contrast to Kael’s comments, we find the sense of humour within Max. She opined that Max should have smiled at the trick played on him regarding the sand in the tanks. He doesn’t need to; he smiles when the Giro Captain returns, the smile of someone who no longer has any defences against the Captain’s guileless optimism and who now sees the absurdity of it all.


Giro Captain: They’ve got you wrong. You’re not a coward. Stupid maybe, but not a coward.

Spence is marvellous as the Giro Captain (his role in Thunderdome is disappointing in comparison), all teeth and flailing limbs. The main times we’re given cause to doubt Max’s manner are when he mistreats the Captain (on rediscovering him, after leaving the compound, Max wastes no time making him carry the oil cans), but generally his succinct responses to the Captain are the only brightness in Max (Max is a role that works against Gibson’s natural energy, but it’s a more impressive performance for that). The Captain’s constant plays for partnership are continually rebuffed. His “honourable” thief routine also make for amusing interplay (“That’s dishonest. Low!” he responds on finding Max’s gun wasn’t loaded; asking, “How do we know that one’s not a dud?” Max waves it under his nose and suggests, “Find out”).


The humanity of the Giro Captain facilitates the broaching of otherwise severe subjects, Starvation is an ever-present threat, and he gets only third options on Max’s tin of dog food after the dog has had a go. His admiration for Max’s reflexes (“Never seen a man beat a snake before”) serves to highlight Max’s “best of the best” presence, but it boils down to how he plans to eat the snake. The sight gag where Max exchanges his binoculars for the Captain’s mighty telescope is one of the funniest moments in the picture. 


However, seconds later the horror of rape and murder, seen through binoculars, play out on the Captain’s face. He’s a good guy, a rogue perhaps, but one who has not lost his soul. Max has no such response; he is an opportunist who goes to the rescue for the least noble of reasons (“I’m just here for the gasoline”). He even looks as if he’s actually going to slit the Captain’s throat when he first overpowers him and dismisses his tale of plentiful fuel. We are told that the Captain became the group’s leader. And, as unlikely as that seems, it enables an ending where Max implicitly approves the choice.  


We can see a series of archetypal relationships in the picture, but then recent movie influences also show their hand. Those in the refinery have the most ‘80s of pale costumes (because they’re good guys, and also because they’re ineffectual); Luke in Star Wars by way of legwarmers and headbands. The Giro Captain’s relationship with Arkie Whiteley (Whiteley sadly died in 2001) recalls Jaws’ unlikely pairing in Moonraker two years earlier. (Her “This is my family. I’m not going to leave these people. I’m staying. I’m sorry,” is an effective counterpoint to Max’s self-serving position.)


The friendship between Max and the Feral Kid (Emil Minty) evokes Shane, but is perhaps more noticeable for who it influences. I disagree with Kael’s take that this relationship is sentimentalised; it’s played in about as minimalist a fashion as possible. Max tosses the Kid the miniature music box but won’t allow him to tag along. When the kid stows away during the climactic chase sequence, Max is quite practical about sending him out on the bonnet to retrieve a shotgun cartridge.  The Feral Kid allows that, in a violent world, the best thing for children to be is violent. He is adept at killing bad guys with his boomerang, or being the cause of riotous dismemberment.


Crucially, his ringside seat to Max’s high speed escape finds him responding as we, the audience, do; his yells of delight when Max coolly blows a hole in a windscreen, or takes out two punks in quick succession, are also ours. This is canny, reminding us we have taken on the role of awed children, amazed at what the superman can do. Just as Miller was forgetting completely all the advances in his storytelling style in Thunderdome, the likes od Spielberg (in Temple of Doom) and Cameron (in Aliens), influenced by Miller, were introducing unsentimentalised younsters in an adult environment where they needed to be treated without kid gloves.


The rest of the good guys amount to little more than a few choice words or actions, but they’re enough to leave an impression. The two mechanics who communicate in tandem, Syd Heylen’s old ex-military buffoon (“I’ll talk to the Humungous. He’s a reasonable man”), Virginia Hey’s Amazonian (who fulfils the role of the woman who admits she was wrong about Max, and then dies as Max has no room for women in his existence), and Michael Preston, as Pappagallo. 


Preston is the picture’s Prentis Hancock, a more memorable face than he is a gifted performer. Pappagallo’s demise is particularly needless, on the receiving end of a remarkably well-thrown trident from Lord Humungus (how he got that angle?) Revisiting the picture any number of times does rather show that, as expert a juggler as he is, Miller couldn’t keep up for everything, and we barely see Pappagallo in the chase until he is required to die.


The bad guys wear black (leather) of course, and anticipate the shoulder pads fad by several years; some of them even wear black assless chaps (Vernon Wells’ Wez, who also sports Adam Ant post-punk white stripes; Wells would be particularly memorable as Mr Igoe in Innerspace a few years later). Kjell Nilsson as Lord Humungus can’t compete with the Toecutter for overall impact, but he still exhibits more than his share of oratory prowess, if fairly one-note (“I am gravely disappointed. Again you have made me unleash my dogs of war”), although some of this is more Nilsson’s delivery than the lines themselves (“You disobey me. You puppy”). 


Apparently Mad Max’s roasted Goose was initially considered as a possibility for Lord Humungus, with the burnt scalp a legacy of this. Miller conjectured that the Humungus was a former military officer and Pappagallo might have been in the same unit. The Goose line of thinking can be traced to the Campbell-Lucas Vader mythology, but on blalance it’s for the best that Miller sufficiently frees Max from his past, except in psychological terms.


With the Humungous and Pappagallo set up as opposing leaders, Max spars with Wez (in particular, there is the encounter in the compound, where Max makes it to the flamethrower and Wez threatens him; “You! You! You can run but you can’t hide”). Wez is a force of nature, such that he is eventually chained up by the Humungus (“Be still my dog of war”) for not obeying orders (racing off after Max). Miller is clearly interested in hierarchies among the lawless, as Johnny is also reprimanded and counselled by the Toecutter in Mad Max. Ultimately, though, Max ends up playing chicken with the villain once more, and the chicken comes out of it worse.


Toadie: Greetings from The Humungus! The Lord Humungus! The Warrior of the Wasteland! The Ayatollah of Rock and Rolla!

The design of the gang is nothing if not idiosyncratic. Leather clad punks, they come across as omnisexual fugitives from a S&M fetish party. The closest they have to a human face (although Wez is allowed particularly malevolent moment of grief for his fallen boyfriend) is Toadie (Max Phipps), the sad face of the beleaguered and bullied weakling. Dismissed, ridiculed, and spurned by those around him, he wears the sickly smile of one attempting to please those who beat upon him. We see Toadie smothering a victim who is interrupting the Humungus’ speech, and, most defining, he attempts to catch the Feral Kid’s boomerang, losing his fingers to peals of laughter from the Humungus’ forces. His response encapsulates him, as he raises a pained smile in recognition of the joke.


Miller needs only bold definitions for his supporting characters – and indeed for his main character – as all is stripped down to basics. It might be this that caused him to bring Ogilvy on Thunderdome, although having watched that film again it’s mystifying why he would think it necessary (now, if he had moved straight onto Lorenzo’s Oil… with Max after the oil). That said, it’s the chases that define Mad Max 2, and Miller’s flair has moved on significantly from the original picture. He keeps his camera low, or high, taking full advantage of the anamorphic lens for framing and perspective. Max’s appropriated truck screams down the road past the camera, and then, a few seconds later, the gyrocopter follows from above. The gyrocopter provides the opportunity both for comedy (the Captain loses control after a pot shot) and poetry (the unconscious Max, framed high above the wilderness).


The kinetic fury of the movie remains undiminished 30+ years later, and the climactic tanker chase is a masterpiece of sustained action. That said, there are a few holes in the fabric of the piece. The use of under-cranked camera to speed up vehicles at some points is a little distracting (simply because it just isn’t done any more, and was fading fast in 1981). It isn’t as overt as in its predecessor, but it emphasises Miller’s rough-and-ready roots and learning curve (I’m fine with the nitro bit, however).


Miller has also not wholly eschewed the exploitation influence for something more aesthetic. There’s still a roughness that lurches against the (well, relatively) sunnier tone prescribed by humour and poetic might. For every queasy response to an atrocity, we have a tent ripped away, sped-up, to reveal a couple en flagrante, or a mechanic flattened under a de-jacked car.  There’s also the use of montage, irresistible in the opening monologue, less so when we see a burning alive with the Humongus miming pronouncements over dissolves, to a bombastic piece of scoring. It’s kind of brilliant, but also tremendously cheesy.


I’ve mentioned a few of the influences on the picture, but it’s probable that it informed the Friday 13th series’ villain (the Humungus’ headwear), as well as everything from Duran Duran’s Wild Boys to wrestling. Its pop culture legacy is immense (Neil Marshall’s lamentable Doomsday is best avoided), and it ensured Miller got the gig on Twilight Zone – The Movie, from a very impressed (and jealous?) Spielberg. It’s ironic then, that, to date, Miller hasn’t equalled Mad Max 2 with anything he’s subsequently made or produced.


The Spielberg comparisons that have persisted in respect of Mad Max 2 are worth noting, and, I think, rather superfluously preferential. Kael commented “And his chase sequence with Max driving an oil truck makes the comparable truck chase in Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark look lame – as Spielberg, who has expressed admiration for Miller, might be the first to acknowledge”. I doubt it, as that chase in Raiders is outstanding, and part of an extended fight sequence (the plane, remember?) that remains a dazzling piece of craftsmanship. But it was clearly popular to rain blows in favour of this new pretender to the throne, as Time Out was at it too; “Miller’s choreography of his innumerable vehicles is so extraordinary that it makes Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark look like a kid fooling with Dinky Toys”. I would say, I hope the ‘berg sees Fury Road and is inspired to less lofty and more adventuresome roots, back when he was a more interesting filmmaker.


Kael admired Miller’s filmmaking accomplishment, referring to it as “terrific junk food” but rejected his mythologising, and the picture, as a “cultural compost heap”, “for boys who want to go around slugging each other on the shoulder and for men who wish that John Wayne were alive and fifty again”. It wasn’t like Kael to be witheringly reductive about the appeal of movies she didn’t get, of course (she presupposes and dismisses those who consider it to have any depth). She may have a point in respect of masculine, heroic iconography in fiction generally, but it is to miss the target completely if she needs to equate appreciation with endorsement of the morality of a hero or tale (something she would never have done for many pictures she feted).


Adult Feral Kid: And the Road Warrior? That was the last we ever saw of him. He lives now only in my memory.

Kael’s point seems to be that there is nothing going on beneath the surface of Mad Max 2, even though Miller’s film is all about that surface level of myth, stripped down (she partially acknowledges this, noting its “air of intelligence”). Kael was nothing if not wonderfully provocative, however, even when you sense she is working her argument up from feeling left out from the general acclaim of her fellow critics. There’s a reason Mad Max 2 endures in spite of its creaks (in that respect it shows its years much more than Raiders of the Lost Ark, which Kael also begrudged). Two, actually. It succeeds in its goal of mythologising its hero in a manner movies forgot almost as quickly as Spielberg and Lucas had reminded them and foregrounded such devices (they were as guilty of collapsing their successes with sequels that fell victim to revealing too much). And, it is grand, physical, stunt driven movie making, dynamic and vigorous, a stark contrast in the current era that has been buried under CGI and augmentation. 


At the climax of Mad Max 2, Max stands alone on the road, the camera leaving him in its wake. This is how Fury Road really ought to end. It sums up the character; the endless road, Max’s arena of expression, set against his inescapably solitary existence.








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