Three or four career meltdowns ago, Mel Gibson was still a fresh face on the scene when he went into a bar the night before his audition for a little film called Mad Max. The brawl that temporarily battered his youthful good looks actually helped land him the role that would launch his career. The first Mad Max was a hit worldwide but made a negligible impression in the States, partly due to a lousy dubbing job the studio inflicted on the film because the suits thought Yanks weren’t ready for a real Australian accent (This was a few years before Crocodile Dundee).
As a result, the sequel was called Mad Max 2 everywhere but the U.S., because you can’t have a sequel to a movie no one had heard of. Call it Mad Max 2 or The Road Warrior, it was like a jolt of adrenaline right into the eyeballs.
Max Rockatansky (Gibson) is a burned-out former member of the Australian Highway Patrol (MFP), now scouring a post-apocalyptic wasteland in “the last of the V-8 Interceptors” for the last remaining supplies of the precious “juice,” better known to us as gasoline or petrol. He stumbles on an outpost of survivors built around a functioning oil well and makeshift refinery. They are under siege by a disfigured warlord named the Lord Humungous and his gang of marauders, who are trying to drive the survivors off their priceless resource.
Max rescues a man trying to escape from Humungous, and tries to use that to barter for some of their gasoline. The man dies and the leader of the survivors, Papagallo (Michael Preston) doesn’t want to deal with Max, a man he sees as a scavenger. The ex-cop has another ace up his sleeve: the location of a tanker truck that could help carry their precious fuel beyond the Humungous’ reach.
Oh, so that's it, you lost your family?
That makes you something special, does it?
Two parts spaghetti western and one part Bullitt on crystal meth, The Road Warrior was a 200-proof dose of unrestrained action movie orgasm. George Miller’s kinetic chase scenes are staged with a pure suicidal joy that grabs the breath from your lungs and runs away with it, like a bully with your homework. It’s dusty, post-nuclear wasteland was probably the most imitated sci-fi motif of the next decade. Blade Runner was probably more influential, but way too expensive for most people to emulate.
Like any good western, good and evil in The Road Warrior are drawn in black and white, but the hero of the story is awash in about a dozen shades of gray. There is a code of honor worthy of Gary Cooper somewhere under Max’s skin but Papagallo has to dig past several layers of rust and scars to reach it.
This isn’t a complicated film, just a guilt-free nihilistic thrill ride, but executed with the sort of uncivilized glee that only the Australians could pull off. It’s worth a spin if you need the cinematic equivalent of mainlining Red Bull, or if you’re just nostalgic for a time when Mel Gibson wasn’t such a tool.