As the scope of special effects technology widens, there really isn’t much that a person can imagine that can’t be replicated on screen. This freedom of expression has had both positive and negative effects on modern movies. On the positive side, there’s more eye candy and it’s far more convincing. Conversely, the ease with which complex special effects can be integrated into a film has led modern directors to crowd the screen with effects, as well as using said effects to mask deficiencies in narrative coherence. While this ‘disease’ has affected films in the science fiction genre the most (ala the two “Star Wars” prequels), it has also become prevalent in standard action films, as evidenced by the continued employment of Michael Bay.
Given the amount of CGI viewers are forced to ingest these days, it’s always nice to go ‘old school’ and see real meat-and-potatoes action. “The Road Warrior” is just such a flick. In 1979, Australian director George Miller released a little action flick called “Mad Max”, about police officer ‘Mad’ Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) who patrols the barren wastelands of a post-apocalyptic Australian Outback. After a devastating nuclear war, the world (or maybe just Australia, it’s never made clear) has been reduced to a dusty wasteland rampaged by degenerate mechanized gangs of bloodthirsty marauders. Due to the nomadic nature of what is left of humanity, gasoline (or Juice as it is known in the film) became more valuable than life itself.
Miller followed up the success of “Mad Max” with “The Road Warrior” in 1981. “Warrior” continues the story of Max, now reduced to a scavenger; an ‘empty shell of a man’ no better than the lawless thugs he once stood against. Max’s life still revolves around outrunning biker gangs in search of precious Juice to keep his supercharged V8 Interceptor on the road. Accompanied by his trusty dog (enigmatically named Dog), Max’s misadventures eventually entangles him in a brutal stand-off between a rag-tag community operating a small refinery (led by the fatherly Pappagallo, played by Mick Jagger look-alike Michael Preston) and a gang of ruthless marauders. The villains are led by The Humungus (played by the truly humongous and former Olympic weightlifter Kjell Nilsson) and his psychotic lieutenant Wez (brilliantly played by former S.A.S commando Vernon Wells).
The gang wants the Juice inside the refinery and would prefer to slaughter everyone who stands in their way. Max steps into this morass with an offer to find a way to get the Juice out of the refinery, past the gangs and across 2,000 miles of desert to the coast, the destination of choice for those in the refinery. Thus ensues about 60 minutes of nonstop, gasoline-fueled edge-of-your-seat mayhem and destruction on a scale that had never been seen and, in my opinion, has yet to be replicated.
The scope of the action in “The Road Warrior” is truly astounding. All manner of cobbled-together motor vehicles are strewn across the Outback in spectacular crashes that send battered bodies and severed limbs hurtling through the air and under tumbling wreckage. It’s a demolition derby on NAWZ, set to pounding music. How Miller and his crew managed to coordinate these stunts, get the cameras positioned just right and pull all of it off without killing anyone, is beyond me. Despite the obviously limited budget, the execution and editing are nearly flawless. The production values are also high, with an authentic and lived-in sheen about the whole film. And just to add icing to the cake, Miller offers up a twist ending that both makes sense and isn’t obvious from the get-go.
Aside from the outrageous action, the main area where “The Road Warrior” outshines “Mad Max” is with the characters, which are so over the top, so larger-than-life that you can’t help but remember them. The good guys are rarely the strength of action films, but here they are imbued with a fair amount of gusto. Max is much more enigmatic and dangerous this time around, with only the slightest glimmer of decency separating him from the biker hordes. The refining community stands out for their guts and determination. And then there’s the zany Gyro Captain (a perpetually dusty Bruce Spence) and his flying machine, both of which brings a welcome bit of light comic relief to the movie.
However, for an action film to be successful, the bad guys must leave an impression, and “The Road Warrior” outdoes itself in this department. The Humungus is a truly frightening villain, with his monstrous physique adorned in leather fetish gear, his visage hidden behind a hockey mask, and veins bulging along his bald head. His ‘Dogs of War’ serve as a stark and powerful counterpoint to the refining community, showing just how low humanity has sunk. However, it’s the psychotic and sexually ambiguous Wez who steals the show. In a freakish and unhinged performance that has to be seen to be believed, Wells creates a character that is so outlandish and brutal he even manages to make assless leather chaps seem cool.
In the pantheon of action films, “The Road Warrior” stands proudly as not only a classic of the genre, but as a reminder that things really were better in the good old days. There is a level of palpable intensity and visceral thrill that can only be generated by banging two objects together, and no amount of CGI can replace that.
George Miller (director) / Terry Hayes, George Miller, Brian Hannant (screenplay)
CAST: Mel Gibson …. ‘Mad’ Max Rockatansky
Bruce Spence …. The Gyro Captain
Michael Preston …. Pappagallo
Max Phipps …. The Toadie
Vernon Wells …. Wez
Kjell Nilsson …. The Humungus
Emil Minty …. The Feral Kid
Virginia Hey …. Warrior Woman