Road to the Apocalypse: Catching Up With Mad Max & The Road Warrior

With the release of Fury Road, Mike gives us his first impressions of the original Mad Max and The Road Warrior

Not long after I started working for The Movie Sleuth I went to a gathering where I met my new co-writers.  It was fun getting to know them and talk about movies all night.  However, it occurred to me more then than ever how woefully behind I was on the “classics”.  I stayed up-to-date on newer films, but could never seem to find the time for the older stuff.  This gave me the idea to go back and re-watch older films and share my thoughts about them as a first time viewer.  And with Mad Max: Fury Road kicking ass and taking names in theaters now, it seemed only fitting to make my first films in this series a double feature of the original Mad Max and its sequel The Road Warrior.

I will confess that I cheated and saw Fury Road first, but even before that my basic impression of the Mad Max films was “Mel Gibson: Post-Apocalyptic Badass”.  This was literally all I knew about the films and the character, based on the few clips I'd seen and the old Mad Max NES game that I'd played as a kid but was never very good at.  So this is what I was primed for as I sat down to watch 1979’s Mad Max.  Naturally, it was not what I expected.

The story itself was a simple one: former cop Max Rockatansky takes on a biker gang.  No post apocalyptic warlords, no armored muscle car chases through the desert, just a simple action suspense movie.  In fact, the film plays very much like a classic western, with our hero Max in the requisite “sheriff” role.  There are a million ways this format could have gone wrong, especially with the film’s minuscule budget.  But Mad Max is prime example of doing more with less.  23-year-old Mel Gibson ably handles the role that would make him a superstar whether he realized it at the time or not, building the foundation for one of action cinema’s most memorable characters.  The action sequences, despite a budget less than 1/100th of Fury Road’s, are beautifully shot and very tense even by today’s standards.  Director George Miller and his young star Mel Gibson took what could have been a cheesy low budget action revenge flick and turned it into something strong enough to build a future franchise on. 

The 1981 sequel The Road Warrior introduced the greater apocalyptic themes to the Mad Max saga.  Civilization has collapsed due to a war that wiped out much of the world’s oil supply, making gasoline scarce and extremely valuable.  The motorcycle gangs of the original have evolved into nomadic pillaging warriors who will stop at nothing to get their precious “juice”.  Our hero Max finds himself with a group of survivors living in a small refinery who must now do battle with a particularly nasty gang led by the warlord Humungus to protect it and themselves.

On the surface The Road Warrior seems like a very different movie than the original.  The action is ramped up significantly, with far more intense stunt work and a climactic car chase that ranks among the best in movie history.  George Miller shows a phenomenal amount of growth as a filmmaker from the first film to this one.  But it's the evolution of Mel Gibson’s Max character that is truly the main attraction.  The Road Warrior shows us the  scarred, road-hardened Max we’d expect, but Mel infused him with the humanity to make Max believable as a heroic natural leader.  It is that rarest of things: a sequel that is built on a solid foundation but builds an exciting new world for its hero to grow in.  But Max’s evolution only makes the viewer more appreciative of what Mel did with what could have been a stock character over the two films. 

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome aside (only because I haven't seen it yet), the films in this series grow their world consistently and beautifully, a natural transition that can likely be attributed to George Miller maintaining the helm throughout.  These transitions are clearly on display in Fury Road.  The world Miller has almost singlehandedly created is an interesting, exciting and dangerous one, and even Mel Gibson should be proud of how ably Tom Hardy has stepped into the difficult character he originated.  But going back to the beginning of Max’s story was a fascinating experience, and one that have given me a new appreciation for Fury Road and the work of George Miller.  Even if I do still think that Happy Feet was a bit heavy-handed.

Mad Max: 7/10
The Road Warrior: 8/10

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-Mike Stec