' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Road Warrior (1981)

Friday, May 24, 2024

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Road Warrior (1981)

“Mad Max 2” was renamed “The Road Warrior” at the behest of Warner Bros. for its American release lest any jingoists in the audience unfamiliar with the low budget “Mad Max 1” from Down Under get confused. The name change though was not entirely out of place given how “The Road Warrior” stood on its own as something like the B-side to the original’s A-side, or maybe more appropriately by virtue of their dueling tones, the out-of-order A-side to the original’s B-side. The first one just sort of starts, barely laying out its world, renders its cavalcade of cars as important as the humans, and features the eponymous cop (Mel Gibson) with a family who becomes an avenging lone wolf, mirroring the movie’s full-bore descent into nihilism. The second one opens with a brief prologue explaining how we got here and emphasizes humanity, echoed in Max, who begins as a savage lone wolf and becomes something closer to a traditional hero. If that means “The Road Warrior” can’t help but feel more conventional, it is, nevertheless, still invigorating for its world-building, the concise manner in which conveys character and information, and how even if Max transforms into the noble combatant of the (American) title, there is something about the character and the performance that remains resistant to such nobility throughout.

So, how did we get here? Because of WWIII, of course, one caused by a fuel shortage and failed diplomacy. “Their leaders talked and talked and talked,” the narrator laments regarding the global conflict fostering “The Road Warrior’s” post-apocalyptic landscape while foreshadowing a movie in which the main character barely talks at all. Though the budget was higher than “Mad Max’s” meager one, the sequel still feels agreeably spare in its design, taking full advantage of myriad desolate landscapes to create a place that feels both humongous and small. The world has been reduced to virtually nothing but a highway stretching in all directions, meaning the world has also been reduced purely to the consumption of what gasoline can be foraged, men and their machines, which is sort of why the lack of a real female presence in “The Road Warrior” feels apt, like this really is what the world would come to if dumb dudes were left to their own devices; strap on leather and hockey masks and get in fights. The plot turns on talk of some paradise to the north, but this is represented exclusively through a cheap looking postcard, a triumph of ten cent production design, as if even during the end of the world people are trying to sell you a timeshare.
The plot involves a refinery in the middle of nowhere pumping out precious fuel that is desired by a band of violent scavengers. Max discovers this refinery through the Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence), a clever character having fun with narrative tropes in so much as he spends the whole movie trying to install himself as Max’s sidekick with Max wordlessly holding out against this at every turn. At first, we see this brewing conflict between the refinery’s inhabitants and their tormentors as Max does, that is, from high above on a cliff and far away, underscoring his content to stay out of it. Until his attempts to get some of their fuel for himself wind up getting him very much involved, at first taken prisoner inside the refinery and then convincing them to let him go steal a big rig to bring back to help bust them and all their gas out in the celebrated climactic chase with a literal smashing conclusion. Each decision Max makes, though, is painted as being about his own survival as much as a sense of decency, evoked in Gibson’s performance, taking all his emotional cues from Max eating dog food, reducing the character to nothing more, really, than an animal. He saves the day, even if he doesn’t quite see the light, dragged toward it instead.

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