The Road Warrior Elevated Mad Max From a Curious One-off to a Blockbuster Franchise
A second-chance sequel solidified an iconic sci-fi franchise.
A good action movie is a delicate act of spinning plates. There must be a coherent plot to engage the viewer, but also high-octane action sequences to elevate heart rates. Viewers need to feel exhilaration, but without moments of pathos too they won’t care about the hero.
1981’s Mad Max 2 hooks those plates to a V8 engine and pumps it full of nitrous. Nothing is extraneous, every element feels original, and every performance is cranked up to 110%. There’s a reason this movie turned its source material from a cult hit into a classic sci-fi franchise.
Release in the United States as The Road Warrior, this is a direct sequel to Mad Max that’s superior in basically every way. Director George Miller told the New York Times the motivation for revisiting the Mad Max world was reinvention. “'Making Mad Max was a very unhappy experience for me,'' he said. “I had absolutely no control over the final product, it was just grabbed out of my hands. But, to my surprise, it succeeded everywhere but in the United States and Canada. There was strong pressure to make a sequel, and I felt we could do a better job with a second movie.”
The movie begins with an ethereal prologue establishing the world we left in the first film. A voice speaks over a montage of clips, establishing Max as a character. “I remember a time of chaos, ruined dreams, this wasted land,” it says. “But most of all, I remember the road warrior, the man we called Max.”
This narration gives the entire film a mythical tone, like an oral history told from generation to generation. Max fits the form of a Homeric hero, wandering the desert and acting partly in his own interest, but partly out of honor. The movie hits all the story beats you’d expect, but with enough action and gore to never feel tired.
The plot follows Max as he stumbles upon a settlement of survivors refining their own fuel, the most precious commodity in the post-apocalyptic desert. With the help of an ultralight helicopter pilot, Max helps the community find refuge up north despite a biker gang led by a masked villain known as Humongus seeking to destroy them.
There is not a single scrap of fat in this film. From the first shot to the last, every sequence is necessary, whether for the sake of the plot or simply for the sake of looking cool. There are enough explosions that you may feel the temperature rise in your living room, and enough car chases to make The Fast and the Furious look like an indie movie.
Despite the onslaught of stylish action, the characters always feel real. Yes, they’re campy, but in a mythical way. Max is heroic in heroism’s most distilled form, the epitome of the wandering warrior. The movie isn’t told from his perspective, but from the perspective of those who witnessed him. He’s not the kind of man who would recount his adventures. What really matters is how his presence affected those he helped. And if that means he’s portrayed as the ultimate hero, then that’s just how strong the memory of him is.
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior is streaming on HBO Max until April 30.