Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Film Appreciation - The Vermin Have Inherited the Earth

Cody Hamman siphons out some Film Appreciation for the 1981 action classic The Road Warrior.

As incredible as George Miller's 1979 feature directorial debut Mad Max had been, the struggle of making such an ambitious first movie had taken its toll on the director, and he had no intention of revisiting Max Rockatansky beyond a Mad Max novelization that he wrote with journalist Terry Hayes. It wasn't until Miller began examining the global success his film had enjoyed (except for in North America, where the sale of distributor AIP limited its exposure) that he began to get ideas for a sequel.

Miller realized that Mad Max had done well not just because of the awesome vehicular chase and crash sequences, but because his film had inadvertently tapped into the universal hero myth, John Campbell's "The Hero with a Thousand Faces" idea that the heroic stories in every culture have similar characters and structure. Each culture could identify with the struggle of Max and see the film as either a post-apocalyptic take on a samurai story, a Western, or a Viking tale. The director decided that he wanted to make a sequel with this new found knowledge in the forefront of his mind. He wanted to make something even more like a samurai film or a Western, while also making the vehicular chases and crashes even more spectacular, and to purposely pursue making Max Rockatansky a modern representative of the mythological hero.

Armed with a budget roughly ten times larger than Mad Max's and a script he wrote with Hayes and fellow Australian filmmaker Briant Hannant, who would also serve as first assistant director and second unit director, Miller went into production on his second feature. Mad Max 2. Or, as it became known in North America, re-titled because not many Americans were familiar with Mad Max at that point, The Road Warrior. A title fitting for Miller's aspirations.

The story of The Road Warrior is a tale told by a dying man who is never shown. With narration that plays over an opening montage, this elderly man catches us up on the back story of Max and the events that destroyed the world. Society had been crumbling in the previous film, but this one is full-on post-apocalypse, set in the barren wasteland of the Australian outback in a world ravaged by a global war and its aftermath. As the narrator puts it, "two mighty warrior tribes went to war and touched off a blaze which engulfed them all."

Exposition out of the way, we're dropped into this new chapter in the story of Max Rockatansky by catching up with him in the middle of a chase sequence. Mel Gibson reprises the role of Max, now a hardened survivor and scavenger who has spent years on the road with his dog Dog, out-running lunatics (as he does in this opening) and gathering up every drop of gasoline he can.

Gasoline is the most precious commodity in the world of The Road Warrior. It's the thing every character in the film either covets or is willing to risk their lives to protect. A weird guy with a gyrocopter (Bruce Spence) lures Max into a trap to steal the gas from his 1973 Ford Falcon, the same car he got in Mad Max, and when Max gets the upper hand in the situation the Gyro Captain tells him of a place where there are thousands of gallons of gasoline ready for the taking. A small refinery in the middle of the desert that a group of survivors have gotten up and running.

The Gyro Captain leads Max to the refinery, which they find is surrounded by the maniacal followers of a muscle-bound, hockey-masked man called The Humungus (Kjell Nilsson), who considers himself the ruler of the wasteland. It's these post-apocalyptic punks and leather-clad freaks that Max was being chased by earlier, the most prominent of them being Vernon Wells in a career-defining performance as the mohawked Wez. These scavengers are demanding that the survivors hand the refinery over to them, and for people who are so concerned with gasoline they sure don't mind wasting it by driving their modified vehicles in circles around the refinery for hours at a time.

For the majority of the film, Max is not a heroic figure. He's a loner, a man of few words, simply a third party looking to manipulate the situation between the refinery people and The Humungus to his own advantage. He will help the besieged out in exchange for all the gasoline he can carry. The help he offers is to deliver to them a truck large enough to haul a tanker full of gasoline so they can abandon the refinery and escape Humungus's gang. A truck he came across at the end of that opening chase sequence. Sure, what he does is beneficial to the group, but it doesn't count as heroism because he's really just out for himself. After fulfilling his part of the deal, he even abandons the people to pull off the escape on their own.

It isn't until more than an hour into the film, after Max has gotten to know some of the survivors and run afoul of Humungus's people one time too many, that he takes on the mantle of hero and takes the wheel of that truck for the extended, climactic chase, which ranks as one of the greatest vehicular chase sequences in cinema history.

With The Road Warrior, Miller created what is widely regarded to be one of the best action movies ever made. While I've always been more drawn toward Mad Max myself, I still have great appreciation for The Road Warrior as well. It is a wonderfully made film, one that gets exposition out of the way quickly and tells most of the story through grand visuals. It provides strong character moments without being overly dramatic. Most of the characters don't talk much, some not at all, but you still know who they are, and they still burn themselves into your brain. I can't imagine someone watching The Road Warrior and ever being able to forget Max, or the Gyro Captain, or Humungus, or Wez, or the survivor Max bonds with the most, Emil Minty as the razor-edged boomerang-wielding Feral Kid.

The Road Warrior delivers a fantastic story while also being a masterwork in simplicity. It's very straightforward and moves along at a fast pace, its 95 minute running time packed with thrills and action.

Did Miller turn Max into a hero who lives up the old myths? I don't know my myths well enough to say. I grew up on Mad Max and The Road Warrior, Max was one of the leading heroes of my childhood, and he is much more familiar to me than any hero of ancient legend. What is clear is that Miller told an action tale that made a huge impact on pop culture and connected well enough with the audience to continue enduring thirty-five years later, with no sign that it's becoming any less beloved as time goes on. That sounds like successful myth-making to me.

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