Friday 1 May 2015

Mad Max 2 - The Road Warrior

Max Overdrive

Mad Max 2 - The Road Warrior
Australia 1981
Directed by George Miller
MGM Blu Ray Region B

So I finally, after all these years of being told to watch this film because it’s based on the Judge Dredd strip The Cursed Earth, caught up with Mad Max 2. Although, I have to say that, while it may be debateable that certain parts of it have possibly been stylistically informed by The Cursed Earth, this is in no way a steal or homage to the Dredd strip in either its content or intent, as far as I can tell. Excepting, of course, the intent of giving everybody a good time.

Now this film has a curious thing happening on the Blu Ray print I saw of it in that, on the box art (which is the individual sleeve of a three blu ray boxed set), the film is just called The Road Warrior... which is not how I remember it at the time and I think this title was only used in certain American territories where the first film was really not released or not as well known. I remember it as just being called Mad Max 2 and, regardless of what the packaging says here, this is how the actual print on the blu ray itself is titled. Also, I think, years after the fact, it came to be known by the combination title of the two so... that’s what i’ve gone with for the labelling purposes of this blog post.

Regardless of what it’s called, this is both at once a widening of the main character’s scope in terms of story situation while, at the same time, still remaining consistent with the first movie in both budget and attitude. The print of the film used here also lays to rest a question I was puzzling over in the previous film (reviewed here) by explaining the state of the world that Max is living in. It’s apparently not in the original Australian print of the film, although I suspect it’s probably on all home versions, but the film starts off here with a flashback to the events of the last story and then shows us the recent history of the planet... Mad Max 2 and, possibly the first film too, takes place after an unspecified apocalyptic event which leaves the whole world in a state where gangs took over the highways and everyone is after as much fuel as they can get to keep themselves able to travel great distances... presumably to widen their area for scavenging for food and the like.

This narration is provided by an off screen character with a final revelation towards the end as to his identity... although, to be honest, most people will figure out who’s telling the story pretty much as soon as that character is introduced into the main narrative here. It’s a nice touch though and I just hope that the last bit of narration at the end of this one isn’t contradicted, continuity wise, by the events that take place in the third film of the series (I guess I’ll know soon enough).

The opening “back story” all takes place in a 4:3 aspect ratio at the centre of the screen but, when the film starts proper... mid-chase between Max and a pursuing, aggressive gang... it immediately opens out into the 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio which is to be desired for a film of this nature. So within the first five or ten minutes, we have the preciousness and importance of gasoline made clear to us in a much more visual manner and we are also confronted with a slightly changed hero. Mel Gibson’s face is slowly getting less characterless and closer to the star we know now and the movie makers have added a white “Elsa Lanchester” style streak to his hair... possibly, I suspect, as a visual symbol of the character’s mental trauma (if you’ve ever been around someone who’s experienced sudden and overwhelming mental health issues, you might well know what I’m talking about here). He also has a leg brace and a torn sleeve, both of which are shout outs to the wounds he received in the previous installment of the Mad Max saga.

It’s not long, in fact, before we get the iconic image from this film which everybody either remembers or, in my case, was made very aware of at the time in that it kind of pervaded the collective public consciousness and was often referenced in other things... the shot of Gibson standing there on the open desert highway with his gun and his dog. Smooth stuff.

And then the story gets going, such as it is, involving the gang that gave Max so much trouble in the opening chase and a bunch of honest citizens who are protecting a vast complex of fuel and trying to hold their own against the gang that is pretty much inflicting siege conditions on their small community. Max also wants a helping  of their fuel when he is made aware of it by a character played by Bruce Spence, known as the Gyro Captain (simply because he has his own gyro-copter). The two take it in turns getting the drop on each other... like a mini version of the two hander between Toshiro Mifune and Lee Marvin in John Boorman’s Hell In The Pacific, but a bond grows between them and when Max finds himself taken in, so to speak, by the community under threat, he and the giro captain both end up staying to help out... although Max is much more ambivalent in that he doesn’t let black and white morality get in the way of what he wants.

In terms of making a world more to suit the picture, George Miller actually puts more thought into this one and gives extra details and clues as to the environment, even putting filters on the camera for the post-apocalyptic moods of the sky at certain points (something which it looks like he’s gone colour correction crazy with in the new one, if the trailers for the upcoming fourth installment are anything to go by). This all helps, of course, to place the action of the mini war between the gang of thugs and the small community of survivors in a place where it’s easier to suspend any disbelief. As an aside here... the character of the gang leader, who stays masked the whole film, was originally supposed to have been Max’s old friend Goose. His body now burned, he was to have surprisingly survived the events of the original Mad Max to become the villain in this one... although the film-makers changed tack and references were 'mostly' removed from the screenplay.

All in all, this film has a more epic scope and visually it gets quite detailed but, it has to be said, Miller still seems to make the film seem more modest and small rather than epic... although that's really not a bad thing. While there are three or four main action set pieces throughout the movie, including the final celebrated chase scene, it’s still more of a mood piece than an action piece and maintains the grubby look and long shots of static takes and slow moving camera mixed into the shot design to a surprisingly high degree. Miller is still making a 1950s or 1960s American Western here and it really comes through. And he’s still cutting away from most of the really nasty stuff and letting the audience's imagination do its thing... which works better in this one than it did in the first, I think. For example, a killing arrow hit to a dog and another to a raped woman both happen off camera and instead, we are left with reactions to these events to convey the casual horror of their fate.

One of the things I will say about this is that, despite its title and subject matter, I really wouldn’t say that this is a road movie. Oh sure, it takes place on a road at times but mostly, as far as I’m concerned, road movies tend to be a metaphor for a character’s inner journey and little parts of that journey are picked up on the constantly moving scenery from point A to point B... Wim Wenders did a bunch of movies like that, to a certain extent. Mad Max 2 doesn’t really have Max or any of the others going on a specific journey or reaching a state of mind where they are a better person and, since most of the movie is just darting backwards and forwards between, around about three, specific locations... I don’t get a feel for journey from this movie. That’s okay though... it doesn’t have to be.

Brain May’s score for this film is a lot more prominent that in the first one and has a much more epic feel to it than his previous attempt... possibly due to the fact that there just seems to be more of it and that, being that it’s not a wordy film (Mel Gibson himself apparently only has 16 lines in the whole movie), the music is given more room to breathe on the soundtrack when it is used. That being said, there’s a really odd moment when a kid Max has “befriended” has to climb out through the front windscreen of the big tanker Max drives at the end and the sound design goes completely old school... with Brian May’s score suddenly disappearing and instead the sound of a heartbeat takes over and is used to ratchet up the suspense. I really had no idea film-maker’s were still doing this as late as 1981 although, if I remember correctly, a slightly more subtle sound mix moment happens with a heartbeat in certain scenes of Stephen Spielberg’s Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom a few years later... although those particular moments in that film make a lot more sense when you see them in their visual context than the inclusion of this rawer usage of the same kind of thing.

Another weird musical moment comes after the end credits where the music just... keeps on going. It’s noted on the blu ray as being exit music, which is something I generally associate with the epic films that have them such as Ben Hur (reviewed here) and How The West Was Won, which generally go on for a good few minutes after... as opposed to the 30 or so seconds here. So that’s a bit of a puzzler. I’m wondering if maybe this isn’t really exit music at all and more a symptom of something having to be removed for a shortened end credits roll somewhere along the line in the history of the film’s release. Does anybody remember seeing this at the cinema at the time of its initial release and can let me know if, indeed, it did have exit music? I find this kind of trivia interesting.

Anyway, that’s Mad Max 2... a much more accomplished film than Miller’s first stab at the character and it works at its own level, that of an old style Western, very well... it being quite entertaining. It even has a nice little twist reveal of something at the end, to do with the tanker Max is driving, which seems completely obvious in retrospect but which, astonishingly, I didn’t see coming, for once. So the fact that Miller’s script and editing didn’t telegraph this particular thing impressed me a little bit. A great little movie which deservs to be on an all night triple bill with other "hard" classics of the genre like The Ultimate Warrior and Soylent Green as far as I’m concerned. All geared up now, if you’ll pardon the expression, to take a look at the third film in the series soon. A review will, of course, follow shortly after.

Mad Max @ NUTS4R2

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