All posts by Benjamin Nason


*Originally appeared on the MacGuffin:

The original title for director George Miller’s follow up to his International hit movie debut,Mad Max, was simply Mad Max 2 when it opened to Australian and Japanese theaters in 1981.  Overseas in the United States it was re-titled for American audiences as The Road Warrior.  Distributors felt no one would see a movie that was a sequel to a film most people in the USA had not seen.  With the Blu-Ray release of the film in 2007 the original title card of Mad Max 2was restored in place at the beginning of the movie, after the credits a low level build of horns and drums slowly usher us before it.

Using the same graphic technique for the title card of the first film, accompanied by the score, we expect the next shot will present us a widescreen window of whatever wonders are in store for this film, instead we fade to black, and a sardonic low note precedes the withered yet hardened tenure of a narrator’s voice scratching its way onto the audio landscape.  To further dismay our expectations the first image we see is small, a box in the center of the screen recalling a television screen not a theater’s.  What we see in this box is, again a nice twist in expectations, as we are shown for the first shot, unknowingly to a first time viewer, what will also serve as the movie’s final shot, Max standing in the center of the road, cars wrecked around him, his face beaten and bruised, as smoke is superimposed, on a separate level of film, blowing over him.  In these several seconds of time a theme is presented that will follow the viewer throughout the entirety of the movie, expect the unexpected.

In the opening montage of flashback and narration, The Road Warrior immediately establishes for the viewer the most explanation of the post-apocalyptic world the story takes place in than at any other time in the Mad Max trilogy.  Here the slow, sardonic voice of the narrator explains how the world essentially fell apart due to war over oil.  As the narration continues we are fed images of wartime newsreels, namely from World War Two.  This evokes a sense of a time when the world did possibly feel like it was ending.  From newsreel footage we transition into flashback shots of Mad Max, mainly used for audiences unfamiliar with the predecessor.

The beginning montage of exposition ends with Max at the end of the previous film driving at night into the wastelands.  Here he is still rather clean cut, his uniform intact, even if he is overcome with grief and madness.  The shot cuts to an aerial view of a desolate road, setting the spatial tone for the film, wide open space, nothing but desert, wasteland.  No hope as far as the eye can see.  The camera quickly descends from the air like a bird, flying into the road and we cut to black.  In an eye-popping moment, the camera, with a roar of an engine and blast of horns, pulls back from the darkness to a full widescreen shot of Max, in the present, behind the wheel of his V-8 Interceptor.  Using the same framed shot of Max as we saw him last in the flashback, offers a direct comparison to Max as he is now, his hair is unkempt and fraying outward, he is dirty and what we can see of his uniform is tattered and missing a sleeve.  Inside, the car has been gutted and refitted with only the essential needs for living in the post-apocalypse, this includes a dog, who’s just as wild and mangy looking as Max.  The dog excellently represents a duality in Max’s character, we know nothing about the animal, or how he and Max became companions, but he represents signs of a wild creature.  Befriending the dog shows that while Max embraces the wild he still holds desires of family.

Max’s uniform, which we don’t get a view of proper until later in this sequence, is a direct physical representation of his transition as a character because of, and since, the events in,Mad Max. His arm, which was run over by Bubba Zanetti’s motorcycle, is the one missing a sleeve.  Paramedics attending a wound like Max’s would first cut off and pull away his jacket sleeve so as not move a possibly broken arm.  His left leg is fitted with a brace supporting his knee where he was shot.  A wrench hangs from the front of his jacket, ready for engine repairs.  The small cupped shoulder pads used by the MFP have been abandoned and instead over his sleeveless arm, Max has installed a football shoulder pad for protection.  Max has become a part of his environment, not just an adaption to it, which is echoed by the memory of his choice to enter into the wastelands for his means of revenge, and then never leaving.  The irony is that now, since that choice, the world has become nothing but wasteland.  His choice is no longer that, it is a prison that he can never escape from.

The beginning of The Road Warrior proper opens in the middle of a chase sequence.  Max is being pursued by a highway gang.  In an ironic twist the first member we’re clearly shown is wearing an altered, fetishized version of the MFP’s helmet and face protection.  The action, like in Mad Max, starts the movie setting a precedent of entertainment spectacle that will be continuously outdone over the film’s duration.  After taking out two of the three pursuing vehicles, one of which crashes into a semi-truck and trailer left in the middle of the road, Max stops and quickly races to salvage the vehicles leaking gasoline.  On the horizon sits the remaining pursuer, Wez, one of the film’s main antagonists, and his male companion.  The first villains of the film and already they are more primal and punk rock than the villains inMad Max, making some viewers ask, “How do they find time and resources to dye their hair and style it into Mohawks?”  To an outright obvious degree this is a valid question, but it is also one that ignores the theme the visual aesthetic is used to incur throughout the entireMad Max series, intimidation.  As Wez revs the motorcycle they sit upon, Max stands fast, placing himself between them and the gas he is retrieving, drawing a sawed-off shotgun he has holstered at his side.  This is another significant factor of intimidation, as we learn later that Max at this moment in time has no bullets for the gun.  He too must use elements of fear to survive in a land driven by such emotions, but here we see him turning the tables and using this against those that made intimidation the factor it is.

With the villains costume design we again have a film that capitalized on modern day film goers’ association with the punk rock music scene.  The idea of style is not one of function, but attitude.  Like in George A. Romero’s classic horror film Night of the Living Dead, the force of the other in The Road Warrior, is physically represented only, there are no reasons of explanation.  Here instead of the undead with rotting flesh and an appetite for brains, we have hairstyles, clothing, and an appetite for destruction.  Where Romero’s zombies made for a cultural reference to the world it was theatrically released to in 1968, so do Miller’s gangs of the wastelands, here in 1981 their representation is rooted in the similar concepts of anti-establishment sentiment.  However, unlike in Mad Max where the villains were currently engaged in a battle against society, in The Road Warrior they have achieved their goal and roam the land doing as they please.  There is no longer an establishment, not any official one.

After the opening scenes’ climax, in a similar plot structure to Mad Max, we are presented, albeit for a brief moment, with Max’s current state of being.  As far as we can tell Max’s life consists of a simple philosophical existence, driving around looking for gas, so he can continue driving around looking for gas.  His life, all of it, is in the Interceptor, which has been shown to us by the stripping and altering done to its’ interior.  As the movie progresses and Max meets other people he seems adamant in his reproach of joining anyone or their goals, this is the life he wants.  His existential status quo is quickly interrupted however with his encounter of the Gyro Captain, who essentially sends him on his path to learning to live again, as foretold by the narrator in the prologue.

At the center of The Road Warrior’s plot is a theme briefly touched upon at the end of Mad Max, fuel, gasoline, energy, it is what makes the world go around.  This is broadly expanded upon at the beginning of The Road Warrior as the narrator explains that fuel caused the world war that brought upon the apocalypse.  When the fuel production stopped, so did society, indicating that the two are inextricably linked.  When Max meets the Gyro Captain, in exchange for his life, the Captain tells Max where he can find all the fuel he’ll ever need.  The fact the Gyro Captain offers this to Max as his first resort further indicates the overall desire of the war’s survivors to find fuel, and with it perhaps civilization, or at the very least create an illusion of the comfort society could provide.  The fuel refinery compound is the film’s strongest and most important example of the connection between fuel and society, as now in the aftermath of the war for oil it is oil that will by society’s salvation, or rebirth.

Telling a story in a Post-Apocalypse environment is typically about the “What if?” of society starting anew, rebuilding better what once was before, as if society before was broken or damaged and needed to be wiped clean to start over.  In the instance of The Road Warriorthe case is not so much to rebuild better as it is to just rebuild something, anything resembling what was lost.  The idea of societal improvement during rebuilding is the core issue of the third film Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, and helps complete the development of character in relation to their environment, as a linear narrative progression in a trilogy.  In this movie that core philosophy is mainly concerned with finding a way to exist, the connections to the past serve as a hope to the possibility of going back to what once was.  When taken in this perspective, the people of the refinery and Max are of similarity, they are both doing what they know immediately to do to exist, at least on the surface.  Inside the refinery we find out they have gone past that first step and have proceeded to a plan.  One based on hope for future survival, away from the torment of the gangs.

The Road Warrior is, like most action films, a story dealing with extremes, and nothing is more extreme in this film than the villains.  A point so finely illustrated in their initial introduction.  Riding in on vehicles the wasteland gang surrounds the refinery, recalling scenes from classic western movies where bad guys, portrayed as Native Americans, would surround a wagon train that circled in on itself for protection.  The leader of these Post-Apocalyptic bad guys is The Humungous, his name, the very definition of extreme.  To further push the point, The Humungous is just that, huge.  He’s shaped like a body-builder and wears something you’d expect to see He-Man in.  To cap off his physical presence, The Humungous wears a Hockey mask, obviously covering up some serious head and facial scars, and in doing so predates the iconic image of horror movie monster, Jason Vorhees, who was seen by audiences for the first time donning the Hockey mask in Friday the 13th, Part 3-D a year later in 1982.  Around The Humungous’ neck is a giant steel brace which coupled with the mask indicates the possibility of a very serious injury, and as part of the intimidation over others factor, he’s adopted this extreme, over-the-top look to turn his misfortune into an asset.  When The Humungous speaks his voice is raspy and strained, but his intonations are soft, almost inviting, as he talks through a megaphone attempting to persuade the people in the refinery to just walk away.  He even goes so far as to offer clemency, if they chose to give the place over to him, free roam of the wastelands where The Humungous and his gang will leave them be.  It’s a strange dichotomy between fear and safety that the villains offer for the people inside, an extreme situation for sure.

George Miller achieves with this film the ultimate goal any action film should strive for, delivering a story with character and plot as progressed through the entertainment of spectacle driven action sequences.  Essentially an action scene should serve more than to just wow an audience, it should become the definition of its description, to be, action.  No finer can you visually represent the concept of progression, the essence of stories, than to physically see humans forwarding the narrative of life in a live or die situation they create.  If life were to be measured in ‘doing’ instead of ‘done to’ where one makes life happen instead of waiting for it to happen to them, than the action film is life in motion.  This is where the need to control one’s destiny is given physical agency, and to prove this point we have The Road Warrior’s climatic chase sequence.

Already told that Max is a remembered hero in the prologue, he’s obviously done a few things by the end that leave the audience questioning whether he really is the hero mentioned before or not.  To help even more with our questioning of his worth Max, after going through hell at the hands of the gang, finally agrees to drive the tanker.  This seems like a heroic gesture, but given the situation, where the people of the refinery are leaving with or without Max, really leaves Max little options.  Would they take him as an extra mouth to feed even if he didn’t offer help?  My guess is probably not, and Max knows this.  Driving that tanker is his salvation.  Over the course of the gauntlet that Max, and those who go along with him to help protect the truck, go through, real character fortitude will be tested.  Max proves his worth as a hero, defending off advancing attackers with his bare hands at some moments, and blasting them with the few shotgun shells he was given for the occasion, at others.  The camera captures perfectly some raw and audacious stunts.  While mounts were once again installed on the vehicles bringing the audience into the action, cinematographer Dean Semler, delicately keeps the spectacle in steady frame.  This allows the audience to experience the thrill of the stunts while keeping it all in relation to external environments the action has to interact with.

The final progression of Max to mythic hero comes in his defeat.  The rig and tanker he is hauling is finally overcome by Max taking care of both Wez and The Humungous.  After the death of the refinery’s leader, Pappagallo, Max throws the vehicle into a u-turn and heads straight into his oncoming pursuers, with Wez hanging onto his front grill.  The scene climaxes with the head on collision of Max and The Humungous, killing both Wez and The Humungous and sending the tanker crashing onto its side.  For a moment, after the dust settles, it seems Max has failed, but in one of the film’s final twists of expectations we learn that the tanker was not hauling the gasoline like the audience and Max thought, but dirt.  It was a diversion.  The film cuts to the people of the refinery, traveling in a caravan of vehicles, safe from attackers, on their way to the land of salvation.  To finally cap off the last twist we learn as the caravan moves across the wasteland that our narrator was a story participant, and none other than the feral kid, who Max befriends and acts as possible surrogate parent to, over the course of the movie.  The last shot of the film comes full circle framing Max in the middle of the road, beaten and bleeding, the same shot we opened on.  Here he is, a hero, even if he was used as a decoy, his actions still delivered the people to safety, regardless of intent.  And, in the end Max, while growing as a person, is left alone again, returning to the wilds of the wasteland that he inhabited at the beginning.  He and his environment, like fuel and society, are inextricably linked.  Without this world there would be no need for Max, but without this world, there would be no Mad Max.


*Article originally appeared on the MacGuffin:

When George Miller’s first feature film, Mad Max was released to audiences worldwide in 1979, the genre of the Action film did not exist as a genre like it does today. This is in part because films like Mad Max helped to define and establish such a genre. Taking a story idea and boiling its’ narrative down to a simple spectacle driven element gave Miller room to impose the aspects of typical film storytelling conventions, like character development and setting, and compress and infuse them into the action. With the films’ use of imagery, symbolism and metaphor account for most of the dramatic elements that would otherwise be found in dialogue and exposition in broader, more conventional films. Instead, that time is spent forwarding the plot with brilliantly crafted stunts, using innovative techniques. In this way George Miller was able to direct the visual narrative of the film into an experience as well as a story. This was the beginning of the modern day Action genre and few films could present a finer example of its burgeoning viability.

The first twelve minutes of Mad Max presents some of the hardest evidence in film of character, setting and plot compacted into sheer spectacle. From the opening shot we are being fed images of information that are never spoken of in the rest of the film. We fade in on, accompanied with the score’s triumphant anthem, the entrance to the Halls of Justice. The shot comes from street level, tilting slightly up, presenting the building as one of importance. It will come to be the film’s only physical structure representing the establishment. When we look closer at this shot though, we can see the minute complexities that litter the film. Framing the right side of the building’s entrance, yet obviously existing in the space before it, on the street corner, is a Stop Sign. Presented in this way it acts not as just a direction for the traffic, but a sign of caution in relation to the building. This begins a theme of intimidation that will run through all the films in the trilogy, to survive there must be the appearance of toughness, but underneath is just frailty mixed with hope, weaknesses in a lawless world. Looking at the words that hang above the entrance, Halls of Justice we notice that the letter U in Justice hangs a bit, and looks as if it has been that way for some time. Behind the entrance, examining the building itself, we see it looks rather in disrepair. Its physical appearance is rundown and used. The brick around the entrance is dirty and decaying. For a building representing the establishment’s form of order it is not paid much, or any, attention to at all, esthetically. More tellingly, perhaps upkeep is a luxury not afforded in this world. Such signs and vagary leave us wondering, what is the rest of the world like? What brought it this way? These are question the film never answers.

The opening shot quickly fades into an image of a desolate road lined with telephone poles. Across the screen appears to the sound of a typewriter, the words, “A Few Years from Now…” indicating to us that this is an undetermined point in the future. The shot quickly continues to fade to an image of a Skull and Crossbones painted with a stencil, in the middle of the road. That image fades out and we then fade in on a road sign that reads, “Anarchie Road 3 km“, panning to the left of the sign we see a yellow, blue, and red police cruiser parked on the side of the road. The road sign of course plays an integral part in the film’s hyper imagery. The word Anarchy, in this case misspelled, means a lack of order, and then there is the fact it is the name of a road, indicating the, what and where, at the core of the film. Order and chaos are going to fight for the right to dominantly exist and they will do it on the road.

The final bit of exposition the introduction gives us comes when the camera sweeps across another road sign. This one reads: “Highway 9 Sector 26, High Fatality Road – Deaths This Year: 57, Monitored By Main Force Patrol” The letter O in Force is crossed out and written above it in red is the letter A, spelling out, Farce. The camera continues to pan from the sign to another yellow, blue, and red police cruiser, parked on the side of the road, this one is under repair. Our introduction to the film’s protagonist, Max Rockatansky is one, like the setting, shrouded in mystery. As he works to repair his vehicle we are only given low, close shots of Max, nothing that reveals his full features, face or otherwise, and continues throughout the opening action sequence until its climax when Max emerges from his vehicle and removes his sunglasses, giving us a full introduction shot.

With such an entrance Max is treated from the beginning as something of a wonder, a mythic figure in a mythic world.  What we do learn about the films’ setting is that society is running down, reducing itself to the primitive. As I mentioned before, this is never explained in the film and adds a complex layer to the movie. The film itself is considered by many, even its own makers to be set in a Post-Apocalyptic environment; however this is, in my opinion, really never indicated. Instead the setting seems to be more in the process of going through the apocalypse then existing in its aftermath. There are still signs of some form of society, the first indication of that is the existence of the MFP itself. It has funding, and vehicles, and answers to a commissioner. Then there is the fact there is still television and news broadcasting, meaning that there has to be people, and enough of them to warrant its continued existence. While some film critics point out there are no regular people littering society in the film, I argue there are, the children who approach Bubba Zanetti at the Halls of Justice and inquire about the damaged vehicle in the courtyard, and the bystanders in the films’ opening sequence who almost become victims of the chase. If anything, the settings for most of the film do not require that we see people, and could still lend itself to the fact society is in a state of decay, not attempting to rebound from its apocalyptic conclusion.

The action in Mad Max is where the film truly soars. Combining the visual spectacle of car chases and stunts with the emotional spectacle of the sort of suspense you normally would find in a horror movie, George Miller is able to bring the audience into this dystopian world. Doing what few, if any, other action film director had done prior, Miller mounted cameras rigs onto the vehicles themselves to capture the exhilarating veracity of the stunts by placing the audience in the center of the action, this coupled with the evolution of both Max, and the setting, as developing characters, arrive together for a dazzling and thought provoking film. The film’s opening action sequence sets the stage for everything else to come. The first villain, the Nightrider, is a true animated force of anarchy and tests the will of Max’s entire department. Breaking police custody and stealing an MFP cruiser the Nightrider, as he and his female companion burn across the highway, seem to aim at nothing more than creating chaos. Along the way we are treated to breathtaking, yet neck breaking, car stunts. Boiling to a confrontation with Max, who’s been presented as the most bad-assed of all the patrolmen, the film makers achieve a crescendo by placing on the Nightrider’s car, which is a black V8 Interceptor, the same car Max later wields like cowboys did horses, a nitrous rocket.  The rocket goes off, sending flames from the rear of the car and accelerating it to speeds of 180kph plus, right as it plummets into a wreckage of vehicles in the middle of the road.

After the beginning of the film resolves, the aspects that define the root of Max’s character begin. We see his home life immediately and are given the impression his character is in the same boat that befalls most characters in Police Procedural films, torn between his duty to his family and his duty to his job, which in this case bears a heavy responsibility. As society is obviously breaking down he is one of the last standing vestiges of law and order, not something to be tossed aside lightly. Deep down though Max’s true motivations at this early point in his life, before the change into the title’s bearer, Mad Max, is presented by his Captain.  After the downfall of Max’s partner, Goose, Max hands in his resignation. Refusing to accept it the Captain tells Max to take a few weeks for vacation and then decide if he wants to quit, Max ensures him he won’t, and on his way out the Captain yells after him, “You’ll be back Rockatansky. You’re hooked Max.  And you know it!”  While being the only time we ever hear Max’s first name it’s also the most telling moment of Max’s character, he’s an action junky at heart.

The death, or downfall of Goose, is in itself something that adds to the film’s complexity. The moments leading up to his accident are some of the most suspense filled moments in the action genre, not only does he get taken out by the villains once, but just as we’re gaining a sense of safety back he is taken out a second and final time. In the hospital, after Max is informed of the situation, Goose lays hidden underneath a small tent over his bed, a result of the violence done to him by the villains, the Toecutter and his motorcycle gang. Max enters the room and even though he has been warned of what he will see, decides he needs to look at Goose for himself. He does so, and in result storms out of the room professing, “That thing in there… that’s not the Goose.” The only further indication we have of the Goose’s actual demise is when Max is resigning and the Captain mentions, “So the Goose bought it…”

The true complexity of Max as a character is shown in a moment that comes after the Toecutter has run over with his motorcycle, Max’s wife, Jessie and their infant child, Sprog. A scene inside the hospital reveals that Jessie’s vital signs returned the night prior, but that she suffers from a laundry list of physical complications. The doctor tells the nurse to inform Max that she is going to be all right, and not to worry.  We pan back to a shot of Max outside the room listening in. The scene that follows is Max outside his home, sitting in a chair overlooking the ocean, a symbolic reference that is just as vast and ominous as its physical stature. Here Max expresses his grief for a dead wife and child, which is made obvious by the Halloween mask he grips tightly in his hands, a reference to an earlier scene indicating the times with his wife he will miss. We as the audience are never given exact closure to the death of Jessie, if it actually occurs, we are only privy to Max’s decision to exact revenge for what we can only assume is her death. Perhaps Max, like we witnessed earlier with Goose in the hospital, has again abandoned the situation before its proper resolution, only to immediately or prematurely jump on the catharsis bandwagon of revenge. It is definitely a trait of anger, or being Mad.

The villains tear themselves into the film’s narrative as viscerally jarring representations of anti-establishment. Capitalizing on “normal” society’s fears at the time of the Punk Rock scene, the Toecutter and his crew are physically the opposite of Max and the MFP officers. While Max and his crew are adorned in black fetish style leathers that look something between a motorcycle cop’s attire and a glamour rock star’s, coupled with visible protective pads like on a football uniform, are sleek and even cutting edge. The Toecutter’s crew is dressed in dirty rags and wears punk rock styled hairdos. They are dirty, unkempt and are of a childishly violent disposition. Both of these styles serve very little in the way of function, but instead represent the need for intimidation from and for either side. The villains, as such are only against order. They have no true agenda, calling to mind the biker gangs of the 50s and 60s exploitation films; they, like what Max becomes, are simply a force.

The bleak, mysterious setting, the tense exactitude of the action, and Max’s degeneration as a person stripped of humanity, come to a head in the climax. Max begins his final acts of revenge while coming upon a portion of the motorcycle gang as they are stealing gas from a moving tanker. This is an interesting moment because it establishes a theme that will become the center focus of the sequel, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, the world’s continuous need for fuel even after the apocalypse it caused. Here we witness Max viciously run down these bikers. Placing a camera mount on the top of Max’s V8 Interceptor, which in its own way is a character in the film, we see firsthand Max barring down from behind. As he kicks in the car’s methane booster the frame rate is speed up, treating the audience to a blast of adrenaline. Max continues the Interceptor ahead and swings it around to take those remaining on head first, shot from the mount on the front of the car we quickly cut away right before impact, switching to a shot below the bridge the scene takes place upon. We see two bikers, arms flailing as they and their bikes careen off into the water below. Cutting back to the bridge, we witness in slow motion the aftermath of those unlucky enough to stay behind, as they go tumbling along the asphalt, their bikes with and on top of them.

As Max chases down the remaining three villains, he must follow them into the Prohibited Area, as is marked by the road sign he passes, one he pays no mind to. This shot represents Max’s collapse into the same state his environment is in now. Carrying out his revenge means he’s just as primitive as the criminals he’s hunting down and the land they exist in. After falling prey to an ambush Max is shot in the knee, and has his arm run over, but now, more of a force than a human, Max manages to grab his gun and blow Bobba Zanetti away just as he was about to run Max over with his bike. The scene is enhanced by Brian May’s score as it blasts Max’s anthem, again triumphantly. Finally, in the most spectacular stunt of the film, Max chases down the Toecutter, who famously winds up driving straight on into an oncoming semi. With a touch of a cartoonish turn we see the Toecutter’s eyes literally bulge from out of his skull right before the moment of impact. This little piece of Looney Tunes flair caps onto the film a playfully devilish tone that sits perfectly between the punk rock outlandishness of the characters and the setting.

While the film climaxes with the death of the Toecutter we then segue into its resolution with a hallucinatory transition. Max drives on into the night forcing himself to stay awake, for there is no stopping until his goal is complete. Rain and jazz music pours down onto the Interceptor. Continuing on into the next day Max comes upon the last piece of his revenge, Johnny the Boy. What happens in these closing moments seals Max’s fate for the remainder of the trilogy. While some film critics view it as complete catharsis and nothing short of what Johnny the Boy deserves, others see it as Max exhibiting his final regression into the primal. I myself, feel it is both acting at the same time and thus displaying one of the greatest attributes of the Action film, the hyper ability to deliver thought provoking concepts, themes, and characters through the adrenaline inducing spectacle.

If taking the film and viewing it in the context of its two sequels we can see that both the character of Max and the setting he inhabits mirrors each other’s continual development throughout all three movies. Mad Max by itself is simply a great action story of revenge, but when placed inside the context of a trilogy it becomes an origin story, both for the character and the world.