Some names hold a very special place in the cult film world. Ashley J. Williams, Jeffrey Lebowski, Tyler Durden, “Mad” Max Rockatansky. Megastar-turned-madman Mel Gibson’s big break as the shotgun-toting, leather-studded Max thrust him into the spotlight without requiring him to do much more than be handsomely brooding, point big guns, and drive big trucks. The Road Warrior, George Miller’s 1981 sequel to Mad Max is a lot like Umberto D after the end of the world (as if it wasn’t depressing enough) with an enjoyable sinister half-smirk and show-stopping set pieces, yet its beloved cult film status is worth questioning to those who haven’t strapped on the hockey pads and razor-edged boomerangs at dozens of midnight screenings before.
Max’s previous outing is graciously summarized within the The Road Warrior‘s first five minutes, rendering Mad Max—a film I admittedly do not care for—as unnecessary viewing material. The loving, baby-faced husband and father Max loses his wife and child to a murderous group of marauders, then properly kills them off. When we meet up with Max (sporting a five o’clock shadow that’s much more construction worker than scavenger of the apocalypse), he’s still roaming through the Australian desert, now without purpose other than self-preservation.
Like Scorsese can shoot New York, Miller can navigate through his wasteland without appearing bland or boring. Unlike Scorsese, a tried and true carpenter of urban atmosphere, Miller makes the mistake of turning the desert into the attraction rather than the stage. He finds the most interesting aspect of the surroundings, whether it’s the open vastness of the desert or the weathered vehicles of the marauders, and delivers a perfectly crafted vision of dirty vengeance, but outside of this and the masterfully choreographed car chases—the film’s opening sequence screams Death Proof, only way ahead of the curve—the film is as barren as Miller doesn’t want you to realize.
The Road Warrior is a spectacle of stunts, the largest of which being that there’s just no story worth being told. It suffers similarly as would Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado years later: a larger budget later lends way to outstanding action and directorial flourishes, but the small-film-gone-large recap/sequel is used more as an excuse for blowing up bigger busses, squashing scarier psychopaths, and kicking more ass than telling a better story. It dazzles its way to stunt-film fame, but why do we care about Max? He has lost everything, but does that mean as a writer he can’t be given anything?