Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior Review
Producer Byron Kennedy and director George Miller set the standard for vehicular mayhem with their 1979 Aussie actioner Mad Max, putting Mel Gibson on the road to stardom along the way, so it was only fitting that their second collaboration launched these men into the big time. Released in 1981, Mad Max 2 (a.k.a. The Road Warrior to our American cousins) finds Max on the road to nowhere, his wife and child dead, fighting to survive the hell on wheels that the world has devolved into. But a chance encounter leads him to a petrol-pumping oasis in the middle of the wasteland, and with it a chance at redemption.
Mad Max 2 is a curious beast, being part remake (it’s Max vs Marauders with a bigger budget), part reboot (the post-apocalyptic environment is firmly established, as opposed to the more subtle allusions in the first film) and part sequel (Max’s family, his leg injury and the famed V8 Interceptor are all ticked off the list). There’s a bare thread of a story that it all hangs on, Max finding himself as the unlikely saviour of a ragtag band of survivors in control of an oil refinery besieged by bandits, but let’s be honest: we’re not here for the narrative. We’re here for some kick-ass automobile action, and Mad Max 2 delivers. It’s bone-crunching, wince-inducing stuff that literally makes my heart beat faster. The movie has an incredibly raw, visceral feel to it, something which has been lost in the anodyne age of CG-dominated visual effects.
I love the practicality of the production design too, the combatants on both sides wearing lots of sports gear (like shoulder pads, cricket gloves, hockey helmets and the like) and the pimped-out vehicles aren’t crazy for the sake of it. As with the first film, there’s also a wonderful vein of humour that runs through the movie, with Bruce Spence adding some much-needed quirkiness as the oddball Gyro Captain. Miller loves to inject cartoon-style silliness into these flicks but it’s not all one-note, as there’re some darker moments amongst the well-worn sight gags. Brian May returned for scoring duties, his crass, overblown music proving to be an even better fit second time around.
As for the performances, I’ve already mentioned Bruce Spence but Mel Gibson rightly takes centre stage, his screen presence having ramped up a notch since we saw him last. The fresh-faced young man from the first film has turned into a grizzled veteran of the blacktop, his stiff gait (thanks to the leg brace) and white streak in his hair making him seem old beyond his years. This Max has a far shorter fuse and even less tolerance for his enemies; he’s as dangerous as the rattlesnake he swipes from the Gyro Captain’s ride, and is every bit the lone mythological warrior he was intended to be.
Vernon Wells is great fun as Wez, his feathered shoulder pads, bare-bottomed chaps and chained-up lover giving a kinky sadomasochistic vibe to this violent brute of a man. His leader, the man-mountain called The Humungus, is played with an air of intelligence by bodybuilder Kjell Nilsson, his gruff voice adding a different flavour to proceedings. Michael Preston plays Papagallo, the head of the beleaguered refinery, imbuing him with a sense of straightforward pragmatism. And Emil Minty is brilliant as the aptly named Feral Kid, throwing himself into the role with gusto.
All in all, Mad Max 2 is another Ozploitation masterpiece from the Miller/Kennedy stable.
The DiscMad Max 2
has been re-released in America as a region-free standalone and as part of a new trilogy set, containing MGM’s Blu-ray of Mad Max (reviewed here) and Warners’ own brand-new Blu-ray of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (reviewed here). NB: Even though this is an American Blu-ray release sold under the Road Warrior tag, the movie carries the proper Mad Max 2 title card because it's the slightly longer Australian cut of the film, which restores a few frames of Wez pulling the arrow from his arm at the beginning.
Warners’ original HD treatment of the movie wasn’t outstanding, but it got the job done. However, for this new region-free release they’ve re-encoded the picture and sound, swapping out the old VC-1 encode for a shiny new AVC one, and the plain-jane Dolby Digital 5.1 track has been tooled up into lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The underlying masters are the same as the old disc, so don’t go expecting a night and day difference, as the plusses and minuses of the original materials remain. But the Blu-ray is now as faithful as possible to those masters, and for that Warners must be commended.
The movie is presented in its original 2.40 widescreen aspect, shot on good old 35mm anamorphic. The colour remains as variable as it was on the old disc, sometimes changing from shot to shot (no digital tinkering here!), with a palette that favours secondary tones over primaries - though that’s not to say that the latter range is neglected. The restrained level of saturation may not be to everyone’s taste – the DVD was notably punchier in that regard – but it doesn’t bother me in the least because the colour itself looks appropriate for the period. The modern trend for sickly blue-green hues has not been retroactively enforced, thankfully; skies are blue, blood is red and plants look green, plus the skin tones have a pleasing sense of naturalism.
Detail has been given a small but noticeable uptick thanks to the new encode, and for a 32-year-old anamorphic show it’s capable of some excellent sharpness, especially on the close-ups. Visible edge halos are not an issue, and though there are several soft or slightly blurry shots sprinkled throughout, they’re an inherent part of the anamorphic process, not to mention the various opticals (Miller loves his fades, wipes and dissolves) which soften the image and plug up the colour. You may spot some gate weave on some scenes too, but given how the opening credits are rock-solid I don’t think it’s telecine judder, more of a registration problem with a certain camera during the shoot.
The contrast range is good, allowing for solid blacks, bright highlights and everything in between. Some night exteriors are unavoidably thin, looking grainy and washed out due to the shortcomings of fast stock at that time. The darker shots also show up some noticeable fading of the film elements on the left side of the image, however it’s all but imperceptible in the daylight scenes so it’s not a major issue. The print itself is very clean and free of major examples of dirt and damage, and the encode doesn't show up any compression problems like blocking or banding.
Audio is solid but unremarkable. The lossless upgrade has given the 5.1 audio a bit more backbone, i.e. you can push it harder without it sounding too forced or overly harsh, yet it’s still an early ‘80s Dolby Stereo mix at heart. The action is firmly centred on the front array, with some good directionality, though the rears are used very rarely for some obvious flyover effects. Same goes for the subwoofer, as even the meanest crash or biggest explosion only elicits a slight grumble. The vehicles still emit a throaty roar, just don’t expect your sub to be working overtime. Dialogue fits in okay, not that there’s a great deal of it to worry about. Brian May’s deliciously overcooked music score sounds nice and clear.
The selection of extras is distinctly underwhelming, mirroring the original Blu-ray release and adding nothing new. We get a short introduction by critic Leonard Maltin, a haggard looking US trailer and an audio commentary from Miller and his director of photography Dean Semler. It’s an excellent track, the two men sharing an obvious rapport, bouncing anecdotes and trivia off of each other and providing some genuine insight into the making of the movie. (I had to laugh when Semler talks about how anamorphic lens flares are a blight to be avoided, because they've become de rigueur in the years since this commentary was recorded.)
OverallMad Max 2
is a lean, mean action classic that leaves its rivals choking on its exhaust fumes, and Warners’ new Blu-ray does it justice with strong video quality and reasonable audio. The lineup of extras is the same as before, which is to say that it’s a very weak selection, although the superb commentary is the saving grace. Maybe someday we’ll get a proper special edition, but until then this latest Blu-ray edition will suffice. If you’re a hardcore Mad Max fan, it comes highly recommended.