It began five years ago when Ain’t It Cool News published a series of articles on summer films released in 1982. The articles made a potent case, and many fans now regard the year as the greatest in genre movie history. Personally, I’d argue that the previous year was even stronger – 1981 saw the release of Superman II, The Howling, Scanners, Time Bandits, Escape from New York, Excalibur, Dragonslayer, Heavy Metal, Blowout, An American Werewolf in London, Clash of the Titans and a little number called Raiders of the Lost Ark – but there’s no denying that the summer of ’82 was unspeakably cool.
With the famous Alamo Drafthouse providing a 30th anniversary screening series, we thought we’d provide a look back at the best and the brightest from that year. This week, we look at an Aussie import that set a new standard for mayhem…
With the possible exception of Blade Runner, no movie from the summer of ’82 reverberated across the pop culture landscape quite as profoundly as The Road Warrior. (And technically we’re cheating a bit here, since it opened in Australia in 1981. That only furthers my argument that ’81 was just as awesome a summer as ’82, but no matter.) It remains the perennial post-apocalyptic thriller, its look and tone informing every “future dark age” production that followed it. It also carries special consideration for the extraordinary car stunts involved, emulating the Bond films but creating a visceral intensity all their own. The original Mad Max did wonders with a limited budget but infinite vision. Armed with a little more in the bank account, The Road Warrior makes good on its predecessor’s vast promises
The Mad Max trilogy follows an interesting cycle of death and rebirth. The first film contains the remnants of civilization: falling apart, but still trying to function. Beyond Thunderdome posits the birth of a new society, rising with increasing confidence from the ashes of the old. The Road Warrior embraces the desperate, feverish nihilism in the middle, when everything’s gone and the rats are fighting for scraps in the ashes. Biker gangs commit horrible atrocities in the name of gasoline; fuel means mobility and mobility means staying alive to rape and pillage another day. A besieged refinery in the middle of the Outback represents Shangri-La in this universe, which is why the local warlord lays siege to it. The optimistic folks inside hope to use it as a springboard to a better world, but they won’t get the chance if the army of Sid Vicious impersonators outside has their way.
Into this mess comes Max (Mel Gibson), a nomadic wanderer with nothing left to lose except the blasted remnants of his soul. He allies himself to the embattled refinery folks in exchange for a tank of gas, an antihero akin to the westerns and samurai films upon which George Miller so clearly drew for his story. In truth, the plot requires only the barest hints of development. Max himself utters perhaps three words in the entire first half, and of the remaining cast, only the two leaders of each camp speak at length about anything. We grasp the simplicity of the equation instantly: order must hold out against chaos if we wish to survive as a species.
Miller understands, however, that “simple” isn’t the same thing as “shallow.” The more straightforward he can be with his philosophical conceits, the more effectively they’ll play on this stage… and rarely has a stage more suited the kinetic possibilities of film than here. With the lines drawn, The Road Warrior pulls each side back like those giant rubber bands in Thunderdome and lets them rip. The celebrated vehicular battles take place at full speed, devoid of CGI and shot with the breathless assurance of a young filmmaker who doesn’t know what he can’t do. Machines smash into each other at the speed of sound, leaving disturbingly authentic human bodies in their wake. As pure spectacle, The Road Warrior may not have a peer, with the stark drama feeding into the natural adrenaline of Miller’s outstandingly choreographed mayhem. It starts with a bang and never lets up, save in a few taut moments when either Max or his opponents contemplate their next move.
The highlight arrives in the finale, in which the biker gang attempts to run down a gigantic tanker truck with Max behind the wheel. Miller strips it down of anything non-essential; indeed it plays like a miniaturized, rocket-fueled version of the rest of the film, with the heroes crouching behind hard points on the tanker and the villains attempting to topple it. The tanker moves in a straight line – hurled with the force of an ICBM – while the marauders buzz around it like angry wasps. There are no physical obstacles, no oncoming traffic, not even a change in direction save a single U-turn near the very end. It barrels down on us relentlessly, marked by increasingly savage attacks from the dwindling combatants that perfectly encapsulate the film’s social Darwinism. Only the final revelation gives us any real hope: the tanker’s a decoy, signaling the triumph of thought over brute force and allowing the core of civilization to limp on towards the future.
The only problematic part of them film – at least to contemporary eyes – is Gibson, who displays the kind of effortless screen presence that only true icons possess and which once made him the biggest star in the world. In recent years, we’ve glimpsed the darkest corners of the man’s soul, and the demons therein irrevocably taint his image here. His torment and rage simmer onscreen: hypnotic, but also troubling in their too-close connection to reality. At the same time, The Road Warrior indulges in the actor’s seemingly brazen masochism. Scenes of Max battered and tortured in punishment for his sins echo later scenes in the likes of Lethal Weapon and Braveheart, as well as offscreen directorial efforts like Apocalypto. It doesn’t make for pleasant viewing and Gibson’s anti-Semitism continues to reverberate across his once-proud legacy, but that shameful context doesn’t derail the film that made him a star.
The rest of The Road Warrior has only gotten better with age. Its intensity and visceral kinetics put more modern efforts to shame, and remind us of the many ways that computer imagery still can’t compete with the real thing. The Road Warrior’s strengths refuse to fade because they hearken back to cinema at its purest: simple, direct and appealing to our fundamental emotions. It might as well be a silent film, its images holding power that few words can ever match. Rarely has absolute timelessness felt like such a kick in the gut.