EMPIRE ESSAY: Mad Max 2 Review

A former police officer is now a lone wanderer, travelling through a devasted Australia after a nuclear war looking for the now-priceless fuel of petrol. He lives to survive and is none too pleased when he finds himself the only hope of a small group of honest people running a remote oil refinery. He must protect them from the biker gang that is terrorising them whilst transporting their entire fuel supply to safety.

by Ian Nathan |
Published on
Release Date:

01 Jan 1981

Running Time:

96 minutes



Original Title:


Cars, guns, petrol, leathers, desert, mohicans, and Max. According to George Miller — master purveyor of carmaggedon turned pioneer of talking pig movies — this is the extent of what you can expect to find after nuclear war has reduced society to rubble. These are also the magnificent contents of a sequel that betters its predecessor (the shoestring stuntfest/personal revenge movie that was Mad Max) addressing the post-apocalyptic scenario with a punk rock sensibility and creating a grungy future chic and which propeled Mel Gibson to superstardom. And there was, of course, a further sequel, the inferior but interesting Beyond Thunderdome which made the mistake of diluting Max's darkness (concentrating on his journey back to himself).

Obsessed with his furious highspeed demolition derby, Miller structures a very linear plot in Mad Max 2 — you could happily describe it as one long chase scene (but there is a little more than that). Since the events that turned Max Roxatansky, well, mad there has been a total global apocalypse leaving the world stark and empty and startling like the desert badlands of New South Wales. Here a bad gang (led by the towering, bemasked Lord Houmungus (Nilsson) besieges a good gang, led by the idealistic naivete of Papagallo (Michael Preston) who have an oil refinery and therefore the new gold: petrol.

Enter road warrior Max, hungry for fuel, who finally disposes of his studied indifference and comes to the aid of Papagallo. The archetypes here are pretty obvious — this is the grand tradition of the Western transferred to a brutal new frontier. We have the loner, anti-hero Max steeped in mystique and ambivalence (Clint Eastwood reborn as Mel Gibson). We have the desolate outpost trying to establish moral order and community in a cruel, cold, unfeeling world. And we have the marauding natives: a leather clad, skinhead biker gang bent on destruction, using, instead of horses, the exotic panoply of ramshackle death machines and supercharged hotrods. Only the unreachable (anti)heroism of Max can save the homesteaders.

Miller's preoccupations beyond the noisy carnival of motorised destruction, lie in a musing on locating morality in a society deprived of civilisation. The conflict between men-as-they-should-be and men-as-they-are where the animal instinct has been amplified and social constraints are simply null-and-void. Max himself, played with lean menace by Gibson, remains a mystical figure, the desert wanderer, Shane, Dirty Harry and the Man With No Name squeezed into carnal leathers and a V8 Interceptor. An amoral, dehumanised force that is seeking a way back to some semblance of his former self.

Miller extends the topsy turvey schematics of his world further: the sole child in the movie, the Feral Kid (Ginty), is a grunting, savage; Wez, Houmungus' nutcase henchman, is unusually a homosexual, and the film has no trouble meting out violence to both men and women. Moral order has been laid waste.

Still, it is finally the whirlwind of mechanised combat that stamps the movie so indelibly on thecollective memory. Utilising nought but raw stuntwork (not a whiff of CGI, remember) Miller catapults us through a riot of extravagant, ultra-violent car capers as Max attempts to break out with a tanker of priceless gasoline. Few films, even with all the available technology today, can match the turbulent edits and sheer visceral charge of Miller's elaborate choreography as it flings cast members across bonnets, into head-on collisions and under the wheels of fellow wacky racers (which could only have been done, in a filmmaking sense, for real). Consequently, Mad Max 2 is almost as seminal a work of sci-fi as Blade Runner so many are the films that have been influenced by it — if not blatantly copied from it. Waterworld simply transferred the plotline to a flooded post-apocalypse and gave Max gills and a top rig. Soldier chucked him into outer space and an interplanetary dumping ground. The Crow, Robocop and Demolition Man all borrow unabashedly from Max's rich table.

It is the Road Warrior (as it was subtitled for the American release) that remains the definitive Max movie, hard as nails, hell for leather, it lands like a punch to the jaw. Don't drive angry? Yeah, right.
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