Note: As I'm not quite as advanced as site administrator and über-scribe Slarek and have no Blu-Ray player (that's a big 'yet'), you will not be surprised if you read in the main review no explosions of celebratory delight at details thrust forward by the new technology, no gushing blasts of appreciation for being able to see one of my beloved movies at home with a clarity only last seen twenty six years ago at the cinema. That's because I'm still a standard definition guy. My home cinema flooded some years ago and I am no closer to rebuilding it. Once my life can be lived without resort to cardboard boxes, I will invest but for now will leave the Blu-Ray stuff to the man who knows. My review is of the movie, not the technology. That comes afterwards... Onwards. [Camus]
Another note: Our initial Blu-ray reviews will not be accompanied by our traditional screen grabs from the disc for the simple reason we don't have the technology to do it yet. [Slarek]
"And in that maelstrom of decay, ordinary men
were battered and smashed; men like Max..."
The Feral Kid (as an old man as narrator)
As the VHS boom took off in the late seventies and early eighties (yes, historical artefacts now but then, plastic boxes of such needed and illicit pleasure), some under the counter movies started appearing. The ridiculous self-righteous trill of Whitehousian dissent was clucking unimaginatively at the so-called 'video nasties' (was her life that empty, her will to meddle so fervent?) and 'piracy' and 'bootleg' moved out of the music business (as if) and entered the video vocabulary. Recorded on terrible quality cameras at the back of a cinema, some movies leaked into shady rental stores and I have to thank one particularly seedy one on my street back in the early eighties for exposure to two movies I'd missed. It was my first multi-viewing experience of the one film every fellow cinema nut was desperate to see (banned and withdrawn, people used to travel to Amsterdam for a viewing. My own indroogtrination was in San Francisco). It was, of course, the very great and almost mythical A Clockwork Orange.
The second – which would be released legitimately in time though certainly not in a letterbox format until significantly later – was a sequel to a violent cop road movie shot in Australia by a certain Dr. George Miller. I had seen, admired and liked Mad Max so was of course confused about its 'sequelity' so to speak. How do you make a sequel to a movie about a loner cop who's lost his family and had his revenge? Is he going to get married again so some nasty bastard could kill wife number two? Again? 'Again' is what sequels trade on. George Miller was having none of it. He took the idea of a lone drifter, skewed the original 'white line' terrain and locale into something very different but genre specific. In short, he took his original and surpassed it with a totality of vision that made the sequel a standalone piece of action cinema that, in its mythic essence, is yet to be beaten. This statement of course has to marry itself to 'those action movies I've managed to see...'
Well. I will make a bold claim (and for a sequel no less). Mad Max 2 (or The Road Warrior in the US) is a perfect film. Let me qualify this; the film is so profoundly rooted and mired in the world director Miller and company have created, that it seems impossible the film at one time did not exist. It's one of these fully formed works that comes along rarely. It puts not one biker-booted foot wrong in every screen minute and there is more narrative skill in a single scene of this sharply but not overly cut classic than found in most summer cinema crops these days. The Road Warrior's own rules are savagely delineated, its characters' mythic types are straight from the pages of Joseph Campbell's writing (George Lucas wasn't the only one to drink deeply from those pages) and in essence, the film feels like a perfectly formed gem. It is the per-cine-fication of "A man's got to do what a man's got to do..."
The movie is shot with such visceral gusto that you almost hear it wheezing through its own sprockets, short of breath when the curtains close. That shot following the rabbit, Jesus! And yet, it retains its mythic underpinning with a breezy élan that defies criticism. Oh, yes. You can say you don't like films 'like that' but you'd be an idiot not to appreciate that it's one of the best of its kind. You'll always have Luc-Besson's Le Dernier Combat for Gallic philosophy in the genre, the deliciously dark Harlan Ellison story directed by L.Q. Jones – A Boy and his Dog. And there's always Costner's The Postman... Perhaps not and I'm being unfair because I've not seen it (but appreciated its score). So how do you make a Mad Max sequel? Easy. Blow up the freakin' world. The post-Apocalypse genre is well defined and Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior rises like a rocket among them tipped with a glorious Australian warhead...
Broken and bereft of family, the leather-clad cynic Max Rockatansky drives his car ("the last of the V8 interceptors...") across vast deserts in search of the only currency of real worth in a land after "two mighty warrior tribes went to war and touched off a blaze which engulfed them all." Petrol, the precious juice, is all that matters here. Moving around helps you stay alive. Having recently visited Death Valley in California, I now know how important a working vehicle is, in a desert. It's shade if nothing else. Just imagine this 2.35:1 masterpiece on a battered pan and scanned VHS with an entire scene impossible to make out (it was shot in the dark), sounding like bubblewrap flattened by a fifty year old mattress (now there's a concept). It was awful, beyond any limit of acceptability. The first time I saw this representation of a film I now know so well, I knew it was a masterpiece, even on a pirate VHS. It was the energy, the mythos, the twists, the stunts – it was what cinema was designed for. Here at Outsider, the misfits are vaulted, the beloved classics from the contributors' pasts are championed but here – despite its place in the latter camp – here was a movie that just seemed perfect, just right and it's a shivering joy to revisit.
The movie opens with one of those "Wow!" moments. In a suspicious 4:3 aspect ratio (the Warner Brothers' red logo gives that away as the titles are on black) we have a newsreel-like opening explaining the world has gone to hell (the writing of the voiceover is spot on and together with Roy Batty's speech at the end of Blade Runner, it's my best known movie quote). It's inter-cut with footage from the first film (sometimes in black and white, sometimes in colour). There's real violence in the actuality footage (there are authentic riots and one man is shot for real – I think). It ends in a swoop down to a deserted highway, fade to black and suddenly the camera pulls itself out of Max's V8 bonnet's sticking out engine bit and the screen opens out, as do the growling engines, to its 2.35:1, Dolby blasting glory. I get goose bumps thinking about it. Yes, I did see it in a cinema on a re-release and at least one scene was new to me (the night scene) but that wonderful opening will stay with me. The opening chase does what great cinema does so well – establishes what's important, establishes where we are and who wants what – within a few minutes. Brian May's music does a great deal to clarify matters and his score for this movie is a highlight in a damn impressive career.
And then there are no words for about thirteen minutes. Everything, every nuance, every motivation, every plot turn is visually told. It would not have been a strain to strip all the dialogue from this lean and hungry movie so successful is the visual storytelling. Let's not discount the charisma of Mel Gibson whose baby faced turn as Max in the original is eclipsed by a physical performance in the second that gives the remarkable impression that he's aged about fifteen years and has the metaphysical weight of being a decent, moral but lost human being in a desert of low end rats, both fearsomely toothy and pathetically toothless. Gibson's loner – as noted by the leader of the good guys' refinery, Pappagallo – is an honourable man, a phrase that seems hopelessly out of place in this venal world of casual rape and throwaway brutality.
After capturing a Gyro Captain who lay in wait to trap passers by with his snake, Max is about to kill him (or was he?) when the Captain, pleading for his life, tells of a gasoline refinery in the middle of the desert. The Gyro Captain is used for some successful comic relief (Bruce Spence and that extraordinary face of his) and Max's dingo (imaginatively named 'Dog' by the crew) keeps him in line. The unlikely threesome reaches a nearby mountain to spy on the refinery and those desperate to get into it. So the narrative set up is sharp and obvious. Here are the good guys refining gasoline (they're dressed in white just in case you were to be confused). The bad guys sport Mohicans, leatherwear that could have been designed by Vivienne Westwood in her '77 S&M phase and drive souped up cars that look like the skeletal remains of many other dead ones hot bolted together. Of course, Max has to be ambivalent at first – he's wearing black leather (in the desert that must have been as uncomfortable as hell, so no wonder he scowls a lot) and after witnessing some pretty disgusting behaviour by the bad guys – all offered up from the wide perspective of two men far away with binos and a telescope – he makes his grand entrance.
Gibson, the actor, is tailor made for this role. Yes, we may have reservations about the fallibility of the man under the influence and the strength of his baseless and silly religious views and how he wields his Hollywood power, but the man's a star and this performance is one of the reasons why. He's lost everything and the meaning of his life has been stripped down to a flammable liquid. It's his air. He's like a shark – keep moving or die. But in the company of others, something stirs within him but not enough, not yet. He bonds with a young boy, all 80s Wham! hair, a sneer and a wildness that earns him the credit 'the feral kid'. His weapon of choice fits well with his character and its deployment gets the biggest laugh of the picture. The bad guys make their offer ("Walk away...") which is so clearly a lie, it has to be delivered through a hockey mask by a mountain of muscle and sinew known as Lord Humungus. His pet maniac, Wez, played bare arsed by Vernon Wells, is a real treat as a hugely violent sado-masochistic gay nihilist (I know, doesn't it sound wonderful?). He's even chained up at one point, a gay nihilist pit bull – bad guys don't get more bad ass than that. And so the good guys turn to Max. Max offers to find a rig to pull the tanker that represents the good guys' future, all for fuel as payment. He delivers the rig, gets his fuel, doesn't get very far and is back, wounded, the fallen hero and you just know in every atom of marrow in your bones that he's going to drive that tanker...
Now I did have a HiFi Stereo VHS player in the mid 80s but my battered VHS copy of a copy of a copy of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior had the worst sound ever. The picture looked as if it had been stripped into horizontal pieces and reconnected by a chimpanzee with Parkinson's. It was the worst way of experiencing a film, any film... So how did this fifteen minute masterpiece of a chase sequence manage to make my palms sweat, my eyes widen, my heart race? Great film-making transcended the medium through which it was being experienced. Can you imagine what that sequence would have done to me if I'd seen it in the cinema? And it feels (and is) oh so physical. Yes, certain scenes are shot with dummies falling to their deaths under wheels but ninety five percent of the stunts are performed by very brave men and women. The main stunt guy and his boss had to leave the set early through injury and you know what? All the digital artistry in the world couldn't make a movie feel the way this movie feels. In the days it was done for real, you get that reality.
Not once are you pulled out of the action because the craft is so tight, so unforgiving of cliché, so motivated by adrenalin. Brian May's literally driving score – you can imagine orchestra members needing a five minute break between cues – infuses the scene with the over-active heartbeat. I'm tapping my foot at the memory of the score as I write. This one scene alone is one of the finest actions scenes in my history of cinema with a dénouement to cry for. A raised eyebrow and a smile at the end of this film are the perfect, very human interactions that a movie like this needs as a full stop.
And there I will stop and let Slarek thrill me with what I hope will be a shining technical report...
|sound and vision [Slarek]
I'm not sure quite why I expected to be disappointed by the Blu-ray debut of Mad Max 2. It's probably my natural cynicism that expects American studios to do well by their own recent products but look for the quick cash-in when it comes to older foreign action fare, even one that did serious box-office business. Time to hang my head in shame. Mad Max 2 – and it is Mad Max 2 here not the original US issue title of The Road Warrior – looks lovelier than you've ever seen it outside of the cinema, and there are scenes here pristine enough to use as HD show-off material to friends. At its best the picture is pin-sharp and the detail excellent – you'll be able to count the stones that make up the road surface if you are so inclined, and the texture on clothing and facial close-ups is gorgeous. Colours are similarly impressive and rock-solid stable, with not a sign of compression issues on the vivid blue skies and the flesh tones are bang on. Grain is intermittently visible, but only occasionally makes itself felt. The contrast is rich with no loss of shadow detail, though in a few of the darker night-time shots (when Max leaves the compound to locate the truck is a good example) this standard briefly and starkly slips to produce a more washed-out image. On the whole, though, a very fine transfer.
Put those horrible VHS memories behind you, as the 5.1 surround track here does the picture proud, having the sort of clarity and range you just don't expect from an early 80s independent movie. The surrounds are well used and have considerable kick when they need to, as with the switch from 4:3 prologue to scope movie proper – as the camera pulls back from the car's air intake filter, the scream of the V8 engine follows it from the back to the front of the sound stage, adding a further blast to an already dynamite transition. The lower frequencies are also productively lively, from the thump of explosions and collisions to (best of all) the throaty purr of the V8 and the distant rumble of the compound and the attacking vehicles as heard from Max's hilltop vantage point. This, combined with the rich visuals, makes this the cinematic experience it shoud be.
Leonard Maltin Introduction
The impossibly cheerful Maltin provides a brief but useful introduction to the film, explaining its American title change and supplying a concise and enthusiastic appreciation of the film.
George Miller and Dean Selmer commentary
New to this edition is a commentary by director George Miller and director of photography Dean Selmer, a relative newcomer at the time who has since gone to Hollywood as the cinematographer on such projects as Cocktail, Young Guns, Dances With Wolves, Waterworld (ah well...) and The Bone Collector. I guess the nature of this film led me to expect an excitable and animated chat, but this is actually a calmly discussed look back at an experience that both men still regard as special, in part because of the physicality of doing an action shoot in pre-CGI days, something they agree adds greatly to a unique spontaneity and texture that would be lost with today's film technology. There are memories of the shoot aplenty and some choice insight into the film's making – I was particularly surprised, given the complexity of much of the imagery, that Miller was effectively winging it as he progressed, knocking up small storyboards the night before each day's shoot (sound familiar, Camus?) that everyone but Selmer promptly discarded, and and that many shots were selected one what looked right at the time and place. It doesn't seriously harm the magic to learn that some of the more kinetic moving shots were down to Miller physically shaking the camera to ensure continuity with what had gone before or to have pointed out that there is absolutely no weather continuity in the final chase – as Miller rightly points out, when the action is this busy and the cutting this fast, no-one is looking at the lighting or cloud formations. Towards the end Selmer tellingly reveals that of all of the films he has shot in his career, this is the one he is most frequently asked about. An enjoyable and consistently interesting commentary.
A rather clunkily assembled American trailer that focuses on the action, as you would, but makes sure to only include one short line of dialogue lest the potential audience be scared off by the non-American accents.
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, to give it its complete international title, is still just about most imaginative, most thrilling action movie out there. The physicality of its collisions, stunt work and even explosions (before the compound could be blown up, the aviation authority had to be informed because of the danger of high-flying debris) coupled with the adrenalin rush cinematography and editing of the chase sequences make it an object lesson in how to shoot action for the cinema. The great J.G. Ballard, if I remember right, held the film up as en example of great science fiction cinema at a time when he was despairing at film adaptations of sf literature, and that's a stamp of approval no true film fan should ignore. Should you get it on Blu-ray? Abso-bloody-lutely. The commentary is damned good, but it's the picture and sound you should hunger for, and save for a couple of the darker shots and one soft-focus image that is explained on the commentary, both are terrific. On top of that the disc has no regional coding and can be picked up on-line for under a tenner. Highly recommended.