The year is 2021. The world is in the grip of a fearful pandemic. Governments struggle to maintain law and order. In the UK, shortages of food and fuel are exasperated when BP close 5 of their 1500 gas stations due to lack of drivers; the result is widely publicised for days at a time, leading to petrol shortages across the country that might be over ‘by Xmas’. What options do we have other than to shave our hair into Mohawks, load up on cross-bows and boomerangs made of razors, and head out to the wasteland to scrap to the death for fuel?
George Miller’s The Road Warrior starts in the dying throes of the battle for gas. Max (Mel Gibson) has a cool car (‘the last of the V8 Interceptors’), a loving friend in his dog and a tough, survivalist attitude. Max comes across a peaceful community under siege from various violent malcontents who have penned them into a compound where one of the world’s last few oil-wells is still providing a source of the black stuff. Max manages to get inside, and agrees to help them capture a driving rig to help them export their precious cargo to safety. Once his mission is complete, all Max wants is his car back and a full tank of fuel; “I’m just here for the gasoline’ says Max, but his humanism is stirred by watching a child’s face delighted by the chimes of a music box.
Several titles are available for Miller’s second of four Mad Max films; The Road Warrior is the best film in that it’s a one-off that doesn’t resemble the original (a grim vigilante revenge story) or the third (a pretentious sci-fi allegory) or the fourth (a super-changed pro-feminist parable). But second time around, The Road Warrior manages to be a memorably terse film on its own, with the hero having barely 20 lines of dialogue, assembling a rag-tag band of followers (the Feral Kid, the Gyro captain and his Gyrocopter, a snake) and generally being the most sensible man left alive, despite his ‘mad’ name. Max doesn’t seek to be a gung-ho hero, and notably only joins the cause of the innocents after trying and failing himself. Of course, spoiler alert, Max gets double-crossed, and the petrol tanker he drives in the extreme climax of the film turns out to be a decoy filled with sand, allowing others to escape while he faces certain death.
A ‘white-line nightmare’, The Road Warrior is one of cinema’s best action films; a series of brilliant calculations means that despite the futuristic setting, absolutely everything we see on screen looks practical and real because it is; building your own cars, weapons and compounds never looked so probable or impressive. Max is an everyman, simply trying to get by without the aspirations for power and control that others have, and like ordinary people everywhere, he gets shafted over and over again as a result. “The vermin have inherited the earth’ as a bit of graffiti says, and the best result we can hope for against such persistent opposition is to survive another day. The Road Warrior isn’t perfect, use of filters and speeded up film is regrettable, and even on blu-ray some of the night-time scenes look very grainy. But it is a classic turbo-charge tale of men and machines, and in times of crisis, sends out a positive message that someone, some-way, we’ll get through this together, even if ordinary people being the fall guy is the only option in the daily grind.