Though the subtitle never officially appears onscreen, for casual and diehard fans alike, Mel Gibson’s role in Mad Max 2 established the true spirit of the franchise: no matter what it says on the marquis, Max Rockatansky will always be The Road Warrior.
It’s the future—the future of the future, specifically—as the story opens. We don’t know exactly how long it’s been since the early days of the post-apocalyptic nightmare that drove Max mad, but it’s obvious the years haven’t been kind. His once well-oiled leather MFP jacket is dusty and tattered; a scavenged, makeshift kneebrace squeaks with his every limp (the product of a gunshot wound he suffered in the first film) and sharp streaks of white paint his temples.
Max wears the dark of the hell around him on his face. Gone are the smiles he reserved for his wife and child in chapter one; his hope and happiness snuffed as abruptly as their lives—yet, still he travels the same death-roads that claimed them. His only companion is a scruffy Australian Blue Heeler who is always happy to share a can of dog food.
The anarchy of the first film has snowballed by the time the second chapter begins. The Outback outlaw gangs are larger, more organized, more heavily armored and decidedly more brutal.
Max eludes a roving pack of marauders as the film opens, outrunning and outgunning pursuers in his trusty Pursuit Special Interceptor. He pillages gasoline from his wrecked enemy like a dying man would horde water in the desert. One of the bandits’ comrades—a maroon mohawked biker with a penchant for spikes and assless chaps—leaves Max to his spoils, but flashes a look that warns such mercy will not be granted a second time.
Max drives away, stopping later to investigate a whirlybird parked at the side of the road. The copter’s owner, camouflaged beneath the sand, bursts upward and draws down on Max with a crossbow. He demands that Max drain the Interceptor and hand over his gas. But when Max turns the tables, the pilot coughs up his single ace—information about a nearby settlement that refines its own gas. He agrees to lead Max there in exchange for his own life. Max complies, and when he and the pilot arrive, the settlers reluctantly offer them entry. Soon more visitors arrive, but this group isn’t nearly as cordial.
A ragtag, BDSM-leather-clad pack of bikers and armored car captains are prowling like wolves at the gate. They are led by Lord Humungus (aka “The Ayatollah of Rock n’ Rolla, as screenwriter/director George Miller’s character names continue to ascend to untold heights of awesomeness), a muscle-bound cross between femdom Betty Page and Jason Voorhees that moves like a malfunctioning marionette. Humongous offers the settlers a “compromise”: flee the compound, leave the oil rig intact, and he will let the live. He and his men depart, giving the settlers twelve hours to consider his offer.
After the group unleashes a vicious attack on some fleeing settlers, Max returns the lone survivor to the refinery following the man’s promise to reward him with a tank of gas. But when the man dies, the settlement leader, Pappagallo, refuses to honor his agreement. The settlers turn on Max, but just as they are about to kill him, Humungus returns. Max helps the settlers drive the gang back outside the walls, where they take up siege. When the settlers devise a plan to escape and head for the coast, Max offers to steal a semi that they can use to haul their tanker trailer from the refinery, as long as they fill the Interceptor’s tank and let him carry as much gas as he can haul. “You wanna’ get outta’ here, you talk to me,” he tells them; the phrase as natural as if Moses had uttered it to the Israelites before packing his swim trunks for the Red Sea.
Like Moses, Max is a reluctant leader. Neither Max nor Moses were great, or even good orators. But where Moses had Aaron to do the talking, Max has the pilot who serves as an equally compelling mouthpiece. But where Moses leads for the people, Max initially offers to lead only to fulfill his own ambitions. Even after the construction of the Golden Calf, perhaps Israel’s greatest snub against God, Moses intercedes on their behalf.
In Exodus 32:11-13, Moses says, “LORD, why does Your wrath burn hot against Your people whom You have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians speak, and say, ‘He brought them out to harm them, to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from Your fierce wrath, and relent from this harm to Your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants, to whom You swore by Your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven; and all this land that I have spoken of I give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.”
But for Max, it’s not a matter of wrestling God. To become the hero, Max must conquer himself.
Max and the pilot sneak out, retrieve the semi and evade Humungus’s men. Pappagallo begs Max to lead the convoy to the coast, pleading with him to drive the semi. When Max refuses, Pappagallo confronts him, chastising him for self-pity over the loss of his family. Max lashes out and storms away, but the marauders camped outside the refinery chase him down, nearly killing him. After they kill his dog, they try to steal his gas, but set off a booby trap that obliterates them and the Interceptor. The gyro pilot rescues Max and carries him back to the refinery.
Max then demands to drive the semi to the coast, despite Pappagallo’s initial objections. It’s in this moment that we not only see Max’s resilience, but his redemption. His willingness to spearhead the mission as its most vulnerable participant signals his return to humanity. Where Moses helped redeem the Israelites after their transgression, Max’s courage and selflessness solidifies his personal salvation. Finally, after all the death and loss and pain, he once again sees the good in people and he is finally ready to fight for the ones that he so long ago had sworn to serve and protect.
The final highway battle still ranks as one of the most thrilling high-speed action sequences ever. It rolls seamlessly, with beautifully dizzying cinematography that makes you wonder just how the production team could’ve managed to shut down enough road to capture those ten minutes of mayhem. And the climactic crash sequence would’ve undoubtedly left Humungus known as the “Ow-attolah,” should he have actually survived (apparently his Lordship’s title was never dependent upon his mastery of physics. Here’s a tip: never play chicken with a semi).
The Road Warrior outshines its predecessor, an uneasy feat for most sequels (it still ranks, as the best of the series to this point, in this writer’s humble opinion). It evolves and expands its protagonist well past the final glimpse of the revenge killer left at the end of chapter one. And it inflects enough thread work to channel the challenges and triumphs of the Exodus, minus those annoying locusts and frogs and such. Of course when you’re trying to escape a hockey-masked, cod-pieced bodybuilder, what’s the big deal about a few boils?