Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Road Warrior: Introspection and action make for one great film

Part 8 of a 10-part series in which I examine my favorite films, and the reasons why I love them so.

Picking up where Mad Max left off, 1981's The Road Warrior continues the story of Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), a spiritually shattered ex-patrolman wandering the post-apocalyptic Australian roadways. In Mad Max, Max's wife and child were killed by a murderous gang of bikers, and while he exacted revenge, Max crossed a metaphorical boundary at the conclusion of that film, abandoning the rule of law and order for revenge and barbarism.

As The Road Warrior begins we find Max living a solitary, nomadic life, scavenging for gas and food and avoiding all contact with the scattered, dying remnants of the civilized world:

In the roar of an engine he lost everything, and became a shell of a man, a burned-out, desolate man, haunted by the demons of his past. A man who wandered out into the wasteland. And it was here, in this blighted place, that he learned to live again.

But events unfold that soon thrust Max back into human contact. Always low on gas, he discovers a fuel depot protected by a group of survivors under siege by a small army of savage looters, led by the massive, iron-masked Humungous. While his initial foray into the depot is driven purely by greed, Max is ultimately forced to make a choice between selfishness--getting his gas and fleeing--and altruism--helping the survivors break through the Humungous' encircling gang and escape to a better life elsewhere.

Max strikes a bargain to bring a tanker capable of hauling the gas out of the compound, in exchange for his own share of the fuel. The leader of the survivors, Papagallo, accepts, but later forces Max to confront his past and his very reason for existence. He challenges Max when the latter spurns companionship and chooses to leave with his car and his gas after fulfilling the bargain, rather than joining the band heading for the coast and a fresh start. "You think you're the only one that's suffered? We've all been through it in here. But we haven't given up," Papagallo says. "We're still human beings. But you--you're out there with the garbage. You're nothing."

This element to me is what makes the Mad Max series of films so great--the character arc along which Max evolves over the course of the trilogy. From fresh-faced, youthful innocence at the start of Mad Max, Max is tempted by the high-speed dance with death on the roadways and begins to develop a calloused, world-weary exterior. Personal tragedy at the end of that film results in soul-shattering grief and the loss of his humanity. He responds with animal rage, and after exacting revenge flees into the wasteland where leads a self-centered, indifferent life.

But events in The Road Warrior lead him to an epiphany about his place in the world, knowledge that there are still good things worth fighting for, and rekindle his desire to help restore order and peace. Max, bloodied and broken in body but not spirit after surviving a failed solo escape attempt, returns to drive the tanker out of the depot, helping save the survivors and spring them to freedom.

I'd also be grossly remiss not to mention the action sequences in The Road Warrior. These are tremendous, perhaps unparalleled in all of cinema. Where Mad Max had raw, high-speed collisions and chases, The Road Warrior "turns it up to eleven." The cars here truly look like pieced together vehicles from an apocalyptic world, modified with roll cages and turret-mounted crossbows. Humungus and his gang look and act far more savage and cruel than the bikers of Mad Max. Many wear shoulder pads, leather, and chains, and sport face paint and mohawks.

The end of the film offers an epic road battle that involves an armed tractor-trailer against a swarm of cars, motorcycles, and trucks, and a nasty head-on collision that trumps even the death of the Toecutter in Mad Max. Although he remains a loner at films' end, unwilling (and perhaps unable) to fully rejoin society, Max has taken the first step on a long road back from the brink.

No comments: