I absolutely hate the question that people often pose to movie critics:
"Did we see the same movie?"
The answer is always "yes", but perception is a funny thing. You might come away from an overly stimulative summer blockbuster completely jazzed; while I might find nothing but tedium in the wall-to-wall action of that same two hours. But I rarely dispute people's reaction to a film I've seen to the degree that I would accuse them of having literally enjoyed something different. My latest exception, sadly, is The Road Warrior.
After posting my review of the first film in George Miller's Mad Max trilogy, I've been inundated with demands that I watch the sequel--a film that everyone agrees surpasses the original by a country mile. And here, ladies and gentlemen, is where I lose all of my geek cred and half my readership:
The Road Warrior is an awful movie.
Before backing that up, I'd like to say that there are a lot of things that I like about the film. Graham Walker's art direction and Norma Moriceau's costume work are absolutely fantastic. The desolate desert future of Max's Australia feels lived-in and burnt-out. From the elaborate yet realistic outfits worn by the marauding highway pirates to the artificially aged sets and vehicles, The Road Warrior placed me so thoroughly in its world of grimy societal apathy that I felt dehydrated.
But pretty pictures will only get a movie so far with me. Ninety percent of the journey is comprised of story and characters, and I couldn't find either. The first problem is that the opening black-and-white recap is inconsistent with the first film's narrative. At the beginning of Mad Max, we're told that the story takes place sometime in a near and somewhat lawless future in which everyday citizens feel safe enough to take idyllic countryside vacations and make cross-country road trips. The jacked-up police force do their best to keep roving gangs of maniacs in check, but there's nothing intrinsically post-apocalyptic about that reality.
According to The Road Warrior, all of that took place after the world blew itself up. We see stock footage of feuding governments and war-time devastation, followed by clips of a by-the-numbers cop being driven insane by the murder of his family. An ominous narrator informs us that after taking revenge, Max disappeared into the desert, becoming a hermit and a myth. The Road Warrior certainly looks like it takes place after a few hundred bombs dropped, but, again, this supposedly happened before the first movie, not in between parts one and two.
The revisionist history doesn't end there. I thought the point of Mad Max is that he's, you know, mad--as in, "crazy". We got a hint of that at the end of Mad Max in the thousand-yard stare on Mel Gibson's face as he drove away from having just handcuffed a scumbag to a car that was rigged to explode (and offering him a way out by sawing off his own foot). Though I had problems with Max's uneven characterization in that movie, I could at least see a progression from milquetoast to madman by the time it was over.
The Max of The Road Warrior might as well have been played by Sylvester Stallone--or a lamp post. He's a brooding, driven survivor who rarely says anything and never smiles; not that I'd expect him to be Hannibal Lecter, but the word "mad", particularly in movies, implies some degree of mania or unpredictability. But I guess "Pouty Max" isn't hard-core enough a name for a bad-ass drifter.
Even Max's villains are distressingly bland this time out. The Road Warrior's "plot" sees Max stumbling on a desert oil refinery run by a group of hippie engineers. They've erected a fortress of large trucks and flamethrowers around their site in order to ward off the evil Lord Humungus (Kjell Nilsson) and his deranged toady, Wez (Vernon Wells). Humungus looks like Jason Voorhees at an S&M ball and sounds like Colonel Klink as he barks orders into a microphone. He's been trying to get at the oil for a long time, and despite the best efforts of the monosyllabic, mohawked Wez and his Eurotrash henchmen, the hippies have managed to hold their ground. I dare say that Toecutter from the first movie would have dozed right over the compound and taken what they wanted; but such brazenness would have kept Max from playing Han Solo.
Yes, the sum total of Max's participation in The Road Warrior is to act as the in-it-for-himself rogue who reluctantly agrees to help the peace-loving rebels defeat their garrulous enemies and restore order to the galaxy (er, Outback). Seriously, the Star Wars influence is all over this movie, from the grunting, growling sidekick Max adopts in the form of a feral little boy (Emil Minty) to the whiny, blonde optimist with the Skywalker haircut who tries to convince Max that he should stick around to fight for a cause greater than himself, I couldn't stave off the flashbacks.
Three-fourths of the film is like the Hoth raid in a different climate. I kept waiting for Max to move on from this boring storyline and get on, um, the road--but at the hour mark I realized that this was, in fact, it.
My heart sank.
This problem casts many of the movie's other details in a harsh light, too. For example, Max kidnaps a pilot called The Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence) and uses him throughout the story--first as a source of information; then as an aerial bomber during the climactic highway fight. He enters the picture as a weird, dangerous obstacle, and finishes it as the leader of the resistance. He's an interesting temporary fixture, but Miller and co-writers Terry Hayes and Brian Hannant mistakenly turn him into the wacky, lovable second-sidekick; a staple of bad action movies that feels wholly out of step with what Miller was going for in Mad Max.
Speaking of which, I was surprised by how little action there is in the sequel. Mad Max started with a bang and peppered great little bursts of action throughout--each action scene was unique, kinetic, and purposeful. The first hour of The Road Warrior is relentlessly dull, featuring a lame opening chase and a lot of staking out rival camps. I'm all for a leisurely pace as long as it's in service of a good story, but The Road Warrior feels like an over-long episode of a short-lived television series. Max is like The A-Team or The Incredible Hulk, detouring from his journey to nowhere to reluctantly help people in distress--which would be fine, I guess, if there was more than one event in the movie; Miller and company pad for time like nobody's business. It's not like they're exploring great characters or social themes, as in the first movie. No, they're on-set, filming a sequel that will stretch to ninety minutes, come hell or high water.
But at least there's that great twenty-minute chase scene at the end, right?
Yep, it's about twenty minutes, but I defy anyone to tell me it's a tenth as exciting as any of the road scenes in Mad Max. I'm not just talking about content or context, I'm referring specifically to the pedestrian manner in which it was shot. This scene was likely revolutionary for action films at the time, but judging not only by today's standards but also by the film's predecessor, the climax is a dud. It might have to do with the fact that Max is driving a giant tanker truck instead of a police car, but I'd like to think a director as imaginitive as Miller could have come up with something more energetic.
Gone are the dizzying road-POV shots and cartoonish, bug-eyed looks of horror from the first film; they've been replaced by too many cuts to too many characters driving too many vehicles doing not nearly enough interesting things. Cars crash. The bad guys die. The hippies escape. The allegedly menacing Humungus and Wez are disposed of so quickly and nonspectacularly that they might as well have never figured into the plot in the first place.
Sure, technically, The Road Warrior has a more coherent storyline than Mad Max. But it has none of the original's life, personality or thrills. I haven't been this let down by a sequel since Quantum of Solace, another franchise picture that learned all the wrong lessons from its previous installment. All the production values and name recognition in the world don't give a creator license to slack off in the story department; and it doesn't excuse fans' lack of attention to the subtle ways in which they're being sold a bill of goods. This film looks gorgeous, but someone swapped its engine for a moldy block of cheese.