MAD MAX 2 (1981)

directed by George Miller

Mad Max 2 begins with a three-minute recap of the previous movie (a low-budget feature of little consequence), but in truth the first scene proper -- which is also the first action scene -- wordlessly provides all the backstory you need. In a sun-baked desert, our hero -- a leather-clad loner in a muscle car -- is being chased by a violent gang of mohawked bikers and punks in stock cars. They race past a days-old wreck on the road. There was clearly once civilization (to build the cars and roads); now it's gone (the wreck is just left there), but it's not very long-gone (the cars are still working). After cleverly dispatching his adversaries, who attacked him with bows and arrows, our hero stops to collect the last few drops of gasoline from the wreck. In this world, oil has clearly become an even more precious resource than in ours.

These are moments that define a whole new genre, with its own laws, conventions and expectations, instantly recognisable ever since -- the "Road Warrior" genre. Pretty much all the movies, games, comics and books set in post-apocalyptic deserts since 1981 -- of which there are a surprising number -- owe a great debt to Mad Max 2. For better and for worse.

Which is not to say that the filmmakers created the genre out of whole cloth. Almost every element of their movie had been seen and done before. We've seen post-apocalyptic movies (A Boy and his Dog); we've seen muscle cars and trucks as symbols of macho freedom (Vanishing Point, Duel); we've seen run-down futures and screen wipes (Star Wars, itself heavily derivative), and countless westerns have depicted the basic Road Warrior staples -- desert wilderness, the loner hero, rampaging bandits, a village under threat. The achievement of Miller and his filmmakers is to synthesise these elements, to mix them together until something clicks, something is right, something truly archetypal and culture-defining emerges.

Of course, the scenario of Mad Max 2 is not remotely plausible -- at the very least, one has to wonder why people still drive such lumbering, fuel-sucking monsters when oil is in such short supply. But it is artistically consistent. It unites one symbol of macho freedom (the muscle car) with another (the lawless great outdoors); it projects a mythic past (the wild west) into a mythic near future; it exploits memories of the recent 70s oil crisis, and combines them with fears of apocalypse and hopes of apocalypse, both of which were to have a resurgence in the 80s. It strongly taps into something essential about its time and place. It's easy to understand why the film had so many imitators.

It's one thing to come up with a genre-defining scenario, but quite another to execute it superbly, and the latter is the movie's real strength. In a few swift strokes, Mad Max 2 creates a cast of memorable characters -- Max, the Gyro Captain, the Feral Kid, Wez and his lover, Lord Humungus. They are not deep characters, but they are striking and archetypal, which is all that is required. The set design and costumes are equally memorable -- the shoulder pads and Bedouin scarves of the good guys, and the leather bondage gear of the bad guys -- the latter perhaps showing an early awareness of the inherent homoeroticism of the action genre, which was to reach its unwitting oiled-up peak in the films of Stallone and Schwarzenegger later in the decade.

Most admirable about Mad Max 2 is the pace and efficiency of the storytelling, which is done as much as possible visually and through the action. Miller doesn't bog us down in silly expository dialogue; he rarely subjects his actors to the indignity of the extended sci-fi speech. Indeed, his instinct is to cut away from lengthy dialogue scenes, such as the argument in the village, or the Hitler-style rants of Humungus. While The Matrix, say, would dwell on such speeches at great and self-serious length, Miller knows he doesn't need to; we know the kind of thing the characters are saying, we don't need it spelled out for us. Instead, Miller concentrates on action, and telling the story through action.

A good thing too, since Mad Max 2 has some of the most awesome action sequences ever filmed. People are beginning to tire of CGI in films, and I see more and more comments to that effect -- not just in web forums, but also in such places as Tarantino's Death Proof, or the pre-publicity for the next Indiana Jones movie. And Mad Max 2 is the perfect argument that real stunt work is better. There's something inherently more dramatic about real stunts, and also something blackly comic about the way stuntmen put their lives on the line just to make Mel Gibson look good. Two stuntmen got seriously injured in the production, and having seen the results, I can only say it was worth it (and I'm sure they'd agree). I heard myself whooping aloud at some of the car crashes. And the climactic car chase simply has to be seen.

Mad Max 2 is not without its flaws, but the film proceeds with such speed and energy that they don't stand out as serious errors. Still, it's a pity that so many exploitation-style touches are there, like the rape scene, the finger-chopping scene, and so on. The filmmakers have also taken a spoon too many of Joseph Campbell's soup, but their clumsy universal-hero mythologising is easy to ignore.

I often wonder whether the appeal of this and other 80s films like Escape from New York is merely nostalgia, or whether these films genuinely had something lacking in The Matrix, Lord of the Rings and more recent action fare? It can't be entirely nostalgia, since the former films were released when I was three years old, and I didn't actually see them until the 90s; but by then they had informed and influenced a lot of things I thought cool as a child. But I still think these films had a kind of artistic quality and integrity lacking in most present-day action fare. Whatever you think of Miller, Carpenter and Paul Verhoeven, or even George Lucas (whose films I dislike) and James Cameron (whose films I loathe), they were filmmakers with vision. They wanted to create new and distinctive film experiences; they were immersed in film history, in sci-fi novels, comics or whatever, but they weren't content merely to rip off existing tropes, they weren't mere fanboys. They invested what they did with something original and personal. They didn't turn out second-hand product, like Peter Jackson or the makers of today's innumerable superhero movies. They didn't imitate comics and computer games; they influenced them.