Considering the superstar he became, and of course the rather unfortunate way in which his private life has come to dominate the more gossipy orientated “news” papers and magazines, it’s often easy to forget that Mel Gibson first truly came to the attention of international audiences in a sequel to a little known but all the same well received Australian film. Mad Max 2 was that film, although depending on where you are in the world you may well have seen it under the alternate title of The Road Warrior. Along with effectively making or just establishing Mel Gibson as a true cinema star, it also, along with one or two other key films, set the tone and expectations in regards of what was possible and what audiences wanted from the genre known as “action films” for everything which followed.
Be warned, the below contains quite a few spoilers for the whole of the Mad Max trilogy. You may wish to see the films before reading, if for some inexplicable reason you have not seen them before.
To understand the premise of Mad Max 2 one has to start off with the original film. Mad Max told the story of Max Rockatansky, a family man and an honest, decent police officer doing his best to keep law and order in balance within an increasingly lawless society. When his family are killed by a deranged gang leader, the Toecutter, all bets are off and off he goes on a ruthless quest for revenge. The film was an above average action-revenge thriller, raised above the trash level it could have been by dazzling stunts, outstanding acting and some innovative film photography.
The film ended without any direct, overt references to the possibility of a sequel. It did, however, contain several subtle references to the demise of “society as we know it”, with secondary characters referring to worldwide events and a global war. This element was picked up on for the sequel.
Mad Max 2 opens with a hefty monologue, explaining how since the end of the first film the world has pretty much “gone to hell” after a global, nuclear war, fought over – and get the visionary precision here – oil. This monologue pretty much states that the world has since become a barbaric wasteland, and as a consequence they can just drop you right into a story of Max, alone bar a pet dog, wandering the wasteland in the last of the V8 Interceptors in search of oil and food.
And what a story! Acting as a quasi-metaphor for the global events depicted in the opening monologue, the film soon turns to the story of Max, for mostly selfish reasons, intervening to try and assist a, for want of a better term, colony of survivors who have somehow managed to keep an oil refinery going in the middle of this wasteland. This oil refinery is heavily fortified, which is rather handy as there is a vicious gang, led by a truly psychotic leader called The Humungus and his sidekick, the even more psychotic Wez (played by Vernon Wells no less, he who would become the much loved Bennett in Commando). The colonists wish to leave for the promised safe land of the coast, but cannot escape with the oil past The Humungus’s gang. Max knows a way, and offers to help in exchange for as much fuel as he can carry.
This rather straightforward plot leaves open the door for what remains some of the most spectacular stunts and car chase sequences the world has ever seen. Mad Max 2 does not feature elaborate, violent sequences for the sake of it, instead opting to create a plot and story that serviced the wish to make entertaining sequences rather than forcing them in. A masterstroke, really, and it certainly set a precedent for action films to be made for the purpose of action entertainment rather than just taking a film and filling it with random, often irrelevant to the plot car chases and what have you.
The action sequences in Mad Max 2, which are plentiful, are rarely short of being barbaric and vicious, causing some problems with censors and indeed the fate of the complete film (more on that later). They are also for the most part breathtaking and visually stunning, made to seem the acts of extreme violence seem like a work of art in a way not done since Kubrick tackled this in A Clockwork Orange. The astonishing skill and flair for the visual probably allowed the makers of this film to get away with showing a good deal more close-up violence, including a number of memorable dismemberments, than film makers could usually have expected to get away with.
On the note of A Clockwork Orange, it was surely Mad Max 2, along with First Blood and Blade Runner, that saw the rise of the “anti-hero” in cinema once again. Not since Alex in Kubrick’s masterpiece, and before that Clint Eastwood in the “Dollars” trilogy, had a protagonist the audience is presumed to be sympathetic towards been so withdrawn and of questionable moral fibre. Cinematic heroes no longer had to be clean cut nor clearly right once more; rather than being the straightforward proverbial “good guy” once again cinema in general and action films in particular were prepared to feature a hero who was more the lesser of two evils rather than an obvious Mr Nice Guy.
The cultural impact of Mad Max 2 is perhaps not as widely recognized as it should be. Beyond the stunts and action sequences raising the bar for all action films that followed, isn’t it rather interesting to see The Humungus wearing an ice hockey mask in the film? This was all at least one year before Friday 13th Part 3, where the character of Jason all of a sudden adopted this mask as the integral part of his look.
The influence of Mad Max 2 stretched beyond film and into music. Whereas Trevor Horn took the song and made it an anthem for the state of fear surrounding imminent nuclear destruction thanks to the prevailing Cold War at the time, Frankie Goes To Hollywood wrote Two Tribes under the influence of this film, something mostly suspected by fans of both and something that has been confirmed by the band’s guitarist and songwriter, Nasher, on fan forums. Also, take a really, really good look at Wez and the rest of the marauding gang, then take a look at how Sigue Sigue Sputnik styled themselves. The soundtrack to films like Blade Runner may have influenced the Sputnik sound, but there can be little doubt as to which film inspired their look.
Considering the stature and influence of the film, just how badly the original footage of Mad Max 2 has been treated has been, frankly, shocking. The lack of respect and care shown is on a par with that other masterpiece of cinema, The Wicker Man.
Firstly, the film is now know as The Road Warrior just about everywhere in the world rather than as Mad Max 2. This is because when DVD arrived and the film was released the American print was used. As the original Mad Max wasn’t particularly widely released nor widely known in America, it was decided that it should be renamed as The Road Warrior in order to not scare off potential audiences who had not seen the original. In areas outside of America it is at least released on the cover as Mad Max 2 with “(The Road Warrior”)" appearing below. When you put the disc in, though, it comes up with an awful mismatched font saying The Road Warrior rather than the ultra-cool steel Mad Max 2 logo which greeted the viewer on the initial video release.
The problem with the American version being used for the DVD (and presumably Blu Ray) release is not, sadly, limited to the awful new credit sequence made for it. The version in use is the one used for the American theatrical release, which has several significant cuts made to it in order to comply with the requirements for an “R” rating. And why, when the world is considered able to handle films released in an unedited form, do they still release this version of the film on disc? Because, sadly, it seems to be the only version of the film still in existence!
As frustrating as it is with the case of The Wicker Man, no one is quite sure what exactly happened to the original footage for Mad Max 2, or even if it still exists. This is a shocking lack of care for what was a groundbreaking film in general, never mind the one that probably more than any other showcased the amazing talent there was in Australian cinema.
What makes the above worse is the fact that it’s not just several scenes of presumably gratuitous violence that are missing presumed lost, far from it. In the late 80s an edited for TV version was shown in America. I am not sure how familiar you are with “free to air” TV regulations in America, but for the “land of the free” they are surprisingly ferocious, or at least they were back them. The Americans required absolutely anything that was likely to cause offence be removed from anything broadcast, something that would make screening a film like Mad Max 2 rather tricky, you would have thought. Well, in order to overcome the rather short running time of the film with all the offensive parts removed, the station which broadcast it padded out the film with a whole stack of previously unseen scenes and alternative takes on parts in the film! As with the bits chopped out for the American theatrical release, infuriatingly the original footage of these extra scenes are missing, presumed lost.
In regards of getting your hands on either the original unedited version of the film or the edited TV version (commonly referred to as “The Lost Version”), it can be done it seems. If you hunt around auction sites on the internet you might find a reasonable VHS copy of the unedited film that was released in Australia and indeed in the UK. In regards of the latter, though, make sure you seek and obtain a pre-1984 VHS, as no doubt versions after that will have been subjected to the 1984 Video Recordings Act and thus be censored. As for the “Lost Version”, well, I cannot find it (ahem) readily available on the internet to “obtain”. I’m told that every now and then someone offers a copy for sale. If you bear in mind that a DVD of this will have been dubbed from a nearly 30 year old VHS tape, you can’t imagine the quality of it will be all that great. If you decide to hunt down either of these versions good luck, but as frustrating as it is at the moment it would seem your best bet is to just settle for watching the released DVD version.
In regards of Mad Max, a third film was released in the mid-80s, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. It was a fine film, but in many respects it all too often felt like a heavily sanitized retread of Mad Max 2. As enjoyable as it was, though, the film oddly tried to turn Max into a more conventional hero rather than the “in it for himself” figure created in Mad Max 2. To this end, the great Barry Norman gave it a review that I shall forever cherish, in which he indicated that it perhaps should have been called “Slightly Cheesed Off Max” rather than “Mad Max”, because he wasn’t all that particularly angry in this one. A fourth film, provisionally titled Fury Road and apparently not featuring Mel Gibson, has been bandied around for well over a decade now. There are indications that this film could we be made in 2012, but I shall believe it when I see it and, considering that the man who is Max will not be in it, I am in no great rush to see it.
In the mean time, you are encouraged to get your hands on Mad Max 2, or hopefully just get your copy out, and watch and enjoy it for what it is!
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