It’s got Bennett from Commando in it. Oh, and it’s a classic.
Everything clicks for Mad Max’s second and most iconic adventure. Armed with a bigger budget but retaining his raw, off-the-chain lethal streak, George Miller delivers a spectacle of pure cinema that surpasses the original on nearly every imaginable level apart from stuff like down-to-earth drama, which the original with its relatively more realistic approach did have a lot of. Remember those tender moments between Max and his wife? Keep on remembering, because there’s nothing like that second time around, with the exception of a couple of brief moments involving a music box. Not that you miss things like intimacy in a film like this, which is all about visceral, vicious and vivid oomph. Mel Gibson has now fully become Mad Max, a man of action. Give him a car, a dog and some gasoline and he’s sorted. However, life can throw up complications, and he winds up involved in a desolate compound’s desperate attempt to ward off the nearby psycho element. The compound initially distrusts Max, but it turns out they have just as much use for him as he does for them.
The bad guys this time are pretty wild – maybe not as individually charismatic as The Toecutter, but unforgettably crazy. Vernon Wells, who would become an ’80’s action treasure as one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s more memorable (and campy) foes in Commando, is genuinely scary here as Wez, mohawked henchman to Kjell Nilsson’s immense hockey-masked warlord The Humungus. Their promise to the compound is to surrender their supply of gasoline and there will be no bloodshed. Understandably, many of the naive residents think that’s a good idea. The smart ones (and we the audience, who know never to trust a man in a hockey mask) know that will never work, so it’s a desperate case of fleeing the compound to god knows where and taking on the enemy along the way. It’s a bleak vision, and despite Max’s leading man status, he’s very much a cog in this machine – the clever twist at the end only emphasises this. Sure, Max can drive a tanker better than anyone, but despite the ‘one man can make a difference’ tagline, the film feels strangely unheroic, at least in a typical action hero sense. You can’t imagine Stallone or Schwarzenegger in this role. Gibson is perfect here – with barely any dialogue, he conveys a lot with physicality, a wry smile and those empty eyes. He also has a great canine companion, not to mention an almost-partner in the form of Bruce Spence’s Gyro Captain, who provides some welcome (but not distracting) comic relief.
Ultimately though, when people talk about Mad Max 2, the main thing is the action. God knows what it must have been like seeing it at the cinema in 1981, because even in 2015 the spectacle is still amazing. Seriously, the final chase never gets old, because there’s definitely one thing in action cinema that doesn’t date, unlike say, special effects, and that’s people driving very fast and very dangerously in vehicles. Miller has a tendency to speed-up footage now and then, but it’s no embarrasment unlike say, when it was used in 1960’s James Bond films – if anything, it just gets the pulse racing even faster. A veritable destruction derby of carnage, amazing stuntwork and directorial finesse (the bit when everything quiets down for the bullet-on-the-bonnet moment is superbly judged), Mad Max 2‘s finale is one of the all-time great set-pieces. Credit also to the mid-way assault on the compound, where organised, contained peace is compromised within seconds and Vernon Wells is so dauntingly vicious that it was only one more time that he was ever this frightening again (his turn as a robo-handed killer in Innerspace is gleefully chilling). The use of open, vast desert vistas is strikingly desolate, editing and camerawork are taut and exciting and Brian May’s music is just as thrillingly bombastic as before, but now Miller has the big budget to match the huge sounds.
The result is that strange thing, an indie blockbuster, one that has the sweep, verve and widescreen majesty of a major player but the rawness, idiosyncracy and edge of a personal project. The result is quite sensational, and the film went on to be a commercial, critical and cultural hit.