Where is your home, Max?
I’m convinced that George Miller’s Mad Max series is an excuse to blow rugged vehicles up in spectacular fashion. Not that’s a bad thing. Crashes and explosions are exhilarating, after all, when done convincingly and used conservatively. That’s a big reason why most action filmmakers don’t succeed at what they do: they fail to produce anything new or different. They’re the same thing over and over again until the experience stops being entertaining and becomes more mind-numbing. It’s almost like an anesthetic exercise rather than an example of entertainment.
But with Mad Max 2, it’s action that actually matters. The setting is convincing. The premise is solid. The cars, costumes, and props all add to the surrealism of this post-apocalyptic environment. And then characters are placed into this desperate environment, this eerie spread of gloom and hopelessness where we watch as these human beings react to the same problem they are all facing: survival.
Taking place years after the first Mad Max, Mad Max 2 follows the world after an energy crisis consumes the Earth, and petroleum becomes a rare commodity. Some survivors form communities in order to build up each other’s chances of survival. Others join a gang lead by the vicious ringleader Humungus (Kjell Nilsson) that hunt and kill landscape scavengers.
However, one man stands among them, neither beggar or hunter, a man set apart from the rest of the world in his own search for peace and survival.
His name is Max Rotansky (Mel Gibson), and he lost his human spirit after he lost his wife and child in a hit and run years ago before the energy crisis.
With writer-director George Miller returning from the first Mad Max film, Miller seems to have a clearer idea of what he wants Mad Max to be: a high-octane, ridiculous action movie that refutes stereotypes and expectations. The film is spectacular in more ways than one, and most of it is for the reasons that made the first Mad Max mildly entertaining.
One of the things that Miller does as a director is remain adamant about using practical effects in his films. I am in 100% support of this decision, because practical effects, however over-the-top, always makes the most convincing effects. This was one of the few things that I enjoyed about the first Mad Max, in that the stunt and chase sequences were so seemingly absurd and ridiculous, and yet they weren’t, because they were all shot in real time. The car chases were authentic. The bikes and automobiles flying over bridges and crashing spectacularly were authentic. The explosions were authentic. Everything in that movie challenges what could be achieved visually, and not in the computer-animated graphic variety that Tron did. It challenged what shapes vehicles could crash into and how big it could explode afterward. It challenged the scope of destruction in an action picture, and what stakes could be built on top of that.
Mad Max 2 does the same thing Mad Max does in the destructive, chaotic nature of vehicular manslaughter, but with one key difference. It has a better development of the world it’s trying to create.
Don’t get me wrong: a lot of the problems from the first movie persist for this one. Max is still mostly a one-dimensional character with little more expression than the scowl on his face. The plot is straightforward and without many revelations or surprises in them. And the villain, however interesting, is extremely cartoonish. Humungus is essentially a beefed up Jason Voorhees, and his interest extends just about that far as well.
But from what I’ve come to understand about the Mad Max series is that the story isn’t supposed to come from the characters. It’s coming from the scenery all around them, this desperate and depraved world that Miller is illustrating as a warning to mankind’s nature. We didn’t get the sense of this world in the first Mad Max because it still felt like society was intact: that there were cities and townspeople still going on about their somewhat normal lives. In this film, there is no such thing as a normal life. Cities and towns have been reduced to war zones and rubble. People live in buses and tents instead of houses. Plentiful grassy plains have been replaced with desert sands. A regular meal consists of a can of beans if you’re lucky. And for whatever humans are left to survive, their form of currency is oil and water. This world is the definition of desperate.
This in turn, makes Max Rotanksy a perfect protagonist for the film, despite his neutrality as a character. It allows you to absorb the film with your own eyes, not clouded by the emotions of another character.
What we have left is an effective action movie that lets the audience carry the film’s weight just as much as the cast and crew does. It’s rare to find an action movie like this, where the viewer actively engages and thinks like the film’s characters do. Usually action movies tell viewers to turn off their brains and be drowned in an orgy of explosions and testosterone. This movie does something different. This movie asks viewers what an action movie is, what it is supposed to be, and what it can be. And at the center of it all is one lonely man; a slave to the roads that he was born from.