Mad Max 2
Note: This text, from early 1992, was part of my initial attempt at writing about the first three Mad Max films. I subsequently developed this work in my book The Mad Max Movies (Sydney: Currency Press, 2003).
Although it is not generally discussed in this way, one clear reason for the phenomenal, international, commercial success of Mad Max 2 (U.S. title The Road Warrior) is that it was one of the first high concept movies of the 1980s.
Its genius lay in its unlikely (even illogical) combination of elements: first, the extrapolation of the hero Max into a more complex and savage, post-apocalyptic landscape; second, and most decisively, the imagining of this futuristic world in purest post-punk (more exactly, neo-romantic) style of early ‘80s music, fashion and design. In this way, as Philip Brophy has suggested, Mad Max 2 amply filled the bill for many cult-movie fans around the world as “a new slant on the gaudy and grotesque in cinema”. (1)
The cultural legacy of Mad Max 2’s high concept was extraordinarily widespread and diverse. In cinema, it created a veritable post-apocalypse genre, with entries ranging from the Patrick Swayze vehicle Steel Dawn (1987) to Robert Kramer’s leftist allegory Diesel (1985), not to mention a horde of exploitation quickies in the vein of America 3000 (David Engelbach, 1986). Films that have paid loving, parodic homage to Mad Max 2 include the Coens’ Raising Arizona (1987) and John Hughes’ Weird Science (1985). A great many music videos (such as John Paul Young’s “War Games”, Rose Tattoo’s “We Can’t Be Beaten” and The Angels’ “Underground”) bear the Mad Max 2 imprint.
In the international realm of postmodern, cultural theory worldwide (magazines such as Art & Text, Tension and Z/G), Mad Max 2 became the emblem of a veritable 1980s zeitgeist. It offered the celebration of every kind of appropriation and image-scavenging, to the extent that one prominent Australian painter, Jenny Watson, declared: “The Australian artist of the mid-’80s is a sort of Mad Max character, the nomadic warrior alone with him or herself against the Beckett-like dead landscape in a nuclear, post-Capitalist society”. (2)
The virtues of Mad Max 2 as a film are many, and defy a discussion of this brevity. Suffice to say, it is an action epic of extraordinary craft and art. To the extreme, no-nonsense economy of the narrative and the marvellous graph of violent set-pieces alternating with quieter scenes already mastered in Mad Max, here Miller adds a more florid, emotive style, particularly via elaborate camera movements (see the classic low dolly into Mel Gibson as he intervenes in the unfolding crisis by sparely intoning, “You want to get out of here, you talk to me”). In the large spread of iconic character-groupings – monstrous, sadomasochistic, punk villains and strapping, blonde-haired “good citizens” – there is a very large dose of droll, ocker humour (particularly concentrated in Bruce Spence’s Gyro Captain).
Indeed, one of the film’s finest achievements (rare in modern, popular cinema) is its balancing of a comic-strip-like High Camp flamboyance with a genuinely affecting air of pulp/B movie poetry and grandeur (as, for instance, in the gravelly, voice-over narration).
Many critics (including this one) regard Mad Max 2 as one of the finest Australian films ever. In fact, it helped precipitate a shift in cinema criticism toward a celebration of formal play and the kinetic, performative engagement of savvy spectators in a popular culture context. For not only did the film seem far beyond the ken of old-fashioned, “lit crit” approaches to cinema (of the type shamelessly pedalled for decades in highbrow Australian journals by the likes of Brian McFarlane) – its themes are simple, even banal, mere pretexts for action; it also mocked and outran the mode of ideological critique that had risen to prominence, in more intellectual and engaged sectors, during the 1970s.
Thus, the leftist-sociological analysis of the film by Jon Stratton – who describes it as a “conservative fantasy”, a “right-wing morality tale about the importance of strong government”, and an endorsement of the exclusionary values of “bourgeois capitalist society” (3) – can be set against Alan Garel’s astute remark that “if the first Mad Max film was about rhythm, the second is about space” (4), and Ross Gibson’s contention that “by honing the suspense-cinema devices of pacing, framing and cutting so keenly that the mechanics of the narrative are themselves a source of wonder, the filmmakers pursue a project that might best be interpreted primarily as formalist or stylistic”, and that the film “simply has too few of the ploys and conventions of naturalism for a sociological critique of it to be of much value”. (5)
Later in the decade, however, critics began to find new and fertile ways of relating the representations and cinematic energies of Mad Max 2 to the lived phantasms of the Australian socio-cultural imaginary. Meaghan Morris has pointed to its Utopian aspect, the way that Max (progressively through the three films) is not merely a heroic survivor but an adapter who “wander[s] into other people’s centres and spaces of movement”. (6) Lorraine Mortimer has discussed the “connections between the expressive and political” in the film’s “horizon of community”. (7) And Gibson has ventured that the whole Mad Max cycle “can be interpreted as a spectacularly irreverent and effective meditation on the possibilities of change in Australian society, generally, and in the landscape-tradition more particularly”. (8)
Perhaps too much emphasis has been placed, over the years, on the supposedly timeless and universal mythic aspect of Mad Max 2, with particular reference to
Miller’s own favourite citation, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces. A truer view would be that the enduring greatness and fascination of Mad Max 2 derives from the fact that it is not pure but impure myth-making, performed at a dizzy height of cinematic inventiveness.
It is simultaneously, and shamelessly, a visionary kinetic experience, a tacky music video, a classically moral action epic, a gleefully amoral exploitation movie, and a stirring mythic tract. What more could one ask for from a single film?
1. Philip Brophy, “Tales of Terror: The Horror Films You Think You Know”, Cinema Papers, no. 49 (December 1984). Reprinted in Brophy, Restuff: Horror/Gore/Exploitation (Melbourne: Stuff, 1988), pp. 15-16.
2. Jenny Watson, “Urgent Images”, Art & Text, no. 14 (Winter 1984), p. 69.
3. Jon Stratton, “What Made Mad Max Popular? The Mythology of a Conservative Fantasy”, Art & Text, no. 9 (Autumn 1983), pp. 37-56.
4. Alain Garel, “George Miller”, Revue du cinéma, no. 409 (October 1985).
5. Ross Gibson, “Yondering”, Art & Text, no. 19 (October-December 1985); reprinted in his essay collection South of the West: Postcolonialism and the Narrative Construction of Australia (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992).
6. Meaghan Morris, “Fate and the Family Sedan”, East-West Film Journal, Vol. 4 No. 1 (December 1989); reprinted as “Fear and the Family Sedan” in Brian Massumi (ed.), The Politics of Everyday Fear (University of Minnesota Press, 1993), pp. 285-306.
7. Lorraine Mortimer, “The Soldier, The Shearer and The Mad Man: Horizons of Community in Some Australian Films”, Literature-Film Quarterly, Vol. 21 No. 2 (1993).
8. Ross Gibson, “Formative Landscapes”, in Scott Murray (ed.), Back of Beyond: Discovering Australian Film and Television (UCLA/AFC, 1988), p. 29.
© Adrian Martin January 1992