Mad Max was the raw, promising debut, then Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) is the polished masterpiece. Director George Miller and star Mel Gibson are back, and they give us one of the best pure action movies ever made and craft one of the bleakest and memorable looks at a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
Civilization has crumbled. Nations collapsed as the world's supply of oil was used up, and the only ones who survive are "those mobile enough to scavenge, brutal enough to pillage." In this world, we find Max (Gibson), one day blurring into the next as he roams the desert, battling other scavengers for gas for his old police car. Max meets the Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence), who tells him about a working refinery. The refinery is under siege by the forces of the Lord Humungous (Kjell Nillson), and before long, the refiners hire Max to find a rig big enough to haul their tank of gas out of the wasteland.
Mad Max works as a pulpy piece of revenge drama. The Road Warrior, by contrast, is elevated to a mythic, epic level. The scope and scale are grander, and the action scenes and visuals are much more ambitious. The vehicles are more plentiful and diverse, the explosions are bigger, and the stunts are wilder. Instead of the grounded family man, Max is now similar to Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name character of those classic spaghetti westerns, the withdrawn loner who comes between two warring factions and gets involved in the conflict strictly out of self-interest. The general set-up - good guys in a fortress besieged by a ruthless enemy - is a siege scenario reminiscent of everything from The Iliad to the Alamo.
While the plot and characters are straightforward and basic, the details and little touches Miller loads the film are astounding, from the costumes to the vehicles and everything in between. It's cool seeing how these people have adapted to the post-apocalyptic world by modifying and salvaging everything they can. Football pads becomes armor, a bus becomes an armored gate, crossbows are the weapon of choice (even if you miss, you can recover the missile), and the Gyro Captain uses snakes as weapons and food. The Humungous has a penchant for strapping live prisoners to the front of his vehicle as bumpers, which freaks out the good guys.
The boomerang was thrown by the Feral Kid, one of the group at the refinery. He never speaks except in grunts and growls, but his admiration for Max provides the sliver of hope for the once loving family man. In a savage environment where people are fighting tooth and nail for gasoline, this is Max at his lowest, when his humanity is all but drained away, and he is no better than any of the other scavengers. Yet, he unwittingly inspires this kid, and in a key moment, Max protects him and aids the refinery people in their flight to a better life. Maybe there is something of a heroic streak left in Max.