Warner Bros. // 1981 // 95 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dennis Prince (Retired) // May 15th, 2007
"For reasons long forgotten, two mighty warrior tribes went to war and touched off a blaze that engulfed them all. Without fuel they were nothing. They'd built a house of straw. The thundering machines sputtered and stopped."
Although this sounds like the similar proclamations asserted against our New Millennium existence, the fact is this was a sentiment put forth to movie audiences back in 1981. Although that was the decade of dual-income privilege and riches by Reganomics, some felt it was just as easily the beginning of the end. One particular naysayer hailed from Australia and caught Americans very unaware when he unleashed his dogs of war.
Now, this cause-and-effect tale of the world's unalterable future finds new life in the advanced high-definition formats and proves itself, again, to be too compelling to overlook.
Some time following World War III and the complete collapse of civilized nations, life on Earth became nothing more than an attempt at survival. Anarchy had replaced organized government and law enforcement and feral road gangs ruled the wastelands. Max (Gibson), a former law enforcement officer, travels alone, offering no allegiance to anyone or anything outside of his dog and his quest for fuel ("juice"). He happens along an eccentric gyrocopter pilot (Bruce Spence) who tells of a refinery harboring a tanker full of thousands of gallons of gasoline, hoping Max will spare his life in exchange for more information. Max complies and the two scout the refinery, positioned in the middle of the desert and surround by an onslaught of road gangs determined to have the fuel for themselves. Max agrees to help haul the tanker away from the refinery and the marauding Lord Humongous (Kjell Nilsson) and Wez (Vernon Wells) in exchange for all the fuel he can carry.
For modern-day filmgoers who might think of George Miller as "the man who brought you Happy Feet," think again. While this veteran Australian filmmaker succeeded in bringing a refreshing sensibility to his 2006 CGI feature, he's most widely acclaimed for bringing forth the irresistible character of Max Rockatansky, better known as 'Mad Max.'
While the original Mad Max had been released Down Under in 1979 then horribly dubbed for a 1980 stateside distribution, it was a film full of raw energy and angst, cynical, sneering, and utterly compelling. American audiences all but missed Max's initial adventure but rightly sat up and took notice when Mad Max 2 -- released in America as The Road Warrior exploded onto the domestic screens during the stellar summer of 1982. Having to contend with the likes of Poltergeist, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, it would seem surprising if this little Australian venture, a sequel to a first film of which America was largely unaware, would survive amid the notable competition. Survive it did and it became the sleeper hit of the season. The action was unrelenting and the nihilistic attitude unabashed. While Spielberg and Hooper and Lucas and others were exploring feel-good resolutions amid effects-assisted dazzle, George Miller walloped America square in the face with his arid post-apocalyptic affront that blamed "civilized man" for the wasteland that claimed lives, often without cause or compunction. Despite its downtrodden demeanor, The Road Warrior roused theatergoers with a spectacle of practical road stunts that had never been seen and culminated in an incredible 20-minute high-speed pursuit. And although it was supremely cynical in its nature, Miller and co-writer Terry Hayes managed to insert subtly effective subtexts that suggested not all compassion had been stripped away from the protagonists (see the Gyro Captain's shock and dismay upon witnessing a rape and murder and note the sensitivity shared between Max and the Feral Kid).
For high-definition enthusiasts, the Warner Brothers announcement of The Road Warrior coming to both formats -- Blu-ray and HD DVD -- had immediately stirred excitement given this has been a long-time catalog favorite. A slight bump caused the originally announced release date of May 8, 2007 to veer slightly to May 15, 2007 -- and here it is, at last. As expected, fans and enthusiasts have wondered aloud and online regarding how well this 20-some-odd-year-old film might hold up in high definition. Thankfully, the transfer here is spectacular. Recall the revelation when first seeing DVD in comparison to VHS and you'll understand the significant improvement of this new HD transfer, encoded at 1080p using the VC-1 codec. First, the source print has been properly re-mastered, Warner Brothers having gone back to an original negative then cleaning away every imperfection. Then, detail levels are significantly improved to draw out all manner of texture never before seen, not even on the big screen. And, color levels and well managed and appropriately boosted by excellent contrast control. Lastly, black levels are truly black this time around, giving the overall image a sumptuous look that few likely ever imagined. Upon the opening widescreen shot of the blower on Max's V-8 Interceptor, you'll know any previous DVD or LD or VHS is ripe for recycling. The team behind this transfer is duly applauded for treating this particular image with the obvious care and concern that is evident in the finished product. The only shortcomings are in some areas of black crush and some short but intense moments of exacerbated film grain. A couple of sequences will also appear soft -- the scene where Max drives away with the hot-wired truck cab and the closing where the road gang departs from the overturned tanker -- yet those familiar with the film will recognize these sequences as being filmed in this manner, devoid of depth-of-field. Truly, this is an excellent upgrade and one that has been long overdue.
As for the audio, the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix (at 640kbps) is a step up from the previous Standard Definition track yet not quite as advanced as the new format would have allowed. Nevertheless, recognizing the original film was limited to a Dolby Stereo mix in its day, this one is full-bodied and full of throaty engine roars. Dialog is generally clear though it does get a bit overwhelmed at times. Most enjoyable is the added boost given to Brian May's superlative score, a pulse-pounding arrangement that paces the action and intensity perfectly.
Extras for The Road Warrior have been slim to none over the course of the picture's home video lifecycle and, sadly, no new elements have been dug up here. You will get the Australian cut of the film, though, that features the alternate opening titles of "Mad Max 2" and some extra frames scattered throughout (including an additional close-up of Wez wrenching the arrow from his bicep). But, exclusive to the high-definition releases is a new commentary track from George Miller and Cinematographer Dean Semler (Dances with Wolves). The two are completely affable and chatty, offering all manner of personal tidbits, technical trivia, and production anecdotes (particularly touching is the story about the cattle dog -- Max's dog -- that was saved from euthanasia when the production team came looking for road hound). This is a great track, warm and informative, and well worth a listen. Leonard Maltin was tapped for a 3-minute retrospective of the picture, an amusing insight if nothing else. Beyond this, the American theatrical trailer is present but it's a bit worn.
To see this film in the context of today's blockbuster effects fests, it makes for a wonderful experience to recall how engaging "practical" filmmaking once was. The plot is gossamer thin but you're never left wanting for action or motivation on screen. Miller tells his story through almost non-stop movement with very little dialog -- or social diatribes, for that matter -- to weigh it down. It's clear this was a low-budget undertaking but it's better for its imposed efficiency. Most notable, the lack of CGI shortcuts ensures we feel the action in a more organic and enjoyable delivery. The stunts are incredible (yes, even though a few slow-crank shots give it that momentary herky-jerky look) and the camera setups look plainly daring and dangerous. This is old-fashioned action fare yet it looks so less dated than any computerized conglomeration, those bearing their shortcomings within a year following their release. The Road Warrior, viewed today, is fresh, frenetic, and wholly engaging.
"...and lingerie...remember lingerie?"
Without question, this high-definition re-mastering of The Road Warrior should be considered a required purchase. Easily, this is an excellent upgrade that utilizes the best the new format has to offer without erasing the original look and feel of this modern day film classic.
Review content copyright © 2007 Dennis Prince; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 EX (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 1981
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Audio Commentary with Director George Miller and Cinematographer Dean Semler
* Introduction by Leonard Maltin
* Theatrical Trailer (American release)