It’s the film that started it all—sort of. When George Miller’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece Mad Max: Fury Road won critics’ hearts and cleaned up at the box office earlier this year, it owed a lot to its predecessors in the Mad Max series, and to one predecessor in particular. While it’s true that the original Mad Max amassed quite a cult of its own, and the third in the series, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, isn’t without its charms, Fury Road is most indebted to Mad Max 2, the fast-paced, adrenaline-fueled Road Warrior, widely considered one of the greatest action movies ever made.
Like Fury Road, The Road Warrior takes place in a devastated wasteland after the collapse of civilization, and it stars leather-clad ex-cop Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson, in his breakthrough role) as a cynical loner who reluctantly agrees to defend a group of settlers against marauders. Intensely violent and yet still oddly sentimental, it’s a heartwarming Western wrapped in all the gory trimmings of the Australian exploitation genre, and one ripe for cult following. Far better than its prequel or its immediate sequel, The Road Warrior is the Empire Strikes Back of the original Mad Max trilogy, and has a had a far-reaching influence to match, with numerous directors, including David Fincher and Guillermo del Toro, naming it among their favorites.
Even after nearly 35 years, parts of Road Warrior still hold up remarkably well, including its score and its sweeping cinematography. The characters are larger-than-life (one is even named Humungus), decked out in their various mohawks, a whole lot of faux-leather, and, yes, a very memorable pair of assless chaps. Other elements of the 1981 film have begun to show their age, especially alongside its newer, shinier counterparts. But while Road Warrior’s effects may seem campy or dated, the film still boasts some exhilarating chase scenes and, true to its Ozploitation roots, a few brutal, pulpy sight gags, including one involving a deadly sharp boomerang and several ill-fated fingers.
George Miller outdid himself in making his latest installment of the Mad Max series, and it’s clear that he poured the best bits of Road Warrior into Fury Road; you can see it in the reluctant partnerships, in the breathtaking chase sequences, in the characters’ struggle for survival and the promise of escape. Road Warrior had left some pretty impressive tire treads to fill. And fill them, Fury Road did.