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Road Warrior, The Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 July 2007

ImageIn a post-apocalyptic future, an unspecified time after “Mad Max”, the somber loner Max (Mel Gibson) and his dog find themselves embroiled in a conflict between a gasoline-craving gang of maniacs and a small band of survivors, who have holed up around a desert oil refinery. With fuel being the hottest commodity in this barren future, it’s only a matter of time before the wild renegades break through and steal the survivors’ cache. Adding to the mix is a somewhat loopy Gyrocopter pilot (an entertaining Bruce Spence, behind a set of rather brackish molars) and a non-verbal Feral Kid (Emil Minty) who try to convince the somewhat ruthless Max to help the survivors in their bid to escape from the compound and follow their dream of leaving the barren desert for the coast.

Director George Miller’s follow-up to, “Mad Max” finds him with a larger budget and a much more muted lead character. Mel Gibson, then still unknown in the U.S., is a likeable, if opportunistic, lead. His looks are perhaps a bit too youthful (he was 25) to fully depict the iconic, world-weary Toshiro Mifune-esque character, and Max is fairly undeveloped. One doesn’t sense any difference between Max at the beginning and Max at the end, other than having experienced the events. He’s just as much a loner at the end, only with more physical scars, no car and without a dog.

Characterization and story development seem beside the point in “The Road Warrior.” It’s told mostly without dialogue, essentially a series of hair-raising chases and stunts with a simple framework for a narrative. There’s some emotional distance between the audience and the characters, and a little too much time is spent on Max and the Gyro pilot on a mountainside watching events at the compound before becoming involved. For the early section of the film the audience is without a character or story element to latch onto. Director George Miller is clearly working to create a futuristic western—a gas powered, eight-cylinder oater, so to speak. The sequences establishing the compound under siege clearly evoke familiar scenes from films like John Ford’s “Wagonmaster” and others of settlers defending circled wagons from an Indian onslaught. Towards this end, Miller has knowingly made his band of punks resemble Indians, from their Mohawk haircuts, to their unsettling battle cries to the way they string up their captives to their clothing and decorations made of scavenged items. In his commentary, Miller mentions the prolonged stagecoach assault and chase in Ford’s “Stagecoach,” which is fitting as the final convoy chase sequence brings it instantly to mind.

There’s really not much to “The Road Warrior” beyond its surface; it’s a pretty empty work. However, as an example of impressive stunt work and thrilling action filmmaking and editing, it’s pretty hard to beat. The amount of vehicular carnage on-display is impressive, especially given the tangible reality given the pre-CGI stunt driving and accident coordination. There’s a particularly gasp-inducing shot of a motorcycle rider crashing into a barrier and flying head over heels towards and past the camera. The hospital bills were probably more than the budget of the film. Interestingly, the mutated renegade leader, “The Humungus” (Kjell Nilsson), clad in his hockey mask, prefigures Friday the 13th’s Jason Voorhees’s donning the iconic goalie garb.

“The Road Warrior” includes a large number of stunts and technical effects for its fairly small budget, and as expected, the visuals are occasionally a little rough. The HD DVD transfer, from a print with the original “Mad Max 2” title card, accurately conveys the look of the original film and retains its original 2.40 Panavision aspect ratio. It’s very sharp and impressively stable throughout, and the limited colors are as vivid as intended. Close-ups are much more detailed and natural than in standard def releases. The prevalence of panoramic wide shots, filled with tiny details (there’s a particularly beautiful one at dusk, as the gang rides away from the compound, leaving trails of desert dust blowing behind them), is well-served in HD, allowing them to appear more stable and sharp. The dissolves are particularly terrible-looking, and there’s a noticeable increase in grain and loss of detail whenever a shot is about to transition. There’s a rather wretched-looking night scene (Max creeps out of the compound) that is swimming in noise and grain. As memory serves, this scene also looked terrible on the laserdisc, so it is probably the way it originally looked in theaters Those familiar with the film will note that it doesn’t look much different from how it appeared before on home video, except a tad crisper.

The Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 track seems to accurately render the original theatrical Dolby Stereo mix, without adding to the original sound effects or splitting the surrounds. Audio-wise, this HD DVD disc is a notch better than the Blu-ray disc, as it includes the higher resolution Dolby Digital Plus track instead of Blu-ray’s plain-Jane Dolby Digital track. Unfortunately, neither of the HD disc releases includes a lossless audio track. Brian May’s music is heavily fore-grounded in the mix. It’s loud, thunderous and crisp. The music and sound effects are much louder than the minimal dialogue which is often tough to discern. Anything “The Humungus” (Kjell Nilsson) says is almost completely incoherent, the sound effects burying what little can be made out through the actor’s thick (Scandinavian?) accent. The sound effects mix is fine for its vintage, but is limited in its channel separation and surround effects compared to more recent mixes, and is a little lacking in detail. The opening section, which begins in a 1.33 prologue, then roars out of the spoiler on Max’s car into the full 2.40 frame is still an impressive bit of cinema.

The extras seem somewhat slight for a film as popular and as strong a perennial seller as this is. A welcome commentary with director George Miller and cinematographer Dean Semler is exclusive to the HD releases. It’s a recently recorded track and is a nostalgic chat between the two, full of behind-the-scenes anecdotes. To acquire a less restrictive rating, the film was trimmed of some violent and explicit shots which would have been a welcome inclusion here, as would some deleted scenes, such as the original opening, which established why lead mohawked baddie, Wez (Vernon Wells), and the gang are after Max at the beginning. I have a sneaking feeling that a couple of the trimmed shots, such as Wez pulling the arrow out of his arm and later a close-up of him removing the razor boomerang out of his companion’s head, may have been quietly reinstated here, but I’m unable to verify this, as I traded in my laserdisc years ago.

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