I've never quite understood why most cinematic visions of the future are so nihilistic. Are filmmakers really so down on humanity that they think we're destined to destroy ourselves? Such cynicism isn't a strictly an American trait -- in fact, leave it to the Australians to come up with what is still the best portrait of cinematic apocalypse ever committed to celluloid, 'The Road Warrior' (aka 'Mad Max 2'). More polished than 'Mad Max' but less pretentious than 'Beyond Thunderdome,' 'Warrior' is a true feat of incongruity. It takes a dire view of where our society might be headed -- an alternate future where a gallon of gasoline is more valuable than a human life -- yet it so revels in its own bad-ass-ness that it somehow manages to transform potentially depressing material into a rip-roaring, immensely entertaining Heavy Metal comic strip.
A young Mel Gibson stars as Max. When we first meet up with him again in 'The Road Warrior,' he's a burned-out shell of a man, left wounded by the death of his wife and child at the hands of a band of crazy bikers, and the events of the first film. Yet there is still a glimmer of hope and idealism left in him when, after he comes upon a quirky band of survivors attempting to make a break for the coast of Australia to start a new, peaceful community, he decides to help them make the 2,000 mile trek by driving the tanker that holds their precious gasoline. But the evil Lord Humungus (Kjell Nilsson, in a Jason Voorhees-meets-pro wrestling get-up that has to be seen to be believed) and his mohawk-sporting henchman Wez (Vernon Wells) have other ideas. It's going to be the car chase to end all car chases, as Max and his newfound "family" stage a duel to the death on wheels as humanity's last hope for survival.
'The Road Warrior' remains such incredible fun because it is so crazy, but always smarter than it looks. The plot is threadbare, and I don't think I've seen a movie in recent memory with as little dialogue -- director George Miller (who helmed all three 'Mad Max' films) goes for the "pure cinema" approach, largely using visuals to tell his story. But there is more going on here than meets the eye. 'Warrior' is filled with baddies in ridiculous costumes, completely over-the-top stunts and action, and on the surface, no apparent purpose. Yet Miller's art is in using his machines as emblems for his character's ideals. There is a subtle statement being made about societal ingenuity in how this mismatched band of survivors teams together in an attempt to outwit the Humongous horde. I won't spoil the trick (and the movie's somewhat "twist" reveal), but without big speeches and over-reaching visuals, Miller simply (if brutally) reminds us that humans may be at their best when things are worst.
What ultimately makes 'The Road Warrior' sublime is that its subtext never gets in the way of its highly entertaining qualities. There has never been a climactic 45 minutes like those in 'The Road Warrior.' The last half of the movie is one long, sustained action sequence that is so breathlessly executed it still hasn't been bettered. This is long before the era of CGI-everything, yet I will maintain that just a couple of minutes of the live-without-a-net stuntwork in 'Road Warrior' out-thrills anything seen in a 'Spider-Man' or 'Star Wars' movie (only the use of some fast-speed photography hampers the film's effectiveness). I'm still not sure what the base appeal is in watching people get splattered across the road by giant tanker trucks, but you're not going to find a better, faster, or smarter example of car porn than 'The Road Warrior.'
(Note: 'The Road Warrior' was originally released in all territories outside the United States as 'Mad Max 2.' For this HD DVD release, Warner has opted for the original international opening credits for the film, sans the title 'The Road Warrior.')
'The Road Warrior' has the distinction of having been one of the earliest standard-def DVD releases from Warner, but in this case, that's not really a good thing. That version looked pretty awful, and the film's fans have been crying out for a remastered special edition of this modern classic for a decade now to no avail.
Well, finally, Warner has (at least partially) heeded the call. Though this is not a full-tilt package with tons of extras, the studio has gone back to the vaults and dusted off the film's original negative, striking a brand-new negative for the next-gen release. The results are far better than I expected. Both the HD DVD and Blu-ray receive identical 2.40:1 widescreen 1080p/VC-1 encodes, and this is one of the best upgrades I've ever seen of a catalog title. Quite simply, it blows away the old DVD, and even improves upon a couple of theatrical screenings I've seen over the past few years.
The source has been very nicely cleaned up -- all of the excessive grain, dirt, dropouts and splice marks have been removed. I was amazed at how clean and smooth the image now looks, while still remaining natural and film-like. Blacks are no longer gray, and contrast has real pop to it -- shots that before looked washed out and dour now have noticeable depth and detail. Colors are still appropriately dusty, but finally the blue Australian skies are vivid and free of noise, while splashes of bright yellow and red make for nice accents. Fleshtones, too, are greatly improved and no longer pinkish, which was one of the many problems with the old DVD.
My only complaint is that shadow delineation is still somewhat anemic. Grain is much heavier, and the low-light conditions of the on-location shoot don't help matters. There are also some select shots that look soft, and almost out of focus. But no matter. 'The Road Warrior' has at last received the remaster it has so long deserved.
Warner has also bumped up the audio for 'The Road Warrior' to Dolby Digital 5.1 (640kbps). Not quite as spiffy as the video, the film's original sound elements are just a bit too limited to make the transition with much aplomb.
Still, it sounds decent enough. The old DVD (and especially the horrid '80s VHS versions) sounded way too flat and tinny. Dialogue was hard to understand, and that's without even taking the thick Australian accents into account. This new mix is cleaner and clearer, with a far cleaner high-end. Bass is still not particularly strong, and is definitely flat by modern standards. The surrounds, though, are what really fail to impress. The mix is just too front heavy -- even the big action scenes never fully generate a sustained ambiance. Discrete effects sound too localized and obvious, and why is none of the howling wind in just about every scene not channeled to the rears? The score by Brian May, too, is not only dated, but also pushed too far to the front. I can't fault this remix on the bottom line, but it still sounds like a stereo track.
In terms of supplements ported over from previous releases, there's not a lot to choose from, as 'The Road Warrior' has consistently received bare bones treatment since its DVD debut almost ten years ago.
This HD DVD edition ports over the the film's domestic Theatrical Trailer, presented here in really bad 480i/MPEG-2 video, and a long-forgotten Introduction by Leonard Maltin, which was originally included in a 1999 Special Edition VHS. As with the trailer, the video here is full frame only and quite poor. However, the movie critic (and fan of the film) does succinctly explain the film's history and its eventual cult success.
But that's not all folks -- Warner has included a geniune next-gen exclusive, so read on...
'The Road Warrior' holds up smashingly well as a great car crash action movie, but it also maintains surprising relevance as a look at a post-apocalyptic future. And the young Mel Gibson is such an effortless movie star that watching 'Warrior' 25 years on almost makes you forget his recent tabloid troubles. This first-ever high-def release of the film is a godsend -- the transfer has finally been remastered, and we even get an HD exclusive audio commentary. Sure, the supplements are otherwise fairly thin and the audio package is still somewhat lacking, but 'The Road Warrior' in high-def is a huge step up for this much-beloved cult classic.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.