"It won't be as good as the first." I mentioned this last time. This cliche is another you can shelve next to "It's not as good as the book" in the library of lame film criticism.
But, as we all know, there are surprises from time to time. Probably more than we actually realize where a sequel lives up to its predecessor or dare say exceeds it.
Again, this is something everyone will have distinct opinions on and it's useless being a troll about it. Believe me, I can riff for awhile like an asshole about how I think The Dark Knight is way overrated, but nevertheless people will back that as a superior product to Batman Begins.
Of course the pinnacle of sequel debates usually takes all of a minute before Godfather II and Empire Strikes Back is brought up. And both deserve their due. Godfather II won the Oscar for Best Picture. Empire Strikes Back has yet to be dethroned as the best of either Star Wars trilogy. But those are also low hanging fruit. That's easy to say, even though there's definitely credence to it. Terminator 2, Aliens. Give them their due as well, no doubt about it. But again, these are low hanging fruit.
In 1979, Australian filmmaker George Miller released Mad Max, a dystopian, violent action story set in the backdrop of a world where the shortage on gasoline creates its own energy of volatility. Max is our hero. Mel Gibson; years before he would blow up as Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon. He is a just a cop doing his job, but through the violence he experiences, he becomes disillusioned to the point of leaving the police force. Fate sadly intervenes when his wife and child are run over by a motorcycle gang, which ultimately turns Max into, well, Mad Max, the vigilante who only lives now for vengeance and the lives taken from him.
Max gets his closure by films end in one of the best payoffs for a face to triumph over a heel, as he drops a hacksaw next to the villain who he has handcuffed to an overturned car spilling gasoline. "The chain in those handcuffs is high-tensile steel. It'd take you ten minutes to hack through it with this. Now, if you're lucky, you could hack through your ankle in five minutes. Go."
As Max drives away, the car explodes behind him, and he speeds out of our lives into the wide open Outback. Vengeance fuliflled. Our final image are the white lines screaming past Max's car on the highway. Driving towards what? We don't know. With his family avenged what is left for Max?
Miller's Mad Max might have been glossed over in the US with varying reception among critics but was a huge success around the world and laid the groundwork for a second installment that for most of the world was simply dubbed Mad Max 2. Here in the US, due to studio thinking no one had seen or liked Mad Max, gave it another title. Whatever you want to call it, be it Mad Max 2 or The Road Warrior, Miller's sequel is arguably the best sequel ever made.
Let's take one more look at Mad Max before we dive in. George Miller created a deeply polarizing, violent, dystopic, even exploitive character study that went on to make over a hundred million in worldwide box office. The character of Max goes on a very relatable journey. Not to say all of us battle marauding motorcycle gangs and find our family turned into road kill before launching into a vindictive third act. But it's at least relatable in the aspect that in a world of energy crisis and increased volatility, the level of ramped up violence leads to an internal conflict that is logically manifested into a bloody climax. As Kevin Costner says during the mound meeting in Bull Durham, "We're dealing with a lot of shit here!"
The Road Warrior from the get-go gives you the high octane vehicular kinetics that Mad Max set you up for previously, and most certainly they ramp it up. At the time, this became Australia's most expensive film, which nowadays we expect from a sequel. The stunt-work has been previously chronicled in documentaries and deserves its fair share of praise. No matter the risk involved, these guys were excited about what they were putting together.
But to put The Road Warrior on such a high pedestal because of stunt-work alone would be superfluous. What separates and distances The Road Warrior from its predecessor is the combination of character and story.
The funny thing is the story is nothing original. Miller, like so many directors, lifted from the likes of Kurosawa and specifically Yojimbo. Fifteen years before the world embraced Clint Eastwood in a similar plot in A Fistful of Dollars, Kurosawa gave birth to arguably the most influential plot in the last fifty years. The loner, the mercenary, hungry for his own profit, looking out for his own interests, finds himself in the position to make that big score but finds it is at the expense of a struggling few against a larger enemy. The loner, Max, is ultimately faced with the internal conflict of taking the money and running or putting those interests aside to help those in need.
Character-wise, the arc of Max through The Road Warrior is extraordinary. The young, dutiful cop, a family man, reduced to the rubble of solitude in a world of madness. That's the man in the US narration we see. Once we're launched into the present time, Max is a shell of that man, and Mel Gibson sells it. His dialogue is kept to sixteen words only, so when he speaks you know its important, and he doesn't rush any of those sixteen words. They are as valuable as the two shotgun shells he has in his limited arsenal.
By the end of the film, once he has made the choice and helped the group of settlers get away, he doesn't inherit a new family. There's no new wife or child. There's not even the glory of the profit. That part of his life was lost in the physical form. But with his actions, he finds closure. Alone in the Outback but a man with closure.
Even a protagonist, alone, though, and his arc can't be the scale-tipper to give The Road Warrior the edge. Max's opposition, his villains, are a complete step-up from what we saw in Max Max. (And those guys killed his family in cold blood. You can't get more evil that.)
And yet standing somewhere around six feet three, damn near three hundred pounds, a steel hockey mask covering his face and rolling around in a black leather studded speedo is Lord Humungus. The Ayatollah of Rock n' Rolla. He is the head of the snake. He sends the dogs of war into the great wide open of Australia's white light nightmare. His goal is absolute. A derivative of John Huston's Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Humungus' madness, however, isn't for the gold. It's for the gas, for gas is the true measure of wealth in the world post-Mad Max. The gas.
And if it wasn't enough that this guy's a beast, he's got a mohawked rider with shoulder pads and a quick tendency to fly off the handle. He is Humongous' most dangerous dog of war, Wez. There is no one more relentless for Max's blood than Wez from the opening scene to his fiery demise. And to top it all off, the way you can tell this might be the most badass guy in the post-apocalyptic Australian west? He proudly displays a pretty blonde boy on the back of his motorcycle as a not-so-subtle prize of war and part of Miller's subtle subversive homoeroticism. You want to that guy he can't take a boy as his own? Try again.
Maybe that was all way off the rails, but Miller gives you so much to chew on in with his top two villains in The Road Warrior. Take this into account as well: these two guys and their look became the basis for not one but two of wrestling's most famous tag teams in the 80's. Yeah, you can take a dump on wrestling as much as you want, but The Road Warriors and Demolition were as bad ass as tag teams got.
Broad strokes again, The Road Warrior is by and large a perfect film. Could it exist on its own in the Mad Max universe? Absolutely. What it comes down to is ultimately how you follow your previous film. Do you keep the momentum going? Godfather II did in spades. It earned its Oscar. Do you ramp up and enter a new realm of your saga? Empire Strikes Back did in spades. But the Ace of Spades is do you completely outdo and (I'll use the word again) invalidate your predecessor out of existence? That's The Road Warrior's legacy. A god damn amazing display of characters and story fuzed with action so perfectly on the verge of out of control that only Brian May could score it.
God damn fucking perfect.