(George Miller, 1981)
A solid argument can be made for director George Millar as perhaps the greatest storyteller in 1980s cinema. That argument would revolve - for the most part - around Mad Max 2.
The international success of the first Mad Max film afforded Miller the opportunity to make his sequel bigger and better in more or less every way.
And so he goes for broke; by the start of this film society and civilization have entirely broken down, allowing him to utilise the beautiful emptiness of his Australian Outback locations to represent this post-apocalyptic world. Ex cop and "shell of a man" Max (Mel Gibson) is now every inch the Road Warrior of the title, roaming the wasteland in his souped up police car in search of food, gasoline and weapons, battling with gangs of marauders for possession of anything valuable in the wilderness.
Max comes across a Gas pumping station transformed into a fortress and being protected by a group of survivors (dressed in white, brown and beige) from a terrifying army of leather-clad marauders outside. Covetous of all that petrol, Max volunteers to help the defenders in their attempts to escape to the Coast with the oil...
Among other things, Mad Max 2 is the finest Western of the '80s. It may lack (most) Western iconography, but all the elements are there, in disguise: a lone hero with his own distinct code of honour and a reluctance to join a community, an isolated Fort besieged by savages, incredible widescreen desert landscapes, and long, brilliant action sequences. Miller includes a few genre signifiers to make it clear: many of the weapons used come straight from Westerns, from Max's shotgun to the bows used by the defenders. The marauders, while generally wearing (hugely influential) mixes of biker and bondage gear, are often given Mohawks and Mohicans, and the massive final action set-piece recalls nothing so much as the central action scene in Ford's Stagecoach, with the heroes vehicle pursued and attacked by a mobile band of aggressors.
But what is really impressive here is the stylish economy of the storytelling. So many of these scenes are pure cinema - no dialogue, no exposition, just sound and movement. Miller's compositions are fabulous (cinematographer Dean Semler does great work here too), his editing tight as a drum, and he pulls off a number of bravura shots which never feel remotely ostentatious. This is reflected in the story. The plot is simple, the characters bold and mythic. Villains who never speak a word of dialogue are given vivid personality through body language, wardrobe, performance and Miller's direction. Indeed, near-mute characters such as the Feral Kid and Wez are uniquely memorable and iconic, and the elemental sense of mythic weight behind this story partly explains just why it was so influential (it kicked off a wave of cheap post-apocalyptic action movie imitators).
But if that sense of starkly generic world-building was relatively easy to emulate, then Miller's awesome approach to orchestrating and mounting action scenes was not.
The organic nature of the stunt-work and the fact that we know these are real cars being driven by real people gives these action scenes an impact largely lost in the contemporary cgi era, and also demands a level of ingenuity and invention from Miller which is perceptible. The climactic chase here is a stunning example of sustained craft - visceral, thrilling and hilarious, it maintains an unbelievable level of spatial coherence throughout, as multiple mini-threads and arcs criss-cross and collide during a fifteen minute sequence. Miller demonstrated that this sort of impressive control of big action storytelling with a mythic ring to it could be applied to Childrens cinema with his later work on the Babe films and Happy Feet, but this film remains his masterpiece, and is easily one of the greatest action films ever made.
It helps that the cast is filled with unfamiliar Australian faces and that Gibson was at his most beautiful and charismatic in the early '80s - he smoulders and scowls his way through the film in magnetic fashion, as only a true movie star could.