The film's comic-book post-apocalyptic/punk style popularized the genre in film and fiction writing. It was also a box office success, winning the Best International Film from six nominations at the Saturn Award ceremony, including: Best Director for Miller; Best Actor for Gibson; Best Supporting Actor for Bruce Spence; Best Writing for Miller, Hayes and Hannant; and Best Costume for Norma Moriceau. Mad Max 2 became a cult film, with fan clubs and "road warrior"-themed activities continuing into the 21st century, and is now widely considered to be one of the greatest action movies ever made, as well as one of the greatest sequels ever made. The film was preceded by Mad Max in 1979 and followed by Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome in 1985 and Mad Max: Fury Road in 2015.
With supplies of fuel nearly exhausted in the near future following a major energy crisis and a global nuclear war, ex-Main Force Patrol officer "Mad" Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) roams the now-depopulated and desolate desert in his scarred, black supercharged V-8 Pursuit Special several years after the events of the first film, scavenging for food, water, and fuel. His only companions are an Australian Cattle Dog and a rare functioning firearm – a sawn-off shotgun – for which ammunition is very scarce.
While trying to escape a group of gang members – led by a crazed motorcycle rider named Wez (Vernon Wells) – Max manages to crash two of the gang members' vehicles and injure Wez; recognising his defeat, Wez flees. After collecting some fuel from the destroyed cars and checking a nearby Mack rig, Max inspects a nearby autogyro for fuel. Its pilot, the Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence), ambushes Max and manages to capture him briefly before being overpowered. In exchange for his own life, the pilot guides Max to a small oil refinery nearby. Max arrives to see the facility under siege by a gang of marauders – including Wez – riding a motley collection of cars and motorbikes. The gang leader, known as "Lord Humungus" (Kjell Nilsson), tries to convince the refinery's defenders to surrender the facility in exchange for safe passage out of the area.
A group of defenders attempts to break out of the compound, but the marauders capture, torture, and kill all but one of them, who is rescued by Max. Max makes a deal with the mortally wounded sole survivor: he will bring him back to the compound in exchange for a tank of fuel. The man dies shortly after they enter the facility, and the facility leader, Pappagallo (Michael Preston), reneges on the deal, saying it died when the survivor died. His group is on the verge of killing Max when the marauders return, and Humungus repeats his offer. When the Feral Kid (Emil Minty) kills Wez's companion, Wez becomes enraged, urging his leader to take the compound; Humungus wrestles Wez into submission, but placates Wez by privately revealing he has no intention of letting any of the settlers leave. Max offers Pappagallo a different deal: he will retrieve the abandoned Mack semi-truck, which is capable of hauling the tanker trailer that the facility inhabitants use to store the fuel they refine, in exchange for freedom, his vehicle, and as much fuel as he can take with him. The group accepts, but keeps Max's car to ensure his co-operation. Max sneaks out, locates the Gyro Captain (who wandered off dragging the branch to which Max chained him) and conscripts him to help find the truck using his gyrocopter.
After finding the truck, Max drives it back to the compound, evading Humungus's men. The defenders want Max to escape with the group, but Max opts to collect his petrol and leave. However, his attempt to break through the siege fails: Wez gives chase in Humungus' nitrous oxide-equipped car and runs Max off the road, wrecking his vehicle and severely injuring him. The marauders kill Max's dog, then attempt to siphon the fuel from the Pursuit Special's tanks, but trigger an explosive booby trap which kills some of the attackers. Left for dead, Max is found and rescued by the Gyro Captain.
With no other means of escape and with the refinery's defenders preparing to depart, Max insists on driving the repaired truck. He leaves the compound in the heavily armoured truck, accompanied by the Feral Kid he has befriended, by other inhabitants as onboard defenders, the Gyro Captain, and Pappagallo in a captured marauder vehicle. Humungus and most of his warriors pursue the tanker, leaving the remaining inhabitants free to flee the compound in a ramshackle caravan and buses, blowing up the refinery as they leave. Pappagallo and the other defenders of the tanker, as well as numerous marauders, are killed during the chase, and the Gyro Captain is shot down. Max and the Feral Kid find themselves alone, pursued by the marauders. Wez manages to board the truck and attack Max, but a head-on collision with Humungus's car kills both Wez and Humungus. Max loses control of the tanker and it rolls off the road.
As the injured Max carries the Feral Kid from the wrecked tanker, he sees not petrol, but sand, leaking from the tank. The truck and its trailer are thus exposed as a decoy, allowing the other settlers to escape with the precious fuel in oil drums inside their vehicles. With Pappagallo dead, the Gyro Captain succeeds him as their chief and leads the settlers to the coast, where they establish the "Great Northern Tribe". Max remains alone in the desert, once again becoming a drifter. Years later, the Feral Kid, now the Northern Tribe's new leader (voiced by Harold Baigent), reminisces about the legend of the mythical "Road Warrior" (Max) who now exists only in distant memory.Mel Gibson as "Mad" Max Rockatansky, a former member of the Australian highway patrol called the Main Force Patrol (MFP). However, after a biker gang kills his family, he leaves the force and hunts down and kills all of the gang members. The trauma transforms him into the embittered, "burnt out... shell of a man". The narration describes him as The Road Warrior, who despite his acerbic nature, elects to assist the settlers in their plan. However once his part is complete, he becomes a drifter once again, choosing not to follow them north.
Bruce Spence as the Gyro Captain, a wanderer who looks for fuel and supplies. However, instead of driving a car, the Captain flies in a ramshackle old gyrocopter powered by a VW air-cooled engine. He, too, decides to throw in his lot with the settlers, and help defend their compound. Time's reviewer Richard Corliss called the Captain "a deranged parody of the World War I aerial ace: scarecrow skinny, gaily clad, sporting a James Coburn smile with advanced caries"; despite his quirks, however, the Captain proves to be wily and courageous. After the death of Pappagallo, the Gyro Captain succeeds him as the leader of the settlers.
Vernon Wells as Wez, a mohawked, leather-clad biker who serves as Lord Humungus' lieutenant in the gang. Vincent Canby, the New York Times reviewer called the Wez character the "most evil of The Humungus's followers...[a] huge brute who rides around on his bike, snarling psychotically." In the same Danny Peary interview, Miller states the characters of Wez and Max are near mirror images of each other, with each being chained by the leaders of their respective camps, and who both find themselves spurred on by the death of a loved one somewhere in their past, in Wez's case the relatively recent death of The Golden Youth at the hand of The Feral Kid. Empire magazine listed Wez as the greatest movie henchman of all time.
Emil Minty as the Feral Kid, a boy who lives in the wasteland near the refinery settlement. He speaks only in growls and grunts. The boy wears shorts and boots made from hide, and defends himself with a lethal metal boomerang which he can catch using an improvised mail glove. The narration of the opening and closing sequences, provided by Harold Baigent, proves in the closing sequence to be that of the Feral Kid, grown to adulthood by then, and remembering the circumstances of his youthful encounter with "Mad" Max.
Michael Preston as Pappagallo, the idealistic leader of the settlers in the barricaded oil refinery. Even though the settlers' compound is besieged by a violent gang, Pappagallo "...carries the weight of his predicament with swaggering dignity."
Virginia Hey as the Warrior Woman, a female member of the settlers who initially distrusts Max.
Kjell Nilsson as Lord Humungus, the violent yet charismatic and articulate leader of a "vicious gang of post-holocaust, motorcycle-riding vandals" who "loot, rape, and kill the few remaining wasteland dwellers". Announced by the Toadie as the "warrior of the wasteland, the Lord Humungus, [and] the ayatollah of rock-and-rollah", The Humungus' "malevolence courses through his huge pectorals, [and] pulses visibly under his bald, sutured scalp." The Humungus' face is never seen, as he wears a hockey goalie's mask. In a 1985 interview with Danny Peary, Miller posited that he thought the character "was a former military officer who suffered severe facial burns," and who "might have served in the same outfit as his counterpart, Pappagallo."
Max Phipps as the Toadie, the gang crier. He is an unkempt, bespectacled man. He wears a decorated mink stole as a hat and has many automobile badges and hood ornaments on his clothes. His behaviour with Lord Humungus and Wez make him a classic sycophant. Toadie takes pleasure in physically abusing helpless prisoners, but the gang has little respect for him.
Arkie Whiteley as The Captain's Girl, a beautiful young woman among the settlers who rejects the Gyro Captain's offer to escape together.
Moira Claux as Big Rebecca, a female warrior among the settlers who wields a bow and arrow.
David Downer as Nathan, a member of the settlers who tries to escape the settlement and is fatally wounded by some of Humungus' bikers.
Following the release of Mad Max, director George Miller received a number of offers from Hollywood, including one to direct First Blood. However, Miller instead decided to pursue a rock and roll movie under the working title of Roxanne. After working with writer Terry Hayes on the novelization of Mad Max, Miller and Hayes teamed up to write Roxanne in Los Angeles but the script was ultimately shelved. Miller then became more intrigued with the idea of returning to the world of Mad Max, as a larger budget would allow him to be more ambitious. "Making Mad Max was a very unhappy experience for me," said Miller. "There was strong pressure to make a sequel, and I felt we could do a better job with a second movie."
Inspired by Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces and the work of Carl Jung, Miller recruited Hayes to join the production as a scriptwriter. Brian Hannant also came on board as co-writer and second unit director. Miller says that he was greatly influenced by the films of Akira Kurosawa.
Principal photography took place over the course of twelve weeks in the winter of 1981 near Broken Hill. Scenes were shot at the Pinnacles, where the set of the compound was situated. The scene where the Pursuit Special rolls over and explodes was shot at Menindee Road on the Mundi Mundi Plains just outside Broken Hill.
The original cut of the film was more bloody and violent, but it was cut down heavily by Australian censors. Entire scenes and sequences were deleted completely or edited to receive an "M" rating. When it was submitted to the MPAA in the United States, two additional scenes (Wez pulling an arrow out of his arm and a close-up shot of him pulling a boomerang out of his dead boyfriend's head) were shortened. Although there is a version of the film that includes the scenes trimmed down for the MPAA, no version without previous cuts exists.
The musical score for Mad Max 2 was composed and conducted by Australian composer Brian May, who had previously composed the music for the first film. A soundtrack album was released in 1982 by Varèse Sarabande.
When Mad Max was released in 1980 in the United States, it did not receive a proper release from its distributor, American International Pictures. AIP was in the final stages of a change of ownership after being bought by Filmways, Inc. a year earlier. AIP's problems affected the release of the film and its box office in the US, although Mad Max proved much more successful when released internationally. Warner Bros. decided to release Mad Max 2 in the United States, but they recognised that the first film was not popular in North America. Although the original Mad Max was becoming popular through cable channel showings, Warner Bros. decided to change the name of its sequel to The Road Warrior. The advertising for the film, including print ads, trailers, and TV commercials, did not refer to the Max character at all, and all shied away from the fact that the film was a sequel. For the majority of viewers, their first inkling of Road Warrior being a sequel to Mad Max was when they saw the black and white, archival footage from the previous film, during the prologue.
The film was a commercial success, earning $3.7 million in rentals in Australia. As The Road Warrior in North America, it was a greater success. The film earned $11.3 million in rentals and $23.6 million in grosses. Vestron Video capitalized by releasing Mad Max on video and subtitling it "the thrilling predecessor to The Road Warrior." Despite the title change, grosses from the US release were on par with other countries. Warner Bros. felt comfortable to keep the title of the third Mad Max film, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, intact for that film's American release.
Mad Max 2 received positive reviews and is regarded by many critics as one of the best films of 1981. The film holds a 98% rating based on 42 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes as of 1 September 2017 with and average rating of 8.4/10 and with the consensus, "The Road Warrior is everything a bigger-budgeted Mad Max sequel should be: bigger, faster, louder, but definitely not dumber." Film critic Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film three-and-a-half stars out of four, praised its "skillful filmmaking," and called it "a film of pure action, of kinetic energy", which is "one of the most relentlessly aggressive movies ever made". While Ebert pointed out that the film does not develop its "vision of a violent future world ... with characters and dialogue", and uses only the "barest possible bones of a plot", he praised its action sequences. Ebert called the climactic chase sequence "unbelievably well-sustained" and states that the "special effects and stunts...are spectacular", creating a "frightening, sometimes disgusting, and (if the truth be told) exhilarating" effect.
In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, "Never has a film's vision of the post-nuclear-holocaust world seemed quite as desolate and as brutal, or as action-packed and sometimes as funny as in George Miller's apocalyptic The Road Warrior, an extravagant film fantasy that looks like a sadomasochistic comic book come to life". In his review for Newsweek, Charles Michener praised Mel Gibson's "easy, unswaggering masculinity", saying that "[his] hint of Down Under humor may be quintessentially Australian but is also the stuff of an international male star".
Gary Arnold, in his review for The Washington Post, wrote, "While he seems to let triumph slip out of his grasp, Miller is still a prodigious talent, capable of a scenic and emotional amplitude that recalls the most stirring attributes in great action directors like Kurosawa, Peckinpah and Leone". Pauline Kael called Mad Max 2 a "mutant" film that was "...sprung from virtually all action genres", creating "...one continuous spurt of energy" by using "jangly, fast editing". However, Kael criticized director George Miller's "attempt to tap into the universal concept of the hero", stating that this attempt "makes the film joyless", "sappy", and "sentimental".
The film's depiction of a post-apocalyptic future was widely copied by other filmmakers and in science fiction novels, to the point that its gritty "junkyard society of the future look...is almost taken for granted in the modern science-fiction action film." The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction says that Mad Max 2, "with all its comic-strip energy and vividness...is exploitation cinema at its most inventive."
Richard Scheib called Mad Max 2 "one of the few occasions where a sequel makes a dramatic improvement in quality over its predecessor." He said that the film is a "kinetic comic-book of a film," an "exhilarating non-stop rollercoaster ride of a film that contains some of the most exciting stunts and car crashes ever put on screen." Scheib stated that the film transforms the "post-holocaust landscape into the equivalent of a Western frontier," such that "Mel Gibson's Max could just as easily be Clint Eastwood's tight-lipped Man With No Name" helping "decent frightened folk" from the "marauding Redskins".
The film received much recognition from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films. It won the Saturn Award for Best International Film. It received additional nominations for Best Director, Best Writing, and Best Costume Design. Mel Gibson and Bruce Spence received nods for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively. George Miller won the Grand Prize at the Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival. Mad Max 2 was also nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation and was awarded the Los Angeles Film Critics Association award for Best Foreign Film. The film was also recognised by the Australian Film Institute, winning awards for best direction, costume design, editing, production design and sound. It received additional nominations for the cinematography and musical score. Despite receiving the most nominations and wins, it was not nominated for Best Film.
The Mad Max series of films, with their emphasis on dystopian, apocalyptic, and post-apocalyptic themes and imagery, have inspired some artists to recreate the look and feel of some aspects of the series in their work. As well, fan clubs and "road warrior"-themed activities continue into the 21st century. In 2008, Mad Max 2 was selected by Empire magazine as one of The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time. Similarly, The New York Times placed the film on its Best 1000 Movies Ever list. Entertainment Weekly ranked Mad Max 2 93rd on their 100 Greatest Movies of All Time list in 1999, 41st on their updated All-Time 100 Greatest Films in 2013 list, and the character Mad Max as 11th on their list of The All Time Coolest Heroes in Pop Culture. In 2016, James Charisma of Playboy ranked the film #11 on a list of 15 Sequels That Are Way Better Than The Originals.
The film has a permanent legacy in the small town of Silverton, which is 25 kilometres from Broken Hill in New South Wales, Australia. A museum dedicated to Mad Max 2 was established in 2010 by Adrian and Linda Bennett, who developed the museum after moving to Silverton and building a collection of Mad Max props and memorabilia.