Monday, May 21, 2012

Summer of 1982: THE ROAD WARRIOR (May 21, 1982)

One of the most influential action films of the 1980s, George Miller's THE ROAD WARRIOR is also one of the prime examples of the golden age of Australian cinema.  From the mid-1970s through the early 1980s, films like PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK, THE CHANT OF JIMMIE BLACKSMITH,  MY BRILLIANT CAREER, BREAKER MORANT, GALLIPOLI, THE MAN FROM SNOWY RIVER, and CAREFUL, HE MIGHT HEAR YOU among many others, achieved critical and commercial success worldwide. Another of the top Australian imports of the time was 1979's MAD MAX, released in the US in 1980 with the Australian-accented actors redubbed by Americans.  MAD MAX proved to be a decent-sized hit in the US and gave American audiences their first exposure to Mel Gibson.  Gibson returned to the role for MAD MAX 2, released in Australia in late 1981 and retitled THE ROAD WARRIOR for its US release on May 21, 1982, this time keeping the real voices of its cast.  Australian exploitation films,  dubbed "Ozsploitation" by fans, had been renowned for some time for their innovative action sequences and hair-raising, death-defying stunt work.  THE ROAD WARRIOR took this to new levels with its many inventive set pieces and chase sequences set in post-apocalyptic wasteland where Max (Gibson) repeatedly tangles with iconic bad guys Wez (Vernon Wells) and The Humungus (Kjell Nilsson).

US trailer

THE ROAD WARRIOR was an even bigger success than MAD MAX, and resulted in an entirely new post-nuke subgenre--mainly from Italy--films that became fixtures at US drive-ins, in video stores and on late-night cable for the rest of the decade.  Even today, virtually any dystopian film with a post-nuke setting owes something to THE ROAD WARRIOR (which itself borrows elements from its contemporaries, namely the STAR WARS wipe transitions), from the desolate locations to the costumes, cars, and weaponry.  One look at Wez and you see nearly every villain in any one of these.  Portions of the film were even restaged almost wholesale in Neil Marshall's DOOMSDAY (2008), an affectionate tribute to this unique genre that fans, for whatever reason, didn't get.  THE ROAD WARRIOR wasn't the first film of this type, but it set a template that countless films followed. Gibson returned once more for 1985's MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME, and Miller, who most recently directed the two HAPPY FEET films, has tentative plans to reboot the MAD MAX franchise with Tom Hardy in the lead role.

Mel Gibson returns to his star-making role as Max

Vernon Wells as Wez

Kjell Nilsson as the Warrior of the Wasteland, the Ayatollah of Rock n' Rolla: The Humungus!

Bruce Spence as the Gyro Captain

Emil Minty as the lethal boomerang-throwing Feral Kid

Virginia Hey as the Warrior Woman

Also in theaters on this same weekend was Lewis Teague's vigilante thriller FIGHTING BACK, an occasionally ludicrous but much less exploitative take on similar territory explored by DEATH WISH II a few months earlier.  It suffered from familiarity not just with the recently-released Charles Bronson hit but also with the similarly-plotted WE'RE FIGHTING BACK, a nearly identically-titled made-for-TV movie from a year earlier, not to mention an Australian "angry young man" drama titled (wait for it)...FIGHTING BACK, that was also released in 1982.  The May 21, 1982 FIGHTING BACK disappeared from theaters after a couple of weeks but it's acquired a following over the years thanks mainly to the outstanding performance by Tom Skerritt as a fed-up Philly deli owner who decides to take back his Italian-American neighborhood that's been overrun by pimps and pushers.  His pregnant wife (Patti LuPone) mouths off to a pimp and miscarries in the resulting car chase, and his mother walks into a drug store robbery and gets her finger cut off when the creep can't remove her diamond ring from it.  Skerritt and reluctant cop buddy Michael Sarrazin form a Guardian Angels-type neighborhood watch group, which results in various political and legal (and marital) scuffles when Skerritt repeatedly takes the law into his own hands.  The film rather ham-fistedly speaks to societal concerns of urban crime and decay, and the sensationalizing of violence by the media (it opens with a documentary crew in a news studio using creative editing for a news piece when they're disappointed to discover there's no actual clear footage of Pope John Paul II being shot).  It gets pretty silly at times, especially when Skerritt drops a grenade-in-a-water-balloon through the convertible top of a pimp's Cadillac, and with the unlikely casting of Josh Mostel as a drug pusher getting junior-high kids hooked on heroin.  Nevertheless, Skerritt's committed, believable performance really sells it, and thus far, it's the only film to ever feature a credit as awesome as "and Yaphet Kotto as Ivanhoe Washington." It's available on Netflix streaming in a cropped, but decent-looking 1.33 print.

Also released May 21, 1982:

Just some of the countless imitiations spawned by the success of THE ROAD WARRIOR, released throughout the 1980s:

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