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One good guy is a dog, Max's gray-eyed mutt companion, fearless and faithful. Another one literally erupts out of the earth. This is Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence), a deranged parody of the World War I aerial ace: scarecrow skinny, gaily clad, sporting a James Coburn smile with advanced caries. This would-be gallant is given to abrupt whinnies and wistful meditations on the good old days: "Remember lingerie?" The refiners are led by Pappagallo (Mike Preston), who carries the weight of his predicament with swaggering dignity, and Feral Kid (Emil Minty), an eight-year-old who growls in anger, purrs with pleasure, performs backflips into burrows and wields the demon boomerang. His counterpart in the marauders is Wez (Vernon Wells), a Feral Kid gone wrong. War-painted and Apache-coiffed, Wez has a mind that performs acrobatics of sadism and a scream that sounds like stripped gears. But Wez is a Muppet compared with his leader, the lord Humungus (Kjell Nilsson), "warrior of the wasteland, the ayatullah of rock-and-rollah." The Humungus malevolence courses through his huge pectorals, pulses visibly under his bald, sutured scalp. He is the meanest, strongest man left in the world. But Max is the best.
When our anti-hero appeared in Mad Max, he was an amoral vigilante with baby fat. Since then, Gallipoli has made Gibson an international star: he is more mature and authoritative; his moon face is cratered with character. In 1979, when Mad Max was released, George Miller was a 34-year-old M.D. who had edited his first feature on a kitchen table. Max surprised with its cinematic canniness, but Warrior astounds as a sequel superior in every respect. Miller suggests violence; he does not exploit it. He throws the viewer off-balance by mixing the ricochet rhythms of his chase scenes with tableaux of Walpurgisnacht grandeur: Wez's rain dance, a fiery crucifixion, a vision of Max flying supine over the outback. Miller keeps the eye alert, the mind agitated, the Saturday-matinee spirit alive.
Later this month The Road Warrior will begin snaking eastward across the U.S., driving hard to become the first hit of the summer season. It deserves that eminence. While laughing at the characters or sweating out the melodrama, moviegoers will get an intuitive lesson in the director's art: evoking emotion through technique. If the film is a commercial success, George Miller will find a productive future in Hollywood. But on the evidence of The Road Warrior, his future is now. By Richard Corliss