Cinema: Apocalypse... Pow!

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THE ROAD WARRIOR Directed by George Miller

Screenplay by Terry Hayes and George Miller, with Brian Hannant

THE VERMIN HAVE INHERITED THE EARTH . So proclaims the spray-painted graffito on a truck sprawled by a desolate stretch of road in this low-budget Australian thriller. At first horrified glance, moviegoers may be convinced that the vermin have also inherited the movie industry. In The Road Warrior, cars crash, somersault, explode, get squashed under the wheels of semis. Skinless bug-eyed corpses hurtle toward the screen. A mangy dog sups at a coyote carcass. A deadly boomerang shears off fingertips, creases a man's skull. That's entertainment? As a series of isolated incidents, no; our nerve endings have long since been numbed by the movies' aimless carnage. But as garishly precise daubs in George Miller's apocalyptic fresco, they add up to exhilarating entertainment—and a textbook for sophisticated, popular moviemaking.

Like its predecessor Mad Max (1979), The Road Warrior is set in the postnuclear future. The world has been totaled; civilization is a white-line junkyard; the only amenity is staying alive. Where there was high culture, now there is only car culture. In one of the film's first images, an automobile breaks angrily through one side of the truck that has been holding it; this is the caesarean birth of the new mutant marauders. They race across the scarred landscape on stripped-down motorcycles, killing for fuel, raping for fun, going to hell at 80 m.p.h. In a jerry-built fortress, the more admirable survivors have assembled an oil refinery—but, surrounded by the marauders, they cannot escape to use their precious petrol. Into this version of cattlemen vs. homesteaders rides a scurvy Shane: Max (Mel Gibson), once the leader of a vengeful highway patrol, now a misanthropic me-firster. For the technical challenge, Max makes an uneasy pact with the refiners. He will help them break through the cordon of marauders and speed them toward their image of paradise: the seacoast, 200 miles away, and peaceful freedom.

The outline suggests a standard scenario of Armageddon aftershock. Bikers have terrorized many a decent citizen in movies over the past three decades. And the sociopathic superman has emerged to defend them in distinguished westerns (John Ford's The Searchers) and easterns (Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo). What Miller has done here is create a milieu as dense and tangy as Tolkien's Middle Earth or Céline's demimonde. This is Australia as the Down Underworld, where character is revealed in the gradations between good and awful. Drawn in vivid cartoon strokes, this menagerie can be funny or heroic or scary.

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