On the road again

Central Expressway at 3 a.m. is a different kind of war zone than its daytime persona. Instead of cars locked bumper-to-bumper in a familiar, maddening crawl through the center of the city, the after-hours Central is far more cinematic. Nearly surreal in its undulating grimness, the only cars it carries are steered by highly aggressive drivers--usually drunks determined to get home. The way is dark. Exit ramps are hard to spot and dangerously brief. When the rare car roars by, it passes so close on the highway's narrow path that you can feel the pull of its wake on your own vehicle. Sure, you can drive a lot faster on nighttime Central, but the risk has increased; with or without your stereo blasting, your attitude becomes one of cynical survival. Mad Max does Dallas.

On the roads it was a white-line nightmare. Only those mobile enough to scavenge, brutal enough to pillage would survive. And in this maelstrom of decay, ordinary men were battered and smashed--men like Max. The warrior Max. That attitude definitely makes a harrowing driving experience more palatable.

In 1981, years before George Miller co-scripted the pig flick Babe and Mel Gibson won multiple Oscars, the two paired up for the very spare, very enduring film known in the States as The Road Warrior--the sequel to their '79 collaboration Mad Max. Mad Max II (as it's called in its native Australia), for all its low-budget, sci-fi edge, had plenty of cross-over appeal: archetypal bad guys and good guys, widescreen vistas, easy-to-follow narrative, and Mel's 26-year-old charisma. It has since become one of the most accessible cult-followed movies ever made--kinda like a spaghetti western for the post-punk set. On Monday, the USA Film Festival will screen The Road Warrior as part of its First Monday Classics series. If only it were playing at midnight instead of 7:30 p.m.

The setting: a nuclear war-ravaged Australian outback. People are scarce, but not as scarce as fuel for their cars and motorcycles. Here, the road gangs battle for "gazzoleen" by stealing it from other cars and bikes, and cold-blooded murder is the favored means to that end. Max (Gibson), an ex-cop whose wife and child were killed a few years earlier by thugs (the plot catalyst in the first Mad Max film), has since become a stoic, silent type who aimlessly travels the highways in his armored muscle car. Obviously, his monastic existence isn't meant to last; he's soon wrangled into rescuing a band of good-guy survivors who are protecting a tankerful of gas from an especially bloodthirsty gang. The harsh, open-road climax where Max careens a giant truck though the evil gang's hot pursuit may be the best chase scene put to film.

In fact, this is one of the better-looking low-budget features made. The filmmakers had the right idea with a story whose setting is a barren wasteland--the dust-choked Australian desert makes a convincing post-nuclear spread. The film's cult status, though, stems from the details: loud-as-hell hotrods; cartoony, mohawked villains; homoerotic leather-boy undertones; hyper-real violence; insidious tongue-in-cheek humor; and stark dialogue nicely delivered. By far the best of the three Mad Max films, (the first being too earnest, plodding, and shamefully dubbed, and the third--Beyond Thunderdome--pandering to mainstream Hollywood sensibilities), The Road Warrior's years-long run in U.S. theaters made sense. It's nearly universally cathartic.

Post-apocalyptic anarchy on Monday night. What could kick off a grueling workweek better than that? After the movie, be sure to take Central Expressway home.

The Road Warrior, Monday, April 6, at the AMC Glen Lakes, 7:30 p.m. For more info, call (214) 821-

 
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