Mad Max 2 (1981)
In the 1980s seeing your first rated-R film was a rite of passage. For me, it was John Carpenter's remake of The Thing. It feels like you are being suddenly trusted with something as an adult - at least until you realize you hear worse language from your friends at school and (at least at that time) saw almost as much nudity and sex in PG-rated films. Still, it was special, and for many in my generation Mad Max 2 (re-titled The Road Warrior in the United States because the distributors of the first Mad Max film mucked things up so bad that no one saw it here) was the first and, for me, probably the second or third "restricted" film they saw.
And what an impression it made. Well, definitely not at the box office, as no one knew who Mel Gibson was and Ozsploitation was still a niche, drive-in genre. However, as much as people watch HBO and other premium cable channels for their original programming these days, in the '80s (especially before VCRs became a household item) these were the way to see movies uncensored. Also, like today, they didn't have enough blockbusters to keep people watching, so they put on whatever they could to keep people watching - even if it was a strange low-budget Australian film about survivors in a refinery fighting off a violent band of leather-clad raiders.
Max Rockatanski (Mel Gibson) (nicknamed "Mad Max" originally because of his reckless pursuit of criminals while an officer with the Main Force Patrol) is a former police officer who, after his wife and child was killed by a biker gang, took revenge and headed for the Outback, which had fallen outside of government jurisdiction. During the four years since he has been traveling with his dog, scavenging what he can and getting gas to keep his Ford Falcon Interceptor running. The nuclear war has not yet happened, but except for a few instances national governments have fallen, the super powers wage conventional war over dwindling resources and, in Australia, chaos reins. People have largely abandoned the cities after large-scale rioting and have gathered where they can for protection.
It is in one of these attempts to get gas that Max runs afoul of Wez (Vernon Wells), a lieutenant in a raider band lead by a man calling himself the Lord Humungous (Kjell Nilsson). Humungous and his warriors are currently laying siege to an oil refinery controlled by a band led by Pappagallo (Michael Preston). Escaping Wez, Max runs into the Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence) who briefly takes Max captive before the tables turn. Bargaining for his life, the Gyro Captain tells Max about the refinery, and Max decides to see if he can get them to give him enough gasoline to keep him on the road. However, after he barely makes it through Humungous's forces, he finds out that those at the refinery have plans to travel north and take as much fuel with them. The problem is, anyone who leaves is immediately set upon by their foes. They ask Max for help, and he agrees to do so in trade for fuel.
Humungous on his end gives them the choice of walking away, claiming to provide safe passage. This largely crumbles when the Feral Kid (Emil Minty) kills Wez's boyfriend (Jerry O'Sullivan) with a boomerang.
The help comes in the form of attempting to grab the tanker he saw earlier when he ran into Wez. He makes it, and then finds out that the deal has been altered - he is expected to drive the tanker, but begs off, taking his gas and leaving. He is immediately set upon by Humungous's forces and gravely wounded. Seeing no way out, he agrees to drive the tanker and help them escape.
The car chase that follows is a thing of legend. Director George Miller manages to film a 20-minute chase from every angle possible (including ones where you wonder how the cameraman didn't become a casualty). Everything is constantly in motion, with battles between the vehicles, on the vehicles and in the vehicles. Yes, you probably saw quite a bit of the same (much more, in fact) in Mad Max: Fury Road, but this is where it truly began.
The impact? Constant word of mouth made this one of the most popular movies on cable. Suddenly Mel Gibson was becoming a star, and other Australian films like Gallipoli and Year of Living Dangerously were getting play due to Gibson as well as curiosity about what else may be lurking from Down Under. It also helped the original Mad Max gain popularity. Hollywood became quite interested, resulting in the Lethal Weapon franchise, a larger-budget Mad Max sequel (Mad Max Beyond ThunderDome) and a couple decades of success for Gibson as an actor and director until his mouth caught up with him.
As for Miller - well, Mad Max is back (with Tom Hardy) in the role, in what is being considered one of the best action films ever. Considering that Mad Max 2 is considered in the same category, I would say that is success.
Mad Max 2 (1981)
Time: 95 minutes
Starring: Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence, Vernon Wells, Virginia Hey, Michael Preston, Kjell Nilsson
Director: George Miller