Warlords of the 21st Century (1982) — Mad Max in Middle-earth

“With most of the law enforcement agencies committed to the cities, it looks like his mobile reign of terror will continue for some time.”

Justin’s rating: Is the gas tank half-empty or half-full?

Justin’s review: A whole lot of comparisons are made between this movie and Mad Max, as was the fate of any post-apocalyptic vehicle movie made in the 1980s. And there’s no pretending that Warlords of the 21st Century (which originally had the much better name of Battletruck) isn’t Mad Max — just in New Zealand instead of Australia, and with more of an ’80s twist. That’s cool. I can dig it. After all, the sole reason that these movies have their being is to give filmmakers an excuse to set up stunts involving cars and trucks.

Instead of starting with our protagonist, Warlords kicks off with a scenario where an ex-military dude named Col. Jacob Straker (James Wainwright) is enjoying great success during civilization’s collapse. He’s fashioned himself a giant armored battletruck and equipped it with enough minions and guns to make it an unstoppable threat to anyone in the tri-state area. What he fails at, however, is winning over his daughter, Corlie (Annie McEnroe), a soft-spoken waif who lacks the ruthless nature of her dad.

Corlie runs away and is rescued by — what else? — a mysterious motorcyclist, This is dreamy Hunter (Michael Beck, who starred in The Warriors). Hunter, determined to live up to the code of the stoic, anti-social hero, drops the girl off at a commune where people aren’t as interested in straight-up homicide. But her arrival marks the doom of the settlement, since Straker will stop at nothing to get her back. And since Hunter oh-so-reluctantly guards the commune, it puts him on a collision course with the bad guys.

Motorcycle or armored truck convoy — who will win? It’s not even going to be a close contest, because anyone named “Hunter” in a 1980s movie is going to roll natural 20s in every encounter.

And boy do you want him to win, because Straker is a very nasty villain. He’s not prone to big speeches or grand displays of anger but rather a cold, pragmatic style that makes sincere threats and has no compunction against killing to make a point. You genuinely want him dead very early on, because it’s hard to abide a world that lets such an evil man live. What I’m saying is that Straker feels more true to life than a film villain, and that’s far more effective as a threat.

However, easily the worst part of the movie is Corlie. Everything this girl says and does is terrible, and I mean that both in the “acting” sense and the “actions” sense. She screams a whole lot, sometimes wailing “KILL HIM!” to a hero in a life-or-death struggle. That’s helpful. Her choices cause the deaths and pain of many people. And she acts like an 11-year-old kid in front of her dad, so it’s not like you’re rooting for her at the moment.

The smaller scope and more intimate stakes of Warlords of the 21st Century work really well to keep this movie focused and on track. At the core, it’s not about spectacle (as I first assumed) but the lives of people in a very bad situation. And the New Zealand landscape definitely makes this a much better-looking movie than anything filmed in Australia’s Outback. Maybe it’s a little too small and a little too underwhelming, but I found this movie a decent watch even so.

Didja notice?

  • Battletruck likes riding right through abandoned gas stations for some reason
  • You can tell diesel by the taste
  • Radiation “makes your skin turn green”
  • If you’re running away from a truck, maybe get off the road?
  • “Inventory and requisition” means “LOOT! LOOT!”
  • That girl really wastes road bombs

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