It’s not quite clear what Mad Max: Fury Road is. It could be a sequel to writer/director George Miller’s seminal 1979 Mel Gibson starring original, as it references events in that movie. But it also slightly changes those events (Max has now lost a daughter to bandits, instead of a son), so is this then a remake? Well, not quite because there are elements of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior to be found as well. What Miller has given us here, in this 30-years-after-the-fact film, simply defies easy categorization.
I offer up these ponderings about the film here now for your benefit, because I can guarantee you that you won’t have them during the movie itself. It’s hard to have thoughts like these cross your mind, when your mind is being blown out the back of your skull at explosive velocity by what is without a doubt the most superbly insane and insanely superb film to grace the screen in 2015.
Set in a horrific post-apocalyptic world of “fire and blood”, Fury Road borrows the lean, almost emaciated narrative stylings of Road Warrior – the heretofore best entry in the series – along with the demented action of the third film, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, but none of its tonal missteps. Essentially a two-hour long car-chase – which is a sentence bordering on insulting in its understatement – Fury Road sees Tom Hardy now taking up the leathers as the ex Interceptor cop turned brutal wanderer in this alien husk of a world.
Haunted by the ghosts of his slain family, Max finds himself captured by the forces of the tyrannical Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who also played unhinged villain Toecutter in the first film), a skull-masked, messianic figure of radiation ravaged muscles and a bonkers patriarchal streak that has raised a pseudo-religion around himself as he controls the life-giving waters of The Citadel. Max finds a means of escape in the unlikeliest of places as he is dragged along in a deadly pursuit of Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). A vaunted lieutenant in Immortan Joe’s army, the one-armed Furiosa has betrayed her leader, hijacking his War Rig – the type of vehicle that normal trucks have nightmares about – and escaping with the Five Wives (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Zoë Kravitz, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee and Courtney Eaton), young girls that Joe has kept as slaves to be used to breed the next generation of healthy humans raised in his image.
Strapped to the front grill of a vehicle by Nux (Nicholas Hoult) – a fanatical Warboy who believes that he will reach Valhalla if he dies in Joe’s service – Max literally runs into Furiosa’s party. Through the ensuing clash of burning steel and bloody fists, Max and Furiosa realize that they will need each other if they are to survive this ordeal and see their goals realized: for her, it’s redemption; for him, it’s survival.
And herein lies the mad genius of Miller’s vision. Turning male-dominated genre expectations on its head, this is every bit as much Furiosa’s movie as it is Max’s – arguably even more so, in fact. Hardy’s Max is a grunty, gravelly creature, uncomfortable with words and social graces, forcing Hardy to express through his brute physicality, where Theron’s Furiosa is steeped in emotion up to her grease-painted eyeballs. Her every glance is filled with pained regret and tragedy – at least when they’re not ablaze with raw animalistic rage and intensity, which is often, as this single-handed and single-minded warrior never backs down. She is the film’s thundering heart, her arc pumping in the lifeblood that keeps this narrative alive, whereas Max is the Cro-Magnon muscle, driving this whole thing on.
Hoult’s Nux also offers another frantic, almost unrecognizable performance as the pale-faced Warboy whose very belief system is dragged into question by Max and Furiosa’s actions, while each of the Five Wives bring their own solid contributions to the table. They aren’t given that much to work with, but they all show up as fully realized, human characters, belying their McGuffin status.
But the real star of the show here is George Miller himself. The 70-year old auteur builds this world with a young man’s endless vitality. Every scene is stuffed to the seams with kinetic energy as he stages a carnival of cinematic chaos that has to be seen to be believed. Whether it’s a bone crunchingly brutal hand-to-hand fight between Max and Furiosa or the three main action beats that comprise the film’s singular chase, Mad Max: Fury Road is a heavy metal, smash-mouth mosh pit of relentless action and unbelievable vehicular destruction, but all filmed with the technical precision and pirouetting grace of a Russian ballet. The CG-light practical stunts are literally death-defying – as in it boggles my mind that people didn’t die pulling off this insanity. But no matter how crazy the action gets – and it gets crazier than you would believe possible – Miller and his cinematographer John Seale are always firmly in control of taking the audience through it coherently, showing off the movie’s arrestingly beautiful chaos.
That visual clarity is appreciated even more due to the fact that Mad Max: Fury Road is the closest we’ll come to production design gonzo porn. Every inch of this film is overflowing with Oscar-worthy imagination, whether it be the spiky slapdash vehicles, the rope-and-pulley mechanics of the citadel, the eerie relic towns of the desert or the gnarled and twisted people who inhabit this place. You’ll often find your mandibles ajar at all the little touches of madcap design genius that abound in this film.
Not that there’s too much time left for gawking as Miller keeps this feral engine of sand, fire and “guzzoline” thundering along at a breakneck pace. When the action subsides, it’s merely to catch your breath before the next hell ride begins. But despite this abundance of action, this is no brainless explosion-fest. Miller and co-writers Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris’ deceptively simple script actually boasts a surprisingly thematically rich chassis underpinning it all. Matriarchal roles, environmental concerns, religious zealotry and more are all skewered on the rusted blades of this vehicle, but Miller and co wisely never stuff them in your face. If you’re just here for things going boom in the most ridiculous of ways, you’ll love it, but if you want a bit more to chew on, it’s all there too, and will probably prompt repeat viewings to unearth even further subtext.
In fact, I will probably recommend a second viewing, merely to catch things you will miss. Because if there’s one criticism of the film it’s that when the film’s sparse dialogue actually rears its head, it’s often rendered unintelligible by the gobbledygook patois employed by the inhabitants of this world. You will definitely still be able to parse what is happening, but the subtleties (like the Warboys’ car-based faith – “Praise the V8!”) sometimes go amiss. This is especially frustrating when everything else aural is so masterful. Besides for Junkie XL’s pulse-pounding score, Mad Max: Fury Road boasts incredible sound design that deserves to be heard on the biggest, best, most spine-rattling sound system you can find (hence why my IMAX tickets for Saturday are already booked).
You may critique Fury Road‘s story as being a rehash of several elements from The Road Warrior, and you may not approve of Hardy’s Max occasionally playing second fiddle in his own movie, but at its core, what George miller has produced here is the type of intensely tactile, absurdly imaginative filmmaking that the studio system rarely sees today. With even 3D effects used expertly (it’s mostly subtle so that when the big extra-dimensional moments happen, they really wow you), Mad Max: Fury Road is just a monumental achievement that has made its decades-long development worth it. And it’s undoubtedly also the blockbuster to beat this year.
Last Updated: May 13, 2015