'Mad Max: Fury Road'
Until I was actually sitting in a theater watching ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’, I wasn’t entirely convinced that it had actually been made. Sure, I’d seen the trailers, but after years of false starts the promise of a (primarily) physically produced, R-rated $150 million ‘Mad Max’ blockbuster made by original director George Miller seemed too good to be true.
Even after having seen the movie, I’m still not certain it wasn’t a mirage of some sort. This type of movie isn’t supposed to be made in Hollywood anymore. Yet there ‘Fury Road’ is, and somehow it’s even more insane, ambitious and death-defyingly thrilling than anything you’ve imagined.
Things kick off in a prologue in which Max (now played by Tom Hardy and rather well) describes the devastation of humanity over oil and water and nuclear holocaust while chomping on a two-headed lizard. He’s as lost and alone as always. No sooner than he’s introduced in his classic car, Max is kidnapped by a gang all painted in pale white and is brought back to the terrifying outpost of Citadel. Run by the demonic Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played Toecutter in the original film), Citadel is a cruel wastepost where women are milked, boys are raised as cancer-ridden war-slaves, and crowds of starving masses are kept under tyrannical rule by rationed water and promises of immortality.
Max is bound in chains, mounted as a hood ornament, and used as a living blood bag to keep Nicholas Hoult’s albino War Boy alive. Meanwhile Charlize Theron plays Imperator Furiosa, a one-armed warrior entrusted with driving a massive rig to get precious gas for the community. This time, however, Furiosa has different plays, having smuggled out Immortan’s sex slaves with the promise of finding them freedom. Before long, she and Max form a reluctant partnership and embark on an epic car chase that essentially comprises the entire film.
Writer/director George Miller might have spent thirty years making family films (‘Happy Feet’, ‘Babe: Pig in the City’, etc.) since his last journey into the ‘Mad Max’ universe, but you wouldn’t know it for a second. Miller doesn’t just seem comfortable and confident to dive back into the groundbreaking universe he created, but seems determined to top everything he’d done in a ‘Mad Max’ movie before, and then top the last few decades of action movies as well for good measure. Goddammit, the man pretty much does it too.
From the moment the first engine roars in ‘Fury Road’ until the credits hit the screen, it’s impossible to tear your eyes away. Since the beginning, this series has been about constructing stripped-down, sensation-first filmmaking, and ‘Fury Road’ just might push that goal farther than any previous entry. The opening sequences are a flurry of world-building, hallucination and violence. You might think you’re lost and confused, but only because you’re supposed to be. Images and characters will sear into your brain before coming together into a simple narrative so direct and primal that it could be enjoyed silently. The movie never slows down to let plot disrupt the destructive flow. The bulk of the story is told through action scenes, and the endless chases and explosions stop only to give the audience a chance to breathe. Otherwise, it might be too much of a good thing.
And oh what spectacular action sequences they are. Cars are flipped with the precision of ballet. Editing is frantic, yet rhythmic and always visually coherent. Explosions expand into painterly clouds. The imagery is astounding and the physical stunts are terrifying. Actors fling between cars on giant poles or leap over vehicles on motorcycles while dropping explosives below. For the first time in years, a big action movie has a true sense of physical danger to the proceedings. You don’t just sit back and admire the CGI. Aside from some digital sweetening and enhancements, it’s clear that almost all the carnage is real, and you can’t help but drop your jaw and wonder how it was possibly accomplished without numerous on-set deaths.
Miller knows exactly how to pace and lay out his pile-up epics as well. No matter how many vehicles duke it out on screen, he always makes clear where everyone is and why they’re beating the crap out of each other. The images flow beautifully, and somehow the filmmaker manages to top each incredible set-piece without the movie ever becoming exhausting. There’s even room for humor, like a car featuring a heavy metal guitarist on a bungee cord with a fire-shooting guitar and a massive percussion section providing a live soundtrack to the insanity. It’s an amusing image when it first appears, but Miller also has a specific purpose in mind for that vehicle by the climax. Nothing is wasted in ‘Fury Road’. It’s all part of the adrenaline rush.
It’s rare that characters say much to each other beyond “They’re coming” or “Give me the gun,” but when they speak it’s always with purpose. Through Theron’s character and her quest, Miller even squeezes a feminist message into his world. These movies have always explored the horrifying nature of primal human desire, which has quite often has involved the exploitation of women. Here Miller suggests that the men who have destroyed the planet could use a woman’s approach to save it. The message is there and blatant, yet never preachy or out of place (like, say, the lost boys section of ‘Beyond Thunderdome’). The message fits into ‘Fury Road’ organically and is just one more flavor in an explosion of cinematic delights.
Hardy steps into Max admirably and even dares to make the character his own as if it was never Mel Gibson’s iconic star-making role. His Max is a devolved and damaged man so unaccustomed to human interaction after years of solitary survival that he communicates mainly in grunts and non-sequiturs. Over the course of the movie, Max finds the man and the hero inside himself once more. It’s the same character arc as the last two sequels, but Hardy makes it physical as much as psychological. It’s an intriguing choice that fits Miller’s almost silent movie storytelling style well.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the ‘Mad Max’ saga is the almost reckless disregard for continuity. It’s not jarring to see Max played by another actor this time because the series has always been defined by radical sequel shifts. It would be more distracting if ‘Fury Road’ resembled previous ‘Mad Max’ movies too closely than the other way around. Each entry in the franchise has been an attempt by Miller to thrill audiences with primal cinematic pleasures and elemental storytelling devices suited to their time. The original ‘Mad Max’ was a drive-in revenge movie stripped to the bone on a dangerous scale that no one had seen before. ‘The Road Warrior’ was a work of Joseph Campbell myth-making produced in the middle of the ‘Star Wars’ trilogy and laced with R-rated stank that helped define what action movies would be for the next decade. ‘Beyond Thunderdome’ was an attempt to transform the series into a fairy tale fable in the midst of Spielberg’s reign over La-La-Land. Now ‘Fury Road’ delivers audaciously large comic spectacle with a feminist slant in a blockbuster era that hungers for those qualities.
There may have been a big gap between the last few ‘Mad Max’ movies, but George Miller remains somehow both ahead of his genre and dialed in perfectly with the times. Perhaps the reason that this film kept getting delayed was so that it could come out at the perfect time. The summer blockbuster industry needed ‘Fury Road’ to remind audiences of the power of physical spectacle and the scale it could be achieved today without losing sight of subtext or classical storytelling. It’s the blockbuster for everyone who hates contemporary blockbusters as much as the perfect popcorn pleasure for those who love them. George Miller and company just won the summer movie season of 2015, and did so with such raging intensity that they might have won the next few summers as well.
Race out to see ‘Fury Road’ on the biggest screen you can and go ahead and buy a ticket for the following screening as well. You’re going to want to see this flick again immediately. I know I do. I’m still not certain that shit actually happened.