The post-apocalyptic world of Mad Max roars back to life with the ferocious Fury Road, which proves that even a 30-year hiatus from screens can’t keep a good franchise down. Writer/director/madman George Miller hasn’t missed a step at age 70, and has in essence thrown down the gauntlet by creating one of the most relentless and satisfying action movies in years. His quixotic journey to get Fury Road made (spanning 12 years, numerous production delays, floods, and more) was not in vain, as the end product is a marvel of practical stunts and allegorical themes. Pretenders to the throne beware – a new king has been crowned.
Tom Hardy takes over the role of “Mad” Max Rockatansky from Mel Gibson, playing Max as a man of few words (Miller boasted that Hardy has maybe 18 lines in the lead up to the film’s release) who prefers to express himself through action. There’s not many nods to previous films, with the most basic setup being that Max is haunted by those he couldn’t save (namely his deceased wife and daughter), and his life now reduced to one word – survive.
That’s almost a thesis statement for Fury Road itself – an unending chase scene where characters just try to remain whole. In a likely nod to Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name from Sergio Leone’s Westerns, Max is a high plains drifter and an eventual reluctant saviour, although the movie adroitly subverts that narrative by making Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa a co-lead (and the true hero of the film).
And so with a minimal voiceover setting up a scorched earth of fire and pain, we’re thrown into Max’s world as throaty engines rev up for what turns out to be a white-knuckle ride. Max is quickly captured by bandits and spends much of the first part of the movie as a captive (or “blood bag”) of The Citadel – a desert kingdom ruled over by the grotesque Immortan Joe (returning Mad Max alumni Hugh Keays-Byrne who provides some continuity, albeit in a different role). The inciting incident comes when one of Joe’s trusted lieutenants – the one-armed Furiosa (Theron) – sets out on a supply run to neighbouring Gas Town in a gigantic armoured War Rig. She swerves left along the way, shaking off her escorts and going rogue in the process.
Furiosa’s plan proves to be the emancipation of Joe’s sex slaves (or “Five Wives”), as the women head towards the mythical “green place” (an oasis amidst a the desert wasteland), with Joe’s raging war parties in hot pursuit. Theron fits into the world well, and seems to have more agency and screen time than Max himself. This would be a problem if Theron wasn’t believable in the role, but that’s never an issue as she trades punches and bullets with the best of them. Furiosa’s role speaks to larger themes at play, namely a feminist subtext that Miller imbues the movie with, providing an allegory for the idea that if men destroyed the world (here it’s done through a nuclear apocalypse), then women may be the only ones capable of rebuilding it. Those themes, while strong and welcomed, are subtly integrated and the movie could be read in a variety of ways, with one of Miller’s wise choices being to mainly show rather than tell, avoiding explicit exposition and trusting the audience to catch up.
Amidst the Sturm und Drang of the movie’s one long (and incredibly well-staged) action sequence, there’s still discernible parts broken up by some characterization and well-needed breaks. The initial chase finds Furiosa fleeing Immortan Joe’s first assault, with Max strapped to the front of a car of one of Joe’s “War Boys” – white painted hooligans who worship chrome and hope to die in battle to visit “Valhalla” (the mythology spans classic Norse Vikings, car culture, tribalism, and more). With most of the effects practical, the danger of the on-screen action seems immediate and real, and Miller avoids too much cross-cutting, speed ramping, or other modern editing tricks and instead lets the action play out organically and clearly.
The stakes are slowly raised in each action sequence (like Spielberg ramping up the odds against Indy), to the point that it’s hard to imagine the protagonists escaping unscathed (a difficult trick that James Cameron, for all his supposed faults, has mastered as well). When Furiosa rides into a roiling dust and firestorm to lose her pursuers it’s hard to imagine Fury Road getting any bigger or more epic – and the movie’s barely a third of the way through at that point. The enemies keep getting more outlandish (lots of leather, cod pieces, and insane names like Rictus Erectus and The Bullet Farmer), the stunts more spectacular (Cirque du Soleil performers play henchmen on poles in the climactic battle that is mesmerizing in its danger and balletic beauty), and the circumstances more dire, as Max and Furiosa fight together to restore some small semblance of humanity in a world gone mad.
This is a knock-down-drag-out kind of a movie, one where you can barely catch your breath before the next awe-inspiring, thrilling set piece arrives. The production design is classic Mad Max, which is to say it’s suitably insane and BDSM-inspired, and very very dirty. Junkie XL marries the action to a pulse-pounding score that is urgent, percussive and moving. There are full character arcs (like Nicholas Hoult’s Nux, a War Boy turned good) that provide heart and depth. Overall, there is little about Fury Road that hasn’t been carefully pondered and thoughtfully executed.
Well it’s good to let a movie breathe before declaring its greatness, the snarling and effective Fury Road will likely be remembered as a high watermark for the action genre. Miller honours the moving picture by reducing it to its purest form in a movie that would work nearly as well as a silent film. In Fury Road he’s created a neo-Western – a hell on wheels vision of an a dirty dystopian future where only the strong have survived so far, but hope still springs eternal. Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines. Max is back, long live Max.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Director: George Miller
Runtime: 120 minutes