Max Max: Fury Road certainly breaks the record for the new release film it’s been the longest time since I first heard of. If I recall correctly, the first ever film magazine I bought, probably around 2001-2002 had a mention of it as an upcoming project, and it had already been delayed once at that time. Of course then the film was set to be made with original star Mel Gibson reprising the role that made his name. That never happened, and along the way there was talk that Fury Road might wind up as an animation, but when things looked to be back on track, delays continued to prevail. New Mad Max actor Tom Hardy announced his casting almost five years ago, long before he was announced as Bane to put that in perspective. The film finally started shooting in July 2012, which for those keeping track, is about three years ago. This looked to be a project that found ways to resist completion every step of the way, resulting in the fact that it’s mid-2015 when the film is finally unleashed unto the world, a full three decades since Mad Max’s last outing; Beyond Thunderdome. It would be reasonable to have some reservations regarding a film whose production was so plagued with setbacks, but series creator George Miller’s determination has persevered, leaving us with the question, could Fury Road have really been worth all those years of hard work?
Oh HELL YES!
The odd thing is, in today’s blockbuster climate, a big-budget reboot/re-imagining/continuation/whatever of a decades-old property with a hankering of name-recognition seems commonplace, whereas in 2001 that wouldn’t have been the case. The other fact separating Fury Road out from the pack of shiny do-overs is that it has its original director back at the helm. Indeed, Fury Road is far from a typical modern reboot anyway. For starters, it isn’t even really that. In keeping with the previous entries in the series, Fury Road doesn’t care much for ongoing continuity. Mad Max 2 was famously rebranded upon its US release as The Road Warrior, as it was deemed American audiences weren’t sufficiently aware of the original, and honestly, it didn’t much matter. The Mad Max films have very little to do with one another plot-wise and all function efficiently as stand-alones. There are a couple of witty call-backs in Fury Road, which is ostensibly a third sequel (and most definitely not a remake), but doesn’t really require any knowledge of the original trilogy to be enjoyed. And enjoyed is what it will be.
Above all else; Mad Max: Fury Road is an action movie, in the purest sense its main concerns are getting as much incredible action onscreen as possible, and oh boy, does it deliver. I’ve only seen the film once, but I’m already struggling to think of a reason not to call this one of the best action movies I’ve ever seen. It’s a positive ballet of mayhem. Without question, the vehicular action sequences in the film are among the greatest put on film. I’ve found myself complaining frequently about the gigantic, PG-13 CGI heavy urban battle scenes that end almost every blockbuster nowadays, and if you’ve similarly tired of them believe me; this is the antidote.
Miller creates one jaw-dropping sequence after another barely pausing for breath in between. There’s so much in this film that we haven’t just not seen before, we haven’t seen anything remotely like it. George Miller, his choreographers and army of stuntmen have created something truly special, a heart-pounding juggernaut of kinetic cinema that always coheres. What’s more, the stunt work here is mostly practical, I’m sure CGI was used throughout to enhance the unique look of the film but is only obvious in one scene. The expertly placed rapid editing only serves to enhance the excitement rather than disorientate, as does Tom Holkenborg’s propulsive score. Even though it wouldn’t be unfair to call Fury Road a ‘two hour car chase’ it never becomes remotely repetitive or tedious. Blockbuster directors; take note.
One might think that Miller, who’s 70 years old now and has spent the last few decades making children’s movies (shepherding the Babe and Happy Feet films) might have cooled down a bit since his more anarchic younger days but no. Maybe the years of family-friendly fare have just given him more drive building up to this insane masterpiece of action cinema. Since the Academy decided to up the Best Picture field to 10 potential nominees in the wake of The Dark Knight there’s always been talk of whether a big summer movie would make the cut but even though it’s only May I’ll say this; George Miller should be in contention for Best Director. I’m just so in awe of the fact that this movie exists at all, how did Miller take $150 million of Warner Bros’ money and make something so completely batshit. I really thought they’d have pushed for a PG-13 but they haven’t, and it truly feels as if Miller’s vision has made it to the big screen intact. It’s a wonder to behold.
The world Fury Road presents is a further step in the series’ continued environmental (d)evolution; gone is any trace of the recognizable post-apocalyptic civilisation glimpsed in the first Mad Max, it is now morphed into a barren, desolate, desert wasteland. We meet Max as he stands alone by his car, reflecting on the despair his world has come to represent. This uncharacteristic moment of quiet voiceover hardly lasts a minute though, as he finds himself captured and imprisoned in a local rock-fortress settlement known as The Citadel.
I know my earlier gushing about the action in this movie may have made it sound as if Fury Road is merely a brainless destruction orgy, and while it’s certainly light on plot, that’s not a criticism as it has plenty of ideas up its sleeves. The Citadel is established in a masterfully concise manner, tightly trimmed to excise any unnecessary exposition, but still a clearly defined society in this post-apocalyptica. It is presided over by Immortan Jo (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who rules with an iron fist by controlling the water supply. He has sought to deify himself to his subjects, creating an army of pale, bald soldiers called Warboys, brainwashed from childhood to fight and die for him. In just a couple of scenes, Miller perfectly sets up a terrifying vision of a future cult leader. The production design work on display is also by turns unique, bizarre, grotesque and instantly memorable. Take Immortan Jo himself, a decaying old man seemingly held together with plastic body armour, who adorns his face with a breathing mask covered in horse teeth beneath his silver mane. He’s a villain just as extraordinary as Mad Max 2’s Lord Humungus, if not more so. And we haven’t even gotten to the vehicles yet.
While captive, Max is designated as a universal blood donor and assigned as a living ‘blood bag’ to waning Warboy Nux (Nicholas Hoult). Meanwhile one of Immortan Jo’s higher ranking underlings Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) has rebelled and gone off course during a gasoline run. When Jo realises what she’s done, he launches an all-out pursuit, enrolling his entire army to bring them down. The astonishingly created vehicles that follow (designed by co-writer and 2000AD veteran Brendan McCarthy) include various combat modified cars, trucks and, most memorably of all, one decked out with a wall of amplifiers in front of which a bright red, chained mutant guitarist thrashes out chords on an instrument that doubles as a flamethrower. Yes you read that right.
Considering the effort gone into world-building and action choreography, one can hardly blame Miller for opting to use it to tell a relatively straightforward story. That’s not to say Fury Road is a shallow movie, it is rife with thematic exploration and splashings of character development. That doesn’t apply much to the title character, but he’s deliberately not much of an active protagonist. He just unwittingly finds himself wound up in these situations he wants little to do with. He also barely utters a full sentence throughout the course of the film, but Hardy, a constantly charismatic physical presence, still makes the role his own.
Amidst the mayhem, Miller finds the time for several emotional beats, all of which feel earned, even an unrecognizable Nicholas Hoult, an actor I find often boarders on the insufferable, does great work as a devout Warboy having to come to terms with the realisation he’s been duped.
The real hero of Fury Road is Theron’s Furiosa. Much has already been said of this film’s feminist credentials as a genre picture and it is, like 2012’s Dredd, one of the only recent examples of a big action movie that truly wishes to make women an equal part of the playing field. Theron is simply fantastic as Furiosa, she’s an instant action icon for the ages, and all due respect to Hardy, she owns this film. It’s thematic weight lies on her shoulders, her mission is not revenge or glory, but to liberate a group of women enslaved by Immotan Jo as concubines to breed heirs. “We are not things” they write in a message of defiance, and the movie agrees, giving them all distinct personalities and character moments. There’s a vital message about the future of the species to be found beneath the chaos.
There isn’t a single weak point to Miller’s relentless, exhilarating post-apocalyptic chase western dialled-up to eleven. It’s succeeds in thrilling with its mid-blowing action and horrifying with its grim future, yet isn’t afraid to still be fun when it wishes. It delivers on every level and more, and will likely be seen as a landmark in action cinema. We’ve known for a while that 2015 was going to be the year crammed with new mega-franchise movies, but Miller’s resurrection his old series is a bold gauntlet throw, setting an impossibly high standard for everyone else to aspire to. Incredible.