It’s no small understatement to say George Miller changed the face of post-apocalyptic cinema in 1981 with The Road Warrior, and thirty four years later the now 70 year-old Australian director has done it again. The effect will be more muted this time around as studios and fellow filmmakers are destined to pick and choose the wrong elements from Mad Max: Fury Road’s critical (and hopefully commercial) success to emulate, but there can be no doubt that Miller has once again burned the genre to the ground only to build it back up into something extraordinary.
Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is a haunted loner wandering the desert wasteland with a singular daily goal – to survive until tomorrow. Even that minor objective is put in jeopardy though as Max is chased down, captured by a gaggle of War Boys – artificially identical-looking young men who live their brief lives solely to serve their master, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played Toecutter in the original Mad Max) – and taken back to their rock fortress high above the desert floor. Elsewhere in the Citadel one of Joe’s star commanders, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), is beginning her trek to secure supplies from a nearby outpost accompanied by a small squad of War Boys, but a change of plans leaves her on the run with an unlikely ally in Max.
What follows is one of the finest car chase scenes in cinema history. It’s also the longest. Seriously. The remainder of the film, brief pauses to catch a breath aside, is one big, glorious chase scene.
A big part of what made Miller’s Mad Max films stand apart from the dust and blood-strewn crowd was an affection for magnificent and gritty action set-pieces achieved with real vehicles and certifiably insane stuntmen. Recent years have seen many of his peers strive to create equal excitement with an excess of CG, but while such scenes can still be entertaining they’re rarely all that thrilling. Miller wisely stuck to what worked so well for him in the past and delivers new levels of vehicular mayhem with Fury Road.
Trucks, cars, motorcycles and more race, dodge and explode with earth-shaking abandon across the seemingly endless terrain, gears and metal grinding in symphony with revving engines and screaming bags of flesh. Characters move in and out of vehicles in motion, leaping between hunks of motorized metal or falling to their death as projectiles and dust fill the air.
The other important element that Miller brought to the genre is a sense of humanity amid the societal collapse and barren landscape. There are no giant, mutated insects roaming the wasteland or plague-ridden zombies stalking survivors for their blood – these films are simply about people trying to survive against the situation, the elements and each other. Max chooses to attempt survival alone, and for the most part he succeeds. Against his better judgement though he’s drawn again and again into the plight of others, although it’s typically when interfering promises some benefit for him as well.
Max is a hero of circumstance, but Furiosa’s motivations are far more pure. The two make for a compelling pair – each haunted by past actions and failures, and each intent on never making those same mistakes again. Furiosa’s a welcome addition to the franchise and to the cineplex in general as she provides an equally competent and capable partner for Max. Like Edge of Tomorrow’s Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) she’s an equal to the film’s male lead in both character depth and ass-kicking ability.
Hardy’s Max is our guide through this mad world, but Theron’s Furiosa is the heart. Both deliver characters hardened by their history, but while Hardy offers brief and subtle glimpses into his soul Theron allows the softness to occasionally break through her rigid surface. She creates a character whose life and plight we can’t help but care for and about, and it’s again a welcome intrusion into big budget summer entertainment.
The sensory overload of big action and staggering stunt work is part of a tapestry that weaves cinematographer John Seale’s visuals together with a propulsive score from Junkie XL to great effect. Miller and Seale saw no reason for their apocalypse to be drab and dull and have delivered an aggressively beautiful film above and beyond the purely enjoyable carnage. Unique character design is widespread and multi-layered in its purpose, and the world shifts along the journey through various cataclysmic primary colors resulting in a film where nearly every frame is suitable for framing. Image and sound come together most creatively and spectacularly with the musical accompaniment of two war wagons – one featuring a percussion section and the other headlined by a masked and chained madman thrashing away on an electric guitar. Like drummer boys of the apocalypse, their music serves to propel the warriors into battle while also meshing with and becoming a part of the score.
There are elements of the film that fare less well, or even poorly, including some sketchy acting by non-essential performers and some CG/green-screen work that stands out amid the action. Neither are deal-breakers, and both fade from memory as the next action spectacle takes center stage, but they do temporarily mar the world that Miller works so hard to create.
Mad Max: Fury Road is what so many films strive for and so few achieve – an experience that feels somewhat unique it what it accomplishes. Ideally other filmmakers would embrace Miller’s action aesthetic – Justin Lin’s Fast & Furious films come the closest in recent memory – to deliver tangible thrills instead of cartoon antics, but it’s probably more likely that Miller will return with a fifth Mad Max film in the next decade.
The Upside: Gloriously beautiful practical action beats; Charlize Theron; character work; score
The Downside: Distracting CG work; rough acting in minor roles; ending a bit too simple
On the Side: Hardy was reportedly on the short list as early as 2009 alongside actual Australians Sam Worthington and Eric Bana.