What a day! What a lovely day!
After 30 years, Mad Max is back in theatres and better than ever. I’ll spare you the eye-rolling, vehicular verbiage that’s been going around (Mad Max roars back into theatres!) and simply say that Fury Road sets a new standard for the modern action film, deliberately eschewing long-held film standards, battling sexism, and showing that practical effects remain more than capable of inspiring wonder.
What’s the premise? In the tradition of James Bond, this new installment exists in the same world as its predecessors, but the chronology is not important. It’s simply another day in the Wasteland. Max Rockatansky (played by the always brilliant Tom Hardy) has been driven to near madness by past trauma. After being captured by a fanatical group of white-painted men known as the War Boys, he’s transported to a desert oasis called the Citadel, ruled by the tyrannical Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne who also played the villainous biker Toecutter in the original Mad Max). There, Max crosses paths with Imperator Furiosa (the wonderful Charlize Theron), a lieutenant of Immortan Joe’s that decides to go rogue. She steals a “War Rig” (imagine an apocalyptic tanker) and, most importantly, a group of women known as “the Wives,” Immortan Joe’s chosen breeders. From then on it’s an hour and a half of pulse-pounding, heart-thumping action that will astound and confuse. The question, “How did they do that?” will no doubt cross your mind as the stakes and spectacle continue to build, reaching a ridiculously satisfying crescendo that embodies everything an action film should be.
Why is Mad Max: Fury Road so amazing?
It’s difficult to encompass my enthusiasm for this film in a single post, but I shall attempt to do so in as succinct a manner as possible. For one, this film marks the return of the director of the original Mad Max films, George Miller. Miller, who has also shown his versatility with the Babe and Happy Feet films, is a deft and imaginative filmmaker. His Fury Road is the definition of visual storytelling and is completely capable of functioning as a silent film. In fact, the script for Fury Road originally existed as an over 3000 image storyboard rather than a traditional manuscript, highlighting the creative way in which Miller approached this project. The legendary Wasteland, or at least the part highlighted in this film, drips with implicit history and nuance. There is an obvious hierarchy to the Citadel, heavily entrenched in gender and caste, but there is no exposition to explain this. In fact, there isn’t really any exposition in this entire film save for a brief monologue by Furiosa about her past. Max’s haunting visions of those he’s failed are never explained, nor do they need to be. His dialogue is minimal, with much of his character being conveyed through Hardy’s sheer physicality. The same can be said for Furiosa; the reason for her betrayal of Immortan Joe and what pushed her over the edge is never mentioned, but this in no way weakens her arc. The best thing that can be said about Fury Road is that it is not an obvious film, a concept which seems inherently at odds with modern action movies, but it excels because of its trust in its audience.
Much has been made of this film as a feminist triumph and Fury Road is certainly deserving of such praise. Besides the repeated question of “Who killed the world?” (It was men if you couldn’t guess), the whole film is basically a critique of toxic masculinity. Immortan Joe rules over his War Boys by warping their minds into believing that he alone is their savior and the one capable of gaining them admittance to the paradisiacal afterlife of Valhalla through (you guessed it) martyrdom. Their willingness to throw their lives away to please the man who they often refer to as “Dad” or “Daddy” is disturbing to say the least and it is through the War Boy character of Nux (the affable Nicholas Hoult) that we get to experience how this faith twists the minds of Immortan Joe’s underlings. Surprisingly, Nux has one of the most affecting emotional arcs of the film, one that spits in the face of convention and invariably makes him one of Fury Road’s most memorable characters.
That being said, heading the female portion of the cast is the brilliant Charlize Theron in one of the best roles of her career. Imperator Furiosa is one of the greatest action characters of all time (I say this without a hint of hyperbole), completely capable of standing beside the likes of Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley. Not only is she a tough, yet vulnerable hero with one (freakin’) mechanical arm, through her actions she also defies an oppressively sexist and patriarchal system. Beyond Furiosa’s fierce determination to save the Wives, the Wives themselves are (gasp!) all individually sketched characters that react to their situation in different ways. The scripting of the film is such that storytelling conventions are continually turned upon their heads, with characters beginning the film as one archetype and then going completely against expectations. That the Wives managed to be more than interchangeable damsels in distress is definitely a step in the right direction for ancillary female characters in film.
Beyond the supporting cast, it is Furiosa’s relationship with Max that makes Fury Road so interesting and enjoyable. Max, who easily could have been written as a savior to the Wives, is instead unwillingly pulled into Furiosa’s rescue efforts. He eventually helps Furiosa because she, like him, is a survivor; her gender and past are unimportant, and in this the film triumphs. There’s not a glimmer of romance between the two characters; instead there exists a well-earned and believable sense of respect that builds between them as the film progresses, culminating in one of the best cinematic duos in recent memory.
As far as the titular Max himself, Hardy is a worthy successor to good ol’ Mel Gibson, continuing to portray Max’s beleaguered, reluctant form of heroism while also managing to make the role his own. Hardy’s Max is the most feral iteration yet, a man who at the onset of the story seems to have forgotten how to speak. Hardy, always one to play with his characters’ voices, gives his Max a growly, stilted sort of speech, reiterating the point that this is a man forever on the edge of violence and one who definitely has no illusions as to just how brutal and unforgiving the Wasteland can be. That being said, Hardy’s portrayal is not lacking in humor or charm, with Max’s stoic acceptance of the ridiculousness around him serving as a constant lighthearted through-line in a film that is otherwise incredibly bleak.
Lastly comes the action. In the annals of action film, The Road Warrior stands near the top as a masterclass in effective, beautifully choreographed chases scenes. In Fury Road, George Miller has outdone himself in every way. The film is largely set around two extended chase sequences, both of which contain standout moments that confound and amaze. This is mainly due to the spectacular practical effects and stunt work present in every frame. If ever there was a film that could convince the Academy to include a Best Stunt Work category in the Oscars, this is it.
But good action means nothing if the audience can’t discern what’s happening. Thankfully, this is not the case with Fury Road. The action is never confusing and always exciting, involving many different types of vehicles, visceral hand to hand combat, enormous explosions, and brutal firefights in a vicious ballet that is at once preposterous and completely believable. Miller’s spectacular direction, coupled with the painterly eye of cinematographer John Seale, makes every frame of Fury Road drip with beauty and character. The eye-watering splendor of the film is accented by the pounding, almost industrial score by Junkie XL (also known as Tom Holkenborg), with the track “Brothers in Arms” being the standout that will no doubt occupy a slot in many a Workout Mix (it does on mine).
If this post hasn’t convinced you to see Mad Max: Fury Road, I don’t know what will. If Max Rockatansky and Imperator Furiosa weren’t enough, know that there are a number of other characters in this film with names like Miss Giddy, Toast the Knowing, Rictus Erectus, and a group of motorcycle-riding, elderly women known as the Vuvalini. Still not enough? Then how about the Doof Warrior? If this isn’t the most metal thing to ever grace the silver screen, I don’t know what is.
Go see this film. See it twice, three times! Tell your friends. Take them too.
And may you ride historic upon the Fury Road, forever shiny and chrome!