30 years after Beyond Thunderdome, writer and director of the three original Mad Max films George Miller has returned to the wasteland with Fury Road and, in the process, crafted a genuine milestone of an action movie. Fundamentally rejecting everything that modern blockbusters are criticised for (too much CG, clunky exposition, weak female characters), Mad Max: Fury Road is the first proper masterpiece of 2015. Tackling big themes and important questions as well as featuring some of the most involving and exhausting (in a good way) action scenes ever put on film, it’s a truly unique cinematic experience that no one should miss.
The overarching plot is pretty simple. Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) has rescued cult leader/tyrannical dictator Immortan Joe’s (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played the villain in the original Mad Max) five favourite ‘wives’, and happens to run into Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy). Initially distrusting of one another, Furiosa and Max eventually work together in a desperate attempt to escape Immortan Joe’s armies of brainwashed ‘War Boys’. The world-building here is exceptional. Every inch of the world feels lived in and everything is brimming with history. We never see flashbacks to the old world or how it warped into this new one (a vast expanse called ‘the Salt’ implies the drying up of the oceans), but in a ‘world of fire and blood’, the degeneration of mankind feels frighteningly believable.
As well as creating an oppressive atmosphere of parched insanity, this fully-realised world makes many of the villains highly sympathetic. The most obvious example of this is Nux, played with puppy-like enthusiasm by Nicholas Hoult, a young man raised entirely on war and an irrational worship of Joe. Like the majority of the wasteland’s inhabitants, Nux is riddled with cancer, doomed from birth to live a ‘half-life’, so when we see his arc from kamikaze warrior to something closer approaching ‘normal’, it is genuinely affecting. In this way, Nux is actually the second main character of Fury Road, with only Furiosa having more of an emotional journey, and leaving Max himself in third place.
Seeking redemption for crimes unknown, Theron’s bionic-armed road warrior is the lead in all but the film’s title. It’s her actions that kick off the chase that makes up the vast majority of the run time and, refreshingly, she doesn’t initially need Max’s help. In fact, their first meeting is a very hostile one, and it’s only out of convenience, rather than necessity, that Furiosa lets Max tag along on the war rig – a juggernaut of stitched together vehicles. Like Ripley before her, Furiosa is bound to become an immortal female action icon, and is definitely Theron’s best role to date, her agency never compromised by the men around her. Even Joe’s ‘wives’, played by five of the most beautiful women on the planet, never fall into sexist stereotypes. Whilst their first scene, in which the five of them hose each other down, raises alarm bells, it soon becomes very clear that Miller’s intentions are absolutely to subvert the expectations this creates. With Eve Ensler, writer of The Vagina Monologues, on set in an advisory role, Fury Road tackles issues of body ownership and sexual empowerment remarkably boldly, without ever resorting to worthy, ‘issue movie’ preaching.
So, where does all this leave the eponymous Max? Whilst he may not anchor the film, his presence is keenly felt every second he’s on screen, mainly thanks to the irresistible magnetism of Tom Hardy. An actor capable of expressing with every inch of his face and helped out immeasurably by the brilliant character work done by Miller, Hardy completely owns the role of Max. Haunted, desperate, and highly capable, he’s one of the most intriguing action movie leads of recent years, even with a very limited amount of dialogue.
There isn’t much dialogue to spare in the film as a whole, with most of the noise instead coming from the absolutely insane action. Essentially a two hour chase movie, Fury Road cannot be said to have action scenes, as that would imply that the film keeps it action and story separate, when they really exist as a seamless whole. Done almost entirely with practical effects and featuring miraculous editing, Fury Road looks and feels like no other blockbuster. A scene in which the camera swoops in from high above towards the speeding war rig is about as kinetic as cinema gets, and Miller never loses track of exactly what is going on. It’s chaos of the most perfectly orchestrated kind, with every major character completely distinctive thanks to largely horrific bodily abnormalities and their own special style of BDSM-wear. At certain points, the frame rate speeds up, reminiscent of ‘20s silent movies, as if Charlie Chaplin and the cast of Hellraiser have joined forces and taken over direction of the Fallout franchise. In what is almost a token effort to let the audience draw breath, the film occasionally employs a slow fade to black, a brief respite from the whirlwinds of metal and sand.
It’s hard to put into words just how impressive a technical feat Fury Road is. Not only is every (hand built) car and accessory wonderful to look at, but knowing that all the stunts, vehicles, and props (even a flame-throwing guitar that blares its music out of a truck made of amps) were really achieved on set really adds a weight and visceral excitement to the action that CGI so often fails to provide. Combined with deep character work being done wordlessly during the action, the skirmishes here are always thoroughly engaging, and you constantly find yourself sincerely worried for the fate of every protagonist involved. Without hyperbole, I can confidently say that you will have never seen anything like Mad Max: Fury Road before, and are unlikely to again for a very long time.
Subversive, progressive, and strangely moving, Mad Max: Fury Road is an emphatic statement by George Miller that a film can both pass the Bechdel test with flying colours and also feature ashen-skinned lunatics throwing spears topped with grenades at spiky dune buggies. With action unlike any other movie with a comparable budget and subtle yet wildly effective moments of theme and character, this fourth instalment of a long-dormant franchise stands head and shoulders above any other film released so far this year.