MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
Directed by: George Miller
It’s fair to say that the new instalment in the Mad Max series was announced with a certain surge of hype. The prospect of George Miller returning to the series he created, sans-Mel Gibson (and after a run of helming family-friendly fare, with directing credits on Babe: Pig in the City and both Happy Feet movies) was an exciting thing for fans of the Road Warrior’s exploits. However, whenever a director returns to the series they made their name with, there is always the question of whether or not they’ve still ‘got it’. Well, Mad Max: Fury Road is fiercely triumphant proof that Miller absolutely does.
For those who aren’t familiar with the series thus far, the world of Mad Max is – as Max (Hardy) himself intones in the opening narration – one of “fire and blood”. Humanity has all but wiped itself out in a nuclear war over oil, and now ex-cop Max Rockatansky roams the Aussie wasteland, just trying to survive starvation, thirst, and gangs of brutal psychopathic thugs who have succumbed to the insanity of their surroundings. Newcomers won’t feel lost anyway; those who have seen the three movies leading up to this will of course get more out of it, but the most fundamental points about the film’s setting are communicated with breathless efficiency within the first ten minutes.
Basically, the planet is an arid shell where nearly everybody bombs around the barbaric, post-apocalyptic dystopia in wicked cars with big guns and spikes and roaring engines. Max is a lone wolf kind of guy who nevertheless always seems to find himself fighting bandits, getting into car chases and trying to help innocent people caught up in the madness. Fury Road begins with Max getting captured by a group of ‘War Boys’; psychotic, shaven headed, white-painted soldiers who worship their leader, a tyrant named Immortan Joe (Keays-Byrne) as a god. Joe holds a monopoly on the area’s water supply, subjugating his people and using his wives as ‘breeders’, in an attempt to sire an heir who might be capable of continuing his legacy. Max escapes captivity and joins up with one of Joe’s most trusted commanders, Imperator Furiosa (Theron), as she defies the despot in attempting to transport his wives across the desert towards the safety of the mythical ‘Land of Many Mothers’.
From here, the film is essentially one long, violent car chase. Immortan Joe and his forces try to reclaim his wives, with Max and Furiosa – and a rogue War Boy, Nux (Hoult) – fighting them off. The simplicity of the plot is its greatest strength, and the film revels in straight-ahead, no bullshit action throughout. The mostly practical effects are blood-pumping stuff, as cars flip and smash and explode, and men teeter on huge lances jutting out of the tops of vehicles, all in-camera with minimal to zero CGI. There’s something refreshing in this day and age about watching action sequences that feel genuinely dangerous, and the insanity of Mad Max’s world allows for some thrillingly bizarre visuals. The sight of an army of souped-up, combat-ready buggies and muscle cars being spurred on by a dude in a red jumpsuit, suspended in front of a wall of speakers, playing a flamethrower guitar, is something you just aren’t going to see elsewhere.
Tom Hardy is fine as Max, bringing a steely resolve and shrewd intelligence to the role even though he gets maybe twenty words of dialogue in the whole film. Keays-Byrne is an imposing presence as Immortan Joe, one of the most visually striking villains I can remember seeing in a while, with a great commanding boom of a voice. Nicholas Hoult brings thoughtful weight to Nux, a young man whose obsession with the ‘glory of death’ steadily reveals a depth that at first isn’t obvious.
However, Fury Road really belongs to its women, which is its true winning stroke. Charlize Theron is magnetic as Furiosa – the film’s real protagonist despite its title – coming from the Ellen Ripley school of kickass women, taking charge of an increasingly dire situation and refusing to give in no matter how outnumbered. The wives are all given enough screen-time to hint at real personalities that go beyond the usual tiresome ‘damsel in distress’ trope, even though there isn’t a whole lot of time for dialogue that might expand upon those personalities.
In a film of such relentless kinetic energy, it’s a welcome wonder that there’s time devoted to even scraping some measure of subtlety and complexity. Fury Road is an example of an action film which doesn’t feel the need to sacrifice intelligence or characterisation for the sake of audience-pleasing thrills; a rare and special thing indeed.