Mad Max: Fury Road is a visionary post-apocalyptic adventure that uses the frame of a chase movie. After a brief prologue setting up this awe-inspiring far-future wasteland of survival and savagery, characters are in motion and rarely stopping. However, you never get worn-out or annoyed. The film may be breathlessly paced, but it is entirely coherent and there’s always something either new or interesting being brought to life on screen. Filmmaker George Miller (Mad Max, The Road Warrior, Babe: Pig in the City, Happy Feet 1 & 2) broke ground in the 70s and 80s, having developed his craft during filmmaking eras that were more classical in comparison to our own quick-cut/jostled camera time, and he applies that mentality to a film while still feeling very forward-thinking modern. Practical stunts (we’ll get to those in a bit), wide shots, long takes, and an emphasis on visual communication and storytelling make this film feel as much as a return to form as it is hopefully a precursor to what’s to come in cinema. The demands of modern blockbusters are that the pace keeps going but he doesn’t bow to the tricks of other films simply by never escalating the insanity onscreen until everything becomes a cacophonous mess of attempts to one-up the last action scene. It would be a tremendous spoiler to attempt to even describe the action sequences in any detail but make no mistake; every sequence has the filmmakers (everyone from the director, cinematographer, stunt people, choreographer, even the grips) exerting an inordinate amount of control over every moment. All the more profound is that the action isn’t even the endgame of the movie. The film successfully uses action as a means of expressing story, characters, themes and genuine emotional arcs. The default of most action blockbusters is to escalate the scale and complexity of action sequences; here it’s the emotions that come first.
Do not be fooled by the minimal and often utilitarian dialogue in this film. Remember that at one time films didn’t even have sound at all. George Miller has crafted a genuinely emotional film with sublimely smart themes that explore our perpetual war machine culture, overcoming trauma and adversity, evil patriarchy, religious zealotry and the changing roles of women in society among other things. There’s fascinating commentary spread through the film and it’s all told by means of visual storytelling. The facial cues and full body performances of the actors and stunt people, the design of the world, props, set design, direction and editing all work together in a gestalt-like fashion to express more meaty ideas and moods than words could. The filmmakers are strict adherers to the “show, don’t tell” rule of filmmaking, eschewing long periods of exposition and verbalized emoting in exchange for distinct imagery (in motion) to communicate everything we need to know not only about what is going on but also the “who,” “when,” “why” and “how” necessary for real narrative and story. This is a film with genuinely touching character moments happen during thrilling sequences of carnage. Miller wants it all: he wants the mayhem and the excitement of action and he wants the character and depth of great fiction. He gets it all and he gives it all to us.
What is it that this film is trying to express? Max (Tom Hardy, stepping into the role Mel Gibson once made famous), a haunted patrolman scavenging a ruined world stumbles into a conflict between the forces of the Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played ‘Toecutter’ in the original Mad Max) and Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, in an immediately iconic performance). If you’re expecting your typical male-power action fantasy, you won’t really find it here. Miller, who conceptualized the film when it was in the script and storyboard stages was widely publicized to have included Eve Ensler, feminist author and activist creator of The Vagina Monologues, in the pre-production process and during filming and if you have any passing familiarity with her work you will certainly be aware of her influence on this film. It’s Furiousa’s story, which is essentially a fable about women that just so happens to be told from the eyes of Max acting almost as an audience surrogate.
This film really belongs to Theron as Furiousa and the characters known as “the five wives” (played by Zoe Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keogh, Abbey Lee, and Courtney Eaton). Charlize Theron has brought to life one of the great action heroes of our time in Furiosa. She’s strong, powerful, undeniably badass, complex and emotionally nuanced. The biggest success with regards to Furiosa is that she denies the tendency for genre films to create heroines by removing their femininity. Furiousa always feels like a woman, even if she has a mechanical arm and an alarming proficiency with firearms. Meanwhile, the wives themselves are never forced into the dated “damsel” trope and instead get their own character arcs and moments, and each react to their situation differently. Some fight, some cower, some want to return to the familiarity of their abuse, but all react as humans, not as plot devices. “We Are Not Things,” is their mantra in the film. If the film was solely about Furiousa and the wives, it would already be a triumph but it is Max’s presence that truly contextualizes everything.
Mel Gibson played Max in the original 3 films from the 70s/80s and he basically played Max as a wandering folk hero. A sci-fi Clint Eastwood of sorts. Tom Hardy makes the right decision to completely avoid emulating the original performance in any way (other than the iconic costume). Hardy’s Max is a wild animal in the shape of a man. He’s damaged, suffering PTSD and reduced to base survival instincts. That’s not to say Hardy’s performance is all dour brooding at all. In fact Hardy’s take on Max’s animalistic feral state is played for some of the film’s lighter moments turning Max from your typical anti-hero to a comically tragic mix of True Grit’s Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne and later Jeff Bridges) and Looney Tune’s Wile E. Coyote. The strong silence of Gibson’s Max is re-examined in Hardy’s Max who plays that silence as if the man has actually forgotten how to speak. In the previous films Max was spurred by the plight of victims around him; here he’s the victim. As I said his character is all about contextualizing the journey of Furiousa and the wives: their struggle affects and changes him in the way it should us. There’s a strong dramatic through line about the quest for lost humanity and personhood that is encapsulated by Furiousa and the wives’ story, but it’s made more resonant by putting the immediate stakes in their interactions with characters like Max.
The film has a direct and indelible way of getting to who characters are and the world they populate with physical performances, visuals (the costumes, props, vehicles and set design are theatrical in the best ways and packed with symbolism) and action rather than spoken word. For example we don’t know nor do we need to know the entire history of Nicolas Hoult’s (About a Boy, Warm Bodies) Nux, but we immediately know who he is and why he’s there and he’s given an equally compelling arc as Furiousa and Max. And the same could be said about characters even with no lines like the flame throwing guitarist providing battle music or even Immortan Joe himself. In fact, everything about the way Miller stages the car-to-car action (like naval combat) – whose battlegrounds are populated with absolutely distinct characters and cars are every bit as fully realized as the thematic stuff without ever pausing for explanation. Everything in the film is fully formed and the film expects audiences to put together the pieces and thanks to the brilliant filmmaking on display, it’s not only easy, it’s fun.
It’s important to point out that while the action is as gut-wrenching as seeing a Cirque du Soliel act up close and the world of the apocalypse is as harrowing as ever, Mad Max: Fury Road is FUN. It’s a genuinely good time. The film’s colors are bright, saturated to the point of popping with cinematography that recalls some famous paintings and photographs. The violence is brutal and it is visceral but the film never dips into cruelty nor does it revel in it. It’s really the acrobatic and vehicular feats we are left in awe of. This is a horrible, devastated future, with Furiosa, Max, the wives and Nux desperate to survive, but that doesn’t mean Mad Max: Fury Road has to be grim or dour – it’s an adventure. It’s a movie that will have you cheering harder than that grip you might have in your seat.
It would have been easy for Mad Max: Fury Road to be a nostalgic return to a cult franchise. Considering the landscape of modern blockbusters it would have also been easy for the film to be a simple enjoyable time. Handouts are certainly given to the films that tout ambitions despite never reaching them and rare is the film that ever does. This film has the towering ambition of becoming an iconic film with innovative imagery and action while simultaneously having incredibly resonant (and relevant) thematic material (there’s real food for thought in this film amidst the bombast). This film fulfills its ambitions with a soaring grace and confidence that few films ever do. Quite simply, Mad Max: Fury Road IS the BEST action film of the decade.