Here’s an unpopular opinion: I don’t think any of the MAD MAX films are outright classics. They’re influential, yes, and iconic, but not great films. They’re fun distractions. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD comes the closest of the series to top-tier filmmaking, and may well prove to be the action movie of 2015. It’s wonderfully demented and mischievous, and the reasonably large budget allowed George Miller to at long last put exactly the level of destruction that’s been in his head for over three decades up on the big screen.
Max Rockatanski (Tom Hardy) is seemingly always in the wrong place at the wrong time. The nomad ex-cop is torn from wandering the post-apocalypse wilderness haunted by the memories of his murdered wife and child when he is captured by warlord dictator Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Max is used as a mobile blood supply for Joe’s slowly dying disciple Nux ( Nicholas Hoult) who is in pursuit of his master’s five “wives” who have been smuggled out by previously loyal Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). Let the chase begin.
Let’s not beat about the bush: Tom Hardy looks nothing like Mel Gibson, but he’s got his soft Aussie growl down. Hardy’s Max looks pleasingly bewildered throughout the film, with wonderfully pained facial twitches that almost say, “is this really happening to me again?”. He is also in an arms race of eye-acting with masked antagonist Immortan Joe (original Mad Max villain Keays-Byrne still has presence at twice the age), particularly in the first act where he is figuratively, and literally, muzzled. Max’s name may be on the poster, but he’s essentially a passenger, and Charlize Theron is the soul of this story as Furiosa, an enforcer who has a titanic change of heart, and ends up doing much of the dramatic heavy lifting. Nicholas Hoult brings unexpected heart to Nux, rapidly burning through his “half-life” (a clever hint that Joe’s tribe suffer from radiation poisoning) and simply looking for something he’d actually want to carry on living for. One of the most pleasant surprises in Fury Road was how character-driven it was, which is lucky considering the plot that is sparing to say the least. Stunning as the action always is, we are given moments of quiet to take stock of what is at stake, and it always comes down to what Max, Furiosa, Nux and the Wives are feeling as they struggle to escape their eternal living hell.
Another pleasant surprise was Miller retaining his independent spirit in the face of studio blockbuster dominance. Though Warner Brothers picked up distribution, Fury Road was created entirely in-house by Miller’s own production company. So we get all the massive explosions, high-octane revving and bloody violence the masses could want, but also arthouse trappings (cuts to black, one of Max’s battles happening entirely off-screen) deep characterisation and disturbing, brutal imagery. This certainly helps keep everything fresh.
One of the concerns about having a plot heavily involving the rescue of a quintet of sex slaves is what these characters might be reduced to for the sake of convenience. Thankfully, Joe’s Wives become one of the film’s greatest strengths, beginning as plot devices, but becoming active agents of their own fates and fighting determinedly to liberate themselves by the conclusion of the story. In the previous three Max films, it was always about the battle for fuel, but Miller has expanded his dystopian war to be over mankind’s powerful need for water and breeding stock as well, because you can’t survive on petrol alone, obviously.
It must always be tempting when making big-budget sci-fi to overdesign everything. One of the reasons the vehicles in the original Mad Max trilogy looked like retro rustbuckets bolted to other retro rustbuckets driving straight out of a bondage dungeon was Miller’s tight budget. Now, in 2015, with change to spare for elaborate production design and special effects, the vehicles look exactly the same. I love this decision. It’s proof that you can throw a lot more money at a project to make it better without it losing its core essence; it can still feel like handmade, guerrilla filmmaking. This is a future where nobody has time to think, they just do, acting on instinct and make the best of whatever they can find.
Speaking of just doing, one of the many highlights of Fury Road is one colourful character strapped to the front of a vehicle who plays riffs on his flame-belching guitar non-stop during the action scenes. I couldn’t help but chuckle every time we cut to the little fella, and though he doesn’t have dialogue or a name (I don’t think?), I shan’t forget him in a hurry. The film’s heavy, percussive score by Junkie XL is nearly as relentless as the carnage, and gives all this spectacle irresistible rhythm and power.
The real appeal of the first three Mad Max films was the insane stunts. In a way it’s a shame that every life-threatening leap, cartwheeling vehicle or searing explosion looks so glossy, because many will presume it was all computer generated. Most of it wasn’t. A lot of the CGI Miller and his effects artists employ is simply to erase the sophisticated rigs and wirework that allowed his ludicrously talented army of stunt performers to do what they do best in safety, or to make the landscape (Namibia this time instead of the Australian Outback) look even more imposing.
Fury Road is packed full of ideas, is exhaustingly action-packed, well performed, bold, funny and dark. And yet, I’ll confess that I didn’t quite get the buzz from watching it that I’m sure many did. George Miller’s long-delayed return to Mad Max rarely puts a foot wrong, but maybe you have to really love Mad Max to get the most out of it. While Fury Road didn’t have that special spark for me, I’m sure I’ll be seeing it again and would enthusiastically recommend it. SSP