Influenced by the 1973 oil crisis and how the lack of petrol turned ordinary people into angry and violent combatants at the long gas station lines, ER doctor-turned-director George Miller, amateur filmmaker Byron Kennedy and first-time writer James McCausland set about creating a vision of the future. Their vision was bleak, violent and very disturbing because it was plausible. It resulted in 1979’s Mad Max which, anchored by a star-making lead performance by unknown Mel Gibson, told the tale of a world that was slowly falling apart as resources around the world dwindled and law began to collapse. It’s a vision they would expand upon in 1981’s Mad Max 2 (AKA The Road Warrior) and 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. The series, particularly The Road Warrior, became major influences on the works of filmmakers like James Cameron, David Fincher and Guillermo del Toro among others.
For 30 years, rumors have existed that there would be a continuation to Max Rockatansky’s adventures, but they always seemed to end in nothing. Then, when Mel Gibson’s personal problems became an international scandal, it appeared as if any hope of a return was dashed for good. Miller spoke of moving the story to an animated format a la Akira or even employing the 3D studio that helped him make his Happy Feet movies. And when, for a brief moment, the idea became to move from Gibson’s eponymous role towards a new actor, it was to Heath Ledger, who perished way too young. It appeared that Miller’s post-apocalyptic world wouldn’t be seen again – or that it wouldn’t be as relevant today as it was in the 70s and 80s. So I’m glad that they found a way through it all to give us this movie, because, put simply, it’s one of the best action movies we’ve seen in years.
Fury Road tells the story of Furiosa (Charlize Theron), the Imperator to King Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), the despotic ruler of The Citadel. When Furiosa steals away with Immortan Joe’s most treasured possession, he heads into the wastes after her with his army, the War Boys. They are all speed freaks who follow Immortan Joe’s commands like they’re decrees from heaven; getting high on huffed spray paint fumes and desperate to die in his name to win the right to enter Valhalla. Two of the War Boys, Nux (Nicholas Hoult) and Slit (Josh Helman) decide to bring a recently-captured Max (Tom Hardy) along as a “blood bag” — an unwilling blood donor to help Nux get better from the complications of his huffing. In the course of things, Max and Furiosa will come to unite in order to escape from Immortan Joe and find the “Green Place” — partners drawn together more from need than desire.
In taking over for Gibson, Hardy retains a lot of what made the character iconic. He’s very silent – speaking only when he needs to speak and using the bare minimum of words. He’s also very physical and capable of violence and manages to display that throughout. And he’s very much a survivalist – if he can leave others behind who mean nothing to him, he’ll do so. Hardy really isn’t asked to do more than Gibson was, but he does it well. He takes the torch of Max and looks set to continue with the role in whatever ways Miller wants the series to continue.
The standout performance though belongs to Theron. Her Imperator Furiosa is the heart and soul of the movie and its her actions that kickstart everything. She is both ruthless in action and careful in thought. She is a warrior and naturally assumes command of the situation wherever she is in. Her mind is always processing the situation and looking for a way past the dangers. You can see that she doesn’t know whether to trust Max or not, but recognizes that her choices are limited. When she finally reaches the end of her road towards the Green Place, it is both rewarding and heartbreaking. Her performance is the anchor to the movie that helps keep it in place.
Behind Theron, the rest fall somewhere between interesting and small. Hoult’s Nux has the more troubled and conflicted journey, but one that is interesting given where it starts. Keays-Byrne isn’t called to do much but be ugly and menacing, but he delivers that in spades as King Immortan Joe – who is like a post-apocalyptic Jim Jones. He rules his fiefdom with an iron fist. A tip of the hat also, to the members of the various clans, which feel unique and different. Whether that’s Megan Gale, Melissa Jaffer and Jennifer Hagan as part of the Mothers or Nathan Jones, John Howard and Richard Carter as key figures in Joe’s army, at no point did you question which band they belonged to. The world building aspect of this movie is impressive and the various people feel like they each bring their own story. Yes, even The Doof Warrior, the red-clad, twin-necked guitar-playing herald of Immortan Joe’s army who is guaranteed to make everyone giggle silly every time he’s on the screen.
Let’s face it: you don’t go see a Mad Max movie for its deep plot. You go for the action set pieces; for the metal of vehicles crunching against the metal of other vehicles and crazed warriors battling one another across the desolate wastes of the post-apocalypse. In that, this movie delivers in space. This is a series that is known for the set pieces of mechanized carnage and chaos. Towards that end, Miller went and hired over 150 stunt performers to ensure that most of the effects would be done in real life and not CGI’d. Olympic athletes and Cirque de Soleil perfomers joined stunt coordinator Guy Norris’ team. And they deliver in spades. There are some special effects — particularly in the gigantic sandstorm sequence — but they are in the minority. The work by FX company Iloura and others is good, but this movie lives by how the War Boys throw themselves at their enemies and by how cars flip, crash and explode as the warriors do battle on the road.
To enhance this, Miller and his crew go all out. After listening to his score for 300: Rise of an Empire, Miller hired composer Tom Holkenborg AKA Junkie XL. He brings editors Jason Ballantine and Margaret Sixel to assist him in playign with the frame rate — a neat trick to put us inside the chaotic mind of Max. Costume designer Jenny Beavan manages to capture the aesthetic of the earlier movies and also builds upon it. Even Academy Award-winning cinematographer John Seale even came out of retirement to shoot the film and give it that wide, in-the-middle-of-nowhere look that’s so crucial to immerse the audience in.
A neat trick of this series has been how each individual movie is as much a standalone as it is part of a greater whole that has built upon the last. The original told the tale of the old world and its rules collapsing. The Road Warrior showed how bands of raiders pillaging and killing one another, with no concern for the future. Beyond Thunderdome displayed new settlements like Bartertown rising from the ashes of the wasteland. Fury Road continues that aspect. New rules and new ways have taken hold. Immortan Joe rules not just The Citadel, but is able to command an entire region with other settlements nearby – settlements on which he can call upon if he needed a greater army. The War Boys pray to V8 and hope to be witnessed dying for Immortan Joe in order to earn their place in Valhalla. The wastelands that Max used to roam freely are turning into something new – but the fight for resources remain. Whether those resources are gasoline, water or people.
In that way, the backdrop shifts even as the central actions remain. The world of Max is one of always fighting for something valuable. The conceit of it is that, as that resource dwindles and becomes more precious, the characters appear to be more desperate to spend it. After all, this is a world where gasoline is precious, but you never see anyone driving a Prius or a 4-cylinder Honda. Everyone’s in some powerful V8-engine muscle car and they’re all driving like maniacs. A world where someone like Max – with O-negative type blood and thus an “universal donor” – is strapped to the hood of the car of the War Boy who is receiving the transfusion. Resources are precious, but they’re only precious in their ability to accomplish a greater goal: to capture Furiosa or to escape Immortan Joe or to die in his name.
I’m taken aback at how many people seem surprised that, though the movie is titled Mad Max, it is Furiosa’s story, not Max’s. This is part of the tradition of this series. The Road Warrior was telling a story about Humungus’ war party fighting against Pappagallo’s oil refiners and Max was drawn in the middle. Beyond Thunderdome was about Auntie Entity battling Master for the rule of Bartertown and Max was drawn in the middle. It’s the same way here. All Max has wanted is to be left alone in the wastes with his grief and his pain, but because others either seek him out as a prisoner or get in his way, he manages to be drawn into their conflict. So yes, Fury Road is about Furiosa’s daring escape and Immortan Joe’s angry, desperate attempt to get back what she stole.
This is why, I imagine, so many people have angrily complained of a “feminist” agenda by this movie. The plot is started and led by a woman, who eventually gets help from the all-female Clan of Many Mothers against a male army. But yet, I don’t think this was Miller’s intent at all – at least not consciously. Go back to what I said earlier about resources. The idea that people – specially young, nubile women – could be considered a resource is not new in fiction or even post-apocalyptic fiction. Furiosa, someone who is highly-ranked within Immortan Joe’s structure, fleeing would cause him to chase after her into the desert. Add to that her theft of his valued treasure and Joe would go through any trouble to get her back. And it is a continuation of Miller’s strong female characters like The Road Warrior’s Warrior Woman and Beyond Thunderdome’s Auntie Entity. Furiosa stands shoulder to shoulder with them.
If you haven’t figured out by now, I really, really enjoyed this movie. It’s a hell of a lot of fun. The plot and the setting have become so common now that they may end up appearing derivative. But don’t for a second think that this is a second rate knock-off that George Miller has crafted. It’s a fine continuation of the original idea he and his team crafted back in the 1970s. But at its core, it’s a finely crafted, strongly shot, sometimes silly, amazing action movie. Where Max Rockatansky goes from here is an interesting questions. I do hope it’s not the last we see of Max or his world. We need the adrenaline fix like the War Boys needed their huffed spray paint.