Directed by George Miller, Written by Miller, Brendan McCarthy, and Nick Lathouris | Netflix
As the end credits rolled, that’s the word that kept bouncing around my rattling and enervated cranium.
Mad Max: Fury Road is totally badass.
When was the last time I was totally floored like this? The last time I saw a big-budget tentpole that took absolutely no prisoners? It’s been a long while.
This movie is a bolt of lightning, a shot of cinematic adrenaline into the heart of summer blockbusters, reanimating a 36-year-old franchise (the last entry arriving 30 years ago) while somehow still managing to channel the anarchic spirit of the 1979 original. It even tops the vehicular carnage of creator George Miller’s 1981 thrill-ride, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, with the three enormous desert chases (shot across Namibia) that make up the bulk of the film.
This is some unprecedented shit right here; ballsy work from a 70-year-old auteur who hasn’t lost a single step in the interim. He’s been busily making family movies about animated penguins (Happy Feet) and talking pigs (Babe), and it’s served him well. If anything, he’s learned some stuff. It’s a joy to witness.
I remember how I felt when I first saw The Road Warrior, the impact was as profound as when I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark, released the same year. My expectations were pretty damn high with this return to the road. It’s really exhilarating to be able to say, without fear of contradiction, that Miller has done it again, furthering and reinventing his genre-defining post-apocalytic vision, accomplishing what Spielberg and Lucas couldn’t quite manage with their whip-carrying archeologist on his crystal skull quest.
That might be a controversial thing to say to Indiana Jones fans. But if you really want to get up in people’s grill, you could remark that Mad Max: Fury Road leaves other car-centric Furious movies in a cloud of its bloody red dust.
The accomplishment is even more impressive when you consider all this is hung on a simple plot, lightly sketched characters with a lot of dialogue mumbled or screamed over roaring engines.
Tom Hardy is Max, warrior of the wasteland, who introduces us with a voice-over that might not have been entirely necessary. But for anyone who didn’t see the other movies where Mel Gibson starred as that guy, it’s a nice introduction to the reboot.
And that’s what this is. Yes, there are plenty of nods to the past, in the props, the vehicles, even a shot of bulging eyes right out of the original movie, but this is not a sequel. This Max is a different guy. He’s weirder, damaged, potentially a danger to himself and others.
Max is taken prisoner by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, “Toecutter” from the 1979 Max), a feudal warlord with a harem of young women he uses for breeding and an army of minions, powdery “War Boys”, who consider him the closest thing to god on earth. Joe also controls all the water to this world and, apparently, much of the vehicular infrastructure.
One of his lieutenants, the one-armed Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, a force of nature), pilots a war rig out into the dusty wastes, but hidden away in the massive truck are five of Joe’s breeding women (Zoe Kravitz, Courtney Eaton, Abbey Lee, Riley Keough, and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), one of them very pregnant. The plan: drive the truck to where Furiosa was born, the Green Place, and find refuge from the demonic forces of Immortan Joe. These are sex slaves looking for freedom.
Max becomes a living hood ornament for one of the pursuit vehicles driven by a loyal soldier, Nux (Nicholas Hoult). But Max is resourceful, finding a way to free himself from the maniacs chasing the big truck, going from an unwilling pursuer to unwilling pursued.
Could there have been a little more time spent getting to the heart of character motivations here? Sure. At the lip of the third act is a group decision that doesn’t entirely make sense, based on some pretty faulty logic. But this is a visceral B-movie actioner with an A-movie budget, with so much of it working so well it flattened any and all my criticisms.
Characters manifest as much through little details in the costumes and vehicles as they do from their words and actions. But you have to be paying attention—this movie barely lets up. It’s available in 3D, and though I’m no fan of the gimmicky technology, I found it works here—there were times I simply forgot I was wearing those cursed, headache-inducing goggles.
Miller went on the record saying he used practical effects as much as possible in this film, meaning that most of the stunts were done in reality, on set. Clearly some of the atmospheric effects are achieved with the use of CGI, but those stunts are worth the price of admission. After the 14-or-so minutes of truck-chasing insanity at the end of The Road Warrior, nearly matched by the stuff on rails at the conclusion of Beyond Thunderdome, I didn’t think we’d ever see anything like that again. Go to Fury Road, and let Miller pin you in your seat and raise the bar for what we can expect from done-for-real action filmmaking.
I haven’t even talked about how Max isn’t really even the hero of the thing. It’s Furiosa. She is undoubtably the most ferocious character onscreen with the broadest character arc. I liked that Max is almost filling out a supporting role in the film bearing his name. It allows for other characters to shine, for it to be an ensemble piece, which is true to the spirit of The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome, where Max is pivotal but not really the heart of the story.
And speaking of that, I also haven’t talked about how progressive the film feels despite it being an enormous franchise beast, largely due to its heart being about women in extreme circumstances, flipping the bird at the patriarchy. In this kind of a movie, so typically geared to appeal to boys and their toys, it’s practically transgressive.
Nor have I mentioned how detailed and rich the social structures are within this brutal society, or how all the soldiers are spiritual Vikings; what they want is glory and heroic deaths providing a passage to Valhalla.
And I haven’t talked about those moments where I was seeing things I don’t think I’d ever seen before in any Hollywood movie, let alone an action picture. Like the sightless, screaming gargoyle standing astride a moveable Marshall stack, thrashing on a flamethrower guitar.
Some of that stuff was bleak and horrible, and some was truly epic, wondrous, and even hilarious.
Is this a masterpiece of speed and metal? No doubt in my mind.