George Miller spent a decade and a half working to get the latest installment of his Mad Max series onto the screen. The film was plagued with everything from budgetary problems, to original star Mel Gibson’s personal melt down, to uncharacteristic heavy rains in Australia that forced production to move to Africa. Many people, the director included, thought the project might never make it to theaters. Miller never gave up, though, and Mad Max: Fury Road was worth every minute of the wait. The movie is visually arresting, packed with action and suspense. It’s also just plain bonkers.
Neither truly a sequel nor reboot of the franchise, Fury Road is best described as the further tales of ‘Mad’ Max Rockatansky in the post-apocalyptic wastelands. This time out, Max stumbles upon a deranged society that’s presided over by the psychotic Immortan Joe. One of the self-styled god-king’s top lieutenants, Furiosa, is embarking on her latest run for fuel, but she’s decided to escape instead – along with Joe’s five wives, whom he uses to create as many offspring as possible. As far as plot goes, that’s all you really need to know. The bulk of the film consists of a chase: a sprawling, epic, jaw-dropping chase.
I use the term ‘jaw-dropping’ literally. The stunt work in Fury Road is inspired. Miller employs computer effects, to be sure, but most of the stunts were done the old-fashioned way. It brought to my mind Quentin Tarantino’s half of 2007’s Grindhouse, called Death Proof. Both Miller and Tarantino understand the visceral quality that using practical stunts evokes. Watching real humans perform these astonishing feats brings an immediacy that is missing in most action blockbusters made today. The sweeping camera work the director uses to capture the action, and the cinematography of the stark desert setting is stunning, almost as stunning as the action itself. Imagine thirty-foot-high poles swinging back and forth like metronomes in order to get a stuntman from one vehicle to another, all driving at apparently dangerous high speeds. Miller used his thirty-plus years of filmmaking experience, and the largest budget he’s probably ever had, to show the superheroes, the alien robots, and the Fast & Furious boys all how it’s done.
When the director decided he wanted Fury Road to be an extended chase, he looked to the best examples the movies could offer. He went back to the silent era, and drew inspiration from the likes of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Those masters of cinema knew how to use the uniquely visual qualities of film to create works of art that were wholly original. Miller has done the same thing. He understands the characteristics that separate film from the other arts, and he uses them to their greatest advantage.
In addition to all that, Mad Max: Fury Road is also completely unhinged. Stylistically, it’s a throwback to the best work of the Australian New Wave cinema of the 1970s, which includes Miller’s own Mad Max and Road Warrior. The world he imagines is one where people are used as living blood banks for Immortan Joe’s ailing soldiers, known as the War Boys. At the outset of the film, Max is captured and turned into a blood bank for Nux, a War Boy who is so thirsty for battle he hooks Max up to the front of his car – never disconnecting their shared IV – just so he can join the hunt for the gone-rogue Furiosa.
British actor Nicholas Hoult – who played 12-year-old Marcus Brewer in About A Boy – portrays Nux. He gives the character a rather touching quality that the writing supports. We get a brief insight into the hellish existence these characters endure when Nux can’t come up with the word ‘tree’ when he sees one. Trees are so rare, people have almost forgotten them.
Tom Hardy seamlessly takes up the mantle from Mel Gibson to portray Max. He remains an antihero in the vein of Clint Eastwood’s character from the Man with No Name films. Max speaks in a croak, when he speaks at all, and only shows his humanity as a matter of last resort. Charlize Theron is Furiosa, a warrior who possesses a trait close to extinction in this fallen world: compassion. Her decision to secret away Joe’s five wives to a better life forces Max into a position he’s learned to avoid: helping anyone but himself. The Five Wives don’t say much, but they each have distinct personalities. They aren’t simply archetypes masquerading as characters.
Theron displays a level of badassery usually reserved for men in action films, and in a just world her characterization would be the new standard bearer for all future action heroines. Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played Max’s first nemesis, the maniacal Toecutter, in the original Mad Max, returns to play new big bad, the driven Immortan Joe. Keays-Byrne owns Fury Road whenever he appears on screen, despite being behind a mask. His driving force – to take back the five wives, what he considers his “property”– fuels the film. His performance is hypnotic, perfectly complementing the world created by Miller.
The best reason to recommend Fury Road is also the simplest– it made me feel something. It has a heart, a pulse, and plenty of adrenalin mixed with the gallons of blood pumping through its veins. It achieves Pure Cinema status by telling the story in a way only the language of film can. It’s early in the year, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to find Mad Max: Fury Road on my short list for the best movies of 2015.