In Mad Max: Fury Road, Max drives a tanker truck through a desert wasteland in order to help rescue a group of women from the psychotic warlord who is pursuing them. That’s pretty much the entire plot of Fury Road, but it fails to capture the essence of what is one of the most intense, full-throttle, and absolutely insane action films of all time. But to reduce Fury Road by calling it an “action movie” is to ignore the craftsmanship, storytelling mastery, and the scale of what had to go into this film. Writer/Director George Miller has returned to his original creation 30 years after Max was last seen on the big screen and has managed to build something that feels unlike anything we’ve seen before, yet entirely at home in the universe of Mad Max combining elements of all three previous films. On the one hand, Fury Road defies description; it’s the sort of film that must simply be experienced, preferably on the big screen. But on the other hand, it also provides so much to talk about, from its strong feminist tendencies to its impeccable stuntwork to its brilliantly crafted visuals to its surprisingly clever storytelling. Fury Road is simply one of a kind.
Max Rockatansky first appeared on screens in 1979’s Mad Max as a highway patrol officer in a dystopian future where the roads are ruled by rogue gangs. It was a dark, gritty, violent film, where Max’s wife and child were murdered, sending him on a quest for revenge and leaving him a shell of his former self. 1981’s The Road Warrior changed things up considerably, sending Max into the post-apocalyptic desert, where our loner hero must rely on others in order to survive while acting as a potential savior to a community in possession of the one thing that the gangs that surround them crave: fuel. 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome was all about exploring the world created in the trilogy, giving us a look at what civilization might be like and upping the bizarre, unique look and feel of the world by a factor of 10, all while giving us one of the series’ most memorable characters in Tina Turner’s Aunty Entity, ruler of Bartertown. All of this has no bearing on the story of Fury Road, which can be enjoyed even if you have no familiarity with Mad Max at all, but the journey the series has taken over the last 36 years gives Fury Road more weight than your average action film, and the influence of the series can be felt throughout its latest installment.
Fury Road finds Max much as he was seen at the beginning of The Road Warrior on his own with his pursuit special, braving the wasteland. That, however, only lasts for 30 seconds, before he is captured by a gang of marauders and imprisoned to serve as a “blood bag” for the warriors of Immortan Joe, the cruel leader of this area of the wasteland. But here’s the twist: Fury Road is not Max’s story. It’s really the story of Imperator Furiosa, Joe’s best road warrior, who is sent on a mission with a tanker truck into the wastes to find more gasoline, but who has actually rescued Joe’s five wives, his harem of sex slaves, and is driving them away towards safety. Max is simply brought along for the ride by Joe’s War Boys, pale, scarred warriors devoted completely to Joe, and he gets caught up in the chase. Fury Road is Furiosa’s and the wives’ story, and Max is just along for the ride, helping here and there but mostly witnessing the women’s story.
It’s a clever bit of storytelling that wouldn’t seem so unusual if it weren’t for the way Hollywood typically treats women in action movies. Miller could have easily had Max rescuing the women, and we would have watched a film about one man stealing women from another man, but instead he created a female road warrior, every bit Max’s equal and infinity more interesting a character. Max is mostly a blank slate, though he carries a nightmarish history with him, and exists to serve Furiosa’s story rather than the other way around. This twist also helps to minimize the fact that Max is no longer played by Mel Gibson but by Tom Hardy, who does a solid job but lacks the contained energy that Gibson brought to the role three decades ago. Instead, Charlize Theron dominates the film, and I could easily watch an entire series of films dedicated entirely to her Furiosa. She’s an ultimate, one-armed badass with a heartfelt mission to which she’s dedicated, the ultimate combination of loner and savior. The wives all have interesting moments, having lived sheltered lives as Joe’s playthings but still strong in their own ways. Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played the villain Toecutter in the original Mad Max, returns to the series as Joe, a villain in the same vein as Humongous from The Road Warrior but with an obsessiveness and personal vendetta behind his mask. And then there’s Nicholas Hoult as Nux, one of Joe’s War Boys, who gets swept up in the action and becomes one of the most affecting characters in the story, as he is forced to reevaluate his views of the world.
However, the story in Fury Road is secondary to the action, but calling the film experience “action” feels dismissive and cheap. Fury Road is a visual poem, lyrical and beautiful, and unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. It’s basically the final half-hour of The Road Warrior expanded into a two-hour film, but it feels completely different. Where that sequence was rough, raw, and ragged, Fury Road is sweeping, majestic, and gorgeous. The “action” onscreen between the two films is essentially the same, with an elaborate tanker truck pursued by an army of bizarre, custom, apocalyptic vehicles, all intent on stopping the truck at any cost. But the way it’s portrayed in Fury Road is unique and expertly choreographed. It’s a true artistic vision straight from George Miller’s brain, and it kept me constantly on the edge of my seat. The film is helped by the fact that almost everything we see is real, created with real vehicles and real stuntwork, with only one sequence early in the chase that takes place in a sandstorm featuring heavy computer effects. Every crash, every explosion, and every human being dangling from the side of a vehicle hurtling through the desert really happened, giving the film a visceral feel that no amount of computer effects could accomplish.
Miller keeps things interesting by constantly varying the terrain, sending the chase through canyons, across the open desert, over dunes, and through bogs, and by throwing an ever-crazier assortment of attackers at our heroes. What starts as a relatively normal car chase ends with the tanker truck pursued not only by a conglomeration of custom desert buggies and motorcycles, but by a musical accompaniment vehicle complete with drummers on the back and a guitarist dangling in front of speakers on the front shooting flames from his guitar and by high-flying acrobats suspended high in the air on swinging poles hoping to get the drop on the truck. That such gonzo visuals, far from distracting you from the experience, actually serve to draw you into the film is a testament to Miller’s vision and storytelling ability. Add to all of this one of the most engaging, energetic, and expansive musical scores I’ve ever heard, composed and performed by Junkie XL and heavy on the percussion, and the film pushes the edge of sensory overload.
Miller has one of the most bizarre careers of any writer/director. He spent his early days crafting the original Mad Max trilogy, and then he wrote Babe, one of my all-time favorite films. He followed it up with the only other feature films he’s made in the last twenty years: Babe: Pig in the City, Happy Feet, and Happy Feet 2. How on earth does someone end up with those three series dominating his resume, with very little else of note? Seemingly the three have little in common, other than a strong vision behind them, and a delight in the unexpected. Regardless, there’s no reason for Mad Max: Fury Road to be this good. A reboot/sequel of a thirty year old franchise without its star shouldn’t be a success, and the only reason it is has to be George Miller. His vision both captures what made the previous films so special while embracing change and the new. The result is an intense action movie that never slackens its pace once, a post-apocalyptic film filled with color, that is thrilling without dwelling on violence, that is led by women characters who were victims but are never exploited by the film and are strong without being stereotyped. It’s a loud, rough, wild ride that feels like a ballet, with almost no dialogue or story but surprisingly compelling and emotional moments. Mad Max: Fury Road might have quickly jumped not only onto the list of the top action films of all time, but is also one of the best films of the year thus far.