Arriving no less than thirty years after the last entry in the 'Mad Max' franchise and with a new lead actor as former cop, Max Rockatansky, 'Fury Road' is a combination of reboot, remake and sequel, somehow finding a way to work well as all three at once.
It sets its tone immediately, which is that 'restraint' is clearly a word that George Miller, the visionary behind all four 'Mad Max' films, doesn't understand. The film opens with a beautiful shot of the Namibian desert, which substitutes here for post-apocalyptic Australia, with every component it needs: a vast desert landscape, a beat up muscle car and a two headed mutant lizard. Then it adds the roar of that engine as the chase begins. We're less than thirty seconds in and cars are already being destroyed in spectacular fashion. 'Fury Road' contains more action than any dozen other action films you can think of combined. It could easily be described as a two hour chase scene.
What saves it from the tedium of the non-stop action scenes of Michael Bay are the themes, which are broadly painted to be sure but there nonetheless. The broadness stems from the fact that there's very little plot here at all, with Max finding himself yet again in someone else's story. He fights initially for his own survival but eventually for the cause of others, creating a new Max myth in the process. He has a habit of doing that.
Here, those others are the young wives of Immortan Joe, a freak warlord whose power comes from his ownership of clean water in huge quantities, which he delivers to the masses from the skull cave in his aerie, known as the Citadel. Those wives escape his clutches in the hands of Imperator Furiosa, who drives the War Rig, a big black behemoth of a truck that Joe periodically sends out for gasoline. Of course, once Joe realises that she's gone rogue with his wives, he sets off in pursuit with his army of War Boys and the chase is quickly on. It lasts for the rest of the movie.
For a while we see little of Max. Joe's men capture him quickly in the initial chase, perhaps because he's a mess, tormented by the memories of those who have died because he couldn't save them. They shave him, tattoo him, brand him. He becomes a blood bank for Nux, one of the bleached War Boys, and when Nux joins the hunt for Furiosa and the stolen wives, he takes Max with him, crucified on the front of his vehicle, connected back to the driver by both chains and blood tubes.
Everything is ramped up here: the iron, the grease, the scale, the coolness, the extras, the sheer improbability of it all. Yet there's a majesty to it, courtesy of John Seale, the cinematographer who came out of retirement to shoot 'Fury Road', and Miller's detailed vision of what this fantastic apocalyptic landscape should look like.
What it looks like here, far more than any of the earlier films, is Hell itself. There are great clouds of red dust spun up by every wheel and even those are dwarfed by the giant haboob into which Furiosa aims the War Rig early in the first chase. This isn't a modern vision, it's all Bosch, Dante and Wagner, whose grandiose compositions would perhaps have served as a better score than the crunchy one written by Junkie XL. If I felt that anything was missing here, it was opera. The scale and majesty of everything demanded it but Miller only let it in briefly.
What most will see here are the stunts. While there's a great deal of CGI here (Charlize Theron didn't cut off an arm for this movie, for a start), Miller has said that 90% of what we see is physical and the stuntwork is without parallel and is likely to remain so until the next picture in the series. Guy Norris, the stunt coordinator, didn't just work with seasoned stuntmen here, but also Cirque de Soleil acrobats and Olympic athletes.
Others will focus on the design, which ramps up the wasteland aesthetic of the earlier 'Mad Max' films, punk westerns all, into something that grabs the eyes both at macro and micro scale. One vehicle in Joe's war fleet is laden high with speaker stacks with war drums on one side and a suspended guitarist on the other to keep the fury roiling; this is as enticing a vision as it is a nonsensical one. Yet the detail isn't forgotten. Every steering wheel and gearshift knob is custom and will absolutely be copied soon. I talked to Mike Syfritt after the screening; he's a local maker and cosplayer of note and his gleeful response to the picture was: 'So many cool things to make!'
I can't say the stunts and the design didn't capture me, as they surely did, but what I took away from the film were its themes. While 'Fury Road' retains the madness of the original 'Mad Max' and the chases of 'The Road Warrior', it also keeps the misplaced religious hope of the second half of 'Beyond Thunderdome'.
There's religion everywhere here. While Immortan Joe has set himself up as a living god for reasons of power, Furiosa could easily be seen as a Moses character, leading her chosen people through the nuclear wilderness to salvation in 'the green place', only to discover that it isn't quite as simple as that. The War Boys worship Joe as heirs to the fanaticism of kamikaze pilots and suicide bombers, seeing sacrifice in His name as opening the gates to Valhalla. The little rituals we see throughout are both an homage to John Ford, who framed so many of his westerns around them, and a parody of organised religion, which is carved into something dangerous here by misunderstanding and self interest. When a wife prays to 'whoever is listening', we feel both the need for spiritual guidance in the characters and the lack of any such thing being delivered.
Given that what little story we have unfolds in grand fashion through dedication and sacrifice, the film's biggest problem is surely in its lack of ability to touch us emotionally. It certainly aims to do so and it starts to manage it during the final chase scene, but, even there, it's overwhelmed by the visuals, both the gorgeous long shots and the amazing close up action.
The surprising other issue is that while this fits very well as a 'Mad Max' film, adding yet another myth to the character's canon, it features a lot less Max than it does Furiosa. Tom Hardy is a suitable replacement for Mel Gibson, clearly much too old to reprise his old role once more, but Max is even more a man of action now than he used to be and he was never verbose. He speaks through actions, leaving others to fill in the story details, Charlize Theron chief among them as Furiosa. It's an irony that this film, with so very little dialogue to go on, still clearly passes the Bechdel test.
And while some idiotic men's rights organisations have bitched about Furiosa personifying the feminisation of Hollywood, it's not just the 'gentle sex' who are given a major boost here. She's far from the only important and tough character in this film who happens to be female, but she's also far from the only important and tough character to be deformed.
There have to be more grotesques here than in anything outside an Alejandro Jodorowsky picture, but we never find ourselves watching a freakshow. Furiosa only has one arm but she gets the job done, Nux has two tumours to which he's given names, Joe's son is a dwarf and his source of sustenance is a set of huge women tapped for their breast milk. Yet, while there's a subplot about one of Joe's pregnant wives and the possibility of a perfect child, I don't believe anyone asks anyone else about their deformities at any point in the film. They're just there in a post-apocalyptic landscape, not worthy of mention, and their owners are no less human for them. Apparently, to achieve true tolerance we merely need to destroy the world.
There were many naysayers who warned against a new 'Mad Max' movie three decades after the last and against anyone taking Gibson's iconic role. I'm happy to say that they can now be ignored utterly. 'Mad Max: Fury Road' delivered the goods in truly spectacular fashion. It returned the mad to Max, ramped the chases up to degrees never before seen and built on the mythology not only of Max himself but of the world he still inhabits. It's a glorious blockbuster; it could have been a great film too if only it could have ramped up the emotional impact along with its stuntwork. ~~ Hal C F Astell