It’s been 30 years since Australian filmmaker George Miller brought Max Rockatansky to the screen. Over three films from 1979-85, Miller took action cinema to glorious new heights (well, maybe not with Thunderdome but I’m not here to beat on that dead horse). The action was visceral, the danger was palpable, and the stunts were enormous. Many imitators followed, but no one has been able to capture the majesty and urgency of those original films.
With the current state of CGI, stunts have been reduced to animations that never feel as remarkable as the real thing. There are some exceptions (the recent Raid series comes to mind), but for the most part, contemporary action films toss out any concept of reality in an asinine competition to one up each other. And people eat it up. CGI superheroes punching robots bring in billions while there’s no end in sight to a franchise where beefcakes drive cars out of skyscrapers only to adjust their shades and ride away.
With Mad Max: Fury Road, 70-year-old Miller has made all of these younger filmmakers seem like dinosaurs. The fourth film in the series is head and shoulders above other modern action films. That’s because Miller still thrives on the kind of precise craftsmanship and ingenuity that seems to pass by the likes of James Wan and Michael Bay. All of the classic aspects that make for good action cinema – a sense of spatial awareness, editing tempo, real goddamn stunts – still matter to Miller and Fury Road is like a gift for everyone fed up with the silliness and shaky cams plaguing action flicks nowadays.
Stepping in for Mel Gibson, Tom Hardy plays Max. And this might be the maddest he’s ever been. Like he was in The Road Warrior, Max is driven by self-preservation, but this time he’s haunted by visions of those he left behind. Early on he’s captured by warlord Immortan Joe, played by Hugh Keays-Byrne, the original baddie Toecutter in the first film. Max is brought to the Citadel, Joe’s desert compound where his pale, bald War Boys worship him and he controls the resources divvied up to begging castes.
The series has had its share of over-the-top villains, most notably the homoerotic hockey-masked Lord Humungus, aka the Ayatollah of Rock and Roll-ah. I’ve personally always favored the Toecutter for his Shakespearean mannerisms. Immortan Joe fits nicely in this rogue’s gallery. He’s like a chubby, white-haired Darth Vader (breathing apparatus and all). His sidekick, Rictus Erectus, is a nice heir to Wez, the strongman with a mohawk in Road Warrior.
Max spends most of the first act muzzled and chained to the front of a War Boy car. While he’s tied up in the film’s early stages, the focus turns to Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), the one-armed driver of Joe’s War Rig trusted with making gasoline runs for the Citadel. During her latest run, she attempts to secretly deliver some human cargo to safety: the Five Wives that make up Joe’s personal harem of breeders. In a thermonuclear wasteland, healthy babies are rare. These women are meant to birth Joe’s legacy. Max is begrudgingly swept up in their escape plan, as does War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult), who surprisingly has one of the strongest characters arcs in the whole film.
While this may be a Mad Max film with Hardy getting top billing, Fury Road is at its core about Furiosa. Played with a cool physicality by Theron, she is the film’s beating heart and its real hero. Typically when there is such a strong female lead in an action film, her femininity is replaced with an overt masculine badassness. Or they have to dress in something tight and shiny so it’s easier to use their sexuality as a weapon. This isn’t the case with Theron, who always feels like an actual woman, using her fighting and weapon skills to attack, rather than what’s between her legs.
The Five Wives – Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Koegh, Zoë Kravitz, Abbey Lee and Courtney Eaton – even get their own arcs. While in any other film they would be treated as plot devices to be abused by the baddies, Miller gives them all their moments to be actual human beings.
Miller has managed to take his three decade-old franchise more sophisticated, but without losing any of that “fuck the world” charm that made the originals so special. There’s an excessiveness and brutal beauty to Fury Road that miraculously feels simultaneously wild and completely controlled. It’s also a relentless blast from start to finish. The set pieces left me shaking with giddiness in my seat and each new bizarre, fetish-infused bad guy had me squealing with joy. The production and costume design are incredibly detailed and there’s lots of stuff only shown for a split second (a Brannock Device used as a gas pedal, for example).
As a fan of the originals, I do wish there was more downtown in between chases. From its first minute to the last, Fury Road barrels along; barely leaving any time for character-driven drama or gallows humor. Some of the CGI color correcting I could’ve done without, and don’t get me started on the guitar guy.
All of these complaints are minor, however, and never take away from the beautiful vehicular mayhem that Miller has gifted to our eyeballs. I sincerely hope all the action movie hacks take note and start giving a damn about things like authentic stunts, cutting, geography, and other aspects Miller pulls off with heaps of imagination and superior craftsmanship. In a summer weighed down with empty popcorn blockbusters, Fury Road is the real deal.