At seventy, you'd be forgiven for thinking that director George Miller's best work is well behind him, but the stuff he delivers in Mad Max Fury Road, the fourth in the venerable Aussie apocalyptic action movie series, is the sort of work that should make modern action directors like your Michael Bays and those shaky-cam devotees hang their heads in shame. Mad Max Fury Road is not only likely to be the best action film of the year, it's easily one of the best action films of the past decade, certainly up there with The Raid and The Raid 2 as the sort of pants-pissingly exciting films we're rarely treated to. Perhaps that's why, when a film of Fury Road's quality comes along, we tend to savour and laud it all the more. THIS is what we want. Practical effects, stunts and action. A real sense of danger. Genuine excitement.
|Director: George Miller
Stars: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley
Writers: George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, Nick Lathouris
Country: Australia, USA
George Miller's Mad Max series started with the ultra low-budget original which plays as more of a straight-up vigilante film than the end-of-the-world cinematic vehicular mayhem the series would mutate into. In that film, cop Max Rockatansky does indeed become "mad" when his wife and baby are killed by highway thugs. From there, he seeks bloody revenge on the road gangs. Mad Max 2 (aka The Road Warrior) sees Max in a far more apocalyptic vision of the future, where oil is the lifeforce, society has completely crumbled and the wastelands are overrun by mutants and freaks. Indeed it is this film that Fury Road is most closely aligned with, which is fantastic news for fans, as Mad Max 2 still holds up incredibly well to this day. And, yes, we can't forget about Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome... in that one, stuff happened and there was Tina Turner. So...yeah.
In Mad Max Fury Road, our protagonist Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), plagued by visions of people he was unable to save, is captured by a cult-ish horde run by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Immortan Joe rules the wasteland via his headquarters called "The Citadel" and is able to hold on to his power thanks to his ability to funnel water from deep underground. Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a one-armed lieutenant, defects with his war rig for reasons that we soon come to realise aren't just about precious fuel or water. Through a series of crazy events - essentially segments that comprise one massive car chase across the wastelands - she eventually teams up with Max in a bid to find her promised land.
Immortan Joe is a little pissed off, so he sets off after them with his army of vehicles and his cancer-stricken "war boys", pale-skinned freaks who are promised a better life in Valhalla provided they remain loyal to him and do what he says. In addition to the war boys is a procession of the weirdest freaks you're likely to see in a mainstream $150 million Hollywood blockbuster. To describe them, or indeed Joe himself, is to rob Fury Road of much of its eyebrow-raising quotient. Let's just say that if you were a fan of Mad Max 2's Lord Humungous or Beyond Thunderdome's Master Blaster - which you most assuredly should be - then you'll find much to love in Fury Road's rogue's gallery.
And that's a large chunk of what makes Mad Max Fury Road work so well. Miller and his crew - aided by some incredible lensing by brought-out-of-retirement cinematographer John Seale - have no qualms about splashing the screen with all manner of weirdness in amongst the crazy stunts, explosions and flaming exploding spears (yes, they're as amazing as they sound). So for those who feared that Fury Road might have had the character of the previous three films sucked out of it need not concern themselves. If anything, Fury Road has some of the most outright bizarre moments of the entire series, a comforting thought in this age of homogenised "shared universe" bullshit.
But the action. Not since Mad Max 2, and possibly the occasional moment from any recent Fast and the Furious film, have we witnessed such fetishised car action porn. On top of the insane jumps, rolls, crashes, crushes and collisions, you have Immortan Joe's pale-skinned acolytes jumping from vehicle to vehicle, lobbing spears and grenades from the air, and flying in arcs between vehicles on weighted poles. It's fucking crazy, and absolutely thrilling. Thrilling to the point that I wouldn't be surprised if a little bit of wee escaped from all but the most bladder-strict viewers.
It is such a delight to be actually excited by an action scene in a blockbuster. Compare any action scene in Fury Road to the overcooked, underwhelming and decidedly mediocre Avengers: Age of Ultron. With Fury Road, you have a tremendous sense of place and space, something that is sorely absent from Ultron (particularly the ridiculous opening scene which I thought was going to turn out to be a video-game training video, but no, it was meant to be an actual action sequence). Despite Fury Road's ridiculous car-hopping antics, you're always aware of where our heroes are and the threats they're fighting against, regardless of whether they're picking off flying motorcycle assailants or clambering around the side of the big rig trying desperately to sever harpooned lengths of chain (the bolt cutters must rate as the most useful tool in Max and Furiosa's arsenal). Now compare these moments with Ultron or, hell, most of the recent so-called action blockbusters we've endured in the past few years. Because a majority of action in Fury Road was performed practically, rather than conjured up with a computer, the hits, splats and crashes feel solid and, therefore, genuine. You'll be practically bouncing in your seat with glee at some of the spectacular slow-motion crashes, with bodies flipping and flying out across the desert.
The look of the film is another huge factor to its success. Whereas previous Mad Max films had that sparse, gritty and bleak look, Fury Road is the gorgeous orange-and-teal cousin that almost looks nothing like its predecessors, yet it's still clear that they share the same DNA. Somehow Fury Road is able to retain the scuzziness of that familiar Mad Max outback apocalyptic setting and still make it look gorgeous.
Tom Hardy does his best monosyllabic Max impression, and he's good considering he probably has only thirty lines in the film, but MVPs, at least from a performance standpoint, must go to both Charlize Theron and Nicholas Hoult. Hoult plays one of Joe's goons called Nux, and is the sort of eager go-getter who you figure would do well in any situation - it's just that he happens to be working for a psychotic megalomaniac in the middle of the desert. He is a genuine delight to watch, alternatively freakish, entertaining, resourceful and pitiful. Theron's presence is commanding, more so even than Hardy, and she dominates the film. When you look back on it, this is really Furiosa's story, with Max an eventual willing participant. I would happily watch a dozen Furiosa and Max films, as they drive from settlement to settlement, solving problems and taking down the mutants.
Flaws? Well, if you were nitpicky enough, you could argue that Fury Road cherry-picks a lot from Mad Max 2, right down to the commandeering of the massive oil tanker and Max and crew fighting off all manner of sickos. There's a little bit of a "been there done that" familiarity to the action, despite the fact that the results are so visually spectacular. I still have a soft spot for Mad Max 2 when it's all said and done, the straightforward nature of that film coupled with the unmatched final chase probably still beats out Fury Road in the long run. Some of the performances from the supporting cast - and at risk of raising any spoilers, let's just say they're not the freaks and goons - are a little stilted. There are a couple of peculiar moments that bring you out of the magic - and I don't mean peculiar in the "there's a goon who shoots flame out of his double-necked guitar" way (you'll know them when you see them). The action does slow in the second half before the finale; you're pretty much willing everyone to stop the talk and the planning and get back to the demolition derby craziness. Dialogue is, at times, difficult to discern. But these are tiny flaws in an otherwise monumental achievement.
Mad Max Fury Road is that odd beast: a monstrously expensive Hollywood blockbuster that has not only retained the oddball character of its predecessors, but in many ways amplified it. George Miller and his team haven't just tacked on another copycat sequel to his cult film series, he's expanded and extended it in absolutely remarkable ways. Is it a true sequel? A reimagining? Maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe it's just another story in Max's journey, before he heads off to his next quest in that apocalyptic wasteland, grudgingly helping out the weakest of the wasteland's inhabitants.Kudos to Miller and co. for somehow being able to create an epic-sized Mad Max film on a monstrous budget without sacrificing what made those earlier films so special. You'll be watching and wondering how the hell he got away with it. You have to think that some Warner Bros executives must have practically shit themselves when they saw early cuts of the film, unsure of what they'd gotten themselves involved in. But despite the costs, the production overruns, reshootings and delays, the results are more than worth it. Mad Max Fury Road is the kick in the bollocks that action film fans have been waiting for.