Film Review: Mad Max: Fury Road

Director: George Miller

15  |  120 min  |  Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi  |  14 May 2015 (UK)

RATING: ★★★★☆

Fury Road star Tom Hardy was probably still in diapers 30 years ago when we last saw the character of Mad Max on the big screen, in the bizarre, blackly funny dystopian punk western Beyond Thunderdome helmed by franchise mastermind George Miller. A lot has changed since then and at least two generations have grown up, so this writer was wondering who this new Max movie was supposed to be for? What would a new generation weaned on Michael Bay’s CGI-drenched blockbusters and superhero movies make of it, or was this pitched at the old guard who have fond memories of the Ozploitation B movie genre, of which Mad Max is one of the pillars. And what is this film anyway; a remake, a sequel, or one of the those “reboots”?

As it turns out, George Miller manages to square the circle on all of those questions, and then some. This film pays its dues to the original trilogy through its aesthetic and concept, even as it, in the words of its creator, ‘steps out of the shadows’ of the earlier films whilst enjoying a way bigger bang for the buck. Fans of the original films should be well satisfied, but even those unfamiliar with Miller’s earlier work, but hungry for R-rated raw action, can gorge themselves on the orgy of destruction that the director has cooked up here. The success of films like Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy seem to be proof that audiences yearn for directors to resist the digital paintbrush, and get down to blowing shit up for real. For 123 minutes of screen time, 90% of which is spent at high speed aboard souped-up vehicles, Miller orchestrates this blowing shit up like a maestro.

Hardy now is Max Rocktansky, in a new take on the character first played by the then-unknown Mel Gibson in the 1979 original. This rebirth seems to confirm that the character now exists as a kind of comic book superhero, a core myth that can exist in any number of apocalyptic parallel universes. As with the Gibson version, Max here is still the lone-wolf ex-cop wandering the wastelands of the future, haunted by visions of the family he failed to save. The world here is much as George Miller left in at the end of his original trilogy too: an endless desert pockmarked with jagged rocks under the blistering sun,  but given a new big-budget digital polish. As lensed by DP John Searle, the landscapes are a striking turmeric-tinged yellow with flecks of flinty greens. It might just be worth the extra few quid for an IMAX show.

The film opens with Max captured by the demented scavenger forces of local warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played the villain in the first Max Max film), who all drive souped-up repurposed vehicles that sport spikes, oversized wheels and giant engines. The leprosy-addled, masked Joe has built a topsy-turvy empire for himself in the rocky fortress known as the Citadel, where giant machines are driven by the feet of chained acolytes in white body paint, and ‘mothers milk’ is sucked from rows of imprisoned pregnant women. Its a weird and grotesque world, totally in keeping with Miller’s earlier vision of a societal breakdown that has caused tribes to reform around cult figures, objects and scarce resources. The engine here is king, with Joe’s warriors praying to the god of the V8 engine, bowing before steering wheels, and convinced that dying for him will send them to Valhalla.

Max sees a chance for escape when Joe’s chief enforcer, the mechanical-armed Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), steals Joe’s prized vehicle- a lumbering 18-wheeler called ‘the Rig’- and makes a break for freedom. Sick of Joe’s oppression and believing she has a shot at getting back to the ‘green place’ of her childhood memories, Furiosa has also smuggled with her Joe’s prison wives, the ‘breeders’ with whom he hopes to finally produce a healthy heir.  Furiosa is Max’s equal in combat and nearly wins in a scrap with him as he tries to steal the rig. But with Furiosa having locked the Rig’s engines out, Max is forced to take her and the wives along.

So begins a near-unbroken chase through the desert as Joe’s armoured forces swarm like flies around the Rig, with the dynamic echoing the old studio westerns with their steam trains being chased down by Native American Indians on horseback. Stuck on board the lumbering machine, the gruff and self-interested Max finds himself becoming invested in Furiosa’s cause despite himself, the ghost of the noble cop shaking back awake after years of being asleep. In may ways it isn’t Max’s show. It turns out that the women on the Rig are as capable in a fight as he is (one of the refreshing new aspects about this reboot), with Furiosa and Max making an effective team as they shoot, stab and crush wave after waves of attackers. There isn’t a hint of romance, and that is just as it should be. There is too much fighting to be done, and it is through the fight that Max realises that in a world with scarce resources, all that’s left is to battle for someone, and not something.

And it is a hell of a fight, a mad rock-opera on wheels (complete with an accompanying band that Joe has brought along, with flame-spewing guitars and tribal drums) that rarely slows down to let us or the characters catch a breath. It is tempting to picture Miller off screen, waving a conductor’s baton around, conducting this madness and thoroughly enjoying having a budget where the catering costs alone would’ve probably paid for all his earlier three Max films . There is little time for dialogue or traditional character development, but in a way the vehicles are the stars anyway. The emphasis on ‘carmageddon’ puts Fury Road more in line with the second Mad Max – which probably remains the most popular of the series- and the vehicles are an eye-popping mix of reconfigured classics cars, tank tracks, motorcycles and dune buggies. Each is unique in its own way, with the Rig being the real piece de resistance, a mini-set all in itself with odd bits of car chassis and spikes welded onto it. Everything looks lived in, like it has been through several lives or is the result of some weird collision where two vehicles have fused.

Fury Road’s action reaches fever pitch, but it is never totally confusing. Using in camera stunts and effects as much as possible and making use of the latest stabilised motion cameras, Miller delivers kinetic high-octane action laced with visceral moments where steel mashes into steel. The camera seems able to go anywhere: riding alongside cars for medium shots, high angles (there are some gorgeous shots of lines of cars tracing dust clouds from above), under the chassis of cars, and up close in the Rig’s cab. But the camerawork and editing never descends into the nightmare of “rapid cut/shaky cam”. It is always clear what is going on, which is a relief as the action explodes from all angles: bikers leap over the Rig dropping grenades, assault teams leap onto the Rig’s long towed tanker, Joe’s forces even stand on top of 20 foot long flexible poles and try to pivot onto the Rig and snatch the Wives off. When CGI does come into play noticeably, it at least delivers a spectacular vision of hell in keeping with Miller’s upended world, as a giant sand storm (which seems to contain its own mini-tornadoes) consumes the convoy in one scene.

Miller has spoken about wanting to create an action film so primal and fluid that dialogue would almost not be needed. Fury Road succeeds at that brilliantly, though it wouldn’t have hurt to maybe give Hardy as Max a bit more spark, just a little bit more sly humour. But everything is secondary to the film’s relentless forward motion here and that is probably for the best. After all, we know all we really need to know about Max, and when it comes to any wider political point-making, Miller doesn’t really need to spell it out for us that climate change will probably reduce the world we live in now to the same kind of nightmare he has kept in his head for the last 30 years.

Film Review: Mad Max: Fury Road
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