Film Review – Mad Max: Fury Road
Mad Max: Fury Road
When it comes to hyperbolic storytelling, action movies are about as pure filmmaking as you can get. With the release of Mad Max in 1979, the bar for action films was placed at an unprecedented level due to a raw, unbridled approach to practical stunts. ER doctor turned filmmaker, George Miller upped his own stunt game when he made the sequel Mad Max 2: Road Warrior in 1982. With Mad Max’s third outing in 1985, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Miller ran head first into fully embracing the world a giant “what if” initially created. Now, at a time when computer generated images can make superheroes battle robot armies and resurrect dead actors, it’s the movie that dares to re-embrace physical spectacle that becomes an analog oasis in a digital desert.
Mad Max: Fury Road is such an oasis. Filmed in Namibia, around the Namib Desert, a rolling tanker truck decorated in spikes and barbed-wire provides an oasis to the movie’s heroic cast. Like its characters, Fury Road is a hard-luck run for survival. Boasting over seventy-percent practical effects, and shot in one of the most stunning locations on Earth, it’s safe to say Miller is aiming to give the action movie a much needed booster shot to the arm. Like a rocket from hell, this movie is primed to explode on ascent. Thankfully Miller has one of the most deft hands when it comes to restraint as well as when it comes to mayhem.
Ostensibly set after the events of Beyond Thunderdome, Fury Road finds Max (Tom Hardy) again wandering the wastelands when he is overtaken and captured by a marauding group of pasty, cult-like ravagers. Taken to an oasis-stronghold ruled over by a large, radiation-scarred warlord named Imortan Joe, Max is tattooed and imprisoned. Until a truck driver for Imortan Joe, named Furiosa (Charlize Theron) decides to highjack his oil-rig and hightail it, with special cargo in tow, to a mythical location only referred to as The Green Place. Max is strapped to the front end of one of Imortan Joe’s cars and Joe and his army of War Boys give chase. Through a turn of events Max is freed and reluctantly joins forces with Furiosa in order to escape their attackers.
The rest of the movie is essentially one long, almost unbearably intense, car chase. Upping the game from anything we’ve seen in the previous Mad Max movies. People jump from moving vehicles, while shooting guns, playing guitars, and tossing spears, all while others swing on pole-vaults between cars. It sounds unreal, and for all intents and purposes it just might be, except for that whole practical stunts angle. What you see, someone actually did. Coupled with an unrelenting pace, the result is the very reason to go to the theater to begin with. This is sheer experience.
With storytelling of this caliber, it’s easy for overstimulation to bombard the viewer beyond submission. What could be abused in the wrong hands is instead tapered by the kind of restraint that shows a true craftsman at work behind the cameras. One of the movie’s greatest assets, a trait Miller has shown again and again, is the knowing of when to let up. It’s then in the quiet moments that Fury Road is allowed to find its humanity in surprisingly touching ways, before it pummels the senses again with the kind of fervor that begs, “Thank you, sir. May I have another?”
By re-casting the title role, one that made Mel Gibson an international star, with Tom Hardy, Miller has elevated the mythological, folk-hero status of Max even more than he was before. Now Max is beyond one embodiment. He is many faces. This allows Max to truly inhabit the archetype of the Mysterious Stranger. The Man with No Name. So when Max comes barreling onto the screen in a car we saw get destroyed in The Road Warrior, it becomes apparent how Max is beyond exactitude, just like any cultural folk-hero. Having lost his family to the violence of a vicious gang, Max’s only desire is to survive, which means no attachments. No chance of getting hurt again. In Fury Road, Max takes a sideline to Furiosa and her special cargo. This is Furiosa’s story, and Theron, under the grime and prosthetic makes her shine. The story’s true focus, and one of its greatest strengths, is a group of people seeking escape from the sexual violence of men, and Max isn’t here to give agency to anyone in order to accomplish that. Each character provides agency for themselves. It’s a rather impressive move for an action movie.
And while it may seem like the kind of movie that sacrifices character development and plot for the spectacle of action, like any great hyperbolic story, those aspects of story are provided in the details. Living in a post-apocalypse world, characters have repurposed, re-tooled, and re-configured whatever they can scavenge, to suit their survival. From disguised and hidden weapons to costume-altered clothing, every physical thing in this world has a story to it, a purpose. Max and Furiosa don’t need to talk to tell us who they are, it’s all expressed through their actions, the way they interact with their environment.
It may be 30 years after Thunderdome was released in theaters, but if the tenacity and energy that comes steaming off the tailpipe of this thing is any indication, 30 years have only allowed for more tools and more intention to create a better means for telling a truly high-octane spectacle. One with the kind of heart and sincerity that makes every go-for-broke moment feel that spectacular. Miller has crafted a movie that will not easily be surpassed; a true instant-classic, action masterpiece.