It has been 30 years since Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) concluded a trilogy of post-apocalyptic films by Australian filmmaker George Miller and featured the adventures of Max Rockatansky, a cop who lost his family to a gang of marauding bikers in Mad Max (1979), came to the rescue of a group of survivors in Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), and was the savior to a group of children in the aforementioned Thunderdome. Over the course of the three films, Max underwent a complete character arc, going from a man who loses his humanity in the first film, begins to regain it in the second film and comes full circle in the last one.
For Miller, Thunderdome was intended to close the book on this world… or so he thought. Several years ago, ideas for a new Mad Max film came to him and he even came close to making it on more than one occasion, including originally with Mel Gibson returning only for him to eventually be replaced by Tom Hardy, but forces beyond his control delayed production until a couple of years ago. The end result is Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), Miller’s return to his distinctive brand of kinetic action and visual storytelling that made the Mad Max films so influential, spawning countless imitators.
Miller starts things off quickly and economically as he establishes Max’s (Tom Hardy) backstory and the world he inhabits only to see him immediately captured by a vicious cult led by their leader Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) who doles out water sparingly to his impoverished population. He sends out his warriors, known as War Boys, chief among them the bionic-armed Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), to scavenge for precious fuel.
The scale and scope of Joe’s post-apocalyptic civilization is incredible, putting the Bartertown from Thunderdome to shame. Miller makes a point of showing how this society functions and sustains itself by growing food and using women’s breast milk for sustenance with the populace living in fear of the tyrannical Joe who rules with an iron fist.
Max is enslaved and used as a living source of blood for sick War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult). When Furiosa takes off with Joe’s Five Wives, beautiful women specifically selected for breeding, he saddles up his considerable motorized armada and goes after her. Max is chained to the front of Nux’s vehicle like a hood ornament. Furiosa not only has to worry about Joe and the War Boys, but also other marauders from neighboring turfs known as Gas Town and Bullet Farm respectively. Through a series of mishaps, the resourceful Max escapes from captivity and forms a very uneasy alliance with Furiosa as they try to escape Joe and his army to a land she calls the “Green Place,” from her childhood. The rest of Fury Road plays out in a series of intense chase sequences punctuated by scenes that allow the characters (and us) to catch our breath.
Tom Hardy, a Method-y, physical actor, is perfectly cast as Max, stepping into the iconic role originally portrayed by Mel Gibson. As an actor, Hardy possesses little vanity, wearing a metal mask over his face for a good 30 minutes of the film, barely saying anything and when he does Max turns out to be a man of very few words or a grunt. He barely speaks early on because he’s been out in the wasteland for too long, starved of human contact only to be enslaved where he’s brutalized into submission. It is only once he spends time with Furiosa and the Five Wives does he begin to speak again. Over the course of the film they humanize him. Max remains something of an enigma, which is how he works best as a character. The less we know the better. We only get fragments of his past through nightmarish visions and fevered-dream hallucinations.
Hardy is an excellent foil to Charlize Theron who plays a more verbal character – one that is driven to a cause: take the Five Wives to the Promised Land and finally be free from Joe’s oppressive rule and his world where women are breeders, subservient to men. Furiosa is as tough as Max if not more so but she also has a reason to live unlike Max who functions on a primal instinct of survival. She and Max have a Howard Hawksian relationship born out of mutual respect as they work together towards a common goal. Like Max, she is a survivor, dealing with her own painful past, hoping to outrun it as she hopes to outrun Joe and his army. She is Max’s equal and as much a protagonist of the film as he is.
Miller takes us through a series of spectacular chase sequences, one more insane and ambitious than the next, including one that takes place in a massive sandstorm complete with twisters and cars exploding! Fury Road features some of the most crazed stunts and they are all the more impressive when one realizes that they were all done practically with a minimum of CGI enhancement. In this day and age of CGI-saturated blockbusters there is something refreshing about Miller’s fusing of an old school approach with contemporary technology.
The vehicles are brilliant Frankensteinian creations courtesy of Colin Gibson who seems to be channeling Ed “Big Daddy” Roth on acid. He has assembled a funky hodgepodge of hot rods and muscle cars fused together in extreme ways so that they make the ones in The Road Warrior look like tinker toys. Some of these vehicles are outfitted with metal spikes so that they resemble motorized porcupines. There’s one that takes the body of a 1970s Plymouth Valiant and adds tank treads. Joe drives something called the Gigahorse – two 1959 Cadillac Coupe de Villes welded together and then souped up with a pair of big block Chevrolet V-8 engines. Max’s iconic 1974 XB Ford Falcon Coupe from the first two films even makes an appearance.
In a fantastic coup, Miller managed to get legendary cinematographer John Seale (The English Patient) out of self-imposed retirement to give Fury Road a distinctive look. Instead of resorting to the drab, monochromatic look of so many films of its ilk, he and Miller adopt a sunbaked look for the day scenes and a cool, gun-metal blue look for the night scenes. Just because this is a slam-bang action movie doesn’t mean it can’t look stunningly beautiful at the same time.
Fury Road reinforces just how safe and formulaic blockbuster action movies like the Fast and Furious franchise have been for years by delivering a deliciously subversive film that contains all the requisite thrills you expect from the genre and then some. As Miller said in an interview, “I just love action movies. For me, the most universal language and the purest syntax of cinema is in the action movies.” Every frame of Fury Road is instilled with this love and infectious energy – an impressive feat for a 70-year-old filmmaker who has once again has set the standard for everyone else. I imagine, like with the previous Mad Max films, they’ll be countless imitators. Accept no substitutes for this film is the real deal.
Hill, Logan. “Mad Max: What It Takes to Make the Most Intense Movie Ever.” Wired. May 11, 2015.
Walker, Michael. “How Mad Max’s Megacars Were Melded.” The Hollywood Reporter. May 12, 2015.