Mad Max: Fury Road Not Just Brilliant Action, but Truly Serious Filmmaking
Release Date: May 15, 2015
Rating: R (intense sequences of violence throughout, disturbing images, and some strong language)
Run Time: 120 min
Director: George Miller
Cast: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Zoe Kravitz, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton
While most sequels offer more of the same, the original Mad Max trilogy could be described in terms of technology upgrades. From concept to execution, 1979’s Mad Max was Version 1.0, 1981’s The Road Warrior was 2.0, and 1985’s Beyond Thunderdome was 3.0. Each new installment made discernable leaps in scale and scope; the first’s microbudget couldn’t fully express director George Miller‘s vision, the second finally matched it, and then the third actually expanded it.
Now, thirty years later, Mad Max: Fury Road isn’t simply Version 4.0; it’s exponential versions way beyond that. If the first three were gonzo manifestations of a barren post-apocalyptic landscape, this belated fourth entry is a flat-out insane hellscape – but brilliantly and masterfully so. Marvel has been the modern standard-bearer of what will “blow our minds,” but this just proves how low that bar has been set. Furthermore, Fury Road elevates itself with a trait few blockbusters even broach anymore: emotional weight. And it does so with a performance that has the power to join the ranks of all-time action greats.
Mad Max: Fury Road works as a stand-alone piece, but for those unfamiliar with the previous films, here’s the gist: It’s Earth, in an undefined near-future, after a global reckoning that has laid waste to the environment. The planet is a desert, with small pockets of civilization. These pockets are built upon and operated by the juiced-up spare parts of the past, and each is ruled by tyrannical overlords. It’s a world in which fuel is scare but violence is not.
As people barely survive in these isolated dystopias, Max Rockatansky – a.k.a. Mad Max (Tom Hardy, The Dark Knight Rises, taking over for Mel Gibson) – remains a nomadic drifter, and is taken captive in the Citadel, a fortress controlled by the masked oppressor Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, best known from the original Mad Max as the notorious Toecutter). When Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, Prometheus), a warrior leader of the Citadel, betrays Immortan Joe by leading an escape of young women who serve as Joe’s baby-making sex slaves, Max goes from exploiting the women for his own escape to aiding them in their cause.
This sets up the film’s second extended action set piece, the first being an opening road chase that leads to Max’s initial capture. More spectacular car chases follow, and while these sequences have been a staple of the series it’s safe to say that, in pure volume, Fury Road (and its 100 million dollar budget) offers more of them than previous entries, and on a much grander scale. Indeed, to call them “car chases” greatly undersells what they are: elaborately imagined and choreographed extravaganzas of overblown muscle cars, tanks, and colossal mechanical beasts that ultimately defy description.
Heightening the action even more is how Immortan’s army of ghoulish villains swing and catapult themselves to and fro between these various machines, all while wielding weapons, chainsaws, and gunfire. It’s artfully-controlled chaos – hyper-kinetic yet clearly depicted – and all staged at a level of violent ballet not seen since the Matrix trilogy, involving even more live-action components (and margin for error) than those sci-fi game-changers. This isn’t just muscle car action; it’s truly a road war.
Yes, CGI does enhance these sequences at times (most notably with epic sandstorm hurricanes) but, on the whole, what you see is not animated by computers. It’s real people doing real stunts, flying through the air on real motorbikes, and colliding in real vehicles. In an age of increasing reliance on digital effects, environments, and even digitized action replacing stunt work, Fury Road’s practical approach is intensely visceral. More spectacular still is that returning director Miller is now in his 70s, putting much younger “cutting edge” blockbuster directors to embarrassing shame. Sure, Miller offers up destruction overkill, but his is not mindless action; it’s visionary.
Making the spectacle resonate beyond the eye-popping surface is a level of character and thematic depth rare to action movies. Big budget tentpoles generally keep their ideas and backstories about as formulaic as their plots, and while Fury Road doesn’t necessarily boast unique versions of those elements they are portrayed with much more thought, even contemplation, and felt much more deeply.
Thematically, Miller is telling a Feminist Action Fable, but not one that preaches political ideologies from a screenplay’s soapbox. Fury Road serves as an examination of what happens when humanity loses its femininity, and is reduced to barbaric carnal savagery. We see this not only via the sex slaves, but also in the backstories of Max and Furiosa. Max says early on, “As the world fell, each of us in our own way was broken,” and we feel the tragedy of that in these performances. Max, Furiosa, and these women may be seeking redemption for themselves, but by extension they seek it also for the feminine half of humanity itself.
Hardy and Theron take their roles as seriously as they would for any Oscar-season awards contender. Theron in particular (along with her controlled physical prowess) gives a performance of considerable emotional depth, to the point that Max is nearly reduced to a supporting character in his own movie (but all to the movie’s benefit). Theron’s Furiosa has moments of heroism – laced with subtexts of anger, grief, and loss – that elicit chills. The Aliens and Terminator sagas gave us, respectively, Ripley and Sarah Connor, the top female action heroes of movie history. Furiosa deserves to join their ranks.
In an era when every blockbuster seems to be market-tested within an inch of its creative life (and littered with product placements, too), or must meet the obligations of a “cinematic universe,” it’s exhilarating to see big budget cinema be as bold as Mad Max: Fury Road, solely guided by the vision of a great filmmaker. Sure, it’s a riskier business model (see Jupiter Ascending for how it can fail), but when it works, the results are what we always hope for when we go to the movies.
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