It’s been 30 years since the last entry into the “Mad Max” franchise and the development of Mad Max: Fury Road was long, grueling, and filled with setbacks. But creator, director, and writer George Miller’s latest opus is not only a worthy reinvigoration of the apocalyptic franchise, but one of the greatest action films in recent years. This is thunderous, vibrant movie making that grabs you from the very beginning and drags you into an insane and beautiful world.
If you’re not familiar with the “Mad Max” franchise, the setup is fairly simple. Max Rockatansky (played by Mel Gibson in the original films, now being played by Tom Hardy) is a former police officer who wanders a post-apocalyptic world trying to survive and occasionally being pulled into fights between the forces of good and evil. In Mad Max: Fury Road, Max is thrown into a gigantic chase as Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is on the run from Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a despotic madman who rules countless people by controlling the water supply. With legions of Joe’s War Boys on her tail trying to get back the precious cargo she stole, the chase sucks in all manner of lunatics and leads to humongous carnage on the road as both Max and Furiosa try to find purpose in a world gone insane.
Fury Road makes no pretenses about being anything more than an action film, but every single piece of the film has been executed with passion and singular vision. Miller has crafted the film to be one enormous chase, with the movie literally revving up during the opening credits and then speeding off after a brief setup of the apocalyptic world. This is a lean and pounding narrative that manages to show off an enormous and colorful domain with a fascinating history. The many characters and their worlds are doused with small details and flourishes that hint at a larger world and years of backstory without being given clunky exposition. While some may dislike the lack of explanation, the rich details are all that are needed, each of which are clearly the result of lengthy world building and creativity.
The viciously insane vehicles, rituals of the War Boys and many others, frightening weapons used, and the various lands travelled through all showcase pieces of the world to create a richer experience. Of course, special mention has to be made of the Doofa Warrior, a blind madman playing a flamethrowing electric guitar with backing drummers on their own vehicle who play war music for their marauding party. It’s completely nuts, but it’s a fitting piece in this world gone mad. Other players, such as The People Eater and The Bullet Farmer, play into the ideas of war, greed, and religion, all aspects of what may have doomed the world and now control it. There are layers beneath the blood-soaked and fire-scorched exterior of Mad Max: Fury Road, they are just not shoved in your face.
For an action film that is fill to the brim with mayhem and violence, Fury Road is surprisingly beautiful in its cinematography and art direction. Miller and cinematographer John Seale have made this post-apocalyptic world into a vibrant setting, with the oranges of midday dessert, moody blues of the night, and the fiery explosions that fill the frame all defying the typical bleak and dreary look of most films that take place in destroyed future settings. In addition, the action is filmed and edited with a stunning clarity and energy. The many battles are filmed in just the right way, injecting them with adrenaline while also avoiding the frustratingly haphazard way in which far too many modern action films use close-ups and frenetic editing to turn their fights into jumbled and headache-inducing messes.
Because Fury Road is one protracted chase, the action needed to be superbly done in order to make the film a success. Thanks to boatloads of practical stunts and thrilling action sequences all presented with the touch of a master, the action here is some of the best ever put to film. This is a thesis in how to do an action movie. Miller was inspired to make this with as much practical work as possible and only use CGI to enhance and create what couldn’t be done by hand. As a result, everything is more visceral and thrilling.
While the film is based on the escalation of a single concept (a madcap chase through the desert) it never feels monotonous, as the many different enemies and situations encountered lead to different types of battles. There’s also enough changes in pace to allow for character development, emotional beats, and a roller coaster approach to the story. If there is a negative here, it’s that the final leg of the journey doesn’t pack quite the same jaw-dropping glory of the beginning stages. Insanity can only be so shocking for so long until you somewhat adjust to the world. On the other hand, there are more emotional stakes involved by the end, so the threats to the heroes and the resolutions to their arcs hit harder than mere spectacle.
While the action is at the forefront of the film, Mad Max: Fury Road is also propelled by its characters, who help anchor the sparse narrative and add complexities to the simple story. While the villainous Immortan Joe, the War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult), and The Wives all play crucial roles and really bring their unique characters to life, it’s the two main leads that really bring the powerhouse performances.
Hardy does a fantastic job as Max, who is a haunted and desperate man here whose first instinct is survival, not heroics. He’s almost an animal and there’s a ferocity to him at all times. He could lash out at any moment should he need to and his journey here involves overcoming the deaths that haunt him and living for something more than just survival. With a broken and growling voice, it’s clear that Max hasn’t been around many people in a long time and Hardy brings charisma and pathos to the character despite saying very little, which is in the tradition of past films in the series, especially The Road Warrior. Just as important, if not more, is Theron’s Furiosa. The narrative really belongs to her as this is her quest and Max is merely swept up into it. She’s a really fantastic character, filled with regret and on a quest for redemption. She’s possibly even stronger than Max, as her hope has not died and she is willing to sacrifice everything to bring a little good into a dead world. The fights and eventual understanding between the two characters reveal more about each, leading to a fist-pumping climax that actually has emotion and depth to it in the midst of chaos and madness. While there is still a sparseness to their development, it’s enough to help audiences latch on amongst the action.
The intensity and insanity on display here may be off-putting to some who prefer more introspective or quieter films, but Mad Max: Fury Road is a resounding success as an action film. Not only has Miller breathed new life into a franchise that was dormant for three decades, he has created an action masterpiece that will stand the test of time.
Next, read Mad Max Fury Road and the Heroic Cycle.