An electric monster of an action film, Mad Max: Fury Road crackles with energy and even evokes a few well played emotional notes. All that’s missing is Mel Gibson, who is understandably absent, but reborn in the shape of a rugged Tom Hardy.
In 1979, the other George, as in George Miller, managed to do what George Romero had done a decade or so earlier—invent and/or meaningfully expand a cult sub-genre into the mainstream. Where Romero gave us something later dubbed the “zombie” film, Miller took the barren arid landscape of the Australian Outback and populated it with violent colorful characters led by a then beautiful future superstar Mel Gibson in the title role of Max. In Mad Max, we learned how the stoic man of few words earned the designation “Mad.” And in Fury Road, Miller smartly does not let us forget. Like Gibson’s later appearances as the character, gifted actor Hardy (Bane from The Dark Knight Rises) is haunted by images from his past beckoning him to be a better man amid the carnage and visceral hardness that defines the male of the barbaric future.
If The Hunger Games and the Divergent series artificially introduced youngsters to the sanitized PG-13 concept of an ordered and high-tech dystopian future, Miller and his team of writers go the other way. In the world of Max, following a nuclear event of some sort, the hard-scrabble life-style is defined roughly with many people barely subsisting and living off the scraps provided to them. A strong-man inevitably arises to calm the chaos, but the key is that that strong-man, at some point, must cede power to the people, which takes time, costs lives, and sometimes never happens. Populist revolution is common.
Fury Road opens with Max falling prey to such a strong-man dictator played surprisingly by Hugh Keays-Byrne, the menacing villain named Toecutter from the original Mad Max. While the casting is inventive here, Keays-Byrne is not the same character from what I can tell. And as the vile bad-guy named Immortan Joe in Fury Road, Keays-Byrne is hidden behind a costume that covers his face with a breathing apparatus adorned with ugly teeth. But even though we don’t see him entirely, we hear him as he coldly dictates the rules of his world in a stunning opening sequence that establishes the hierarchy of his political and economic system. Immortan Joe presides over the barren wasteland sharing it with a refinery located farther down the Fury Road.
Immortan Joe’s unlikely champion is an one-armed woman named Imperator Furiousa (a perfect Charlize Theron), whose past remains murky. One day she takes off in what is known as a War Rig, which is a custom 18-wheeler of sorts outfitted to transfer gas from the refinery to Immortan Joe’s strong-hold. These trips are fraught with danger with frequent attacks that must be repelled along the way. When Furiousa deviates from her normal route, a chase ensues that may change the balance of power in the region. And Max has a chance to become a redemptive player in the revolution whether he wants to or not.
Politics are key to the narrative working in Fury Road. Furiousa is a revolutionary in a unique and violent way. She makes her stand and it means something. Max struggles to understand his place and why instead of laying down and dying he somehow finds a means of survival. There is an epic story arch running through this franchise that is not cheapened with this new impressive continuation. And there’s no need to revisit the former films as this movie feels very much a self-contained project making it accessible to an entirely new generation. Still, readers are encouraged to re-watch the series in advance of taking in Fury Road, because it makes the experience richer and more meaningful.
With a reported budget in excess of $150 million, Fury Road easily could have turned into a CGI spectacle. And while computers no doubt had a hand in the film’s creation, nothing here looks like a video game. The action, of the hyper variety, is amazing with stunts and impressive driving that is, to date, unparalleled. A feast for the eyes is an understatement. And it would not surprise me if the film found itself in the awards discussion by the end of the year. What is most impressive is how well Fury Road fits aesthetically into the Mad Max canon. It looks like it could have been made shortly after 1985’s Beyond Thunderdome. And by not forgetting the films that came before it, George Miller has done something unique and fresh, he’s reintroduced us to the genre of Max.