George Miller brings us roaring back to the desert, utterly embarrassing every other action movie in recent memory.
Walking into my local neighborhood theater, The New 400, instantly recalls cinematic memories from childhood. It’s the kind of grungy, jewel-boxed sized old-school Movie Theater (capitals intended) that has been dying out since the early 90’s, when giant-screened multiplexes invaded most major towns and cities. As soon as you enter the door the smell of popcorn infiltrates your nostrils and transports you to summer, where the dimming of lights and the assault of sight, sound, and fury was a haven to movie nerds everywhere. It’s likely the kind of theater you saw (if you were lucky enough to be alive then) The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Road Warrior, Poltergeist, Aliens, Batman, Total Recall, Terminator 2 and countless other summer blockbusters in.
That sense of nostalgia and atmosphere of longing for a time when movies were cool was the perfect backdrop for an early screening of Mad Max: Fury Road, the regeneration of a 30 year-dormant Aussie action franchise that helped propel Mel Gibson to superstardom. This new incarnation is a bold, visionary, action-packed pummeling of the senses that puts modern CGI-laden, cheap-looking studio summer fare to shame. It leaves you with that panicky but exhilarating feeling of being a naughty 12-year-old sneaking into an R-rated film after telling your parents you were going to see the latest Disney product. When the lights come up you can’t wait to brag about it to all of your friends. But best of all, it makes going to the movies seem unreasonably cool again.
Picking up a franchise thirty years after its last outing is a risky proposition by anyone’s standards, especially when that franchise is Mad Max, which has always had more of a cult following. But after several decades working the Hollywood system and producing family-friendly fare such as Babe and Happy Feet, director George Miller has returned to the barren desert wasteland to remind us how action movies should be made. Fury Road, like the previous entries in the series, is light on plot and instead relies on myth, archetype, production design, and carefully framed visuals to propel its story forward.
The premise is always the same: the world has fallen into ruin, gangs rule the wasteland, tribes struggle for survival, and a man named Max wanders the desert, unwittingly helping those in need while struggling to retain his humanity. Fury Road ups the ante by introducing powerful female characters who manage to kick as much ass as the men next to them. The film gives us duel protagonists with Max and newcomer Furiosa, who is on a mission to save the “breeders” (essentially sex slaves) of warlord Immortan Joe (a terrifying and imposing Hugh Keays-Byrne) and take them to safety in “the green place.” And that’s really all the setup there is, though the film is peppered with fascinating side characters like Nux (a gonzo Nicholas Hoult), one of Immortan Joe’s followers who serves as a suicide car bomber thinking his sacrifice will send him to Valhalla. There is a rich world and history here that is implied rather than laid out in thick exposition. This is visual storytelling on the purest level and the film uses its action beats to dictate its rhythm… and my god, what amazing action it is.
It’s been reported that over 80 percent of the stunts you see in Fury Road were done live action, without the aid of CGI. That’s an astounding number by anyone’s standards and once you see the film you will have a hard time believing they were able to do so much of the film in camera. The stunt work here is mind-boggling, with vehicular mayhem on a scale so mammoth it’s almost too much to take in. Gigantic explosions happen seemingly within mere feet of the camera, stuntmen are tossed through the air like rag dolls, vehicles collide in a hail of debris while others roar past them unscathed, and big name actors are thrown inches away from certain death.
It’s a whirlwind experience with each new setpiece topping the other with tight, controlled choreography cut together to look like absolute chaos. And yet you can follow the action every step of the way. There’s no nauseating shaky-cam or whip cuts to trick the viewer or hide the leaps in logic. It’s all so well thought-out, shot and executed that the experience leaves you breathless. I can’t remember the last time a film made me want to jump out of my chair and cheer, but that feeling came about every twenty minutes during Fury Road as I clapped and grinned from ear to ear, marveling at the sheer audacity of it all. The film is a lean, fast and ferocious 2-hour masterclass in how to execute an action sequence.
One of the biggest tasks that George Miller had to pull off was the casting of Max, and with Tom Hardy Miller has found an actor with rogue appeal and dangerous feral, animalistic qualities. Hardy may not have the sexy mystique of Mel Gibson [Editor’s Note: Speak for yourself, Sean], but he seems wilder, and he manages to convey a haunting past without telegraphing overt emotion. It’s really quite a balancing act, but the most interesting thing about Hardy’s performance is how willing he is to serve the material, allowing his co-lead to truly dominate the film.
Charlize Theron is a force to be reckoned with as Furiosa, imbedding the character with truly feminine qualities while being every bit as masculine as the men around her. This is a harsh world, and Furiosa has adapted to her surroundings with the best of them, proving to be a deadly foil for anyone who gets in her way. Theron’s emotional journey is palpable and gives Fury Road its beating heart in between the sustained hyper-violence. There are shades of Ellen Ripley here as well as a little Beatrix Kiddo, but Furiosa is her own well-drawn action heroine. She OWNS Fury Road.
Though George Miller deserves the lion’s share of praise for pulling off his insane vision, credit has to be given to the truly amazing artists he assembled to support him. Coming out of retirement at the age of 70 to shoot this film, John Seale does jaw-dropping work as Director of Photography, shooting the Nambian desert on a giant canvas, scorched in blazing sunlight, dripping with fire and blood. The score by Junkie XL is propulsive and fully integrated into the film’s action beats, making the audience lean into the film on the edges of their seats. The production design by Colin Gibson is appropriately outlandish in its detail, especially on the decked-out vehicle rigs that look like demons emerging straight from Hell. Jenny Beaven’s costume design is like a sadomasochistic nightmarish fever dream, grounded in reality yet bordering on the absurd (Immortan Joe’s mask is a thing of ghoulish beauty). And the editing by Jason Ballantine and Margaret Sixel is so taut and expressive it makes the 2-hour runtime feel much shorter than it really is. This is next level crafts work across the board. There just isn’t a weak link here.
Tom Hardy has reportedly signed on for three more Mad Max films, meaning if Fury Road is the hit it deserves to be then the franchise will keep going. While that seems promising in concept, after viewing this film you begin to wonder how they would ever top it. This is the action film of the decade, if not the century. Hyperbole? Possibly, but this film is as close to the “m-word” as I’ve ever encountered in its genre. George Miller, thank you for this gift. Thank you for making the old new again. Thank you for renewing faith in the action genre. Thank you for making me feel like a kid. And yes, thank you for making going to the theater cool again. Summer has begun.