MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is a miracle. The fourth entry in a long-dormant series – 30 years after the last one – helmed by a 70 year old man preoccupied with Happy Feet sequels, Fury Road was a $150 million trainwreck waiting to happen. That it has turned out to be one of the most glorious, flawless and utterly unhinged action masterpieces of the last decade – of all time, even – is nothing short of divine providence.
George Miller, the writer/director behind the original trilogy, returns to the series that made his name with the confidence of a man who never left. Drawing aesthetically from the previous films but never indebted to them, Fury Road is the lovechild of raw ambition and untrammelled creativity; the soul of an Italian exploitation knock-off with the budget of a superhero flick; and, above all else, the purity of action cinema crammed into two straight hours of joy.
It’s also thoroughly insane. Miller bombards the frame with images that could prop up a gallery exhibit; a blindfolded madman firing Uzis in the dead of the Outback night; shaven barbarians leaping onto cars decked out with porcupine spikes; the crackling wall of sandstorm dividing the desert; a cloaked electric guitarist, flanked by stacked amplifiers and suspended on bungee cords, wielding a double-necked axe that shoots fire out of the heads, leading the charge of a vehicle cavalry as a percussion orchestra slams the skins behind him.
These are all stunning moments of radiant, apocalyptic glory, but Miller knows better than to leave it at that. Not content with merely capturing some of the most incredible action sequences ever committed to film, he bolsters them with intimate character moments and crackling dialogue that never resorts to exposition. Perhaps even more astonishing than the action sequences – which comprise 90% of the film and never get boring – is the 10% of quiet that’s just as, if not more engaging.
We know next to nothing about why or how the world ended, only being briefly alluded to in soundbites and an opening monologue from Max. What we know about the world is conveyed through its characters; how they act, what they say, how they perceive their reality. The albino Warboys, for instance, make the sign of the V8 engine as a form of prayer, never explicitly stating their belief that the cars they ride into battle in (or on) are more permanent than their own lives.
Charlize Theron’s Furiosa smears engine grease on her forehead as a form of warpaint. Outfits are assembled from the scrap and detritus left over from the end-times. Shrines of steering wheels are consecrated. Rarely has a world as alien as this felt so authentic, especially when there’s such wanton insanity occurring around it. Beyond the aesthetic design, much of this reality is conjured from Miller’s use of practical effects and stunts, many of which are gobsmacking. CGI is used sparingly and effectively, supplementing the action without cluttering it.
When extensive (obvious) CGI is employed, it’s used to create tableaus of seismic proportions. A wide shot of the sandstorm, featured prominently in the trailers, renders miniscule the vehicles driving headlong into it, visually reiterating the relentless harshness of the desert environment. John Seale’s cinematography is visceral and splendid, his camerawork of looming pans and frenetic close-ups inseparable from Miller’s vision. Seale captures the unforgiving Namibian desert perfectly, with only long horizons reeling into the distance.
Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy, replacing Mel Gibson) is merely a speck in the span of this landscape. Though tormented by visions of anguished faces and demon children, Max primarily acts as a vehicle through which the audience follows the central story of Furiosa, a one-armed Imperator serving in the ranks of masked warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, A.K.A. Toecutter from the original Mad Max). Seeking “redemption”, Furiosa smuggles out Joe’s five brides – scantily-clad trophy wives who serve as “breeders” – and drives her War Rig into the heart of the desert.
Realising this, Joe leads his entire army after them. Max, having been captured in the opening sequence and used as a “blood bag” for a diseased Warboy named Nux (an unrecognisable and unhinged Nicholas Hoult), is strapped to the hood of the Warboy’s car at the head of the charge. From there, Max tags along with Furiosa and the brides; with Joe and the Warboys in constant pursuit, Max is forced to reconcile his dedication to survive with his repressed humanity.
With Hardy in the lead role, Max has never felt tenser or, fittingly, madder. Hardy’s Max is constantly moving, shuffling, grunting; he matches the film’s hyper-kinetic style with nervous tics and plaintive stares. Theron, after the misfires of Aeon Flux and Prometheus, has finally found an action vehicle worthy of her talents, lending Furiosa poignancy and emotional weight, both during and inbetween the action sequences.
While Max certainly has agency, this is as much Furiosa’s story. Literally, and often metaphorically, Max is just along for the ride, but the relationship between the two is well-judged and progresses naturally without clumsy exposition. Even the brides – the sort of characters who would serve purely as eye-candy in a lesser film – have their own personalities, quirks and dreams. Rosie Huntingdon-Whiteley in particular, so objectified in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, gives one of the strongest performances as the heavily-pregnant favourite wife, lacing her lines with spit and bitterness.
Fury Road feels mythic and enormous. It’s a brutal, aching fairy tale cobbled together from bits and pieces of scattered fables. Saturated with gorgeous oranges and blues, the photography is larger than life and brimming with colour, even when dimmed with 3D glasses. Junkie XL’s fantastic soundtrack is primal, driven by tribal drums and low-pitched strings (and the occasional flamethrower guitar). All the yelling, gunfire, nitro explosions and gunning engines build to symphonic levels, stomping every other action film into the dust of the wasteland.
Emotional, gleeful and beautifully savage, Fury Road is a high watermark and a touchstone for all action films to follow. It’s a breathless sprint that still finds time to have a heart amidst the carnage. With news of a sequel already in the works, Miller has laid down the gauntlet to both his followers and himself. If he can construct a work half as compelling as this masterpiece, I will await Valhalla contented.