Audacious and percussive, Mad Max: Fury Road is the action film of the decade thus far. The sheer volume of arresting visuals and surreal concoctions in every frame of George Miller’s return to Max is almost staggering. It’s an embarrassment of hyperkinetic riches; a gleeful celebration of nihilistic debauchery that somehow manages to deliver a powerful message of hope and redemption. More at home than ever before, Max has returned to raise the bar for action films.
We know Max. We met him 35 years ago and he’s still the same brooding, tormented soul he’s always been. As played by Tom Hardy, Max is almost monosyllabic. He grunts and gestures like some prehistoric beast; language isn’t necessary to convey the necessities of survival. “My world is fire and blood,” he announces in the opening narration. We see plenty of both in his escape from Hell, and even more on his journey back inside.
Max has never nice well with others, but fate frowns upon loners. Here, he’s unwittingly thrown into the frantic escape of Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) from the clutches of the evil Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Atop his mountainous fortress, Joe controls the desperate humanity below by squeezing out the occasional drop of precious water. History has shown us that when resources are scarce, the first victims are always the women. Joe milks massive women like prized cattle, while his 5 beautiful young concubines await his leering affection inside a stone bunker.
Desperate to return to her childhood home (the “Green Place”), Furiosa steals Joe’s concubines, hops into a fortified war tanker and races into the desert. In hot pursuit is Joe’s albino army, eager for a hero’s death and triumphant ascension to Valhalla. Chief among them is Nux (Nicholas Hoult), who anchors a surprisingly poignant storyline that underscores the themes of redemption. Max reluctantly joins the fight, trying desperately to avoid the emotional entanglements that always end badly in a post-apocalyptic world.
The simple plot allows Miller not only to stage elaborate action set pieces, but to immerse us in his surrealistic nightmare. In fact, we get a level of detailing normally reserved for science fiction world building. From the fortress of Immortan Joe, filled with fearless freaks and propped-up deities, to a soggy wasteland inhabited by hulking creatures on stilts, Miller’s landscapes are original and exhilarating. Together with co-writers Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris, Miller uses modern technology to flesh out storylines and stunts in ways he could only imagine 30 years ago.
The real beauty of Fury Road is that even with the added emphasis on visuals and special effects, everything augments the human element. Amidst the thundering vehicles and wicked explosions, our focus remains squarely on the characters. No one gets lost in the chaos, as we watch them battle insurmountable odds in the most creative ways possible. At a time when theaters are besieged with recycled action extravaganzas, Miller gives us something new and imaginative.
Fury Road looks and sounds magnificent. Cinematographer John Seale beautifully frames the dusty action with oversaturated colors, while Junkie XL’s score gives us the majesty and melodrama befitting such an overwrought spectacle. We also get the “meta score,” as Joe’s minions beat war drums and strum flaming guitars as they roar through the desert. It’s the kind of roar you feel in your chest, punctuated by fire and collisions and all manner of destruction. The entire screen practically trembles with adrenaline.
Yet, for all the testosterone-infused action, there is a courageous feminist heart beating inside Fury Road. Theron plays Furiosa like a caged animal, hell-bent on delivering her girls to a future where they can be more than just a man’s property. Sure, she carries out her objective in a decidedly masculine fashion, but it’s the kind of resolve and personal strength we don’t see from female characters in action movies. Theron’s emotional presence overshadows Hardy in every scene, and she more than holds her own in the action department, as well.
The other standout in a cast comprised primarily of monsters and martyrs is Nicholas Hoult’s turn as Nux. Looking and sounding suspiciously like a demented Steve-O, Nux has the purest character arc in the entire film, transforming from a two-dimensional blood monger into a fully realized human being. It’s a terrific role that anchors the entire second half of the film.
For his part, Hardy is fine as the new Max. He isn’t asked to do much of the heavy lifting, which is perfectly fitting for a blank slate like Mad Max. He’s powerless to verbalize the demons that possess him; a creature driven by instinct and some ancient vestige of his humanity. It’s only in relation to other characters—their goals and hopes and dreams—that his moral desolation becomes interesting.
You can’t ask much more from an action movie that what Mad Max: Fury Road delivers. It’s got huge set pieces with breakneck stunts and seamless special effects. There are larger-than-life villains and hell-bound antiheroes. Yet, at its core, there is a beating heart with genuine human emotion, as well as an anarchic spirit that thoroughly sweeps you away. Fury Road, despite its R-rating in the States, is a film for both teens and adults alike. In fact, it’s the perfect opportunity for Max fans from the ‘80s, now parents, to re-visit this bizarre universe with their teenage sons and daughters. It’s glorious, escapist fun that deserves to be seen early and often. So hit the road!