Written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris
Directed by George Miller
Australia/United States, 2015
Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) stands atop a sandy, rocky hill overlooking the unforgiving Australian desert, still haunted by the memories of his deceased family. Having perfected what it means to fend for one’s self, his ability to survive is seriously put to the test when kidnaped by a band of sickly, youthful warriors belonging to a secluded but powerful community run by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne. They bring him back to their dungeons, torture him, and preserve him as a ‘blood bag’, a source of energy to help the citadel’s fighters, plagued by an unknown illness. Immortan Joe’s grasp on the people is simple: he controls the water supply. But not everyone is willing to simply abide by his tyrannical rule. Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a scarred women in more ways than one, has successfully helped Joe’s five wives, one of which is very pregnant, escape, funneling them in the tanker she is supposed to drive to retrieve more fuel. When the cultish leader learns of this treachery, an extended, unfathomable chase begins, sending Max, Furiosa, Joe, Warrior Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult) in a collision course where only the strongest will survive…
While the conclusion to Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome is not definitive (far from it, in fact) it does allude to how some of its characters might spend the rest of their days, positing a modicum of closure. After that film’s release in 1985, writer-director George Miller refrained from returning to the world of the Road Warrior, opting to work on a variety of different projects, some of them family friendly even, such the Babe and Happy Feat films. The itch did return, however. How could it not, what with his original creation still marching his lonely journey through a wasteland ripe with potential for more stories, even after three movies? Following a long gestation period and heaps of pre-production hurdles, the fourth entry, subtitled Fury Road, finally roars onto screens everywhere in 2015, thirty years after the last time audiences witnessed a sighting of Mad Max. Filmmaking techniques and studio mandates changed in the interim, as did potential casting choices. As time elapsed, so did the opportunity to collaborate once more with global star Mel Gibson, replaced by Englishman Tom Hardy. Ironically enough, Hugh Keays-Byrne was chosen to play the chief antagonist, the same actor who filled the role Toecutter in the original picture.
A new era means new storytelling methods and new audience expectations. The challenge, among others, in the case of bringing Max back to the world after a three decade long absence is how to preserve the thrilling, idiosyncratic identity of the franchise whilst modernizing things enough for it to be palatable to new audiences. Writers George Miller, Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris combine forces to create the most humanistic chapter in the series, all the while tapping into the zaniness fans expect from a Mad Max adventure. Fury Road, for all its demented world building and high-octane, supercharged action set pieces, suggests a story with some actual heart, a story pertaining to a real world problems that have put shame on humanity’s history a countless number of times, namely slavery. At its core, Miller latest endeavor concentrates on the vile practice of using human beings as objects for personal gain, be it economical, emotional or of any other sort. Immortan Joe, in addition to holding an entire region’s populace by the chains because of his monopoly on the water supply, has five women literally hidden away in a vault, Splendid Angharad (Rosie Hungtington-Whiteley), Capable (Riley Keough), Toast (Zoë Kravitz), Dag (Abbey Lee) and Cheedo (Courtney Eaton). Furiosa, a child from a far off region where the women serve as leaders of the community, was taken away from her home by Joe many moons ago, and now, as a top lieutenant of sorts in the dictator’s army, sees an opportunity to right certain wrongs and strike a semblance of vengeance on Joe by freeing the five things he cherishes most. The film beautifully communicates the character’s desire for true freedom, to find peace after so much death, and to give five honest people a decent future, away from terror and imprisonment.
On the other end of the spectrum is Nux (Hoult, giving the film its craziest and most heartfelt performance, far from an easy challenge), an over-zealous War Boy who takes to heart Joe’s speeches of entering Valhalla once they have died for his cause. He knows little else of the world except for what Joe and his right hand freaks have educated them on, mostly the god-like stature of Joe. Nux worships his leader and wishes deeply to serve him as best he can for what little time he has on this planet (there are two ghastly, cancerous lesions on his left shoulder). His story, while beginning from a completely different place than that of Furiosa or the wives, meshes into theirs after initial confrontations between the sides. After a series of failed attempts to prove his worth to Immortan Joe, Nux, rather than being treated as like dirt by the fleeing band, is slowly welcomed into their party. Redemption and forgives are recurring themes in Fury Road, a movie with actual heart, something that cannot be said about the three previous episodes, all of which feature remarkable attributes, but serious, emotional themes is not one of them.
Leading the charge are brilliantly forceful and layered performances, none stronger than Academy Award winner Charlize Theron. The film’s title reads ‘’Mad Max’’ but Theron’s Furiosa is the picture’s beating heart. Theron lives the role of Furiosa, showing strength of character the likes of which precious few female characters in the series have been blessed with. The Warrior Woman of Road Warrior is cool, but lacks serious characterization. Auntie Entity from Thunderdome is a leader, yes, but far from a model citizen. Furiosa is a rebel for a just cause, brave, and most of all, capable of seeing the good in people and accepting them. Her toughness is not overdone, but rather perfectly calibrated to make her a believable fighter with a humane side, which is where Max comes into play considering that he and Furiosa get off on the wrong foot to say the least.
Tom Hardy replaces Mel Gibson in the role that made the latter a commodity in Hollywood. Hardy’s Max is a slightly different beast, mostly because, at the start of the picture he is, well, bestial. He grunts, he looks constantly enraged and ready to pounce on just about anyone. He probably would if the War Boys had not hooked him up to the front of their vehicle and were not pumping the blood out of his body (just one of the film’s signature weird touches). After successfully escaping his captors’s clutches, he understands that his best chance at survival is by sticking with Furiosa and her party, even though his crazed state of mind prevents him from trusting them at first. As they go through one hurdle after another, Max opens up, somewhat, becomes an accepted ally, maybe even a friend of sorts. Hardy plays the titular protagonist, but in actuality says very little in the film, allowing Furiosa, Nux and the wives to do most of the talking. He possesses the physicality and certainly looks the part. Few will argue that this is a ‘great’ Hardy performance, but as interpretations of Mad Max go, this is as good as any for sure.
Equally important, director Miller serves up some of the most ludicrous action and world building audiences will ever get the chance to enjoy. Fury Road feels like a proper modernization of Mad Max. Obviously, computer generated enhancements are visible, but they are done with taste and really make certain scenes stand out, such as the sand storm tornado chase. The cars are massive in size, look terrifying for the most part, and explode brilliantly. Better still, at two hours, the film is brilliantly paced. Miller and the creative team have essential produced a remake of The Road Warrior. Many claim the latter to be a chase film that never lets up. While that is mostly true, there are portions, particularly in the early goings, where the characters are predominantly stationary. Fury Road actually never stops moving. The story and plot trot along alongside the trucks and cars employed to do battle and reach the required destinations. It never seems as though the heroes or villains remain standing or seated anywhere for more than five minutes. Rather than suffering exhaustion, the viewer is continuously re-energized because something new always shows up. As action movies go, Fury Road is first class material.
Filled to the brim with George Miller flourishes (the plump women being milked like cows, the elderly ‘mothers’ who combat alongside Max and Furiosa during the climax, Immortan Joe’s monstrous outfit), Fury Road is a unique experience in modern cinema. Major American Studios rarely give as much money to directors to make films as bold and odd as Fury Road as Warner Bros. did when they supplied Miller and company with what they needed. It is a special movie, not the least because if its fresh take on the property but for its place in the multiplex landscape in this early 21st century. It is a franchise installment, therefore it is banking on brand name recognition, but few could possibly lambast it for being a lazy studio project. This is a Mad Max film, and it’s as mad as they come.