You might be wondering just why a franchise (or whatever Mad Max films are) to a trilogy that came out in the 80s and starred Mel Gibson is getting a sequel now. The real reasons probably have something to do with money and capitalizing on nostalgia, but the reason I choose to believe is this: we need Mad Max.
In a world of action cinema that is becoming more cookie cutter and glossy via every superhero sequel and young adult adaptation Mad Max: Fury Road is a breath of old air. The kind of R-rated action that’s gritty, dirty and non-stop. The kind of action that action cinema was built on (not to mention much of Australian New Wave cinema). Fury Road isn’t just one of the best action films of this century so far, it’s a reminder of what we’ve lost as the industry has codified into a blockbuster machine.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Director: George Miller
Release Date: May 14, 2015
If you’re not a child of the 80s and you subsequently ignored everyone telling you to watch at least one of the Mad Max films for the past 20 years then it’s possible you don’t know the premise of the franchise. That really isn’t a problem. One of the strangely wonderful things about this series is that continuity is the last thing it cares about. Instead its focus is on its themes and the mythic creation of a man called Max.
There are a few key elements, of course. It’s somewhere in the post-apocalyptic future. Water, gas and areas that aren’t desert are scarce. Man has fallen into lawlessness and still wears far more leather than you’d expect. The world is dependent on despots who run small fiefdoms where they control the supplies and the cars — car chases are really popular in the future. Max (Tom Hardy) is a loner haunted by something terrible that happened in his past (possibly the tragic ending of the first film, but it’s never made clear).
He’s taken prisoner by one of these fiefdoms run by a mutated man named Immortan Joe, who has developed a war like cult around his control of water. On a routine gas run Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) steels the tanker she’s carrying so she can rescue five women from being bred by Joe. A chase across the desert ensues in which both Max and one of Joe’s half-life warriors, Nux (Nicholas Hoult) join the fray.
It may sound like I’m simplifying much of the film with that last sentence, but I’m not. Once Fury Road gets started on its chase premise it holds onto it until the very end, only stopping every so often to deliver exposition of some surprisingly sentient plot points. It is as non-stop as a film can be and it works magically. Characters are developed almost entirely through actions leaving dull blather and burdensome world creation (I’m looking at you, Jupiter Ascending) in the background. At first it may feel like the movie is being horribly unclear because it refuses to hold your hand, but then you realize that by letting the story ride along with the car chases its not holding your hand, but yanking you along with it screaming, “Shut up and enjoy the damn ride!”
Miller’s blend of actual stunts and limited CGI is a master work in cinematic action. The only person who could even come close to him right now is Gareth Evans of The Raid and The Raid 2 fame, and he owes much of his style to Miller’s original trilogy. It’s the kind of action that makes you shift your thinking from “this is fun and dumb” to “this is fun and art.” The kind of relentlessly, perfectly constructed set pieces that prove just exactly what’s wrong with the likes of lazy action direction we get from Michael Bay types.
The difference is just how relentlessly old school Miller is in his direction. It’s as if Miller didn’t get the memo that over-cranking to speed things up just isn’t done anymore or that pushing into an extreme close up at high speed is considered tacky now. No one told him and so he just does it and it works. It works so damn well and feels so original that even the most jaded action connoisseur will be on the edge of their seat during the film’s climatic final chase. This all despite the fact that really each sequence is the exact same thing (tanker getting chased by cars). That’s not a problem, though, because in reality the movie is just one long, beautiful action sequence. It’s the tanker chase from Road Warrior drawn out across an entire film and it’s glorious.
This isn’t to say that there’s nothing to bite your mental teeth into. Mad Max isn’t really about the nitty gritty of characters, but more a study of archetypes, humanity and the ever present lone wolf hero. Max isn’t a character, he’s a symbol for survival, rebirth and redemption. That’s why the films have almost no continuity between them. It’s why Tom Hardy’s almost monosyllabic performance is so spot on. It’s why the characters around him are the driving force of emotion while he is simply the hammer that triggers change. If anything Theron’s Furiousa is the star of this film as she takes the role of the heart — albeit one that can kick some serious ass. All this is why the movie’s use of the rescue of a group of “pure” women trope actually works despite the cliche. Fury Road is delivering an incredibly meta, two-hour action think piece on the genre itself.
You may think I’m over analyzing all this, and that’s absolutely fine. You can come out of Fury Road thinking everything I just said is idiotic, but you can’t come out of it thinking you saw anything but a kick in the ass to action cinema. Mad Max is actually mad, and weird and strange and different. It features a double-guitar-flameflower playing mutant strapped to the top of a car that is basically a massive speaker system. It has people wearing ridiculous clothing and some of the maddest dialog this side of a David Lynch production.
Fury Road may be a “sequel,” but it feels entirely original, and that might be the real reason it stands out so well. In an industry that has become so cannibalistic, to the point that it could destroy itself, Fury Road is undeniably unapologetic about being different. If this is what is on the other side of the superhero movie apocalypse then sign me up.