If you hoped that Mad Max: Fury Road, director/mastermind George Miller’s first visit to the post-apocalyptic wastes we last saw 30 years ago in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, was going to be nuts, you’re in luck, because it’s crazier than you ever dared dream. Often described as one long chase scene, that’s not an inaccurate portrayal, as it’s wall-to-wall visceral action, insane practical stunts, highly stylized production, with a more thoughtful take on the apocalyptic than you probably expect.
Fury Road has all of the vehicular mayhem of a pulpy ‘70s B-movie, only taken to ludicrous, transcendent heights. It watches like one of those films had unlimited resources to play with, and the results are as delirious and over-the-top as that sounds. Tom Hardy, taking over the Max Rockatansky role that helped launch Mel Gibson to international superstardom, is like some feral, rampaging beast, more animal than man, grunting rather than talking. In an interview, Hardy said he has between four and 20 lines in the whole movie, and though that may be a slight exaggeration, he’s not far off. The man is not wordy.
Max is run down, kidnapped, and turned into a prisoner/living blood donation in relatively short order, and the basic point is to throw Max and Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, one-armed, shaved-headed, and totally badass) together on the run. She steals five of mask-wearing warlord Immortan Joe’s (Hugh Keays-Byrne, also known as the Toe Cutter from the original Mad Max) wives, his prized “breeders,” and takes off across the desert in an attempt to liberate them. From end to end, almost every moment of Fury Road is taken up by this pursuit. They never stop moving; they may slow down for a moment from time to time, but never stop, threading themes of perpetual war throughout.
As this manic action unfolds, Miller imbues the story legitimate connection and emotion between the characters, all fit snuggly between explosions and car crashes. It’s even more of an accomplishment considering this is all done without talking. Max and Furiosa are action-oriented people, they don’t have time or call for chitchat. They bond through battle and survival, and it happens without you even noticing right away. It’s a different way to go about this than you usually encounter, but as flames shoot out of guitars and exhaust pipes, somewhere in all of the sound and fury you form a similar emotional link. Broken, wounded, and haunted, both Hardy and Theron portray all of this and more, hardly uttering a syllable.
Fury Road could have easily let the five wives—Zoe Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whitely, Riley Keogh, Abbey Lee, and Courtney Eaton—be mere props, no more than sex slaves and baby factories to be abused, but they’re more than just distractions. Amidst the burning rubber and chaos, each has a distinct personality, arc, and moment to shine, and they all have wildly different reactions to their situation. Some want to fight, another wants to return home, others are understandably afraid. Before they escape, they write, “We Are Not Things” on the wall, and they act as people, not stage decorations. Between these characters, Furiosa’s strength and resolve, and group of female warriors called the Vulvani, Fury Road reveals a welcome feminist streak that you don’t encounter often in this type of testosterone fueled movie. Max is never a savior, if anything he’s an ally, and, with a physical equality established in their first encounter, they exist on a level plane. This is something quite different from the norm, and adds another unique embellishment.
Miller executes intricate world building based on little overt exposition. There were oil wars, water wars, and then the human race poisoned the planet, killed the world with nukes, and in this desolate waste, everyone basically just waits to die. Warboy Nux (Nicholas Hoult), bald, scarred, and ready for Valhalla, with a morbid sense of gallows humor, names his tumors, his pals, Barry and Larry. That’s the world, and, for all the madness, Miller renders it organically. You can gawk at the badass post-apocalyptic battlewagons and intricate costumes, but they feel like elements that could actually happen, pieced together out of what you might find lying around, used as practically as possible.
Mad Max: Fury Road has been in the works forever. The original shooting location was wiped off the map by what resembled the act of a vengeful deity, and it’s been in the can so long it was on my most anticipated movies list for both 2013 and 2014 (I left it off this year because I fully expected every copy to magically be erased before I had the chance set eyes on the damn thing). But it was worth every last second we waited. Full of searing, scorch-your-eyebrows action, subtle, terrific performances, as well as more thought provoking beats than you expect, Mad Max: Fury Road proves that, for all their misfires, sometimes big movie studios get it right. [Grade: A]