You’d be forgiven for thinking that Mad Max – and the director who created him, George Miller – might have mellowed with age. Not a bit of it.
In the late 1970s, Miller trudged off into the remote outskirts of Melbourne with a film crew, a bunch of old cars and a then-unknown Mel Gibson, and came back with a ramshackle, raw sci-fi revenge movie that felt like the cinematic equivalent of punk rock. Decades later, Miller’s back with Mad Max: Fury Road, a film that feels like both a continuation of the original and its two sequels – Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) – and a modern revitalisation of their characters and ideas.
If the first Mad Max was a rough, three-minute punk single, Fury Road is the deafening 12-minute remaster.
Tom Hardy replaces Mel Gibson as the new Max Rockatansky, a loner driving through a post-apocalyptic desert in a rumbling V8 muscle car. Already bearing the psychological scars of his lost wife and child (a nod to the events of the first film), Max’s day worsens when he’s captured by the raving acolytes of King Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a despotic ruler who keeps his subjects in their place by controlling the water supply (or “Aqua-Cola” as he calls it).
Meanwhile, shaven-headed driver Furiosa (Charlize Theron) has made off across the desert with King Joe’s “five wives” stashed in the belly of her modified oil-tanker. Before long, Max has formed an uneasy partnership with Furiosa, and the group work together to escape King Joe’s pursuing army of War Boys.
What’s refreshing about Fury Road is its lack of exposition. Where most filmmakers might be tempted to provide long back-stories for Furiosa or Max, or explain where they’ve come from or what their motivations are, Miller (who co-writes as well as directs) stages Fury Road as one almost unbroken chase scene.
You know how characters in comic books will often have story-furthering chats while running to the next action scene or engaging in fights? That’s what Fury Road does: it drops in bits of story with the odd line of dialogue or a stolen glance. The result’s a film that is both constantly on the move yet – and this is the really tricky bit to get right – still manages to sketch in the characters well enough that you care about their fate.
It’s Miller’s attention to visual detail – aided by John Seale’s stunning cinematography – that makes Fury Road’s future setting feel so vital, even when those details are whistling by at 90 miles per hour. In an era where we’ve come to assume that everything we’re seeing has been built in a computer, Fury Road‘s citadels full of strange, painted faces and rusting machinery seem absolutely real.
You can feel the sand-blasted wear on every vehicle, whether it’s a spiky car akin to the one in Peter Weir’s The Cars That Ate Paris or a huge truck with a cackling guitar player suspended from the front. Miller’s future world of scarcity and mania has all the twisted strength of a Hogarth engraving: even as society collapses in on itself, a handful of warlords make their final grasp for power, bolstered by the unthinking devotion of their car-obsessed foot soldiers.
Then there are the action sequences – and what action sequences they are. Exploding in a riot of colour, fire and dirt, they have an elemental, operatic quality unlike anything you’ve seen in a multiplex. The $150m budget has largely been spent on building and crashing real vehicles, with a smattering of CGI work to finish off the shots; the resulting action scenes therefore recall the grit of Mad Max 2 and expand on them in a way that wouldn’t have been possible in the 1980s. There are moments in Fury Road left your humble reviewer agog.
Somehow, Max and Furiosa still cut through all the shock and awe. Hardy’s an effective replacement for Mel Gibson as a very different kind of Max; one who communicates largely through grunts and gruff utterances, yet always with a glimmer of humanity behind his eyes. Likewise Theron as Furiosa; amidst all the chaos, her performance is lean and affecting, and possibly among her best in years. Nicholas Hoult, who at first seems to have been given a thankless role as a War Boy named Nux, soon comes into his own as a memorable sidekick.
There’s much more to be written about the things bubbling below the surface in Fury Road. The story of Furiosa – who surely deserves an instant place in the pantheon of great sci-fi heroines – and her liberated group of “prized breeders” will likely become the stuff of dissertations and essays. Repeat viewings are sure to reveal more hidden details that are so easily missed in the heat of the moment. But even taken as a straightforward, even retro road-going action movie, Fury Road remains unmissable.
At a time when expensive summer movies seem increasingly formulaic, Mad Max: Fury Road tears up the rulebook. It feels like Miller going for broke – holding nothing back for a sequel, but instead throwing every ounce of creativity and imagination into one compact slab of sound and movement.
Concise where most action movies are complicated, sharp and violent where most are tame and bloodless, Mad Max: Fury Road is a brutal, breathtaking work of pop art.
Mad Max: Fury Road is out in UK cinemas on the 14th May.
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