When we come across Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) in Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth film in director/co-writer George Miller’s brilliantly insane post-apocalyptic franchise, he’s standing on a cliff next to his Interceptor, alone as always, contemplating both the vast, empty plain below and, it is hinted, the ruins and ghosts of his past. But the brief moment of relative peace doesn’t last long: pursued by mutant hordes, he is soon captured and brought to the feudal environs of the Citadel, a monstrous enclave built into a mountain and ruled by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keas-Byrne), who controls possibly the only supply of fresh water left in what used to be Australia.
Initially stuck with needles so he can be used as a human “bloodbag,” Max soon finds himself not just escaping, but reluctantly teaming with Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), the driver of Joe’s powerful War Rig who has chosen to betray her leader and ferry his five wives to a safe harbor across the desert — the “green place” where she was born — before he can use them all to breed future generations of despotic, ravaged lunatics. Accidentally accompanied by Max’s former captor, the War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult), the small band of two men and six women are pursued across the wasteland by Joe and his fearsome army of supercharged, monster vehicles — against whom they must fight together or perish.
In other words, meet the new Max, same as the old Max — at least in spirit. Just as he did in The Road Warrior (1982) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), when he looked suspiciously like Mel Gibson, Max puts aside his own instinct for self-preservation in order to help a greater good — even if it’s ferrying five scantily-clad beauties away from their destinies as a human incubator farm. Back then, Max — who got his start in 1979’s original Mad Max as a cop trying to hold things together while society collapsed around him — did his thing on a much lower budget. Now unleashed to the tune of $150 million (or perhaps even more), Miller has finally put his vision of the future onscreen exactly as he wanted, and the results are nothing short of jaw-dropping.
Elegant in its simplicity, refreshing in its insistence on practical effects, and energizing in the way it uses both the geography of its action and its locations, Mad Max: Fury Road is like no other action film you’ll see this summer — or have seen perhaps in years. Even the colors of the movie are different from the usual desaturated murk that so many directors seem to mistake as a visual representation of serious intent. The movie’s two basic tones — the teal of the sky and the rust of the desert — pop off the screen and make the action blaze even brighter, thanks to Miller and cinematographer John Seale insisting on not doing things like every other filmmaker who shakes a camera at a scene and declares it a take. The camera never shakes in Mad Max: Fury Road; you know where everyone is, you see what they’re doing, and you still can’t believe your eyes.
The movie has a delicious forward momentum that barely pauses for what little exposition there is, or for that matter dialogue. Even the leads don’t have a hell of a lot of lines in the film, but they don’t need any more, really, than what is provided. Miller doesn’t bother to explain why Immortan Joe’s massive armada comes with a Doof Wagon on which the Doof Warrior plays a flame-throwing, double-necked electric guitar — he’s just there and, within the crazy quilt infrastructure of this future insane asylum of a world (just 45 years from now!), you just relax, accept it and marvel at the audacity and insanity of it.
Same goes for the actors: minus a lot of dialogue, much more is conveyed through physical action or, in the few quieter moments, simple gestures or facial expressions. Hardy is as tough, formidable and unyielding a physical presence as you would expect; he doesn’t channel Gibson as much as tap into the same psychic well of stoicism and inward-turning conflict as his predecessor, But at times it feels like Hardy is almost a supporting player in his own story. As Furiosa, Theron is not only pivotal plotwise, but brings a steely determination and a ragged dignity to the part while furthering the cause of female action stars by years. Furiosa is full of pain, anger and strength, and her motivations are simple and character-driven, not reactive and passive-aggressive like other recent female action heroines have been (I’m looking at you, Katniss Everdeen). With its emphasis on the power and preservation of women (more of whom come into play as the film goes on), Mad Max: Fury Road is aggressively feminist in its outlook.
And then there are the action and stunts, which employ the practical as much as possible (none of the action is done with CG, only things like optically removing wires and so on) and transform the movie into one long ballet of astonishing choreography. From the rolling fights atop and underneath the War Rig and other vehicles to the Polecats which dangle live actors over and into the thick of the action like sacrifices to the cinematic gods of action. With the minimal dialogue and intensive focus on the physical, Mad Max: Fury Road is a master class in its genre.
Aided by Junkie XL’s pulsating, often electrifying score, showcasing the vast Namibian locations in epic, breathtaking wide shots, George Miller has taken his own post-apocalyptic vision — which influenced so many others — and created the ultimate enhanced version of it. Mad Max: Fury Road is visual cinema at its finest, orchestrated by a crazed genius with a particularly progressive stance and all the tools of his trade at his disposal. The result is one flame-throwing, double-necked, shredding electric guitar of a movie.