George Lucas couldn’t do it. Steven Spielberg couldn’t do it. Ridley Scott couldn’t do it. None of the aforementioned filmmakers were able to successfully come back to the franchises they helped launch. Why would George Miller be any different? The Australian director hadn’t made a live-action movie since the dark and unjustly underrated Babe: Pig in the City and had not made an action film since Tina Turner ruled Bartertown in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome 30 years ago. Certain styles of filmmaking are no longer approachable for some directors, and why should it be any different for the director of Happy Feet 1 and 2?
It is different. Not only has George Miller made an effective return to the wasteland of the Mad Max universe with Mad Max: Fury Road, he has surpassed most action films released … well … ever. Here is a movie that is basically one long chase, interspersed with just enough dialogue and backstory to build sympathetic characters as they crash their way through an endless desert. It’s a story of redemption for not only its titular character, but a number of people he encounters throughout. The action is relentless and eye-popping to say the very least, but what is most surprising of all is the use of the women vs. men in the story. If anyone predicted that a Mad Max film with very little dialogue written by three men could make a feminist statement, you win the prize.
The story of how Fury Road came to be has become well known over the past few months, but for a brief recap: Miller began thinking about his iconic character in the late ‘90s, with plans to make Fury Road with the original Max, Mel Gibson. The Australian economy took a turn, 9/11 happened, crazy Mel emerged from the shadows of angry phone calls and traffic violations, and Miller went off to win an Oscar for Happy Feet. But Miller would not be denied his return. After a lengthy production process (including a year delay thanks to grass where the story demanded none and reshoots), the film is finally making its way to cinemas. You don’t need to see earlier Mad Max films to enjoy Fury Road, but you need to see Fury Road.
(Read: M is for Mad: A Guide to Mad Max)
We meet this Max (now played by Tom Hardy, in a loose reimagining of the character) as he is being chased down by Immortan Joe’s army of War Boys. Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played the villain Toecutter in Mad Max) is the ruler of a civilization that depends on him for water and survival. He is a man who uses obese women to pump out breast milk as a farmer would use cows, holds imprisoned men as “blood bags” for the sick, and keeps his Five Wives (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Zoë Kravitz, Riley Keough, Courtney Eaton, Abbey Lee) as prisoners to breed new offspring. He is surrounded by the aforementioned War Boys, a band of sick, bald, and pale men raised to believe the following: “I live. I die. I live again!” Nicholas Hoult plays way against type as one of these Boys, energetic and crazed as he screams his already oft-quoted line, “What a lovely day!”
Furiosa (Charlize Theron), one of Joe’s head lieutenants, has escaped with the Five Mothers and is headed towards a salvation far, far away. A chase ensues, which includes an imprisoned Max, and the madness of the chase is underway. It is in the chase that we are reminded of Miller’s imagination. The War Boys treat steering wheels like sacred religious objects. Vehicles are put together with a mutated sense of craftsmanship: porcupine-like exteriors, tractor claws, buzz saws, and in one especially memorable sequence, high poles to swing back and forth on. Motorcycles fly over moving trucks. Characters walk atop and out of moving vehicles as though they’re taking a walk in the park, such is the life they lead. Much of this came to be thanks to impressive wire work and stunt choreography courtesy of Guy Norris. While CGI is used when needed (to great effect during a vicious sandstorm), it is Miller’s insistence upon practical special effects that leads to the action exploding off the screen. And special thanks to cinematographer John Seale for coming out of retirement, making the sky impossibly blue above the dead and barren world below.
Little dialogue offers little problem for the characters in Fury Road. Hardy makes the role of Max his own by making him a desperate creature condemned to a guilt-ridden hell who finds himself on a road to redemption. Meeting him there is Theron, whose portrayal of Furiosa will bring delight to filmgoers who believe women are getting short shrift in recent cinematic offerings. The movie is more about Furiosa and the young women she is rescuing than it is about Max, and that’s okay. For the first time in the franchise, the story isn’t being relayed to us by a feral boy who grew to be a leader, or a young woman who is a leader of children, all regaling us with the triumphs and tragedies of the road warrior, Max. It is Max himself who introduces us to this story. He is as much an observer as he is a champion.
Through his eyes we see women breaking free from their shackles, both literally and figuratively, as they defy Joe’s cry of “That’s my property” by accelerating away from him with a cold look. After a frightening demand from a male character, one wife tells another, “You don’t have to just because he says so.” Then there is the mighty Furiosa, who Max actually yields his gun to at one point after failing to hit a target. As for speech, Max is gagged for nearly 45 minutes before speaking a word to anyone, and even then he has been broken down to a man who grunts. As the action revvs up, it is Furiosa he must depend on and not the other way around. In roles that could have remained silent while Max and Furiosa do all the heavy lifting, each of the Five Wives has her own defining characteristic, but I’ll leave that to you to discover. Who runs the world? Girls.
As for the action, what can be said? Miller’s eye hasn’t diminished in the years since Thunderdome. If anything, his vision is better than ever. He raised the bar with the final chase scene in The Road Warrior and has done so again in 2015 with Mad Max: Fury Road. To say it’s better than expected is a slight upon this remarkably fresh take on decades-old material. There is little debate as to just who Mad Max really is. It isn’t Mel Gibson, and it isn’t even Tom Hardy. It’s George Miller.