In a post-apocalyptic wasteland, Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is just trying to survive, apart from volatile human contact. Despite his best efforts, he is thrown in the middle of a struggle between despotic warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and a rogue Imperator under his command, Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who has spirited away Joe’s five prized Wives. The big-picture world may have been “killed”, but who will achieve their goal in the end, and make the most of what they have?
At one point early on in the film, a character states, “If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die historic on the fury road!” To me, that line characterizes the mentality behind the extraordinary ambition of the production. Though its environs are different, its lavish and expansive scope reminds me of old Hollywood, like Intolerance and Gone with the Wind. And if the filmmakers (led by veteran Mad Max director George Miller) didn’t make something spectacular, it was all going to crash and burn.
While a lot of things crash and burn within the story, the film comes through as a triumph. Practical in-camera stunts, car collisions and mayhem make for truly beautiful chaos. It’s not entirely practical (digital removal of some wires, the sandstorm, etc), but what is important is the immersive illusion. If you think about it, in-camera action is the purest expression of cinema. And the more intricate and complex the action, the more impressive the achievement. The fact that the crew and cast pulled this off, and under the guidance of the entirely on-point 70-year-old director-maestro Miller, is more than merely impressive. It deserves a Special Achievement Oscar.
Miller’s cast is also of the highest quality. Charlize Theron is quietly fantastic as Furiosa, who is in every sense the true protagonist of the film. Furiosa is a true badass, but one who retains her femininity at the same time, which is a rarer character type than it should be. But Max himself does not get left in the dust; Tom Hardy brings an incomparable screen presence, doing a lot with an assortment of grunts and antisocial notes in his performance. Hardy carries such weight on the silver screen that I would watch him read the yellow pages (a theory sort of tested and proven by Locke, which is set entirely in main character Hardy’s car). Supporting character Nux is played by Nicholas Hoult, who continues his line is prosthetic performances after X-Men and Warm Bodies (his work here is certainly his best yet). Each of the five Wives comes across as her own person. And Hugh Keays-Byrne, who plays Immortan Joe, also played the main villain Toecutter in the 1979 Mad Max, which is crazy to think of.
The screenplay, while relatively sparse, hits every note it needs to and is of course supported by exquisite visual storytelling – it’s an effective streamlining process. Also, the characters’ dialect is heightened and a lot of fun. “Is that the wind, or a curious vexation?” “Bah, mediocre!” “I’d say it was your manifest destiny not to”. “You will ride eternal, shiny and chrome!” These things are endlessly quotable. And the quality of the writing is not just in being goofy, as there is room for moments of beauty and character amid the chaotic chase that forms the body of the movie. Even several minor characters receive well-judged mini-arcs that pay off in smaller but significant ways.
Such details make the fictional world feel real and lived-in, with characters chasing not only each other but the hope of a better future. The five Wife characters reclaim choice; even though they follow Furiosa, they don’t blindly obey her. Throughout the film, moments of over-the-top insanity are complemented by moments that feel organic and grounded. A perfect example: on the one hand the Wives are opposing a tyrannical Immortan but on the other hand the villain is literally a guy named Joe. Joe’s use of powder to cover up his decades of decay, and his enthrallment of the Wives, is hard to miss as allegory for an outdated patriarchy.
The aesthetic presentation is just top notch, with a beautifully photographed Namibia standing in for Australia for most of the runtime. I must also give special mention to the brilliant score by Tom Holkenborg, which utilizes diegetic flavoring (from the sound system-carrying “Doof Wagon”!) on top of propulsive symphonic hooks. By turns the music conveys the chaos of war and more sweeping themes, and when the two meld it’s magical. Add Furiosa’s recurring leitmotif of mournful strings, and the listening experience gains a welcome additional mood. My lone criticism of the movie is that Max’s PTSD is a bit heavy-handed at times, but it pays off very well and isn’t much as far as stumbling blocks go.
Mad Max: Fury Road is a film that lends itself to superlatives, best this, best that. It’s a movie in which everything clicks as it should, with a great cast committing to the reality of a heightened world. George Miller’s mounting of this intricate and near-flawless burst of violence and emotion makes for a modern action filmmaking masterpiece. 10/10.
P.S.: This is my favorite action film since Hot Fuzz, but even that is a comedy that riffs on the genre. Contenders for the previous title-holder for best “straight” action movie: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Casino Royale. Hmm…
P.P.S.: Favorite car chases? Popeye versus public transportation in The French Connection. The free-for-all of The Blues Brothers. The claustrophobic one-shot in Children of Men. Nick Fury dying hard in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. And, pretty much all of Mad Max: Fury Road. A great car chase can also do its part to lift up even the most mediocre of action films (Ronin, The Matrix Reloaded).