Action is the purest form of cinema. They’re called ‘movies’ for a reason, and action is what they get across best. That action can come in many forms - slapstick, dance, even in the careful lack of movement, of chosen stillness - but when it comes to classical action you will not see a better film this year than Mad Max: Fury Road. Which means that this film, the fourth in a loosely connected franchise of post-apocalyptic action movies, is the purest work of cinema of 2015.
There is a running conversation we have with ourselves about whether or not artists lose it as they get older. It seems like they must - everybody gets slower, gets less interested in breaking new ground, has less ambition and drive. Many filmmakers dodder into their twilight years churning out lesser films, even as they are adored by their hardcore base (see Michael Mann). Quentin Tarantino has vowed to retire before he can hit the age of diminished returns - that’s how entrenched this piece of common wisdom is. But every bit of common wisdom has the glaring exceptions that prove the rule; one is Martin Scorsese, whose The Wolf of Wall Street riled up prudes - and he was 70 when that came out. Now joining him is George Miller, also 70, who is releasing a movie that has all the energy and vitality of a young man’s work, but all the control and precision of an old master.
Mad Max: Fury Road is a chase movie. From almost the opening frame characters are in motion, hurtling forward and rarely stopping. The film is breathlessly paced, but entirely coherent; Miller learned his craft in an era that was, comparatively, more classical than our own quick-cut/jostled camera time, and he applies that mentality to a film that still manages to feel modern. Miller keeps the pace going, but he doesn’t bow to modern action requirements - he doesn’t feel the need to keep escalating the insanity onscreen until everything becomes a cacophonous mess of attempts to one-up the last action scene. The fleet of cars chasing Max and Imperator Furiosa across the desert is established early on, and the movie doesn’t suddenly introduce a Harrier jet or a suborbital laser cannon or a supercar made of plastique for the climax. In fact, the film’s climax involves everybody turning around and going back the way they came, a decision that is almost perverse in the modern landscape, but that is an example of the tight control Miller exerts over every moment. Instead of upping the stakes through increased chaos, Miller ups the stakes through emotion and character arcs.
Emotion! Yes, there’s emotion here, and there are sublimely smart themes that explore our perpetual war machine culture and the patriarchy. There are critiques hidden amidst the explosions, and there are touching character moments deftly inserted between the crashes. Miller wants it all, he wants the mayhem and the excitement of action and he wants the character and depth of good science fiction. He gets it all. He gives us it all.
The story is a perfectly contained pulp adventure; this could be a Conan tale. Max finds himself captured by Immortan Joe’s Warboys and held captive in the Citadel, an underground complex inside a huge, Monument Valley-like mesa. The poor of the Citadel - mutated, sickly, downtrodden - gather outside to catch a glimpse of Immortan Joe and to partake of his dumping of water on them, or Aqua Cola as he calls it. As the peasants scramble in the mud Immortan Joe and his children drink milk pumped directly from the breasts of mothers.
Max, madder here than ever before, haunted by flashes of innocents destroyed and the family he has lost, is used as a blood bag for a wounded Warboy, Nux. He seems destined to die hanging upside down, blood draining into Nux, when everything goes crazy. Imperator Furiosa, Immortan Joe’s most trusted general, is leading a supply run to Gasoline Town and the Bullet Farm when she suddenly takes her caravan on a left turn into the wasteland. She has absconded with Immortan Joe’s five wives, the breeding stock he uses to create healthy children in a world of radioactive sickness. The Warboys are mobilized and Max ends up taken along for the ride, strapped onto a car in a massive and deadly desert chase.
Our hero finds himself swept up in this drama about which he cares not at all; he just wants the chains off and to survive, but as in the best pulp tales the route to survival takes him directly through being a hero. Reluctantly Max must take up Furiosa’s cause, and must deal with the massive fleet of cars and war rigs and Warboys that are pursuing them across the blasted landscape.
Tom Hardy steps in for Mel Gibson in the role of Max Rockatansky, very far removed from the early days of the first Mad Max. Hardy isn’t doing a Gibson impression, and the loose continuity of the series allows the new hire to seamlessly integrate himself into the world, in a way that most new Bonds wish for. Hardy’s Max is shockingly funny; many of his best momets have him exasperated or baffled. He wants no part of Furiosa’s revolution, but he resigns himself to it, and many of his best moments are reactions to the mayhem in which he is embroiled. One shot that has been in all the trailer - Max giving a thumbs up - is actually a brilliant laugh moment that encapsulates the haggard, put-upon quality of this Mad Max.
Hardy is so charming, so charismatic, that you love him even as he’s introduced biting off one of the two heads of a squirming mutant lizard. There’s a looseness to Hardy here that makes his Max fun, even as he’s deadly, and you are reminded that not only is this guy one of our greatest actors, he’s absolutely a movie star. Those two qualities rarely go hand-in-hand, but Hardy is absolutely an heir to Brando. Every moment that Hardy is on screen is electric, and while this is possibly blasphemy, I can see his iteration becoming my favorite version of Max, if he’s given a couple more movies.
While the film is called Mad Max, and while Hardy is the star, the movie is truly about Furiosa, played with savage physicality by Charlize Theron. She’s the true hero, the real protagonist and the heart of the film. Theron plays her as a fierce warrior who has had enough of the horrors of Immortan Joe’s regime; she’s taking a principled stand, even if it costs her her life.
Theron is so fucking tough, and there are large sections of the film where it’s as if she is straight up jockeying with Hardy for ownership of the film. There’s a tendency for genre films to create female badasses by removing their femininity (the James Cameron thing), but Theron always feels like a woman, even if she has a steampunk mechanical hand and an alarming proficiency with firearms. Her goal isn’t vengeance or domination, it’s to help these women who are sex slaves of Immortan Joe.
In any other movie those women would be background noise, showing up just to be menaced/sexually assaulted. Mad Max: Fury Road isn’t any other movie, and the five wives - Zoe Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keogh, Abbey Lee, Megan Gale, Courtney Eaton - each get their own character arcs and moments, and each react to their situation differently. Some fight, some cower, some want to return to the familiarity of their abuse, but all react as humans, not as plot devices. “We Are Not Things,” they write on the wall of their chamber before escaping.
This is where the film’s surprising feminism shines through. Max isn’t the savior of these women, Furiosa is. It’s about women helping women, and Max is there as a (reluctant) ally. There’s a question that lingers over the whole film, “Who killed the world?,” and the answer, of course, is men. And they continue to grind it down ever further, and so Furiosa takes the women away in search of a Green Place, where a woman warrior group known as the Vulvani live. In the world of Mad Max women can have traditional female qualities - they’re life givers, they’re caretakers - while also kicking copious amounts of ass and riding around on cool motorcycles.
Hugh Keays-Byrne returns to the franchise as Immortan Joe. He played Toecutter in the original Mad Max, but the apocalypse has gotten a lot gnarlier since then. Immortan Joe is a terrifying figure, an aging warlord whose skeletal breathing mask makes him a horror movie Darth Vader. He’s relentless, and he leads his bizarre fleet of Warboys out to regain his women at any cost, and Keays-Byrne sells the fuck out of every bit of Immortan Joe’s ruthlessness and nastiness. He’s a great villain, an instant all-timer, a character as instantly iconic as Lord Humungus.
The fleet surrounding him - and I use that word specifically because Miller stages much of his car-to-car action like naval combat - is populated with absolutely bonkers characters and cars. There is a Bigfoot, tanker truck war rigs, cars with giant poles from which Warboys launch explosive lances, cars bristling with spikes, and a huge truck covered in enormous speakers upon which the Doof Warrior rides, constantly clanging out heavy metal chords and shooting fire from the neck of his guitar. That character alone is more inventive and cool and fun than most of the other movies released this summer. And he’s just one piece of the wave of madness that Miller unleashes on screen.
It’s important to point out that while the action is astonishing and while the world of the apocalypse is as harrowing as ever, Mad Max: Fury Road is FUN. It’s a good time. The film’s colors are bright, saturated to the point of popping. The action can be brutal and it is visceral but the film rarely dips into cruelty. This is a horrible, devastated future, and Furiosa and Max are trying to rescue sexually abused women, but that doesn’t mean Mad Max: Fury Road has to be grim or dour - it’s a total fucking blast. It’s a movie that has you cheering, that has your feet stomping, that has you vibrating in your seat with excitement.
Mad Max: Fury Road is absolutely a triumph. I loved every minute of it, and I loved all of the characters, from Max himself down to Nicholas Hoult’s Nux, a Warboy whose story I’ve avoided talking about in order to allow you to experience it for yourself. Every minute of Mad Max: Fury Road had me smiling, and every action sequence had my heart pumping. The mayhem is immense, and largely practical - even sequences that I thought for certain had to be CGI (there’s a truck that jackknifes so exquisitely I thought it had to be all digital, but at the post-screening Q&A Miller explained it was achieved using math and excellent stunt drivers).
Mad Max: Fury Road smashes into you, chrome grill leaving its mark forever in your head. It’s a movie that doesn’t just continue the legacy of Miller’s previous films, it’s a movie that I believe is, in its own way, as good as The Road Warrior. In a better world the conversation around Mad Max: Fury Road would be all about how much George Miller, a true master of cinema, deserves the Best Director Oscar.