The race for summer dominance started back at the beginning of May, and while there may be films that make more money this summer, the leader in the clubhouse for the best film of the summer is Mad Max: Fury Road. George Miller has done a rare thing by returning to a franchise property 30 years later to continue a story and arguably made the best entry in that franchise. Mad Max: Fury Road is an unrelenting action movie from beginning to end, barely giving the audience moments to breathe amidst all the breathtaking, over-the-top action, making an assault on the senses in the best of ways.
Rather than opting for a reboot, writer/director George Miller instead chose to just move forward with another entry in the Mad Max universe. There are hints and nods to the previous films, but it is largely a self-contained story in this pre-established universe. As a friend of mine suggested, the best way to approach the film is similar to how the James Bond franchise exists.
The story opens with “Mad” Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) pursued across a barren, post-apocalyptic wasteland and captured by a group of War Boys, warriors of a tyrannical leader named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, the same actor who was Toecutter, the villain in the original Mad Max). Immortan Joe rules the people under him by controlling the water supply. He sends his best driver, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) to collect gasoline from the nearby Gas Town (there’s also a nearby place called Bullet Farm) in her War Rig. Unbeknownst to Immortan Joe, Furiosa has smuggled out Immortan Joe’s Five Wives, beautiful women hand-picked for breeding, leading Joe to unleash his army, as well as the forces of Gas Town and Bullet Farm, in pursuit of Furiosa and the Five Wives. Max is brought along for the ride by Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a sickly War Boy, who is using Max as a human “blood bag” because Max’s blood makes him a universal donor. Max eventually finds himself paired with the women fleeing the pursuing horde and trying to get to safety.
George Miller’s last Mad Max movie (Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome) was thirty years ago. In the interim he has made, as a writer or director, The Witches of Eastwick, Lorenzo’s Oil, Babe, Babe: Pig in the City, Happy Feet, and Happy Feet Two. Think about that for a minute. The mind that got a Best Picture nomination for Babe and won a Best Animated Feature Oscar in 2007 for Happy Feet is the same mind that has created this wasteland filled with energetic, bombastic action. And to make arguably the best entry in a film franchise after being away from it for thirty years is an amazing accomplishment.Everything about this film sizzles and pops with electricity; the performances, the action, the stunts, the visuals, the score. And all of it is a testament to the Miller, the driving force behind the film.
Refreshingly, the story here is as bare bones as possible. There is enough narrative structure to give an impetus for the action, but it is all in service of the action. And the action is outstanding, with the majority of it taking place on moving vehicles and people jumping from vehicle to vehicle. The thrill of the chase is a constant driving impulse behind everything, and it serves as a firm foundation that film just builds great action on top of great action on top of it. There are massive explosions, shootouts between vehicles, War Boys on poles being dropped down onto the War Rig, It’s all impressive and it all works because so much of the action is not reliant upon CGI. Naturally, there is a fair amount of CGI, but the action itself is grounded in actual people doing actual stunts, as opposed to most superhero movies where some CGI-rendered hero is fighting another CGI-rendered villain against some CGI-backdrop.
The visual rendering of this world is breathtaking. A lot of the film is set in wide open desert spaces and it all looks great. The highlight though, is a gigantic sand/firestorm that Furiosa drives the War Rig straight into and Nux and a few other War Boy vehicles follow. Inside the storm is spectacular to watch and a visual treat. While I did not see the film in 3D, I can only imagine how amazing it must have been, given the praise I’ve heard of its 3D, making it one of the few modern films that are worthwhile in 3D.
There is a lot of weirdness involved in this post-apocalyptic vision. Immortan Joe’s fleet, as it were, has one vehicle that is rigged with massive speakers and a character named the Doof Warrior just playing a massive guitar on it the entire time. The War Boys are eager to die and enter “Valhalla”, making them kamikaze zealots of Immortan Joe who are willing to die in an instant. When they are about to sacrifice themselves, they spray chrome all over their mouths and scream to the others, “WITNESS!!!” There are about a dozen other little oddities about this film (the reliance upon breast milk as nutrition instead of water for the people Immortan Joe rules over, a throwaway shot of people walking on stilts through mud as War Rig drives through a smoky wasteland) that it doesn’t feel the need to explain because it adds to the crazy and bombast of it all. As someone who has sat through many modern action movies that feel the need to explain every little thing because it is in service to a greater cinematic universe or because the villain is actually complex and misunderstood, this film’s lack of exposition was refreshing.
Tom Hardy as Max is another fine performance from one of the best actors working today. Surprisingly, he almost plays a supporting role to Charlize Theron, who really owns much of the film. Max is basically conscripted into helping these women flee from a lecherous, filthy tyrant Joe who has literally kept these Five Wives under lock and key. Theron’s Imperator Furiosa is this decade’s successor to Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley and Uma Thurman’s The Bride. She is a strong female character who drives the plot, seeking to help these Five Wives escape to a home she was taken from when she was young. Her motivation is hinted at but never fully made clear, just that she is hoping for redemption. Max, being the loner that he is, is haunted by his past, the loss of his family, and sees hope as a dangerous thing in world as it is presently constructed. They have an uneasy alliance initially before eventually coming to depend on one another for their survival through this perilous journey. Nicholas Hoult gives a very different performance from practically everything else he has done to date, taking Nux from zealotry to despair to finding a new purpose for his sickly life, however brief it may be.
Even the Five Wives, played by Rosie Huntington-Whitley, Zoe Kravitz, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, and Courtney Eaton bring a good mix of personalities and a desire for freedom that they’re not just one-dimensional damsels in distress. It bothers me that some of the conversation surrounding the film is so negatively obsessed with the female empowerment/feminist aspect of the story being told here. There’s a repeated question uttered by the Five Wives throughout the film, asking, “Who killed the world?” The implication is that it was men like Immortan Joe. There is a massive tapestry of film out there in the world, and there is plenty of room on it for men and women to have a variety of different roles. And it is even more welcome when it is in a male-dominated genre like this and the end result is such a glorious spectacle of action. This is not the laughable action of the Charlie’s Angels films.
Mad Max: Fury Road has set a very high bar for action movies and summer movies for the rest of the year. The action kicks in almost immediately and barely gives you a second to catch your breath once it starts. It’s a welcome return to the action genre and the Mad Max universe for George Miller, and hopefully more entries will follow. It’s easily the most fun I’ve had watching a movie this year. Believe the hype.
Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars