Mad Max: Fury Road is a rare gem - part reboot, part sequel (or in-between-quel?), it's another in a long line of Hollywood projects mining 80's nostalgia for box office gold. To date, this trend hasn't turned out to be particularly successful either in making many decent films or getting folks flocking to the theater.
But this one is different. It's almost like director George Miller (Mad Max, The Road Warrior, Babe 2 - yes, really) has apparently been watching Hollywood action movies for the last 30 years and grew so sick of most modern directors being frankly pretty crap at it that he made Fury Road to show everyone how it's done.
This is the real deal.
First things first. You need to see this movie. Not on DVD, not on an iPad, but in a theater. On the biggest screen you can find. Just do it.
What's that? You haven't seen any of the other Mad Max movies? That's fine, I'll catch you up:
- It's the future, and the future sucks.
- Max lost his family, and is - shall we say - less than happy about it.
- He drives good.
There, you're caught up. Go see the movie. Not just because it's an exhilarating thrill ride full of brilliant set pieces (though, it is that - you'll get your money's worth). And not just because said set pieces are mostly practical effects and real stunts with tons of actual metal getting crashed, set on fire, and blown up (though yeah, that parts great too). And not just because Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, and Nicholas Hoult all give three dynamite performances to anchor the mayhem (but...okay, you know this gag by now, but they're all three brilliant).
Max himself isn't even the traditional hero of this story. This isn't a radical departure, as - apart from the first film - the other movies in the series are more stories about other people that Max wanders into like Clint Eastwood in a Sergio Leone film, all myth and catalyst rather than traditional focus and arc. But here, the story he stumbles upon is that of Imperator Furiosa betraying her cruel overlord Immortan Joe by helping his five enslaved wives escape his Citadel. This is a simple enough inciting incident for a film that is, in effect, an extended chase sequence, but the combination of subject matter and execution delivers strong, layered characters that fly in the face of action film stereotypes. Theron's Furiosa is easily the best action heroine we've seen since Ellen Ripley taped a flamethrower to an assault rifle in Aliens, but each of the liberated wives also gets definition and strength communicated to the viewer through their actions where it would have been easy for them to be damsel eye candy.
The film plays this game of subverting expectations constantly, from an apparently helpless woman the characters stumble upon late in their journey, to one of the would-be martyr "War Boys" that Joe brainwashes into fighting for him with religious fervor. These characters are revealed as people, some largely in the visual cues of the story or through their actions, but others far more obviously. And through it all, the underlying mantra is that people have value. People are not disposable. People are not things.
These words are scrawled by the wives on the wall of their prison before they flee, and are brilliantly embodied in the title character. Max is captured in the opening minutes of the film and taken prisoner as a universal doner for Joe's wounded and sick. He's referred to as "blood bag" (usually in the possessive sense) and muzzled to further strip him of his humanity before breaking free and - reluctantly - teaming up with Furiosa. This masterful building of empathy not only serves to invest the audience in the characters and their quest for freedom (we're in Max's corner immediately and so we sympathize with anyone in a similar plight), but it creates a slick device wherein Max is effectively telling the audience Furiosa's story. This is a familiar bit of business for anyone who's seen The Road Warrior or Beyond Thunderdome, but here it's less about a voice over than how Miller has put the film together, from the way the movie opens with Max being dragged into the world of Citadel to the final shot being literally from his point of view.
This adherence to utilizing the visual language of film is a guiding star for Fury Road. Max himself has very little dialogue, acting more like a wild thing than a man before Furiosa and her posse start to treat him as a human, but Hardy conveys pages worth of text with a look or a gesture. Other characters are informed by their cars or their weapons of choice, or the details of their wardrobe (Immortan Joe's pristine plastic armor and fearsome skull mask hide a tumor-ridden body that can barely breath), allowing rich detail without the burden of tedious exposition and story-stopping backstory.
But everyone communicates through their actions, just as Miller himself informs the audience through his visuals. Miller has always been a talented visualist (the design of his original Mad Max films shaped the look of post-apocalyptic fiction as we know it), and Fury Road shows he's lost nothing to the intervening years. He also paces this film with a crazed energy that belies his 70 years, but also a careful craftsmanship that can only come from decades of experience. It's a notable duality that permeates the entire film. This is a movie that's violent and crass but never mean-spirited (it does just enough to make you really hate the villains without punishing the audience for watching). It's set in a dusty wasteland that's still full of vibrant color and visually diverse locations. It features violent, tough-as-nails heroes who - deep down - really just want their homes back. Even the threats like an early sandstorm (that's full of lightning tornadoes, because we're just that lucky) possess a majesty and fearsome beauty that the film is careful to capture.
And it's a movie full of awesome throwbacks to 80's action sensibilities that's also more thoughtful and progressive than most genre movies these days. A film that passes the Bechdel Test (multiple times) and the Mako Mori Test but doesn't ever feel like it's stopping the action to preach at the audience. Fury Road is a film that proves that empowering one person is empowering all people.
It's also a movie where a mutant on bungee cords plays a dual-necked electric guitar that shoots fire. So, you know, there's that too.