Release Day: May 14th, 2015 (UK)
Genre: Action; Adventure; Science fiction
Starring: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult
Vehicles have always played a huge part in the Maxverse and veteran director George Miller decides to hammer this point home in Mad Max: Fury Road. Various characters are seen to cherish steering wheels, hauling them around in the same way Bruce Spence’s Gyro Captain clung onto a spoon in Mad Max 2. His spoon could pick at leftover tinned food, a novelty apparently long gone. Small-scale scavenging is out. This is a world dominated by distance, by grandeur, by gasoline. The spoon has become the steering wheel.
Or, maybe such pensiveness doesn’t exist within these characters. Maybe they just love to thunder across the desert. Maybe they can’t wait to get on the road. Miller certainly can’t.
After a brief prologue from Max explaining his post-apocalyptic mantra (“A man reduced to a single instinct: survive”) we hurtle into a half hour opening sequence that obliterates anything remotely resembling action we might have seen in previous films. These thirty minutes of total carnage, of collapsed worldbuilding, shoot past in an aluminium whirlwind, leaving your eyes watering and heart bellowing. It’s almost as if Miller has been waiting three decades to get something off his chest.
The plot is simple but by no means inadequate: Max (Tom Hardy) finds himself in an unlikely partnership alongside Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) as the pair attempt to evade the monarchical clutches of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a slave-keeping cultish leader. The destination, or “Green Place”, dreamt up by the formerly shackled wives of Joe, is unknown. It is more or less a mystery, the characters unable to shed much light and, as such, we are left in the dark. This doesn’t matter, the journey does.
The best thing, unquestionably, about the franchise has always been Miller’s ingenious and realistic-looking action sequences. They are here in abundance, bearing the hallmarks of even greater ingenuity and somehow appearing just as authentic. Oil trucks are christened “War Rigs” and subsequently live up to the name. Amazingly, the majority of effects are practical, in line with the director’s penchant for traditional movie-making. As such, praise should be heaped upon the many stunt performers whose death-defying efforts play a key role in raising the stakes.
We are constantly reminded of the urgency facing Max, Furiosa and company: as the camera pans back towards the chasing pack, all we can see is an ominous mirage, a giant metallic silhouette in the distance. The threat is real and incoming, energised by a booming score that carries more than a hint of Brian May’s earlier franchise work. Other throwbacks to past films include: Master-Blaster-esque siblings (one of whom is former WWE wrestler Nathan Jones), and the occasional lower front bumper camera shot. There’s even that familiar feeling of disorientation, where the screen is so rammed full of carnage that deciphering who is fighting who becomes a task.
Of course, absurdity is tossed around like a hot potato. From vehicles in the form of mechanical hedgehogs, to an electric guitarist who looks like a cross between The Silence from Doctor Who and Klaus Kinski’s Nosferatu, Miller has all bases covered. This includes humour: “Of all the legs, you had to shoot the one that was attached to his favourite”. Nicholas Hoult’s Nux is the ideal amalgamation of odd and funny, his obsession with the Gates of Valhalla both amusing and touching. Hoult absolutely throws himself at the role, which is arguably the best of his career.
Probably for the first time, Max truly is mad. He’s no more than a splash of white body paint away from being one of Joe’s skeletal followers, growling incoherently and shifting his gun aim maniacally. Hardy sometimes deviates verbally back into Bane-mode, but he is mighty impressive as the iconic loner. The Welshman is gruff, a far cry from Mel Gibson’s portrayal in the inaugural instalment and possibly more interesting too.
Hugh Keays-Byrne, the man behind Gibson’s nemesis in Mad Max, returns as new villain Immortan Joe. Perhaps it is not by coincidence that Joe’s world-weary appearance could very well be that of Toecutter after toiling for decades in the scorching desert. Imagine the sunburn? “Do not, my friends, become addicted to water,” Joe preaches to the subservient crowds upon affording them momentary respite from thirst. His voice croaks like the Uruk-hai from The Lord of the Rings, and he is almost as scary too.
In a film overflowing with eccentric and domineering characters, Imperator Furiosa is two things: a warrior and a realist. She handles herself in battle while aiding the escape of five enslaved wives, who are also each pretty handy when it comes to fighting and smarts (and who all somehow manage to keep their white clothing miraculously clean). Rosie Huntington-Whiteley is especially good, steely and determined, as Joe’s pregnant prized possession. The women drive this movie; Max is along for the ride through coincidence, but it is the female characters who initiate the chase because they value life.
“Out here everything hurts,” Furiosa states bluntly. Crucially, Theron does not play her as totally wound up — she is reasonable, and willing to work in a team because it is the right course of action. As a result, the relationship between her, Max and the rest of their ragtag band imbues believability. Some might accuse these characters of being too cordial too soon. They are all survivors though, in a harsh world, with a common enemy.
Without trying to sound overly hyperbolic, Mad Max has hit a new stratosphere. You can just about see Beyond Thunderdome — a perfectly fine outing, by the way — squirming in the corner. The direction, how the film has been pieced meticulously together only to then be blown apart, is all a work of art (in many other genres this would likely demand awards recognition). John Seale’s cinematography is wonderful — a night assault has the dreading echo and gloomy manifestation of something straight from Saving Private Ryan.
A Furiosa moment towards the end should, in time, cement its place in action movie lore alongside the likes of “Yippee-ki-yay motherfucker” and “Hasta-la-vista baby”. This is seminal cinema. The 80s had Die Hard. The 90s, Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Give it 20 years and we’ll be talking about Mad Max: Fury Road as the go-to action jaunt of the early 21st century.
Images copyright (©): Warner Bros. Pictures