It’s easy to get complacent or even jaded when we live in the era of glossy, weightless, formulaic, CGI-drenched blockbusters – where everything’s overly processed, digitally color-corrected into oblivion, and homogenized. Then a film like Mad Max: Fury Road comes along and drives a gasoline-drenched spear into the works and sends every notion or expectation built up over 20+ years of empty spectacle straight into fiery annihilation. It’s a film that grabs you by the throat and shoots a purifying flame directly into your eyeballs, forcing you to remember the true power cinema can wield.
Fury Road doesn’t require you to have seen the previous Mad Max films, nor does it hold your hand or waste any time with any tedious, expository setups. Miller’s extraordinary visual storytelling does all the work, and he launches us headfirst into an insane, intense narrative that kicks off when Max (now played by Tom Hardy) is run down in his interceptor by a gang of moto-thugs, then imprisoned in the breathtaking canyon citadel of deranged, diseased tyrant Immortan Joe (played by the original film’s Toecutter Hugh Keays-Byrne).
Joe rules over his post-apocalyptic nightmare fortress with an iron fist, inspiring near-religious devotion in his legions of “war boys,” “pole boys,” and “war rig-driving “imperators,” – keeping the supplicants who depend on him for survival at bay with periodic blasts of life-giving water and crops grown deep within the mountain.
Inside the citadel, Joe oversees more horrors: stray travelers are captured, branded, and their bodies are used to heal injured or sick War Boys (Max is literally hung upside down and used as a blood bag to keep Nicholas Hoult’s Nux alive); he keeps lactating pregnant women hooked up to milking machines; and locks a group of young women behind a vault to be repeatedly raped and impregnated by he and his musclebound son, Rictus Erectus. (Yes, the names in this film are just as crazy as everything else.)
Joe sends his favorite Imperator, Furiosa (Charlize Theron) out in her war rig (destined to become one of the most iconic vehicles in movie history) for a supply run to “Gas Town” and “Bullet Town,” but once clear of the citadel, she makes a badass detour for freedom – having stowed away Joe’s unwilling harem in the underbelly of the war rig – and the chase is on.
Oh, and what a chase it is. Once Immortan Joe realizes his “property” is missing, he unleashes his entire bladed, armored fleet of wheeled terrors – each one bristling with machineguns, chainsaws, harpoon launchers, and howling post-apocalyptic psychopaths prepared to die in blazing automotive carnage. And die they do, in spectacular fashion. From this point on, Fury Road is maelstrom of high-octane, fuel injected, heavy metal demolition the likes of which has never been seen.
Cars plunge headlong into fiery dust cyclones and become shrapnel-spewing fireballs. Maniacs on long poles attached to speeding vehicles swing down and snatch characters away. War boys throw exploding spears into cars, launching them into the air where they explode and careen into other battle engines. It’s a cacophony of insane road mayhem replete with death-defying escapes, hand-to-hand combat, gunfire, blood, ash, steel and sand. All of this is set to a pounding score provided by a lunatic chained to a literal wall of amplifiers shredding on a guitar that spews fire, backed up by a quartet of war drummers (of course, on yet another moving vehicle). It’s jaw-dropping, heart-pounding stuff performed almost entirely by actual human stuntmen that will make you whisper “how the hell did no one die shooting this?”
The whole thing is brilliantly realized by director George Miller’s fearless camera placement and cinematographer John Seale’s astonishing lushness and depth of field. Fury Road is one of the most striking and beautiful films you will ever see, resplendent in color and fire and life. Seale and Miller capture literal hell on film, and hell has never looked so good or felt so real.
While the dialogue is sparse and full of odd post-nuclear holocaust slang, the character work in Fury Road is also remarkable. Mad Max has always been a man of few words, and Tom Hardy continues that tradition, grunting and gesturing through the early goings and letting his physicality communicate for him. Later he’s more vocal, and far more of hero than a survivor as he becomes more sympathetic to the women’s plight. While not revolutionary in the role, I never once felt Mel Gibson’s absence, which is probably the best compliment I could pay him.
The real star of the film though, aside from all the bonkers motor mayhem, is Charlize Theron’s Furiosa. Theron imbues the character with a ferocious resolve and a visceral intensity. The choice to cover her forehead in grease and ash was an inspired one, as it amplified her piercing gaze to haunting levels. She’s a force of nature; a survivor who we can see has endured hell for decades, and is now filled with desperation to make one final push for freedom for her and the women she cares for. Max tells her “hope is a mistake,” but for Furiosa, surrendering to despair is not an option. It’s her pursuit of hope and free will, as well as her belief that women are not “property,” that fuels the film’s heart.
They don’t make movies like Fury Road anymore, and they may never again. It’s a singular cinematic experience that’s both a throwback to ’80s practicality and modern flash; an action masterpiece with surprising depth and a simple, yet compelling through line. Simply put, it’s quite a ride.
4.5 stars out of 5.