It begins with the sound of a machine and ends on the image of a revolution. Thirty years after his hero walked off into a nuclear sunset, George Miller returns for more than just a greatest-hits package, orchestrating a go-for-broke action symphony that’s also wonderfully, wildly subversive.
When we last saw Max Rockatansky, in 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, he’d ascended from raging ex-law enforcer into something of a mythical savior figure, leading a tribe of lost children to a promised land before disappearing into legend. Mad Max: Fury Road immediately brings him back down to earth. Reborn in the shape of Tom Hardy, Max is again the nihilistic outcast fighting for survival in a barren wasteland, though this time he speaks in more of an eclectic global brogue (as much South African as Australian) and has obviously scavenged some hair dye from a post-apocalyptic salon (gone are the wolfish streaks of white hair). He’s even rediscovered his old ride, the last of the V8 interceptors, and the film opens on that classic image of the man and his machine, perched on the edge of a sand dune and the abyss.
It’s a gamble for Miller, who’d been in various stages of getting this project off the ground for more than a decade. First conceived as a reunion with original star Mel Gibson (with Heath Ledger linked at one point), by the time Fury Road was slated for release this year it had become less sequel than franchise reboot, with all the inherent redundancy that implies. Where could he possibly take the character after Thunderdome? Initially, Miller appears to answer this question with a dispiriting “bigger, louder, more intense!” Everything in the new movie is supercharged, from the opening frenzy of cars to the screaming sound design and ramped-up color saturation, and there’s a generous amount of computer-generated assistance, even if it’s in the service of cranking up the volume on the series’ famous (and still marvelous) stunt work.
Then the film arrives at the Citadel, a kind of desert Skull Island where a Frankenstein’s-monster-like warlord named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, competing to outdo his Toecutter from Mad Max) hoards precious water reserves and presides over a sickly army of albino soldiers. Subsisting off the life fluid of his underlings, he’s an instantly memorable character: With his skeleton respirator mask and bloated body encased in plastic life-support armor, the Immortan’s a pulp-fantasy villain as daddy incubus cult leader, by turns grotesque and riveting. But his physical appearance is nothing next to what he’s up to: namely, impregnating and juicing his many brides to create more warring sons. Not only is this local despot breeding from his wives, he’s also running a females-as-farm-animals operation. There’s a grotesque scene early on where we see women hooked up to various steam-punk contraptions and literally being milked; meanwhile, the Citadel’s presumably original mother is locked away in a dungeon, rambling and scrawling “Our babies will not be warlords” on the walls and floors.
It’s here that Miller’s thematic vision takes shape. With Max held captive, one of the Immortan’s lieutenants—the claw-limbed, buzz-cut Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron)—absconds to the desert with a big rig tanker full of water, except that her real cargo is something much more valuable: four of her master’s brides, whom she’s liberated with the intention of leading them to what she calls the “green place of many mothers.” It’s not long, of course, before the bad guys give chase in a flotilla of demolition derby cars the size of a small army, determined to recapture their possessions and punish the woman who dared defy them.
And so Mad Max: Smash the Patriarchy begins. The men bellow in stentorian abandon about “Valhalla” (a heaven they’re deceitfully promised by their leader) and the women aggressively deride the war instinct and speak of sanctuary, yet Miller shows his female characters as independent and violent when necessary. When Max, having escaped his captors, joins forces with Furiosa to help her quest, it’s clear who’s in charge. The film also gives them a spiritual dimension that steers away from the “girls with guns kicking ass” cliché that plagues the superficial empowerment in so many genre throwbacks. And in a series that’s always boasted powerful warrior women—from the shotgun-wielding grandmother in Mad Max to Tina Turner’s fierce matriarch Aunty Entity in Thunderdome—Fury Road’s female focus feels nothing if not a natural extension. We’re never short on reminders of just how unpleasant the film’s dudes are, either: “That’s my child!” the Immortan screams at his fleeing, pregnant wife during one scene. “My property!”
Miller uses this gender skirmish as a springboard to mount his most elaborate metal-on-metal duels yet. There’s an unhinged energy to the battle sequences, from a chase that ploughs through a Biblical sandstorm to showdowns involving pole-vaulting bandits and airborne motorcycles. It’s as if Miller, with nothing left to prove in the genre at this point, set about proving his mastery anyway, with everything at his disposal. The cars haven’t changed too much (there are still plenty of late ’70s Fords), even if their reconstruction has: One chassis has been welded onto tank tracks, others look like mutant porcupines, and all convey, more then ever, the series’ unique nightmare of a monster-truck rally gone awry. There’s even a scene with a makeshift rope-winch and a truck that seems improbably inspired by the tense sequences in William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977). Upping the action’s aural ante, the Immortan’s cacophonous road circus is hilariously accompanied by its own live band, including a gentleman with a double-necked, flame-throwing guitar perched atop a wall of speakers who channels Junkie XL’s ear-blasting score (unexpectedly evocative, in its own hyper-charged way, of Brian May’s music for the original Mad Max). Like a good bar band in a Western shootout, he never stops playing.
The madness is infectious, but it can be a little too eager to please. For all the wild exertion, Fury Road can’t replicate The Road Warrior’s perfect storm of mayhem, still the series’ high-water mark for breathtaking action framed by stark visual elegance. If anything, Fury Road has lost some of the poetry of its predecessors: There’s nothing here to match the eerie beauty of the nuclear-ravaged city skyline in Thunderdome, and Miller’s wrangling of complex stunt and CG shots seems to have diminished his robust eye for Sergio Leone-via-Steven Spielberg character framing. Indeed, what pauses the movie does have serve as reminders of the unfairly maligned fable-like qualities of Thunderdome: There’s a lovely shooting star scene in which the characters reflect on the “satellites” when “everyone had a show,” and an unusual, if all-too-brief, shot where vagrants stalk the night terrain like the land striders from Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal.
That Max himself is often lost in the rumble, however, feels very much by design. “What’s your name? What do I call you?” Furiosa asks Max mid-journey, and his reply is practically the movie’s statement of intent: “It doesn’t matter.” Restored to gruff anonymity here, he’s just another character, a man destined to be forgotten but for his deeds, and in that sense the series has come full circle to the still-vital 1979 opener. Where previously Max had loomed large in the sequels’ final moments, an iconic warrior figure set against the landscape, here, he simply disappears into a crowd. Instead, Fury Road closes on a low-angle shot of the surviving women staring down the audience, Miller suggesting a potential new direction for the testosterone-fueled dystopia—and, perhaps, cinema itself.
Published at Movie Mezzanine