Mad Max: Fury Road review

May 18, 2015

There were lots of reasons to think that Mad Max: Fury Road would never be made, starting with the fact that the last film featuring the character came out 30 years ago. The original Mad Max was a scrappy, zero-budget post-apocalyptic Australian road revenge film starring a then-unknown Mel Gibson. Written and directed by George Miller, the film became a cult hit and led to the 1981 sequel The Road Warrior (U.S. title), whose high-drama action and chase sequences were unlike anything previously put on film. The movie put Miller, Gibson, and others on the map. I was a huge fan of The Road Warrior, and it was part of the reason I became interested in film criticism and filmmaking.

A third film, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, followed in 1985 co-starring Tina Turner as the ruthless leader of a small city called Bartertown whose energy supply was challenged by a engineering genius dwarf and his huge bodyguard, together called Master Blaster. That film got mired in a muddled savior mythology involving Max and a band of lost children before returning in the third act to Miller's bread and butter: exciting chases.

Ideas for a fourth film circulated but remained in what Hollywood calls "development hell" for at least a decade, stuck in a cinematic limbo where actors, studios, producers, and writers come and go over the years because all the right pieces are never in place at the same time and they have to move on to other projects. (For a beautiful, terrible look at the ways in which a film can go wrong see the 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha, about Terry Gilliam's ill-fated attempt to make a film called The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.)

There were also rumors of on-set Fury Road tensions among the actors while on location in Namibia and ballooning budgets. Long-delayed productions often spell trouble, signs of nervous studios demanding last-minute rewrites and balking at paying cost overruns. Many Mad Max fans feared that another film wouldn't be released--or if it was, it'd be an embarrassed, wretched mess.

As it happens they needn't have worried; Miller has done it again and in fine style. There's very little new in Mad Max: Fury Road that hasn't appeared in one or more of the three previous films. The loss of Max's family in Mad Max still haunts him throughout Fury Road; the extended truck chase that dominated The Road Warrior is once again on center stage; and a grittier version of Beyond Thunderdome's Bartertown--with some added socio-religious twist--appears in the new film. Indeed, fans of the earlier films will find a dozen or so visual references to them in Mad Max: Fury Road.

But the fact that Miller made the film up of familiar elements isn't a problem when those elements are so brilliantly arranged and artfully shot. He carefully selected the best parts of the earlier films and included them in Mad Max: Fury Road, and it's as good as The Road Warrior.

The first few minutes of Mad Max: Fury Road begin, surprisingly, with something that is essentially unknown in the Mad Max movies: he is captured and held by the War Boys, a cult led by a charismatic warrior who controls the water, and therefore the lives, of his subjects. In the previous films the "precious juice," as it was called in The Road Warrior, was gasoline; that was what the film was about (water, oddly enough, didn't seem to be an issue for either hero or villain in the parched Outback). The new Mad Max setting is even grimmer: the precious juices are water and bodily fluids (especially blood and milk). When Max's captors determine that his blood type is a universal donor, he is sadistically kept alive to bolster sick and wounded War Boys. He's taken along on a chase to track down Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a truck driver assigned to collect gasoline from a nearby city but who went rogue.

I won't bother to tell much about the rest of the film because there's only a few surprises. The reason to see Mad Max: Fury Road is not for the intricate plotting but the spectacular action sequences and extended chase scenes that make Fast & Furious look like Driving Miss Daisy. Tom Hardy wisely plays Max as a cipher; Mel Gibson's Max was an amiable reluctant hero and Hardy continues this tradition. Hardy has enough to room to work in the character without taking him in new directions. Theron is also good, as is the rest of the cast, many of whom are Australian.

The production design is nothing short of astonishing, from the surreal, almost-cyberpunk feel to the costumes and vehicles. The stuntwork is excellent, and though there are many scenes which are obviously computer-generated, a lot of it is real-life stuntwork: real professional stuntmen and women taking the tumbles, spills, and falls that give Miller's films an unmistakable authenticity and excitement. A professional film stuntman friend of mine, Kurly Tlapoyawa, was also impressed with the stunt work and lobbied on social media for stunts to have their own Academy Awards category. I agree with him.

I noted that Mad Max began before many of the target-audience moviegoers for Fury Road were even born. As I walked out of the theater, however, I noticed ads for upcoming films whose franchises began many decades ago, including Jurassic World, Star Wars, and the Terminator. As long as there's an audience for these characters and stories, the films will continue to be remade and inspire sequels (don't think for a moment that Peter Jackson's seemingly insuperable version of the Lord of the Rings trilogy won't be superceded in ten or twenty years by a new director with a different vision and a whole new suite of computer-generated tools at her disposal; similarly, the next generation will almost certainly have a Harry Potter not played by Daniel Radcliffe). There's nothing inherently wrong with this, aside from the countless new and original screenplays that would make great films if the studios were willing to take a chance on something that hadn't already proven to be a moneymaker.

There are a few minor missteps (a man chasing Max playing a flame-throwing guitar in front of a wall of loudspeakers which would waste enormous energy and wouldn't be able to be heard over the roar of chasing engines anyway is a wild flourish that should have ended on the cutting room floor), but overall Mad Max: Fury Road is a hell of a ride and I'm already in line for the next movie.

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