The Mad Max film franchise has been relegated to more of a cult following than ever truly seeing the mass appeal that turned Star Wars, Indiana Jones and countless other franchises into household names. It’s gritty and downbeat post apocalyptic theme, extreme violence and a main character who isn’t your stereotypical hero all worked against the film franchise ever reaching blockbuster status regardless of how well received they were by critics (None of the four films have a rotten tomatoes score less than 80%). But the visionary director George Miller, who has made every film in the series, has returned after almost 30 years to give Max one more shot at attaining the fame and fortune he always deserved but never got.
When we go to the movies it is often times to escape the realities of life and enter into a world unlike anything we could ever imagine. That world could be a distant planet in another galaxy, a future Earth filled with bright lights and advanced technological wonders, an ancient world where dragons and other mythological creatures co-exist with man or in the case of Mad Max, a world destroyed by a devastating nuclear holocaust that to this day is all too real a possibility. George Miller created the post apocalyptic world of Mad Max back in 1979 and has been attempting to refine his vision with each successive sequel ever since..
The Road Warrior (aka Mad Max 2) took Max out of civilization and placed him on the red asphalt of the open wasteland overrun with clans of lunatics all vying for that precious juice used to fuel their war machines. Then Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome took it a step further and showed us a world where the survivors of the apocalypse have abandoned the bloody roads and begun constructing their own cities complete with laws and even their own brand of justice. Now, with Mad Max: Fury Road, Miller has finally perfected his vision for a world gone mad by injecting the franchise with a whole new brand of crazy that easily tops anything we have ever seen before.
When we catch up to Max he isn’t having too good a day as he finds himself in the hands of a particularly bonkers group of motorized crazies who call themselves The War Boys, a cult full of albino looking psychopaths with shaved heads who have an appetite for chrome spray paint and serve a man named Immortan Joe (played by Hugh Keays-Byrne, the same actor who played the bad guy Toecutter in the original 1979 Mad Max) until the day they die a (hopefully) glorious death and enter the supposed hallowed halls of Valhalla, the mythological place all great fallen warriors go to when they die.
If you thought a gang of latent homosexual psychopathic bikers, a mad man with a Mohawk and ass-less chaps or a really big guy carrying a little guy piggy-back were unusual and disturbing…well, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Miller has concocted some of the craziest characters you are likely to see in anything for a very long time. The War Boys themselves resemble a group of mental patients let loose from a lunatic asylum, but they are just the beginning of a cast of increasingly outrageous characters whose lunacy is only topped by their fashion sense.
At the top of that list of nut jobs is Immortan Joe himself, a horribly scarred man who must wear an oxygen mask at all times along with a rather uncomfortable looking piece of see-through armor which helps protect his maligned body from the elements. As far as crazy leaders of cults go, Joe is a step above the rest, as not only does he control all the War Boys (of which there are hundreds), but he also controls this highly unique piece of land with rock formations as tall as skyscrapers covered with vast fields of greenery which is maintained by a large natural spring of water located beneath them that he “generously” shares with some extremely malnourished followers down below via three large pipes coming out the side of this mountain conclave, but only for a few seconds to help impose his control over them (not like they are in any condition to oppose him though).
Helping Joe maintain control are his two sons, one a monstrous oaf named Rictus Erectus (Nathan Jones) and the other a severely disfirgured dwarf relegated to an elevated chair of sorts. Joe’s two kids aren’t exactly alpha material though and in an attempt to breed the perfect offspring he has a quintet of model-esque wives imprisoned in his harem of horrors for him to freely do with as he pleases. While Joe has access to endless amounts of water and milk (just wait until you see the milk factory), he still needs that precious fuel to keep his vehicles running which is kept stocked thanks to a trade agreement he has set up with another community who reside in a place called Gas Town (betcha can’t guess what they have?).
In order to get the fuel though Joe must send his fuel truck, a literal war machine on wheels, to Gas Town annually to stock up. The person in charge of this transfer is a woman named Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a warrior woman minus an arm that has been replaced by a surprisingly functional metal attachment. Little does Joe know that Furiosa has other plans for the war machine on this latest trip and midway to her destination veers wildly off course heading directly into the uncontrolled wasteland in an attempt to escape Joe with her cargo which is much more precious than either fuel or water and something that Joe will stop at nothing to get back.
Furious over this betrayal, Joe mobilizes his entire army of War Boys and heads out after his property. One War Boy in particular though named Nux (Nicolas Hoult) is in the middle or receiving a blood transfusion (apparently being a War Boy requires a lot of blood) when the order comes down and fearing being left behind decides to go out anyway, but there is one problem, his blood bag needs to go with him and that blood bag is none other than Max. Soon Max finds himself hoisted on to the front of Nux’s vehicle like a human hood ornament as they speed out into the desert along with Joe and the rest of his army of crazies as the hunt for Furiosa begins.
Now, if that sounds like an exhaustive amount of set up for a review, well…you would be right. The world George Miller has constructed here is always visually impressive, but a little to cluttered at the front end for its own good making it difficult for the audience to keep up with its initial lightning pace. There in lies one of Fury Road’s most glaring and pervasive flaws, it just doesn’t give the audience enough time to take in and digest the gluttony of visual treats at hand to truly sit back and enjoy them. I was only able to understand what had happened during the impossibly long opening action sequence in hindsight, which shouldn’t be the case.
Luckily once the film is put in neutral and begins to coast for a few minutes we have a chance to get our berings as all the pieces begin to fall into place. Once the second act kicks into gear the film does find a good pace between relentless action sequences and quieter moments that allow us to get involved in these character’s stories, the most interesting of which is Furiosa, played with a reverent quietness by Theron in her very first straight up action role. Her intentions are made clear early on but there is still a lot we learn about her as they traverse the hostile wasteland that helps makes her the most relatable character in the entire film.
That would be fine if she were the star, but the film is titled Mad Max after all. This is where the film really stumbles as the character of Max is relegated to more of a supporting role in his own movie. Whether it was Miller’s original intention or not, the character of Max seems to have regressed over the course of each film and become less and less integral to the narrative each time out and has become more of a tool for others to use than an actual character. Part of the problem this time around though is a lame attempt to give Max a new backstory involving some mystery characters (in particular a little girl who pops up at the worse possible moments) that he failed protecting and now haunt him.
Max already has a tortured past with the death of his wife and baby boy, why the need to cook up this new wafer thin back story then? Some may point out that it is part of what motivates Max to make a certain decision at a pivotal point in the film, but that makes even less sense as Max had mad similar decisions in the previous films that didn’t need this story arc to influence him. Holding the character Max together is Tom Hardy, turning in a performance that is in line with what Mel Gibson created in the earlier films while also putting his own spin on the silent anti-hero. He may not be the most interesting character, but he is most definitely the glue that holds the entire production together and Hardy’s brooding performance keeps us engaged from beginning to end in spite of his slapped together backstory.
Now, if there were one area that helped define what a Mad Max movie was beyond the post apocalyptic wasteland and Max himself, it is without a doubt all the spectacular vehicular mayhem that has become increasingly more and more chaotic with each new film. While The Road Warrior still stands as a testament to how a chase sequence can be just as thrilling as it is integral to the plot, Fury Road sets a new benchmark for technical prowess merged with editing genius. Unlike many directors who have changed from who they were when they first sat behind the camera, Miller shows that the only thing that has changed are the tools at his disposal.
Words cannot possibly due justice to the action spectacle Miller has constructed with Fury Road. As much a blueprint on how to stage and film elaborate action scenes, Fury Road is also a reminder of how effective practical effects and stunt work can be. The idea of using what is basically one long car chase sustained for nearly 2 hours seems like something more appropriate for the nightly news, but Miller finds new and interesting ways to mix things up with a series of stand alone encounters that are functionally distinct as they are visually.
Take for instance a sequence where we find Max and the gang after nightfall stuck in an unexpected mud field which becomes more about stealth and mobility than speed and explosions. It not only gives us a different visual palate to soak in but also gives all the characters some individual moments to metaphorically stretch their legs. Another visually breathtaking scene is when the chase enters inside a sand storm which is an unusual mixture of beautiful imagery and violent action that will not easily be forgotten. Suffice it to say that Miller has made a film that is every bit as visually dazzling as it is narratively reinforced, which is a combination that more often than not doesn’t meld well together.
Fury Road does have its fair share of pot holes though, aside from the aforementioned bumpy beginning. First and foremost is the plot, which upon further inspection is a bit nonsensical on top of being extremely thin. Even while watching the film there are a few moments where one will question the thought process that went into this plan (Furiosa had supposedly planned this for a long time but if not for the surprise addition of Max to her cause she would have likely failed). Even more baffling is the character Nux, who is one of Joe’s War Boys and shows nothing but unwavering loyalty throughout until eventually (and predictably) Nux switches sides. Both his sudden change of heart and a certain someone who takes a liking to him make absolutely no sense given the context of who they were at the beginning of the film.
But none of that derails the film in any real significant way. Sure, you will get annoyed at some of the film’s inconsistencies and perplexing character motivations, but the film is so filled with brilliantly staged action sequences that are complemented by some sure fire direction from Miller who shows once again that he is the master of car combat on the big screen, that any issues found are quickly forgiven. Plus, you really can’t go wrong with any film that has a raving mad lunatic chained to a vehicle covered with amps and speakers complete with a guitar that shoots flames out the end of it now can you?
Mad Max: Fury Road isn’t trying to re-invent the wheel here, but is more like an evolution of the Mad Max formula for a whole new generation to fall in love with. Although the story elements may leave a hollow feeling inside and may go in circles at times (almost literally), the spectacular stunts filmed with unflinching dedication by George Miller and impressive post apocalyptic world leave little to fault with this latest incarnation of Mad Max. Even if you find some glaring flaws (of which there are plenty), the film’s inherent energy and breakneck pace are sure to keep you engaged until the very end. With the summer season just getting under way, it will take a lot from the other film’s to top Fury Road’s pure unadulterated joy for embracing its own insanity.