Thank goodness somebody finally gave George Miller $150m to make a Mad Max film. Fury Road harks back to the director’s 70s/80s trilogy in a number of ways – most closely to 1981’s Road Warrior – but nevertheless feels like the Mad Max film Miller has always wanted to make, at last shorn of budget restraints. As a result, the 70-year-old director injects as much raucous energy into this film as in any of its predecessors. Miller’s last two features were the CGI cute-fests Happy Feet and Happy Feet Two, and he hasn’t worked on a live-action picture since 1998’s Babe: Pig in the City; Fury Road feels like a glorious release of pent-up, demented energy.
“I doubt we’ll see many more daring films this year”
Miller has reimagined his apocalyptic future wasteland – in which scarce gasoline is the most sought-after commodity – as opposed to completely reinventing it. This time things revolve around a crazed dictator called Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played Toecutter in the original Mad Max) who keeps the ravaged population subdued by controlling the water supply, while his army of car-obsessed fanatics work to do his bidding. We begin when a routine supply run is revealed to be a ruse: lead driver Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is actually smuggling Immortan Joe’s “breeders” (captive women with whom he hopes to procreate) out of his citadel to a promised land across the desert. Max (Tom Hardy, replacing Mel Gibson) ends up involved in this by accident – chained to the front of one of the cars sent to recover the missing women.
From there, the film plays out as a mad, spectacular chase, as the rig driven by Furiosa flees from Joe’s vehicular warriors. The film expounds on its plot in much the same way that its predecessors did: through hints, asides and audience guesswork. Miller invites us to luxuriate in the insane concoction he has imagined up: we don’t get the finer details, and we don’t need them. We also don’t have much time for them – once we’re out on the road, the film’s extended vehicular action sequences fly past at a furious pace. But this indulgence is not an exercise in repetition; nor is it lazy plotting. Miller builds his film around these gargantuan chases, but not because of a lack of material. The sheer imagination and lunatic propulsion of these scenes is the point of the film. The fact that he manages to establish likable characters during this time is the icing on the cake.
“The sheer imagination and lunatic propulsion of these scenes is the point of the film”
Chief among these is Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, who is both the heart and the muscles of the film. It’s an action heroine role the likes of which we rarely see: tough, conflicted, emotionally resonant and thoroughly memorable. Given the film’s title and the series’ propensity for macho insanity (though to be fair it has also featured strong female characters), we might not expect feminism, but Furiosa – and indeed the escaping ‘wives’ she’s protecting – add real steel and charisma to proceedings. Throwing the supposed hero, Max, into this mix is a stroke of genius from Miller and his co-writers – playfully and effectively subverting our expectations. Not that Max himself suffers for this, however; Hardy plays him with a fitting mix of mad energy and the same removed charisma that Mel Gibson channelled in the originals, and which inspired comparisons to Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name. He’s not a man of many words, though he does get one of the most poignant lines late on. Throw Nicholas Hoult’s Nux – a crazed member of Joe’s elite guard – into the mix, and you’ve got a memorable triple-header.
Miller throws everything at the screen in balletic, joyous conflagrations that, while long and in some ways repetitious, never get boring. As viewers, we’re too busy revelling in the inventiveness of these scenes to be longing for plot exposition or background information. Throughout, Miller plays with the frame rate, speeding up and slowing down shots, fast cutting into and out of little fragments of memory, all of which accentuates the sense of out-of-control madness. If the final act flags a teeny bit, it can be forgiven, because it isn’t drawn out.
It’s a real pleasure to see Miller back in what is resolutely his wheelhouse: smashing up cars filled with freaks in the desert. His eye for a pleasing shot has never been stronger, and nor has his sense of off-kilter fun. For sheer imagination, sheer will to entertain, I doubt we’ll see many more daring films this year.