It usually makes me cringe when a label of high praise gets slapped on a director in a film’s trailer. The worst offender is the term “visionary”. It conjures up images of a filmmaker twitching on the floor while having hallucinations from ingesting/smoking/shooting up prohibited substances. And then the finished product usually indicates that actually might have gone on during filming.
So when the trailers for Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller’s three-decades-on follow-up to his last Mad Max movie, began labelling him “mastermind”, I was naturally quite worried.
Stupid me. (Stop nodding so furiously, you.)
Mad Max: Fury Road is, you see, a totally bonkers movie. In a really good way. And if this weren’t a family-oriented publication, I might pile on a few expletives for effect. Also meant in a really good way.
Fury Road wastes no time in plunging you right into the craziness of its post-apocalyptic setting as Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy, taking over from Mel Gibson) is captured by the hordes of warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh-Keays Byrne, the villain Toecutter in the very first Mad Max film).
When one of Joe’s trusted lieutenants, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), escapes in a heavily armoured truck with five of his wives (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Zoe Kravitz among them), it triggers one mad chase to retrieve them.
And then, as the film hurtles from one pursuit to another, the method to Miller’s madness becomes clear: it’s a reversal of his best work in the series, The Road Warrior, which started out by building up a sense of what’s at stake and then kicking into high gear.
Fury Road starts out at considerable speed, with true purpose dawning on its central characters only rather late in the film (and thereby finally telling us what’s at stake); and the thing is, the movie hardly ever slows down while doing all this.
The big questions are undoubtedly: how is Hardy as the Wanderer of the Wasteland, and can Miller, at 70, still pull off the kind of jaw-dropping, high-octane action that made The Road Warrior a gold standard in action cinema?
While the role will always be associated with Gibson, Hardy steps assuredly into Max’s Main Force Patrol boots, adept at both the physicality and also the … twitchiness required of a man whose waking and sleeping moments are haunted by the ghosts of his past failures.
Hardy also manages to stave off show-stealing challenges from Theron’s impassioned Furiosa and Nicholas Hoult as Nux, one of Joe’s brainwashed War Boys who live only to die in his service and enter the gates of Valhalla (though, given the automotive element here, they should’ve called it Vauxhalla. Volks-halla?).
A couple of nods to previous entries – the infamous misfiring shotgun, for one, and the tiny wind-up music box – are there for fans to elbow each other in the side, but the most welcome carry-over is the incredible action.
While Road Warrior still has the edge when it comes to raw, fresh and daring stunts (and it also had the edge in memorable villainy), Fury Road makes up for those shortfalls with sheer spectacle and staggeringly complex action sequences.
With a huge portion of its goings-on derived from practical, i.e. non-CGI effects – the crew reportedly even recruited Cirque du Soleil performers to carry out some of the more dizzying high-speed acrobatics – Fury Road is a masterpiece of stunt choreography and logistical orchestration.
The first big pursuit scene alone matches the finale of Road Warrior, and subsequent sequences just pile on more and more. Wild characters and vehicle designs abound, and Miller also (finally!) throws in some spiked buggies as a nod to the Aussie cult film that partly inspired Mad Max, Peter Weir’s 1974 Ozploitation effort The Cars That Ate Paris.
I can only liken the experience of watching Fury Road to being a kid on a sugar rush sitting in a shopping cart, being propelled down long aisles of goodies and around sharp bends by another kid (Miller) on an even bigger sugar rush. It’s that crazy, and set to the thrum of an eardrum-crumpling score.
And still, it all fits together so nicely like one of those grand, near-mythic Westerns: the simple story with huge consequences, symbolic of ongoing exploitation of the great unwashed (literally) by the power-crazed who control vital resources; examples of both the fragility and high tensile strength of hope; the frequent ways in which reluctant individuals are forced into moments of heroism against an overriding impulse to survive.
Some of its fleeting moments of wistfulness, moments to mourn times that are passing away or have already gone, might lead some to call this an old man’s film. But make no mistake: Miller is not trying to get by on sentiment.
Not when there’s 20 tons of steel barrelling across the screen at a hundred kilometres an hour, or when a stark raving mad action film unfolds before your eyes and gives you pause to reflect once it’s all over. The machinations of what can only be called – and deservedly so – a mastermind.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Director: George Miller
Cast: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Zoe Kravitz, Hugh-Keays Byrne, Nathan Jones