MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
I love it when a filmmaker gives it his all.
Absolutely everything that George Miller is as an artist, and every single ounce of his burning desire to wow the audience has been poured into the cinematic Molotov Cocktail that is “Mad Max: Fury Road”. And it is breathtaking to behold. Sometimes overwhelmingly so, but that is precisely the allure of the beautiful, lucid madness Miller’s orchestrated in his latest and unquestionably greatest effort.
Action filmmaking is often seen as a young man’s game, yet a 70-year-old has just proven otherwise. “Fury Road” does feel like a film made by some ambitious newcomer bursting with energy, ideas and something to prove, not by a veteran whose last big hit was a musical about tap-dancing cartoon penguins. Then again, a man with a body of work so wildly varied tends to confound expectations. Besides, action is not so much a venture for the young as it is for the brave. And at this point in his career Miller still dares to take chances creatively as if his life depends on it. He doesn’t believe in saving anything for the sequel either. It’s all or nothing right here & now, and it’s this attitude that informs the film’s delirious, over-the-top nature. It also means that even if the results aren’t always successful, they’re always spectacular. Fortunately, in this instance Miller’s boldness has paid off in both spectacular AND successful fashion.
He’s had lots of practice. After all, this is his fourth trip to the post-apocalyptic genre he almost single-handedly originated back in 1979 (the ultra low-budget “Mad Max”). In a new adventure that’s more reboot than sequel, Tom Hardy has replaced Mel Gibson in the title role. That’s far from the only thing that’s changed. For one, Miller now has the luxury of a US$150 million budget, affording him a much bigger and more elaborate sandbox to play in. While the previous instalments had a scrappy, pieced-together quality that worked in the setting’s favour, they couldn’t escape feeling like a cheap production. There is no such problem with this film. Every single frame of “Fury Road” is gorgeous, especially when it showcases the stunning Namibian desert locations and the incredible production design. I’m not even exaggerating. You could literally freeze frame any given scene, print it out, and it’d make a great piece of wall art.
The key to this is Miller’s obsessive eye for detail and grand unifying vision. That vision may be utterly batshit insane — with flamethrower guitars, engine-worshipping suicide warriors, and a freakshow straight out of some S&M fetishist’s fever dream — but there is something strangely mesmerising about it all, and a certain internal logic beneath the chaos. Steering wheels as sacred objects? Chrome spray paint a mark of spiritual readiness? The sign of “The V8” (as in V-8 engines) replacing the sign of The Cross? In a depleted world where vehicles are worth more than human lives, it makes perfect sense.
And Miller gives us vehicles that are truly worthy of adulation. From car/tank hybrids to porcupine dune buggies to Siamese twin Cadillac-monster trucks, these delightfully twisted Frankenstein-ian beasts are as much the stars of the show as the human cast themselves. They’re not just eye candy either. Miller and team do things with the vehicles that beggar belief. The best part is, they’re done for real. Apart from some CG sweetening, every impossible lunge to & from speeding cars, every outrageous maneuver and every earth-shattering crash is down to meticulous planning and some serious balls of steel. Putting real people in real situations gives this an air of danger no amount of digital trickery could ever simulate.
Beyond that, Miller knows that the best stunts in the world are useless if they’re not presented in a way that allows the audience to get into the thick of things. None of that shaky-cam nonsense here. This is a director who lives by the wisdom that “there is only one perfect place for the camera to be at any given moment”. To that end, he’s storyboarded the entire movie in exacting detail, figured out what works best for each and every shot, then engaged the services of Oscar-winning cinematographer John Seale to capture the mayhem with flawless clarity. The end result: thoroughly engrossing, jaw-dropping action.
Having the cast perform most of their own stunts helps to sell the authenticity of the action. This is probably the most physical of performances I’ve seen from Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron, not just because of all the running, jumping, driving, shooting, and fighting that they do. The film started out as one big storyboard long before there was a script, so you can imagine just how much of a visual experience this is. The side effect is that the actors don’t have a lot of dialogue, so the bulk of their acting is conveyed via body language and expressions.
Hardy in particular has a bigger challenge, with his character somewhat sidelined for the entire first act. Yet he eventually steps up to give Max a quietly dangerous, low-voltage intensity and the sense of a troubled man trying to pull himself together. It’s different from the Gibson original, so purists may sneer. But I think the real gift of what Hardy’s done here is that it leaves us feeling like there’s still lots more to Max than he is letting on.
The other players are strong too, especially Hugh Keays-Byrne who puts the ARCH in arch-villain Immortan Joe. Mostly hidden behind a mask and heavy make-up, he still manages to get all theatrical and it fits the tone of the film like a glove. Then there’s Nicholas Hoult, who in some ways gets the most dramatically complete role. His character arc goes from unlikable to sympathetic over the course of the story, and Hoult pulls it off really well.
If Miller has us wanting more of Max, it’s also because he’s sneaked in Theron’s Imperator Furiosa as the real protagonist here. Theron is terrific, giving her character a steely, badass exterior to hide the remnants of humanity that the world around her seems hellbent on extinguishing. In fact, she is so badass to the point where she keeps upstaging Max. At first it may come off as an unsatisfying way of treating the title character, and I won’t deny that impression initially bothered me. But having had time to sit back and digest the film, I’ve come to the conclusion that Miller’s delivered one heck of a bold sucker punch, under the guise of blockbuster entertainment.
This is a director intent on turning the entire notion of the Male Action Hero on its head. Granted, Mad Max is more of an anti-hero, but he still functions pretty much the way heroes do. Miller isn’t interested in playing by the same old traditions of the genre, where the leading man has all the cool moves, does all the rescuing, kills the bad guy, and gets the girl in the end. Almost none of that happens here, and that responsibility is instead carried by the leading lady. But why all this subverting of gender roles? Besides the obvious surprise element that makes this feel fresh amidst a genre full of worn-out cliches, Miller genuinely has something to say about the power dynamics between the sexes.
Alpha Male Immortan Joe has power and control over his followers but what he really craves is a legacy. To fulfill that he has a harem of beautiful “brides” to bear him genetically perfect heirs. These women have no power, except the ability to do the one thing he cannot. In comes Furiosa, who wrests control by rescuing his brides, thus depriving him of a future and therefore any lasting power. Also, while Joe is all about taking (both life and hope), the females in the film symbolise giving (ditto).
There’s been some noise about this film being aggressively feminist, but I think it’s merely redressing an imbalance. Far too often, women in the movies are portrayed as inferior or inadequate. So if one movie comes along and upsets the status quo at the expense of men, I say so what? The sad truth is, we now live in an Outrage Culture, where people just want to get offended for the sake of it. Joss Whedon found out the hard way with his supposed mishandling of Black Widow in “Avengers: Age Of Ultron”. Those so-called feminists were wrong there, just as the male chauvinists are wrong about their view of how men are depicted here. In its own crazy way, “Fury Road” is celebrating the strength of women. The fact that it does so in an action movie makes it even more relevant.
So, it’s not enough for Miller to have crafted the most exhilarating cinematic experience in years. He’s also delivered something that stays with you long after the visual spectacle and the full-throttle weirdness has eased its hold. There aren’t many movies like that, and “Fury Road” is one of a kind. It could not have been made by any other filmmaker, simply because this is every inch George Miller at the height of his powers.
And sweet, gleeful madness.