Mad Max: Fury Road should never have been made. That makes it sound like I didn’t like it. What I mean is that I don’t understand how it exists. It’s a reboot of a long-dead but beloved character run by a director who hasn’t touched the franchise in decades. It’s a new take on the character from an actor new to the role. Usually this kind of thing ends up with fans of the old movies talking about how it’s nice they tried, or how the director’s style just doesn’t stand up against modern filmmaking. In fact, it’s likely we’re going to see some of that later this summer with a few of the blockbuster franchise revivals on the horizon.
But Mad Max: Fury Road somehow manages to shrug off all of that.
It’s a stellar, vibrant movie that might even have more of the crazy energy than its predecessors had filled with the best characters, sets, action — the best everything the franchise has seen and some of the best filmmaking I’ve been lucky enough to see this year. See twice this year, in one day.
A return to the original wasteland
Aesthetically, Fury Road manages to perfectly combine new and old in so many ways that it’s easy to lose count.
George Miller is an old school director, there’s no doubt about that. He directed the original Mad Max movies and then stopped to direct a movie about a disease, a movie about a pig, and two about dancing penguins before returning home to the desert wasteland.
In some ways, you can tell he’s been making movies for over 35 years. The shaky, jarring cameras we so often see in action movies are pretty much absent here. That doesn’t mean they’re just sitting still, though. We move in and out of the action fluidly, and despite how much is going on it never really becomes confusing. This is all the more impressive an accomplishment when taking into account the fact that the majority of the action in this movie was done using practical effects and stunts.
In a way that feels like a weird throwback to the 1980s, most of the substantial CG in the movie — meaning stuff that isn’t touch-up work — is glaringly obvious. Max Rockatansky hallucinates frequently and it’s here that many of those effects occur. Another one later seems built for 3D, but Miller still manages to make it work and these are some very short moments in a film made up of real, exploding vehicles.
The costume design and makeup are all practical as well, and they give the movie a very real, textured feel. The film is filled to the brim with characters — in both senses of the word — and so many of them stand out visually it’s hard to know where to start. The warlord we’re on the run from, Immortan Joe, is a scarred, sickly old man in clear, medal-adorned body armor and grotesque skull-themed breathing apparatus. He leads a massive gang — more like a cult — of Warboys, ghost-white, clean-shaven young men with car greased eyes and lips scarred to look like skeleton teeth.
At the head of his convoy is a huge truck topped off by The Doof Warrior. The Doof Warrior plays the same role a drummer boy or other battlefield musician might, pumping his warriors up as they ride into battle. Only instead of men marching, this one has to play over the sound of hundreds of cars at full throttle. That means the craziest amp setup imaginable and a guitar that shoots flames. The Doof Warrior himself is suspended from bungee cords as he wails on his flaming axe. The whole image is one of the most memorable from a film full of memorable images. Not only that, but he’s playing the Junkie XL’s soundtrack for us right in the movie with some of the coolest diegetic music I’ve seen in a movie in a long time.
George Miller has, from the very beginning, been great at building worlds. I’m not a huge fan of the original Mad Max — it wanders and stumbles before figuring out who Max is and why he’s so mad, but The Road Warrior threw us right into Miller’s firing engine and Fury Road is a perfect continuation of that. Each of these characters, costumes, and sets tells us a little piece of the puzzle of the bizarre, cruel world Miller has created. Unlike so many properties that are adaptations, Mad Max is something Miller built from scratch, and Fury Road is his world looking the purest it ever has. The only thing that looks like Mad Max: Fury Road is other Mad Max movies and things that wish they could be (Waterworld, the Borderlands games).
In an interesting aside to this is that Miller has had this idea tumbling around his head for literally decades. He said at one point that his experience on Happy Feet led him to consider making it a computer-animated film. For the idea to sit for that long and come out clear is as remarkable as any of these other elements of the film.
Even the script has a bit of an old school feel to it. Dialogue is sparse throughout. There’s no time wasted explaining why things are how they are beyond a quick note at the beginning about the war that put the world in its condition.
That doesn’t keep the movie from developing powerful, interesting characters, though. The film takes place primarily around Max himself, but he’s hardly the main character. Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa is the character around whom Max orbits.
Max has, since the beginning, been a lone, mangy dog. He takes what he needs to survive, damn the consequences. He’ll take from innocents if he has to to make sure he keeps breathing, because that’s the most important thing for him: the next breath. It’s not until someone earns his trust that he’s willing to join a pack, let alone contribute.
Furiosa is one of the baddest women in movies, and it’s not going to be long before she’s standing next to Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor as one of the coolest and most dangerous women in films. Theron has had a great career to date with tons of memorable characters, but Furiosa is one of her best.
The other women in the film — both the ones Furiosa saves from sex slavery by Immortan Joe and some desert-dwelling ones we run into later on — do a fine job of standing alongside her, too.
The character I enjoyed the most, though, might be Nux, the Warboy, played by Nicholas Hoult (Hank/Beast of X-Men: First Class). I don’t want to say too much about the character’s arc, but his innocent, religious fervor is infectious.
Mad Max: Fury Road is a movie out of time in so many ways. A simple story, spartan but excellent acting, and real effects all help give it a weight and energy missing from even the best action films. It’s always in motion, always moving forward, always giving us something new to chew on. Even when it pulls a 180 in the third act, it still manages to keep its forward momentum.
Mad Max: Fury Road shouldn’t exist, but it does, and it’s awesome. And I’m going to go see it again next weekend, too.