There seems to be an interminable parade of blockbuster sequels and reboots these days, an imaginative drought in cinema where lazy cash-ins now preside. Fatigue sets in and it’s hard to see why exactly it’s necessary to keep going back to these worlds for more. Into this morass comes Mad Max: Fury Road, 30 years after the last Mad Max film took us "Beyond Thunderdome". Thankfully with this fourth installment, George Miller has provided a more than worthy addition to the beloved post-apocalyptic dystopian series. It’s a freewheeling film of original vision, visceral excitement, and exhilarating action, with a surprisingly sensitive core. In terms of blockbuster sequels, it’s a genuine revelation.
Fury Road finds Max Rockatansky, now played by Tom Hardy, roaming the Wasteland and haunted by visions of his past. He is captured by a marauding band of thugs known as War Boys, followers of a tyrannical warlord named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who also played the villain Toecutter in Mad Max). The Immortan governs the Citadel, a fortress carved into a mountain, where he closely guards and withholds natural resources from the ailing people. This is where we meet Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, who has decided to rebel against the Immortan by liberating his most precious resources: his “wives” who are held captive and utilised as baby-making machines. Max is thrown into this milieu, and reluctantly joins forces with Furiosa as they outrun the clutches of the Immortan and other warmongering tribes.
The meat of the film is basically one long thrilling chase scene, across desert (Namibia filling in for the Australian Outback), through raging storms, falling rocks and marshland. Miller sets Fury Road apart from other recent blockbuster fare by predominantly using practical effects and stunt work, only using CGI as and when it’s needed. This lends tangibility and reality to proceedings, something missing from the bloodless artificiality of recent CGI-dominated action sequences. The cars crashing together and explosions firing are heart-pounding, as we have an awareness of the physical stakes. As he leads us from set piece to set piece, Miller’s skill is in not just stimulating our senses but making us care about the consequences, pulling us through by focusing on the humans involved.
Tom Hardy is reliably excellent, ably taking over the role Mel Gibson made iconic. In a part with scant dialogue he uses his physicality and presence to do the work of illustrating Max’s tortured mind. The few lines he does have displays his penchant for unusual vocal quirks – Max’s accent seems to be some sort of Anglo-South African mash-up, and there’s accompanying mumbling reminiscent of his grunting turn in John Hillcoat’s Lawless.
However, what’s most interesting about Hardy as Max in this film is that as the titular character he actually takes something of a backseat. The film’s real centre is Theron’s steely Furiosa, a paragon of strength and determination who sports a badass prosthetic metal arm, and whose mission to free the trapped wives and find a safe space for them forms the emotional thrust of the narrative. Possibly the most interesting pre-release tidbit was that the feminist playwright Eve Ensler (best known as author of The Vagina Monologues) had spent some time consulting on the film.
This is borne out by how the women are surprisingly sensitively treated in the film – it realistically depicts the brutalization that would occur in a post-apocalyptic hellscape, but gives the female characters individuality and the will to be defiant in the face of such. The wives are played with personality by the likes of Rosie Huntington –Whiteley and Zoe Kravitz; their repeated refrains of “We are not things” and questioning “Who killed the world?” are implicit criticisms of the patriarchal tyranny that has oppressed the future world.
Despite heavy themes, overall Miller has retained the verve and unashamedly goofy touches that are the hallmarks of the Mad Max universe. Characters are bedecked in toothy masks, nipple clamps, intricate scars, leather duds and metal nose prosthetics. There are constant instances of unrestrained jaw-dropping wonder and fun.
Immortan Joe’s entourage of War Boys frenetically spray their mouths with metallic silver paint in anticipation of moments of glory, use poles to cross from car to car, and travel with their own house band including drummers and a guitar player in a red onesie wielding a double-necked axe that also spouts fire. Breast milk is the drink of choice in the post-apocalyptic wasteland. There’s an all-ages, all-female biker gang in the dunes. The cars are all hilarious Frankenstein’s monsters, absolutely pimped to the nth degree. It's insane.
Miller has totally maintained his world-building, remained true to himself and his vision, and has delivered an almost perfect action film, with sustained bonkers thrills and emotional depth to boot.