Mad Max: Fury Road: The Thinking Moviegoer’s Post-apocalyptic Metal Opera

It’s been 36 years since George Miller’s Mad Max first hit screens, 34 since its sequel Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior created the punk-western visuals that would define post-apocalyptic films for a generation and 30 since Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome capped the series. Can director George Miller recapture the old magic with a new star and $150 million?

Yes. Turns out the answer is yes.

Mad Max: Fury Road isn’t technically a comic-book movie, but there are definite links. Critics have constantly used the term to refer to the series, plenty of comics have taken their inspiration from Miller’s films, and for this outing British comics creator and all-around professional nutter Brendan McCarthy joined the team to provide part of the script as well as new character designs.

Fury Road doesn’t mess around; we start with Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy, taking over for Mel Gibson) wandering the desert in his trademark vehicle, the Pursuit Special (last of the V8 Interceptors, don’t you know), traumatized by the memory of all the people he fails to save. Captured by the psychotic War Boys, who serve warlord-slash-cult-leader Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played the villain in the very first film), Max takes his opportunity to escape when one of Joe’s lieutenants, Furiosa (Charlize Theron) makes a break for freedom together with five of Joe’s unwilling wives.

And that’s the premise. Pretty much everything from this point onward is Max, Furiosa, the wives and reluctant War Boy convert Nux (Nicholas Hoult) running from Joe and his bizarre collection of minions and allies. That bare-bones summary doesn’t really do it justice, though; Miller’s films have always eschewed dialogue in favor of revealing character through high-octane chase and battle sequences (except perhaps for the tension-building 70s-style longueurs of the original film), and Fury Road is no exception. Each character, even the relatively small parts, has a distinct personality and arc, and these are revealed through action. This isn’t one of your clumsy action films where you get a bit of character and then you fight a masked, chainsaw-wielding mutant on top of a speeding, spike-covered fuel tanker. This is one of the great action films where you develop your character by fighting a masked, chainsaw-wielding mutant on top of a speeding, spike-covered fuel tanker.

And if the image of Max and a badass warrior woman fighting gas-crazy marauders as they flee a masked psychopath sounds a little familiar, well, it is. Fury Road is very much a remix of Mad Max 2 with everything turned up to 11 and a larger role for the other characters. Instead of the traditional Max-as-Western-gunslinger setup, Max in Fury Road is more of the POV character, the outsider to whom the rivalries and ambitions of the inhabitants of the Citadel are as confusing as they are to us.

Sharing action-hero duties this time around is Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, who’s really the heart of the film. Furiosa is an interesting character, in that she shouldn’t be; she’s basically a standard action hero, rugged and stoic, resourceful and determined. It’s just unusual that she’s a woman and that the film (mostly) doesn’t make a big deal out of it. She’s also notable just because Theron does such an amazing job with the character; the media spends so much time focusing on Theron being glamorous that you can forget she’s an Academy Award winner, a capital-S, capital-A serious actress. She nails this character, holding up the first hour or more of the movie until Max does his traditional late-film burst of heroic determination.

Tom Hardy as Max is less easy to get a handle on; his laconic attitude sometimes just comes off as dazed, and he plays the character not like a man who doesn’t want to be here but like a man who doesn’t want to be anywhere. He does a great job combining vulnerability and toughness; like Indiana Jones, Max is a guy who’s going to get the hell beat out of him and yet somehow keep going. And Keays-Byrne is splendid as Immortan Joe, particularly considering that you can’t see most of his face for most of the movie. The original story gave you the impression that what was dangerous about the Toecutter wasn’t his strength or skill but the sinister charm that motivated people to kill and die for him, and that carries through here, turned up to operatic levels.

Speaking of operatic, the real stars of the movie may be the design and the landscape. From characters to cars to sets, Fury Road takes the by-now-familiar post-apocalyptic aesthetic established in Mad Max 2 and sends it right over the top, creating a world that reeks of brutality and fanaticism while still being relentlessly compelling. Mad Max 2 defined a genre; its successor doesn’t go that far, but it’s not at all lazy. Fury Road takes the basic chase-movie structure and turns it into a stark, vicious tale of sacrifice and heroism that proves blockbusters don’t have to be brainless.

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