A few months ago, after a string of mediocre-to-bad reviews of what I maintain were mediocre-to-bad schlocky action movies, I had a coworker accuse me of simply not liking action movies. I tried quickly to defend myself, saying no, it was just the beginning of the year and there weren’t any good action movies which had come out recently. But it got me second guessing myself. Do I occasionally get annoyed with shallow characters, weak plots, and the waste of brilliant concepts? Yes. Maybe even more than “occasionally.”
All it takes is a movie like Mad Max: Fury Road to put those sort of niggling criticisms out of mind. Yes, there are still some ways Fury Road occasionally lets itself down, but these are by far the exceptions to the rule. Mad Max: Fury Road is a great action movie, and one that does world building better than most any other movie in recent memory of any genre. Who cares if the plot is a massive excuse to make the characters go from point A to point B and back? That journey is way too much fun.
Fury Road drops us into its post-apocalyptic landscape with hardly an iota of exposition. I’ve actually seen none of the previous Mad Max movies, but to the best of my knowledge I suffered not at all for the oversight. With a few minor – but notable – exceptions, director George Miller puts on a clinic for giving the audience just enough information to keep us abreast of world and story unfolding around us, while still leaving plenty to figure out as we go. The opening shot establishes a two-headed lizard only to have it quickly eaten by our main character (played by Tom Hardy), this only moments before he and his car are chased down by a murderous gang riding an assortment of cobbled together motor vehicles that are about what you’d imagine car zombies would look like. The food chain – and its immediacy in this world – are established, and we’re whisked off to the main plot.
The, ahem, driving forces in Fury Road are a warlord’s thirst for control over what he considers to be his property and a group of women’s thirst for freedom from this dictator. Charlize Theron plays the Imperator Furiosa, trusted vanguard of warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who is sent to trade with another warlord for a shipment of gasoline, now a precious resource in a post-nuclear winter world. Little does he know, Furiousa is escaping with his harem of wives, and soon Immortan Joe is hot in pursuit with his motorized army of fanatical War Boys. Max, kidnapped by War Boys in that opening scene, finds himself but a bystander to this initial action, nothing but the living blood bag for a wounded War Boy named Nux (Nicholas Hoult). And by the way, along with others like “Max Rockansteady,” “Rictus Erectus,” and “Toast the Knowing,” if you can’t get a kick out of these names, you’re just not living.
Humor, in fact, is one of the most important qualities of Mad Max: Fury Road, or at least, the self-allowance to have fun within its semiabsurdist post-apocalyptic world is. The world of Max Max is one that is highly mechanical but largely devoid of precision. It’s also one that’s more car-obsessed than the Fast & Furious franchise. Combined, that means that war is waged only in small part by gunfire – guns absolutely exist and are utilized, but without reliable means (it would seem) to manufacture ammunition, bullets are always at a
premium. Instead, Fury Road takes full advantage of the wide open vistas of barren desert flats, setting nitrus-infused cars loose like war chariots upon the field of battle. Explosives are the weapon of choice, often strapped to the end of spears and flung at one another in close quarters. Wheel spikes, using cars as battering rams, and leaping from vehicle to vehicle are also common tactics. And of course, there’s the military band to make sure the whole formation is well-marshalled.
Miller does an amazing job of making sure the audience never forgets this world is just beyond the pale, yet still stained by the dirt and grime of a place imminently recognizable. A couple key tactics play into this. First, action scenes routinely drop frames to give them a hyper-real look. Things are undoubtedly moving faster than they should, but only barely. It makes car and foot chases alike all the more spectacular, while visually reinforcing just how actually-mentally-crazy everyone in frame is. Max, as he says himself, is a man who must obey the instinct to survive at all costs. He is by definition both animal and man, and it’s a great duality.
But back to Miller’s directing. While daytime scenes are an unyielding reddish-orangeish-brown that looks like a real desert, night is swathed in an otherworldly blue. The scenes taking place at night tend to be less extraordinarily proportioned than their daytime counterparts, but the forced blue hue maintains the haunted, almost sickly tone of the barren world. The illusion breaks a little when bright spots and shadows reveal just how clearly this is a color filter over a daytime shoot, but I appreciated the artistry that Miller was shooting for more than I was annoyed by the blunt instrument he used to achieve it.
Most surprising, however, I think this is actually one of the rare movies that you really want to see in 3D. Miller and cinematographer John Seale’s (Cold Mountain) framing is immaculate, and makes a brilliant show of the added depth of field. There’s a predilection for skyboxes, which is perfectly fine considering how striking the landscape is, particularly with the movie almost always giving an eye for the horizon ahead. The camera does a wonderful job of reinforcing the twisted reality and charge-forward-on-a-fast-car mentality of the rest of the movie.
A few bits do get left by the wayside. The plot, as mentioned, is little more than a series of excuses to make the characters do their best to flee from one point to another, then embark on a seeming suicide mission to get back to where they started. That’s mostly ok, because, hey, more of some absolutely top-notch action, but a few links in the chain are noticeably weak, particularly a couple to do with Nux, who makes the biggest emotional and philosophical arc of any of the characters. The midpoint of the film, in particular, lags a bit because having achieved one goal, Max and Furiosa have trouble defining the next. It’s also worth mentioning, on that note, that both characters could have done with a bit more depth (there’s sort of a singular and largely unexplored motivator driving each). Still, there are some top-notch scenes on their way to discovering their mutual benefit in working together.
It’s worth mentioning again that the action here really is spectacularly imaginative, fitting perfectly with the film’s bizarro reality, and that’s probably the biggest draw the movie has to offer. But one of the things that should give Fury Road some staying power is a surprisingly complex motif of women’s empowerment. Furiosa is an obvious embodiment of physical prowess, but where Miller makes things particularly interesting is with Immortan Joe’s wives. When they’re first revealed, the wives are shown in a gaze that is decidedly male and culturally traditional – clothed in a few strips of linen each, they bathe in pure water, a living oasis in the middle of an ugly and lifeless plain. Moreover, they initially seem to be sheltered and without the skills that have perpetuated Max’s or Furiosa’s survival. It’s an uncomfortable view of the women that hammers home just how much they were property in Joe’s eyes. (Unfortunately, he also says this aloud a couple of times, so some of the poetry is lost.)
But as the movie progresses, the different wives show themselves remarkably capable in a number of different ways, and it becomes impossible not to see them as fully embodied and independent people. And actually some of the events around that midpoint lull are most important to the completion of this arc. Also noteworthy, the only male characters who can be seen in a heroic light end up working with these women, not only protecting them, but being protected by them. And thematically, the movie has a lot to do with the reparation of wounds inflicted by the same men who first ruined the world, and the establishment of a new and equitable society.
The Verdict: 5 out of 5
Here’s the deal: Mad Max: Fury Road does have some problems when it comes to both its plotline and the development of its three main characters, Max Rockansteady (Tom Hardy), Imperator Furiosa (Charlise Theron), and Nux (Nicholas Hoult).
But here’s the other deal: the things it does well, it does so well that it doesn’t matter if it’s lagging a little in those areas. The plot and the characters are merely good, and they’re surrounded by phenomenal world building, great design, wonderful direction from George Miller, quality thematic development, and a stellar score by Tom Holkanborg I haven’t even had the chance to praise up until now because there is so much other stuff of quality in this movie worth talking about.
“Oh what a day! What a lovely day!”