There’s a hankering for action that any number of talking pigs and dancing penguins just can’t satisfy. After thirty years away from the wheel, post-apocalyptic car chase impresario George Miller is back with a vengeance with Mad Max: Fury Road, delivering an onslaught of vehicular violence that may only be compared justifiably to his own ludicrous body of work. In the intervening years we’ve been blessed with the elegant maneuvering of Ronin, the spastic desperation of The Bourne Supremacy, and the surreal digital enhancement of The Matrix Reloaded, to name a few of the more memorable chase sequences since that train barreled toward oblivion at the tail end of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Miller, however, doesn’t just insert chases into his movies. The carnivalesque convoys of the Mad Max movies are moving stages, integral pieces of the world through which they tear, to the point that it’s unfair measuring up anything else against them. Miller has elevated the chase sequence from cliched set piece to full fledged plot, and Fury Road represents the purest example yet of his who-gives-a-shit-throw-it-in, hyper-kinetic ethos.
Beginning with the title character, let’s get it out of the way that the departure of Mel Gibson in the title role wasn’t cause for much lament even in the days when his return was plausible and, really, no pressure seemed to be placed on whoever replaced him. With that in mind, Miller and company could have done a lot worse than Tom Hardy and got away with it, but in keeping with their level of quality they snagged the current king of wildcard, who pairs the twitchy unpredictability he brought to Bronson with the cool capability he gave Inception’s Eames. For all the gossip surrounding Hardy’s frustration with Miller’s direction, the difficulties seemed to have actually helped his characterization. His Max is a rabid, feral creature, haunted by the dead and traumatized by a distant trilogy’s worth of regret. There isn’t much more to Max than that; he’s a wandering samurai enlisted to the causes of others, typically against his will.
The cause this time around is spearheaded by Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, a lieutenant of grotesque dictator Immortan Joe gone rogue, who rescues his personal harem and makes a run for it. Joe lords over the Citadel, a Monument Valley-like collection of buttes, where he controls the water, and thus, the daily lives of the beggars beneath him, while an army of cancer-ridden War Boys do his bidding. So embedded is his cult of personality that he need not hide the corruption that physically manifests in his bloated, scarred body. Raccoon-eyed Furiosa, wearing his brand, is just one of the Boys, albeit one of the best, equipped with a mechanical arm, who wields a level of respect over the crew of her War Rig that makes her ploy to spirit away Joe’s wives just a teensy bit less desperate than it would seem, but still insane enough to find her targeted by every man in possession of a working internal combustion engine in the area. Max at this point is a prisoner, serving the macabre role of living blood donor to Nicholas Hoult’s Nux, one of the aforementioned War Boys whose veins honestly seem to flow with adrenaline and nothing else, when the call comes down to pursue Furiosa. Nux hitches up Max as a human standard-bearer to his car, and off they go. Which brings us to the gist of every Mad Max movie: pure, unadulterated off-road mayhem.
The sheer sight of Joe’s maggoty-white War Boys crawling along their mangled tetanus traps at breakneck speed is enough to put anyone on the edge of their seat, and Miller delivers on that potential for catastrophic action. He directs with the cinematic spirit of a sugar-buzzed kid on Saturday morning surrounded on all sides by Matchbox cars, Legos, GI Joes, and whatever else is at hand who can’t waste time piling on the carnage but at least demands a reason why melty-faced GI Joe wants to kill missing-thumbs GI Joe (don’t twist the guns in their hands, kids). Characterization is sprinkled throughout, informed by the present action as opposed to exposition or flashbacks, which means that the few times Fury Road does slow down, its brief periods of respite are unburdened by the need to pile on information, leaving us to catch our breath alongside the actors and enjoy the view. The rest of the time, he dives head first into the fray, somehow without feeling rushed in the process. By now enough retrospectives and features have been made highlighting Miller’s techniques toward achieving his visceral brand of action, all of which serve as an antidote to the superficial spectacles that have been gracing movie screens for close to twenty summers now.
The Raid films were the first to breathe fresh life into the action genre, but Miller goes beyond the commitment to brutal practical effects to refine every aspect of production. The action is merciless, the performances perfectly exaggerated, the music ecstatic. Every frame is gorgeous, the hyper-saturated coloring so thoughtfully intended that not a single person has felt the need to complain about it. Fury Road overflows with un-self-conscious energy, boldly doing things that most financiers wouldn’t be caught dead condoning. Its hero, reintroduced to a new generation, is a helpless wreck. The plot can be boiled down to a literal battle of the sexes (admittedly an angle the press has gushed over a little unnervingly given that the person who bitched about it didn’t deserve exposure in the first place). Even small touches are particularly bold. Nux is given a hero theme when he receives Joe’s blessing to execute Furiosa. Every henchman is brimming with character. Religion is reinvented. New slang is born. Catchphrases are shouted with the conviction needed to make them stick.
Not enough can be said about a film whose every nook and cranny deserves such high levels of praise. Hardy, Theron, Hoult, and Hugh Keays-Byrne as Immortan Joe stand out amid a supporting cast of equally unforgettable characters. Stunt talent and special effects crews deserve applause for their seamless integration of live wire stunts and subtle computer effects. The thought of a new trilogy is spine-tingling in itself, and one can only hope that it fuels Miller’s imagination further. With him at the wheel, things are looking especially lovely for our future, which, come Armageddon or not, he’ll surely turn into a desolate wasteland worth visiting.