MAD MAX: FURY ROAD — Action Speaks
by Pam Grady
“I got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals,” is one of Paul Newman’s more memorable lines in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid . It’s a great bit of dialogue that applies doubly to writer/director George Miller in real life. His action-packed dystopian Mad Max trilogy influenced scores of filmmakers. Thirty years after he left off with Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome , Miller reinvigorates the franchise and schools a new generation with Mad Max: Fury Road. Filling the screen with amazing stunts and taking full advantage of improvements in equipment and special effects and the harsh landscape of his Namib Desert location, he’s made the greatest, most thrilling Mad Max yet, even as he creates his bleakest world to date.
British actor Tom Hardy, the man of 1000 accents, takes over the role of Australian Max Rockatansky from Mel Gibson, and makes the character his own within Fury Road ’s opening minutes with a voiceover that establishes the state of both Max’s memory-tortured soul and the Earth, or at least Max’s corner of it, 30 years into the apocalypse. Not that Miller wastes much time with exposition. The director’s approach is the same as Max’s toward the road: full-throttle, pedal-to-the-metal. This is high-octane, muscular storytelling at its finest.
Miller positions Max behind the 8-ball from the very beginning, as he’s captured and made a slave of the tyrannical regime that controls the region. Not that he can be kept down long, despite the mask and chains that hold him fast. Nor is he alone in his struggle for freedom. Imperator Furiosa (a ferocious Charlize Theron), whose job it is to drive a tanker truck to the nearby gasworks for fuel, longs for redemption and to see again the beautiful green place she remembers from her childhood. She goes rogue, stealing precious cargo, and drawing out the mutant warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his army, who follow her into the Outback.
A lot has changed since Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome . Miller acknowledges that by making water the precious resource that Immortan Joe controls, ensuring him his power. Gas is also important, necessary to keep all those chopped-up and stylized muscle cars, motorcycles, and trucks running, but without water there is no life. There is a hierarchy in this community. The sickest and most mutated hold the most power. They are served by a ghostly white army of dead-eyed souls, given to acts of self-sacrifice in their belief that Immortan Joe will deliver them to “Valhalla.” Those apparently untouched by radiation—the still fully human—are slaves of one sort or another. Furiosa with her privileged role is an exception.
The cinematography by John Seale, an Oscar winner for The English Patient , is stunning, capturing both the horror and the beauty inherent in this harsh desert. The stunts, many involving the actual actors, look not only astonishing, but truly death-defying. The terror is not just in the violence of battle and the thundering car crashes, but in the very elements themselves: dust storms, fires, and the unforgiving sun. For all the adrenalin-pumped action, crunching metal, blood, and viscera, Miller never loses sight of the human dimension. Max and Furiosa are people of few words, but their actions speak volumes.
This is Miller’s first action film in 30 years. After Thunderdome , he made The Witches of Eastwick , Lorenzo’s Oil , Babe: Pig in the City , Happy Feet , and Happy Feet Two . Apparently, all the time he was playing with sweet-natured farm animals and dancing penguins, he was biding his time, building up to the explosive symphony of mayhem that is Mad Max: Fury Road . It’s an impressive comeback for a beloved character and franchise, but what is truly awesome is that after three decades, Miller’s still got it and filmgoers are richer for it.
Pam Grady is a San Francisco-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Box Office, Keyframe, and other publications. She is a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.
If you like Mad Max movies, you will love this one. Avengers: Age of Ultron is being criticized for being heavy on the action and light on the characters. Those are both sins in my book, yet I thought that film delivered exactly what the audience wanted. Well, Mad Max: Fury Road has far more action, and far less personal life, and is even more of a success as a movie.
Here’s the plot (don’t worry, it doesn’t matter): Max gets captured. Max gets taken along when the entire tribe goes chasing after a renegade warrior. Max ends up with the renegade. The chase goes a long way across the spectacular desert. Then they turn around and race the other way. All that chasing consists of spectacular and mostly-done-live-by-stuntpeople stunts, one after the other. See it on the big screen; this is what “popcorn movie” really means.
There’s just this one thing….
Mad Max is the dream of a 14-year-old boy, brought to the screen with all the skills of a 69-year-old man who’s done it three times before. It has everything this concept needs, and it has the most implausible women I’ve seen in some time.
These women are the “brides” of the gross, masked megalomaniac who runs the society Max has stumbled into. The renegade went rogue to rescue them and is trying to get to safety. But lots of glorious action happens and ends with the brides revealed.
They are supermodels. Thin, angular, hair perfectly coifed, makeup artfully applied, nipples erect.
Now have I mentioned that Mad Max takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, in the desert? Every single other person out there is caked with grunge, their faces either cracked with the heat or covered in white makeup that distinguishes the troops. The world and its people are like Burning Man day 39. And yet the brides comes from a completely different reality—the reality of a teenager’s dream, where of course the women are hot babes, and mise en scene be damned.
Now if there were any explanation at all for this, that base would be covered, story-wise, but there isn’t. We do see at one point that they lived in a pretty nice place, but still, their diet alone, in post-apocalyptic desolation, would preclude their porcelain skins and shiny hair.
But it gets worse, because these babes have all the brains a teenage boy would prefer; the phrase “box of hammers” comes to mind. The low point comes when one of them goes to the back of the tanker she’s on and finds the white-faced trooper who’d been getting the most screen time as their most psychotic pursuer. She without hesitation adopts an “Oh, you poor boy” attitude and snuggles down beside him. And he, for his part, does not immediately rip out her throat. In fact, at that exact moment, he turns into boyfriend material.
There is, though, one other female lead, and that’s Charlize Theron as the renegade, aka Imperator Furiosa. She’s been a warrior all her life; it’s cost her one arm, hair longer than a buzz cut, and any makeup other than axle grease. She had to rid herself of all feminine keys to survive, but she bonds with the brides. Then she bonds with Max. Charlize is okay at being a badass, but she’s no Ripley. The sleep in the cast turns out to be Max himself, Tom Hardy. He plays Max as worn pretty far down by life in the desert, often resorting to grunts or silence rather than conversation. But by the end, he’s fleshed the guy out expertly. And that’s when you suddenly look up from the most highly-charged movie of the summer and realize that writer/director George Miller has taken full advantage of the momentary breaks in the action to tell a complete character arc—which is more than the newly released version of The Avengers managed to do.
But really, it’s not the breaks in the action we’re here for; it’s the action above all else. That’s why I can be stunned when any of the babes shows up or speaks, and still walk out feeling that the movie justifies the popcorn. If you like Mad Max movies, you will love this one—but you’ll love it more if you’re actually fourteen.
Steve Englehart has been the lead writer for both Marvel and DC on several occasions, and a founding father of Malibu’s Ultraverse. His redefinition of the Batman and the Joker as mature adults completely changed both comics and the films made from them for the last three decades, but there’s also Star-Lord, the Avengers, Captain America, Silver Surfer, Doctor Strange, Coyote, the JLA, and dozens of others. He created Kilowog and Guy Gardner for the Green Lantern Corps, and the Night Man, who got a TV series. The San Diego ComiCon said he has “more hits with more characters at more companies than any other writer.” www.steveenglehart.com.
Opens Friday, May 15 at theaters nationwide.