It’s been thirty years since the last time Mel Gibson donned Max Rockatansky’s iconic dusty leather coat and drove his souped up Interceptor into the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Australia’s outback. In the midst of his fascinating reinvention as the director of family films like the Happy Feet series and Babe: Pig in the City, George Miller has been threatening to return to the series that made wearing spiky shoulder pads cool for all of those pro wrestlers from the 1980’s. Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome was not the most auspicious of exits for the character, and it is understandable why Miller might have felt some unfinished business lingering in the air. And so now, three decades since his last ride and 36 years since Max first stepped onto the silver screen, he’s back with a vengeance with the adrenaline-flooded, unrelenting Mad Max: Fury Road.
GIbson is long gone now, replaced in the role that made him a star by Tom Hardy, who seems intent on earning the “Mad” moniker that precedes his name. Hardy’s Max wanders the desert in a deranged stupor, a PTSD haze of darting-eyed paranoia and destructive visions of his past failures. His life’s essence has been scoured away, leaving behind only a guttural instinct for survival. He begins the film pursued and eventually captured by the War Boys, a band of hairless psychopaths with powder-bleached white skin, fleshy skeletons under the thrall of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a warlord who has seized control over his corner of the wasteland through tyrannical control of the water supply. Joe keeps a harem of nubile young women as his sex slaves and offspring factory, an act that has one of his most trusted lieutenants, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) none too pleased. She hatches a plan to detour one of her gasoline runs, having clandestinely smuggled the girls into her war rig. It does not take long for Joe to discover Furiosa’s deception, and the chase is on. Meanwhile, Max has become the personal blood donor to Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a sickly War Boy with visions of a glorious death on the Fury Road, and when Joe unleashes his hordes to bring back his queens, Nux takes Max along for the ride, strapping him to the front of his vehicle to keep the restorative blood flowing, putting Max and Furiosa on a collision course that can only mean fireworks.
What is most fascinating about Miller’s return to the Mad Max mythos is how often it feels like Max is a bystander in his own film. It does not help that he spends the first act alternatively trapped in a cage and chained to the front of a car, but it is hard to notice with a character as engaging as Furiosa front and center. Max has always been that sort of bystander, drawn into conflicts that do not concern him by an unassailable moral compass, but it is rare that the one he is helping is noticeably more interesting than he is. Charlize Theron’s Furiosa is a force on screen, fiercely protective of her charges, willing to sacrifice everything to provide a better life for women who know nothing beyond marginalization and forced sexual submission. Even with all of the cars and fire and blood and explosions and rampant testosterone, Fury Road is a remarkably female-focused action spectacle. It is a gambit that pays off in spades, providing that spark of originality and a satisfying raising of the stakes. Considering the linear nature of the story, such spice is necessary to keep the whole enterprise from collapsing in on itself like Beyond Thunderdome did.
For all intents, Mad Max: Fury Road is a two hour chase scene. Cars and the high speed collisions that reduce them to so much scrap metal have always been the hallmark of Miller’s Mad Max films, but never has it been more straightforward than it is here. It would be easy to believe, nay expect for such an approach to wear out its welcome before the film reaches its fiery conclusion, but the world Miller has created is so captivatingly imaginative that it would be acceptable to have the camera linger on grass growing as long as the rest of the world is visible in the background (that is if grass even existed in this sun bleached desert hellscape). Earlier Mad Max films systematically ratcheted up the craziness of the wasteland’s denizens, from the Nightrider to Toecutter to Wez and Lord Humungus, reaching the height of silliness with Aunty Entity and Master Blaster. Beyond Thunderdome may have turned the dial too far into self-parody, but Fury Road feels like a welcome course correction of tone, grounding the experience with that real feeling of stakes as this ragtag bunch of refugees do everything they can to evade the infinite slavering hordes pursuing them. It is a matter of life and death, sure, but it is also a matter of freedom and agency.
Miller’s creativity explodes all over every frame; his is a world that teems with life, energizing the dead landscape. From Joe and his intimidating breathing apparatus to the War Boys and their grenade spears to the Bullet Farmer to the massive mobile band rig with its drums of war and its blind War Boy shredding sweet licks on his flamethrower guitar, Miller constantly outdoes himself at every opportunity.Cars, detritus and bodies spiral and arc through the air with balletic grace, framed against a roiling dust storm that would make Hell itself seem like respite as John Seale’s manic camera screams across the landscape, whipping and panning with devilish glee. And Miller, with his love for practical effects and minimal use of CG, gives it all a sense of weight and consequence. Mad Max: Fury Road is not just a welcome righting of the ship for the Mad Max franchise that suddenly has more life than it has had since 1981, but it is also the sort of action film the industry needs right now, a reminder that sometimes it really is better to just blow things up and record what happens.