Mad Max: Fury Road
George Miller’s most famous creation is one of those cult films that has managed to retain both a fawning core of intense fandom, as well as leaving a mark on the wider popular consciousness. But I could never say that I was ever really that into them. The Road Warrior, for sure, was an eighties treat, and the series generally has done some great work with chase sequences and the presentation of its anarchic world. But I found them deficient in both story and character, with not enough of a spectacle to make up for that. Miller’s career since has been very hit and miss, with his greatest success being with the markedly different Babe and Happy Feet franchises, so I can’t say I’ve ever been fully on-board with him as a filmmaker. But now, given a large budget to play around with, as well as film technology 30 years more advanced, Miller has been given an opportunity to go back to where his career really started, with a new Max Rockatansky in tow. Could the star power of Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron propel Mad Max into the modern age? Or is it all an over hyped piece of nostalgia bait?
In a post-apocalyptic Wasteland, Max (Hardy) is a lone drifter just trying to survive, captured by the forces of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a malformed warlord who, set up as a warrior-god, dominates his hellish kingdom through the control of a local water supply, using Max as a living blood bag for his “War Boy” Nux (Nicholas Hoult). When Furiosa (Theron), one of his chief soldiers, absconds with Joe’s “breeders” – women coveted for their beauty and reproductive potential – Max finds himself caught up in the running battle between Furiosa’s stolen war-rig and Joe’s freakish army.
The above is a basic synopsis of the film, but I could write another two sentences and have essentially covered the entirety of the experience. Fury Road’s story is extremely threadbare, set up entirely within the first 15 minutes or so, with only slight additions added or new directions undertaken for the remainder. Those seeking a deep, thoughtful exploration of a post-apocalyptic world and all that it entails, should not be looking to find much in Fury Road.
But that’s OK. Because expectation is important when it comes to film, and I had no serious expectation of great story. What expectations I had, from the epic promotional material, was of high-octane action sequences which, in their practicality, would be almost unique in a modern Hollywood system, so obsessed with colour graded CGI creations (comparing Fury Road to Jurassic World is going to be interesting).
If Fury Road did nothing else, it met those expectations. I got everything out of the film that I wanted, and while you can’t look at Fury Road’s budget and not think that there could have been a bit more in the form of plot if Miller was really bothered (feel free to throw in an extra 15 or 20 minutes guys, I was hooked), it still won’t bother you unduly. Fury Road delivers in its action set-pieces, all of them, and is one of the better summer popcorn movies that have graced the screen in recent times.
The main crux of the plot, such as it is, is the saving of the girls that Furiosa smuggles out of the Citadel, and that Max inadvertently finds himself trying to protect as well. But there is only so much done with that premise, to the extent that the girls’ common refrain that “We are not things” starts to become rather ironic, considering how empty they are as characters, mere MacGuffins for Hardy and Theron to try and keep out of the hands of Immortan Joe and his pale army. It’s hard to get totally engaged with that struggle then, in the way other films would have succeeded. Children Of Men, somewhat similar in many respects, springs to mind. But in Fury Road, the girls exist as a prize to be held and chased, a centrepiece of a grand game of “Capture The Flag”. They get very minor moments of sudden evolution or agency, but they are as fleeting as they are empty.
What actual arcs for characters that exist aren’t all that much either. Characters have traits and hooks, and cleverly we find these out more through actions than being told. But the players don’t have great journeys to go on. I notice some pushback on this point among some of the film’s more adoring fans, but I firmly believe that, in much the same way as the rabid fanbase of Pacific Rim did, they are seeing what they want to see and filling in the blanks to make the characters better presented than they actually are (but, to clarify, it hasn’t gotten to anywhere near the same levels of obnoxiousness as Pacific Rim’s fanbase did).
As has been oft noted in the critical community, the title character is rather subdued as a presence, getting scant dialogue and preferring to just look as grim as possible in the course of the film. After a brief opening monologue outlining his situation, Max doesn’t speak more than a word for another 40 or so minutes, and what journey exists for him as a character is bound up in vague visions/nightmares of his dead child, that takes an unexpectedly supernatural swerve at moments in the last act. A crucial turn for the character, from drifter to willing ally, occurs at the top of that third act, and it’s all very quick. Nux, a turncoat War Boy, is a little bit better, but even his journey can be reduced to dirt simple terms all too easily, moving away from the twisted religion of his upbringing after one bad moment, and all too easily deciding to join up with the “good guys” afterward. Its light switch characterisation: when you need the characters to change, but don’t have time to portray it properly. And the film’s primary antagonist is an empty caricature of crazed militarism, who never moves much beyond the early defined traits of murderous possessiveness.
The exception is Theron’s Furiosa, who dominates so much of the film that it could legitimately be retiled Furiosa Road without it feeling forced. She, at the very least, has some mystery, intrigue and questions that surround her, questions that the audience looks forward to seeing answered. They mainly revolve around why she wants to help these girls, and why she is choosing this moment to do it, and where exactly she wants to go. She’s a tortured result of the Wasteland’s abuse, but one still clinging to a hope for a better future, and the audience can get swept along with that. She retains femininity, the guardian of humanity’s literal future, tired of the misogynistic militarism that defines the present, where war is all and women are chattel. It gets taken to a dark place with some very cliché elements (see below) but Furiosa’s arc is much stronger than everyone else’s in the film, her character remaining consistent in act and theme. She’s another strong female character to cherish in 2015, far stronger and better presented than the others in the war-rig, one who fights and holds her own throughout the film, while still showing enough vulnerability that she isn’t just a stylised macho woman. Is Hollywood finally starting to get the Katniss Everdeen message?
Once you get beyond all of that, and, excepting Furiosa, it really is so thin that it isn’t that hard, you can sit back and enjoy what Fury Road has to offer elsewhere. The world-building is almost comical in its “over the top” nature, but no less enjoyable for it. The George Miller freak show gets a wonderful tour in Fury Road, calling back to Zach Snyder’s Persian army in 300 in many respects, but even more varied and colourful. There are different gangs, different factions, and a primitive society at war with itself, which Max, Furiosa and the war-rig have to navigate carefully.
That freak show forms the core of the films many action sequences, which dominate the running time. But, remarkably, Miller manages to ensure that, in terms of pacing and tempo, Fury Road never really hits a dud beat, except for maybe towards the very end. The film’s opening act is dominated by a chase/battle sequence that seems about a half hour long, but is so varied in its make-up and so exciting in its presentation that it never feels slow or boring, in the way that Michael Bay would almost certainly have made it. As we move forward, the environments change and the type of action does too: in one memorable moment, when the audience needs a break from the adrenaline, Miller chooses to portray the destruction of a significant part of the antagonist army off-screen, the manner of which embiggens the title character significantly. As I said, it’s only in the climactic battle that you might start to get a sense of déjà vu starting to cut in, but only by the end. The vast majority of Fury Road’s main attraction is wonderfully presented, and slotted into the film brilliantly.
There is so little to say about Fury Road’s story – which is satisfying despite its limitations, perfect for the, ahem, vehicle it is in – that I really should just move on, lest I find myself stumbling into the trap of hyper criticism like many others have already done for this film.
Tom Hardy in the lead really doesn’t have all that much to do. He might have less than 20 lines, and for a very large part of the film his face is obscured, Bane-like, by an imposing metal harness. On the film review podcast Filmspotting, they recently wondered if, following Fury Road and Locke, we weren’t heading towards a Hardy performance that simply involved him walking somewhere angrily for two hours. Hardy has his presence and his steely-eyed look, but precious else besides in Fury Road. The part could have been played by anyone, even an aging Mel Gibson if he’d had the inclination, without much changing.
It is Theron who we have to look to in the acting stakes. Like Hardy, she doesn’t have all that many lines really, though she has more than him. But she gets the opportunity to express a great deal more in her look, her face and in her actions. In the design of her character, with that gruesome metal appendage for an arm and the oily dirt on her face, we can see so much of the woman who has spent 7’000 days in the service of Joe, and who has simply had enough. In every look she gives to the girls she is shepherding, we can see the fear, concern and longing for relief she has been living with for decades. Furiosa is a bit of an enigma, insofar as we never really get to understand why she is choosing this moment to fight back against Immortan Joe, and whether or not she has a death wish with some of her actions. But I can live with that I think. I realise now that I haven’t seen anything Theron has made since her disappointing turn in Snow White And The Huntsman, but Fury Road is a welcome return to form (don’t be too happy, as Theron is apparently reprising that role in an ill-advised Huntsman sequel).
Most of the rest of the cast are minor players really. Keays-Byrne, so hidden by prosthetics and bizarre costuming, couldn’t really bring much to the Joe character beyond his imposing look and voice. Nathan Jones, John Howard and Richard Carter don’t fare much better as Joe’s chief underlings, marked out more by their costume and deformities than any acting talent, existent or otherwise. There’s is a situation where they are obligated to look weird and scary, occasionally shout, and just generally be a threat. Of the girls, Rosie Huntington-Whitely is apparently the chief focus, but her acting abilities haven’t gotten any better since her limp appearance in Transformers: Dark Of The Moon, and none of the others are setting this post-apocalyptic world on fire either. This is the second film I’ve seen Zoe Kravitz in over the last few months (after Good Kill), and it’s the second time I’ve been underwhelmed by her.
If there is a real stand-out in the supporting cast, it is Nicholas Hoult, a man who has managed to carve out a delightful niche as a character actor in Hollywood, having made the jump from British television a few years ago. His Nux is one of the really brilliant characters in Fury Road purely in terms of his attitude, accent and persona, if not his journey. Hoult brings a wonderful manic energy to the role of the half crazed War Boy, who gleefully rides into battle with Max confined in a cage on the front of his vehicle, a blood transfusion still occurring between them. Fury Road needed that kind of character, half-mad, half-hilarious, to give a more personable window into the world of Immortan Joe’s sadistic quasi-religious society of death-seeking warriors, and Hoult provides it.
It is in the visual that Fury Road soars into the stratosphere. The direction and John Seale’s cinematography is truly wonderful: tight and focused when it needs to be, expansive and illuminating at other moments. The “Wasteland” might be bare and bleak, but it is also beautiful. The harsh orange of the desert gives way to blue-tinted nights, and effective contrast is drawn between the brief bits of greenery and the rest of this run-down ramshackle world. Those little moments of beauty are great and important: the sight of the stars and the odd growing thing help to engender that greater feeling of looking for hope in a very bad world.
The world in general, and by that I mean the world building, is also at the fore of Fury Road’s visual style. The factions are similar but different: Joe’s paint coated War Boys mix with the Bullet Farmers more gunned up compatriots, raiders in the desert are covered in spikes, and more peaceful tribes have more laid back robes. In simple ways, Miller shows us a Wasteland that has its form of society, and the visual is a key element in all of that.
But then there is the stuff that everyone has come to see. Early on, Miller teases an exciting escape for Max from Joe’s Citadel, Hardy’s character making a leap off a bare cliff onto a crane hook. But then he gets easily dragged back into captivity, and it soon becomes clear that Miller has his action sights set on much more fast-paced and technologically sophisticated stuff. Fury Road offers three and a bit vehicle warfare sections, and all of them are top notch, some of the best ever put to film if I’m being honest. Miller is obviously a director in love with the practical, and the decision to allow for the vast majority of special effects and carnage shots to be practical pays off big time. There’s something great and exhilarating about seeing real vehicles smash into each other, topple, explode and smash into each other again, in running battles across the length of this varied Wasteland. But Miller, to his immense credit in my eyes, also knows just when it’s OK to let the world of CGI in, such as with a spectacular race into a sandstorm in the first act, that proceeds to start sucking up participants in the vehicular brawl that continues through it. The cuts are slick, the slow-motion moments are well chosen, and there is a great amount of variety to everything.
Not least of course, the Immortan Joe freak show. It’s not enough to have the dwarf with the telescope, the right hand man with the giant irradiated foot, the scores and scores of War Boys with their white paint and chrome mouths, the tattoos, the cancerous lumps, the spikes, the metal, the scars. No, there has to be a car with a giant speaker system set-up on it, and it has to have a large percussion group riding along, and it has to have a chained guitarist, and he has to be playing this huge double electric guitar, and it has to be a guitar that spits flames, because, well, why not?
Miller has an active and enthralling imagination, and with the resources to bring that imagination to life, manages to craft the kind of insane army of bad guys that would make any B-movie director envious. The variety of mental villains adds a lot to the action scenes, as exploding spears are chucked, flamethrowers spurt, machine guns rattle and every manner of car, truck, bike and vehicle goes for a destructive ride across the desert. Despite the lack of a really effective plot to wrap it all around, it’s OK: the brilliance of these action scenes, so high in their level of quality, is enough that they can get by without them. The action is clear and meaningful in this film, with little confusion between the players and goals for them that you can follow and get engaged with, in a way that other films have often failed to accomplish (cough, Matrix Reloaded, cough). And it is so, so wonderful to behold.
The script, written between Miller, Brendan McCarthy and Nico Latouris, is as basic as you like. Max’s monologue at the start, as he munches on a two-headed lizard, or his brief words on redemption to Furiosa are as close as the film gets to substantial dialogue, and there is little else to really note. There are some great whacky lines at times, like Nux’s “What a lovely day!” as he plunges into the sandstorm with reckless abandon, but Fury Road is dedicated to a vast experiment of show, show and show some more, with very letting telling of any description. Wordplay in this film, rather like water in the wasteland, is a precious resource to be used very sparingly.
Junkie XL’s score is a great accompaniment to the action, marked particularly by some fast-paced violins, piercing in their severity, but doing an admirable job of getting the heart beating. And in some thumping percussion at a near constant level, and you have an action score to be super proud of, and it’s been filling my ears a lot since I left the theatre. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Fury Road might have the best score of any film I’ve seen so far this year. More than a little of Hanz Zimmer in there, but that’s just the right kind of music really, and XL can perform more sweeping symphonic stuff when it is required.
Some brief spoiler talk follows.
-Of course, if Fury Road isn’t a reboot, then Hardy is all kinds of the wrong age to play the character, considering that many decades must have passed since the downfall of society and the situation as it exists in this film. But Mad Max has always felt a little comic-booky in many ways, so it’s not surprising that a certain time-freeze is evident.
-The iconic super charged Pursuit Special gets chewed up twice in the film, much to the chagrin of the fan boys I assume, but it did sort of fit the way that this film is a renewal of the franchise.
-There’s something very weirdly appropriate about the way that Immortan Joe has his little Kingdom set up. His “brothers” make the bullets and the gas, but Joe, at the top, controls the two things that the world needs the most: water and women. That, and the dramatically imposing “citadel”.
-The first, and I think, only, wife to die is Rosie Huntington-Whitley’s character, and I found that scene a little oddly cut together. That aside, it worked to add some stakes to the race and destruction, but didn’t do anything to makes the wives better characters.
-Gotta love the warped quasi-Norse religion that Joe had set-up in the Citadel. I think the implication was that Joe was a crazed former member of a pre-apocalypse military, and it was neat to see him string together this massive army of mutants and doomed men with visions of a violent afterlife.
-I greatly enjoyed Miller’s way of showing that the group in the war-rig were making do with what they had. There’s something great about how the bolt-cutters kept making an appearance, or how Furiosa’s metal arm had multiple uses. No infinite ammo or resources here, just a ramshackle truck barely staying together. The little details in the film generally, from the steering wheel altar to the barely seen swamp dwellers, are great. The story might not have been stellar here, but I want to see more stories from this universe.
-Furiosa’s role has drawn apt comparisons to Moses, as a sort of messianic figure leading the chosen few to a land of milk and honey that she herself will not see. But Miller inverts that well in the last act, after a fairly predictable discovery that the “green place” doesn’t exist to be found, not anymore.
-The failure of this goal – with the resoundingly cliché scene of Furiosa screaming at the heavens – leads to a temporary decision to tackle the “salt flats” while they have enough fuel to drive through them, maybe. It brought to mind the reality that, apocalypse or no apocalypse, there should still be maps of Australia around, and why aren’t people living near the sea? But, in more symbolic terms, the salt flats route is just Furiosa giving in to despair and abandoning the quest, a path she has to be turned away from.
-Max’s alternative plan is daring, and brings Fury Road’s story right back onto the monomyth path, ending where it began. For Max himself, it’s his temporary rejection of the drifter lifestyle, agreeing to help a team of people take down the bad guy, the moment when Fury Road becomes most like that brand of western with anonymous protagonists.
-Loved the Many Mothers. Bad-ass doesn’t have an age limit.
-Joe’s death seemed more about marking Furiosa out as a character, and the sudden way he was dispatched was a little unsatisfying for me. I guess the point was to show him as a figurehead without the fight to back it up when it matters, but that just means Fury Road lacks an effective antagonist.
-Nux’s death was pure cliché, and could be seen coming the moment he failed so abysmally at undertaking Joe’s instructions. I found that belated romance angle with one of the wives rather lame, but at least he went out in a blaze of glory.
-Furiosa’s death wish following the truth about her homeland is plain, but she’s happy to take Joe down with her. But then Fury Road did something I didn’t expect, calling back to Max’s established status as a universal donor, and his newfound willingness to hope and work with others, to save her from what seemed like an inevitable death. His revelation of his name was rather unnecessary, but I liked the general scene and what it meant.
-The ending was no surprise, and fits the Max character to a tee, the man with no name, riding off into that desert to continue his lone survival, where he will inevitably find more people that need his aid. Fury Road has plenty in common with The Road Warrior, and this is probably the strongest point in regards Max himself. It’s as happy as Fury Road can get, and satisfying for that.
-Weirdly, Miller chooses to end the film with a quotation, which I subsequently discovered was invented for the film itself: “Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland, in search of our better selves.” Quotes such as that are usually put at the start of a film to denote the main theme; it’s rather odd to throw it in at the end, as if Miller was worried the audience wouldn’t get the message he was trying to put out.
The incredible critical praise that Fury Road has gotten since its release – at time of writing, an incredible 215 of 219 Rotten Tomatoes reviews are counted as “Fresh”, putting Fury Road in a very exclusive category – is well deserved, precisely because the film delivers on just about everything that any reasonable person would have expected it to offer. The action sequences are simply immense, and while I’m not going to be rushing to go and see it again in a theatre, it is certainly one of those kinds of films that can only be properly appreciated on a big screen. Miller’s eye for action and larger directorial prowess is clear throughout, and in Charlize Theron’s role he found one of the stand-out female performances of the year, and in Nicholas Hoult’s one of the most eye-catching from a supporting player.
The flaws, not unsubstantial, are in story, which is shallow, the limited material for Tom Hardy, which is unfortunate, and the script, which is regrettable. In the canon of films I have seen this year, I cannot really bring myself to overlook those flaws enough to give Fury Road a top five place at this point in time. Some thing’s, important things, had to be sacrificed in this exercise of prioritising style over substance at nearly every turn.
But what style it is. Fury Road is a proper action movie, a summer blockbuster that deserves most of the general plaudits it is getting. While it remains unclear whether the film will do well enough to justify any planned sequels, and a proper rebirth of the franchise, I for one am happy to say that I would be willing to pay money to see a sequel, or another film from the same production team. Incredibly entertaining, Mad Max: Fury Road is a triumph everywhere that it really matters for a film of this type, and comes fully recommended.
(All images are copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures).