Like a sublime dieselpunk opera scored for blood, fire, guns and accompanied by an orchestra of insanely tricked-out vehicles, Mad Max: Fury Road roars to life in a breathless, relentless two hours of sheer lunatic joy. It isn’t just the best action film of the summer. It isn’t just the best action film of 2015. It may be the best action film of the decade.
Tom Hardy fills the worn, leather boots of Max Rockatansky this time, filling in for a too-old and definitely-too-crazy Mel Gibson. Max finds himself swept up in the mission of Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a lieutenant to wasteland warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Furiosa has gone rogue, taking with her Joe’s Wives, whose health and fertility are assets more valuable than the clean water source that Joe lords over. Her goal is a pseudo-legendary Green Place, a land untouched by the nuclear apocalypse that turned the world into an endless desert.
What on its surface looks to be a two-hour car chase sequence is, in actuality, the most efficient, masterful and critical-hit kind of narrative. The dialogue is sparse, and what’s there is as lean and bare as the landscape. The true narrative of the film is found in the visuals, in the space between words, and the actions of the characters. Even during quiet moments, there is a palpable tension. It’s a perfect reflection of a world where, as Max’s opening voiceover narrates, there is only the instinct to survive.
The man behind the world of Mad Max, director/co-writer George Miller, presents a meticulously-detailed world of which Fury Road is only a small part. While ostensibly a reboot of the original Max trilogy, it also doesn’t directly contradict anything from those films, and it fits very well in the exponential progression of its predecessors. Each film builds on the structure of the one before it in a natural growth, and the latest entry is no exception. Miller is as confident and assured here as he has ever been, and it’s clear this is his vision and his alone.
Narrative and world-building is all well and good, but a Mad Max film lives and dies on its diesel-burning set pieces, and Fury Road has those in abundance. From vehicles covered in iron spikes to Joe’s towering war drum caravan (psychotic guitarist whose instrument belches flame included), this is every bit a gear-head’s post-apocalyptic fever dream. The vehicle design in and of itself is something close to genius. Like the other components of the film, nothing here is extraneous, and not a single punch is pulled nor gratuitous. Nearly all of the effects are practical, with CGI only coming in to enhance the already spectacular stunts. It puts nearly every superhero film to shame. Thor may be fighting cosmic enemies, but he’s doing it in the green screen comfort of an air-conditioned studio. There’s something primal and hypnotic to the chase scenes, a brutal grace with a flow and a language all its own that could never be replicated by a computer.
Even more striking, and many times more impactful, is the feminine power in the film’s story. In a cinematic landscape where Wonder Woman can’t escape development hell and Black Widow can’t get an even share of a billion-dollar franchise, the female-heavy cast of Fury Road seems downright revolutionary. Charlize Theron’s Furiosa is, of course, a total badass. That was made clear right away in the first trailers. But the Wives are no wilting flowers, either, and eventually Furiosa’s brigade is joined by a group of women warriors led appropriately enough by a character named Valkyrie. This story actually belongs to Furiosa and the Wives; Max just happens to be in it. In fact, aside from Max and Nicholas Hoult as Nux, one of Joe’s War Boys, there are almost no truly sympathetic male characters in the cast.
Which isn’t to say that Max isn’t welcome company, mind you. Tom Hardy is a perfect Max, so well-suited for the role that he actually makes Mel Gibson seem miscast. He seems like a more serious Max than Gibson ever was, and he doesn’t seem to wink at the camera nearly as much. Hardy is very much in tune with the deadpan black comedic subtext of Miller’s campaign. Max is introduced to us as he chomps down on a two-headed lizard, which is humorous and horrifying in equal measures. Best of all, Hardy comes without any…shall we say…real-world baggage that would distract from the role. For all intents and purposes, he IS Max.
And, like Hardy, there is nothing in this film that is out of tune. Every part comes together seamlessly, even furiously, to create an action symphony so perfect that it only comes around once every few years. Like the propulsive, orchestra-and-electronic score by Junkie XL, this is a film that is both raw and refined, heavy and exhilarating. Miller has created nothing less than a masterpiece of enthralling cinematic mayhem.
FBOTU Score: 10 out of 10 / A+