For the first time in a long time, I feel like I’ve been derelict in my duties as a Generation X film geek. Oh sure, me and my kind have done a fine job making sure that STAR WARS, RAIDERS, GOONIES, EVIL DEAD, RAMBO the collective John Carpenter and even fucking TRON remained at the ubiquitous forefront of pop-culture to such a degree that our Millennial ascendants couldn’t have avoided absorbing their supposed import if they wanted to… but I now realize we kinda forgot to tell you how great the MAD MAX movies were. Which means a lot of my audience probably only knows legendary Australian filmmaker George Miller as the guy behind… eh, well, a string a beloved childhood classics – but still! He did also invent the post-apocalyptic automotive warfare movie.
So… sorry about that, but in our defense the guy who played “Mad Max” went all cuckoo for Christ and then just plain cuckoo and everything he was associated with got kinda uncomfortable to talk about. But whatever! Now Tom Hardy is playing Mad Max, so it’s all good again.
If you’ve never seen a MAD MAX movie before… well, it’s the future, we’ve almost run out of oil but instead of being in any way responsible about that we’ve basically let the entire planet go to shit except for all the gas-guzzling jacked-up cars on which we now rely more than ever and… egh, look, back in the 80s this sounded like ca-raaazy Science Fiction instead of an eventuality potentially only ONE more Bush Administration away.
But whatever! We rejoin mentally-unhinged wasteland-wandering hardcase Max Rockatansky doing what he does best: Getting swept up into chaotic events he wants no part of but can’t bring himself to abandon. As the film opens, he’s captured to be used as a human bloodbank for a heavily-armed death cult led by the bizarre tyrant Immorten Joe. But no sooner does Max get there than all-out war breaks out when Joe’s general Imperator Furiosa is revealed to have helped The Immorten’s private harem of breeding wives escape to the open road; triggering an extended (and I do mean across the entire length of the film) combat car-chase – with Max finding himself reluctantly joining Furiosa’s quest and helping her fend off the three or four maniacal factions pursuing them across the desert.
Yeah. That’s pretty much the movie: The good guys are driving a truckload of hotties across the apocalyptic outback, Death Metal Darth Vader and his skinhead-tweaker suicide army want them back, and they all chase eachother around in crazy customized battle-cars wailing on eachother with insane weapons and nature occasionally intervening in the form of a death-trap marsh and a sandstorm lightning-hurricane. The result is an action film the likes of which you’ve largely never seen before, a seamless fusion of the old-fashioned gritty lunacy Miller made famous in the original films and cutting-edge 21st Century digital technology and editing techniques that looks even better in the hands of a seasoned master – action filmmaking that blows by so fast and so confidently you almost don’t realize how hard it hits until a bit later; when the real depth beneath its deceptive simplicitly of storytelling.
It’s a conceit of both prior sequels in the franchise that Max is a charismatic candide-like figure who stumbles into other people’s adventures, but in FURY ROAD it’s more apparent than ever: This is very much Furiosa’s movie – she takes all the initiative, drives all the plot, has all the skin in the game, she even gets to drive the big main battle-truck and have the cool robot arm! Max spends most of the first hour with his mouth muzzled so he can barely speak, and even once he’s free he doesn’t talk all that much. This isn’t one of those movies where the title character is the only person on Earth who can save us all because the movie says so – he’s capable and good to have around (and, for the record, Hardy is a commanding enough presence as to make you forget the role was ever recast), but you get the sense Furiosa would’ve worked this one out okay enough on her own.
Theron proved herself a fearlessly great actress a long time ago, but Furiosa is a revelation – there likely won’t be a more strikingly original hero onscreen this year. Attention also needs to be paid to a revelatory strong turn by a commanding Rosie Huntington-Whitely, and a nuanced showing from Nicholas Hoult as a luckless would-be foot-soldier whose arc forms the philosophical spine of the story – and yes, I said philosophical!
While the subsequent-superstardom of Mel Gibson and the endlessly ripped-off popularity of the wacky custom cars have been the most enduring elements of the original MAD MAX movies, Miller’s *truly* fascinating conceit was imagining what a future of newly re-barbarianized humanity trying to assemble new cultures and civilizations out of the half-remembered remains of our own might look like. This time, though, there’s actually a big, loud, radical point being made; in a manner that would probably seem overly blunt and on the nose but feels downright subtle in a movie where one of Immorten Joe’s war rigs comes with an array of speakers and a guy with a flame-throwing guitar strapped to it like a human hood-ornament because why wouldn’t he have one of those?
See, Furiosa isn’t simply helping The Immorten’s wives get away from HIM, she’s helping them escape to her own homeland – a far-flung Matriarchy reigned over by grandmotherly Amazonian motorcyclists who follow a gentle path of nurture and nature-cultivation (but, y’know, with sniper-rifles and dirtbikes because this is a MAD MAX movie) where they hope to raise their offspring as anything BUT warlords, under a philosophical rallying cry of “Who killed the world?” asked in a way that leaves no doubt as to what the answer is. By contrast, the obscenely evil Immorten Joe rules over his subjects by way of a self-conjured religion comprised of equal parts car-culture, gun-worship, repurposed Viking mythology other and uber-masculine “honor culture” staples that’s yielded (among other things) an army of Skinhead suicide-soldiers called “Warboys” eager to die in battle for their surrogate daddy’s approval.
Yes, this time it’s a battle for the future course of human civilization, with the heavy implication that it’s stern father-figure patriarchs like Immorten Joe that got the world into this mess while Furiosa’s Amazon naturalists represent hope and progress. These are the kind of weighty ruminations you don’t generally expect from movies where flame-thrower guitarists are part of the set decoration.
Bottom line: This time, you can believe the hype. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is one of the most brutal, bone-crunching action films recent memory, one of the boldest most original visual experiences of the year and – improbably – one of the smartest works of dystopian scifi to emerge from the current deluge. I know the film critic collective has overhyped this sucker to kingdom come, but… seriously, just go see it anyway – it kicks ass.