There’s no sense burying the lead, Mad Max: Fury Road is one action-ass action movie. I know, I know, finding another decent action movie to watch during the summer is about as challenging as finding a McDonald’s at the next interstate exit, but Fury Road isn’t just another manufactured Hollywood blockbuster either. It’s weird, it’s relentless, and, above all else, it feels inspired, which happens to set it apart from most other big budget movies your likely to find at the multiplex this year.
Set in the desert wasteland of Australia we, of course, follow Mad Max himself, now played by Tom Hardy. Max is immediately captured at the start of the movie by a faction known as the War Boys—a band of marauders who are suffering from leukemia or something much like it. The War Boys imprison lone survivors like Max and use them as living donors for members in their ranks who’ve reached the end of their “half-life.” Max only has one objective over the course of the movie: survive, which means escaping his captors.
The War Boys are led by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a tyrant who has a stranglehold on the region’s water supply. His cult of followers see him as a godlike figure, which is why they have no qualms sacrificing their own lives in his name. Joe uses his people as resources. While the men are sent into the wasteland to gather supplies, women are basically hooked up to AMS units like cattle, or, even worse, become Joe’s enslaved concubines. He’s a pretty bad guy who only cares about one thing, his legacy, and he’ll go to any lengths to protect it.
Now, you might assume that our title character would be interested in squaring off against this megalomaniac in some heroic fashion, but Max is no hero. Max only wants to get the hell outta Dodge to ensure his own survival. If Joe’s heart is completely black than Max’s would only be a few shades lighter, which is enough of a reason to root for him I suppose. We do have a group of oppressed people at Joe’s stronghold that need saving though, right? Right.
The true hero of Fury Road is Imperator Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron. Furiosa is the leader of one of Joe’s scavenger crews. She drives a war rig with a group of bandits in search of precious gasoline scattered across the wasteland. On the day that Max arrives, Furiosa is actually harboring a group of fugitives in her rig. These runaways just so happen to be Joe’s wives, and one of them is pregnant with his child. Furiosa hopes to take these mistreated women out of their tormentor’s compound and set them free. As you can probably imagine, when Joe finds out his wives are missing he’s a bit upset, and he’s not exactly the type of person who shakes his biddable fist in the air saying, “Oh, that rascal Furiosa.” No. Instead Joe sends his entire army after Furiosa to kill her and bring back his “property.”
Max finds himself in the middle of this hunt because the War Boy he’s attached to, Nux (Nicholas Holt), fashions his “blood bag” to the front of his vehicle like some sadistic hood ornament. Nux dreams of dying in battle so that he can reach the gates of Valhalla, and in order to do so he needs to take his human IV with him as they speed across the desert trying to stop Furiosa. While this makes Max a helpless bystander at the start of the movie, he ends up inadvertently chasing down his only means of escape in the process, Furiosa’s war rig.
Suffice it to say that Max and Furiosa’s paths intertwine further over the course of movie. While the two exist on opposite ends of the nobility spectrum, they’re forced to unite because of their shared enemy. Together their goal is simply to outpace their pursuers. Easier said than done when you’re in a barren wasteland that stretches out as far as the eye can see.
Fury Road can basically be boiled down to a two hour long chase scene—and trust me when I say that’s not a bad thing. The film rarely stops moving. Most of the scenes unfold as the protagonists are being pursued in vehicles. Dialogue takes place while driving, gun battles transpire while driving, and fistfights commence…while driving. Even when Furiosa’s war rig stops there’s always an overwhelming sense of urgency to get the vehicle’s engines running again. “Pedal to the medal” has never more aptly described a movie.
The film’s fast pace works because the dystopia hosting the action is so well realized. The scenery informs the story. Faces are painted for war, cars are brutally outfitted, and landscapes are as desolate as the consciences of the remaining survivors. There isn’t need for expository scenes or extended tours of impoverished villages because it’s so apparent that the wasteland is a hellhole.
Though Fury Road hosts a bevy of special effects, the desert feels like a tangible place, adding to its cruelty. Cars collide, bodies are hurled through the air, and plenty of things explode, but it all looks practical. No matter how over-the-top the scenes were I was never pulled out of the experience. I never felt like I was watching actors on a set or with a green screen behind them, and George Miller should be commended for that.
Deserving an equal amount of praise is the style of Fury Road. The movie felt bold in a way that most films with this large of a budget rarely do. It may look like it’s on the cutting edge when it comes to its production, but Fury Road’s deformed War Boys, preposterous villains, and flamethrower-guitar wielding drummer boys harken back to absurdities found in 80’s sci-fi action movies. None of the oddness detracts from the experience, but rather makes Fury Road feel completely unique in this day and age of formulaic box office juggernauts.
While the spectacle and details of post-apocalyptic Australia certainly drew me into Fury Road, it was Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa that made me invest in it. It’s hard not to empathize with the women who inhabit this society (or lack thereof). Many of the men in the movie have regressed to their basic most instincts, leaving the women beleaguered and abused. Furiosa is the only female character at the outset of the film that seems to hold any position of power; so it says a lot about her when she chooses to risk her own life by liberating other subjugated members of her gender rather than simply saving herself. No one is looking out for these women except for other women. I appreciated the film’s feminist undertones because they made me root for these characters even more. Fury Road doesn’t go out of its way to make its commentary, but it is there if you choose to engage with it (and you should). Nevertheless, Furiosa is probably one of the most badass female leads to grace an action flick since Beatrix Kiddo.
Mad Max loyalists need not worry; Max doesn’t get the short end of the stick when it comes to the action. He’s an integral part of the movie, aiding the heroines as they flee from insurmountable odds. It’s just that Max is rarely in the driver’s seat (unless he’s physically in the driver’s seat). Tom Hardy had no problem stepping into the title character’s shoes after all these years. That being said, Max felt more like a member of the cast rather than a pronounced lead. Even Nux, the War Boy he’s tied to for a good chunk of the movie, gets as many opportunities to shine onscreen as Max. It’s not a bad thing at all, but for those going into Fury Road expecting a predominant showing from Max himself, they might be in for somewhat of a surprise.
Unlike most other sequels, Fury Road was able to sustain tension during its entirety because no character ever felt safe. Lives hung in the balance, sometimes literally. Protagonists seemed as equally capable of dying as antagonists. This made Fury Road feel like a complete story rather than just another installment in some neverending franchise. It was a lean journey that still found a way to seem epic. I don’t think I can say a bad thing about it. This is one that is worth a watch in theaters even if you haven’t watched any other Mad Max films.
Oh what a movie—what a lovely movie.