by Philip Price
I went into “Mad Max: Fury Road” knowing little to nothing about director George Miller's franchise. I attempted to watch his original 1979 film a couple of weeks prior, but found myself bored and unable to pay attention and so as much as that statement might be read as sacrilege in the film community, I gave up and decided not to move on. This didn't lessen my excitement for Miller's latest installment as I'm a fan of both Tom Hardy and the incredible trailers that were crafted for the film. My only hope was that the final product lived up to what we caught glimpses of in the trailers. And so, while I have no real frame of reference (and I know I need to go back and at least watch ‘Road Warrior’ as I've read the words "action classic" tossed at it at least a dozen times over the past week) I went into ‘Fury Road’ with optimism and excitement, hoping that what was promised would be delivered and it was. The fact Miller, who is now 70, was even able to pull off half of the stuff we see on screen here is amazing, but that he is able to subtly sneak in a compelling story underneath the mayhem is all the more reason to be fascinated by the highly saturated images we watch frenetically move across the screen. The big screen. It almost goes without saying that the film is gorgeous and the action is superb, but as the opening moments play out it is clear one doesn't necessarily have to be familiar with the previous adventures of Max Rockatansky (Hardy). A brief overview by the titular character is given in the opening moments as he stands on the edge of a sand-drenched cliff, getting set for his "next adventure" as I'd like to see it. Into the frame creeps a two-headed lizard, quickly slithering its way closer to Max where he stomps on it with his boot heel and picks it up to gather protein. We know immediately this is not our world, not the one we know. We can see, even if we haven't before, that this is a land full of inhabitants who are full of desperation and that bubble of desperation is about to burst. For the full two-hour runtime of the film ‘Fury Road’ barely has time to slow down and catch its breath and even less does it rely on dialogue to move the story along. Miller firmly believes that actions speak louder than words and he puts that mantra on full display here as “Mad Max: Fury Road” is completely bonkers in every way; every good, entertaining way it can be.
In the beginning Max is captured by a group of War Boys or what are essentially warrior slaves to a behemoth called Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played Toecutter in the original “Mad Max”). Joe has built an empire that he calls the Citadel where he controls the water and plant life in what is otherwise a barren desert (intended to be the wastelands of Australia, but shot mainly in the Namib Desert). Joe has set up a system where he breeds children and heirs with the most beautiful women in the colony, taking their breast milk afterwards as a kind of substitute for the limited water supply he perpetrates to his people. The one thing Joe and his empire are not short on is fuel and so they barter with it. Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is leading a caravan to deliver a large order of oil to a local colony when she goes off course, attempting to flee with Joe's five wives (Zoë Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee and Courtney Eaton) that currently bear his children so that they may no longer be treated like things or pieces of property, but actual humans. On the other side of things, Max is still locked up in one of Joe's underground prisons serving as a blood bank for a sickly War Boy who calls himself Nux (Nicholas Hoult). It is when Joe's army receives word that Furiosa is deviating from the intended plan that Joe himself, along with several disfigured allies and his army of War Boys set out on a chase after his precious oil, but more importantly, his precious wives and the cargo they carry. As Nux can seemingly only sustain himself and his strength while receiving blood from Max, Max is dragged along on this adventure that goes from simply being an escape mission to a full-fledged revolution.
Pacing. An action movie such as this is all about the pacing and that is what keeps ‘Fury Road’ on track as much as any of the factors that make up the visuals or the story. The opening shot is one of the most brightly lit yet ominous shots I think I've ever seen and from that second on, when souped up vehicles of all makes and models come roaring into the frame to chase Max down and make him their prisoner, the film allows its pacing to make the story it's telling all the more compelling. Thus why we never question many of the outlying factors, the character designs that put clamps on nipples or a variety of Joe's kin that could be featured on any number of TLC shows. We catch a glimpse of these outliers and become more entrenched in the world Miller has written, but as it doesn't spend much time describing who these people are or why they have come to be the way they are we simply accept that this is a future we care little to be a part of. Our focus, and Miller's, is on pushing the main narrative forward so that we can reach the point where Max is able to team up with Furiosa and become the hero we expect him to be.
What is unique to ‘Fury Road’ is the development of this core relationship between Max and Furiosa. While I half-expected Max to escape the hold of his captor's rather easily and offer his services to Furiosa and her fleeing wives in exchange for safe passage out of the reach of Joe and his War Boys things don't happen so conveniently for our pair of heroes. Instead, the relationship between Max and Furiosa is a layered and achingly crafted one that begins with zero trust and slowly goes from there, only building a certain reliance on one another as the level of survival skills each carries become more apparent within the challenges this environment continues to present. Hardy, who is beyond charismatic even at his quietest, plays to his strengths here by letting his face (again covered by a mask for a large part of the film) do more of the talking than his voice. We come to see his character as a noble, but largely stoic hero while Theron's Furiosa actually feels more like the main character. Furiosa drives the story as well as the central vehicle that moves everything toward an inevitable destination. Theron is more than up to the task, embodying a woman not only confident in her physical abilities, but one with the courage necessary to take the stand that sets ‘Fury Road’ on its course.
Documented in a style that feels as if it's is bringing a unique vision to life, Miller's film sets itself apart from other action films not just for bringing a singular, saturated style to pulsating life but because of the seamless way in which these outlandish stunts are performed. While it is easy to say that special effects have become so good to the point we hardly notice a difference any longer it becomes more and more apparent throughout ‘Fury Road’ how wrong we've been for what is no doubt too long now. Miller and his team utilize practical stunt work and explosions to full effect as the choreography of the car chases and wrecks are so crazily complicated it's a wonder how they pulled them off much less captured them in the fashion they do through a camera lens. There is one scene in particular involving a massive sandstorm that obviously needed to utilize digital effects, but outside of this it is hard to pinpoint where any were used if at all. Beyond the basics of chases and crashes it is what Miller builds on top of these vehicular canvases that makes what we're seeing unfold all the more unbelievable. As if marching into war, Joe tricks out his cars with speakers, a drumline and a guitarist with a flame-throwing instrument who, with the help of composer Junkie XL, build a pounding symphony for each party to speed into battle. War Boys swing from poles attached to multiple vehicles armed with grenades and other explosive devices that put them ever closer to capturing Furiosa and her band of beautiful women. Maybe the best part of the whole experience is that Miller doesn't sacrifice anything for the sake of his action. The characters are all well-developed with even each of the wives developing attributes and arcs rather than simply serving as muted beauties. I realize how crazy all of this sounds and when you see a fair portion of it on screen one would be right to wonder what the hell they're watching, but it's never hard to follow and for me, it works excessively. The character embellishments, the straight-forward plot bolstered by the insane stunts all come together to make the story credible despite its ridiculous qualities.