Thirty years later, one might expect a fourth Mad Max film to be little more than a cheap cash grab designed to capitalize on an established name. Certainly those are fears based in very real scenarios as everything is being rebooted or given an unnecessary sequel. 2015 seems to be the year of revisiting preexisting intellectual properties. And yet, despite everything going against it, Mad Max: Fury Road ended up being the shining example of what a reboot should be. It is a chaotic love letter made with shinier toys but the same heart. It is a bigger, bolder, and grander evolution of the franchise and the best action film since The Raid 2.
Feel free to read my reviews of the previous films here if you haven't. Mad Max. The Road Warrior. Beyond Thunderdome. Tomorrow I'll wrap up my Max Revisited series with my overall opinions on the series.
With that, let's examine life on the Fury Road, shall we? [SPOILER FREE]
"I'm gonna die historic on the Fury Road!"
Leo DiCaprio in the film Inception asked the question, "What is the most resilient parasite?". The answer was "an idea". DiCaprio went on to elaborate how an idea sticks, and will not go away, but will only grow. Apparently, this was the exact problem for George Miller when it came to his idea for a fourth Mad Max film. Miller was at an intersection in LA when the idea of a fourth Mad Max adventure where everybody fought over people as opposed to gas came to mind.
Miller had the idea for a return to his hellish Outback in 1998. To his credit though, he was reluctant to make a sequel for the longest time. He was worried he'd beat a dead horse. But that idea was resilient, and Miller attempted to get started on a fourth return with Mel Gibson. However, the film went into what is known as "production hell." Just as production was set to begin, the 9/11 attacks happened. This crippled the American Dollar and destroyed all budget plans. Miller was forced to direct other distinctly non-Mad Max films for a time while the budget was resolved. As he was starting to get plans rolling again, Mel Gibson went on his famous tirades. Judging by his recent Box Office numbers, it is becoming apparent his anti-Semitic comments and uncontrolled temper have exhausted his fanbase.
But as the years went by, Miller came to the conclusion that this wasn't a return to a character in his old age. Seeing Max as a "contemporary warrior", Miller decided to recast the role similar to the way the Bond films operate. The first choice for the role was Heath Ledger, but ultimately went to Tom Hardy following Ledger's untimely death. One wonders what Ledger's Max would have been like however...
As a filmmaking professor of mine always says in regards to Murphy's Law, "Murphy was a filmmaker." As such, Miller was not only beset by casting issues. When he returned to the filming locations of where the previous films had been, he had found flooding had changed the arid wastelands into a lush green landscape. The five month shoot was relocated to Namibia, and finally the film could be made.
Mad Max: Fury Road isn't a sequel per-se. The film franchise now operates similar to the James Bond series. Each adventure follows the character, but is a standalone adventure. Max will forever be a former cop who lost his family, the same way that James Bond is an orphan who is great with a gun and better with the ladies. But Miller and Hardy have both come out to say that this is a revisiting, but not a sequel. The other films exist and aren't ignored, but they're not required viewing.
So. How does our latest drive with Max go? I'm happy to report, it's pretty outstanding.
Mad Max: Fury Road opens with a brief few minutes where Max poetically (and with a healthy amount of camp) delivers his backstory. In these few lines of a dialogue, new viewers get all they need to know. Max's family died. The world died. The survivors are insane, but he might be as well. All that drives him (get it?) now is his survival instinct.
And just like that, we're rolling. The film follows Imperator Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron (yes, her character IS as great as you've been hearing), who steals Immortan Joe's (Hugh Keays-Byrne) wives, and the great chase as Joe and his Warboys attempt to get the wives back. Oh, and somehow Max gets involved as well.
Obviously, the plot isn't as simple as that, so let me do a little world building for you. In this part of the Mad-Max-iverse, Immortan Joe has formed a community known as The Citadel in which many think of him as a God, and indeed, Joe acts as if he is. He has a small army of Warboys, many of whom are fanatically dedicated to dying in his name to reach Valhalla. Joe also controls a water supply which he greedily hordes, giving out only enough to keep the small population of survivors slaves to his will.
Clearly fed up with Joe's tyrannical rule, as well as sickened by how he treats his wives, Furiosa rescues his wives, and smuggles them out of The Citadel, using a routine gas refueling expedition as cover. When it is discovered that his wives have been freed, Joe sends his entire army of Warboys to hunt her down. The result is a two-hour car chase through desert, rock, and one incredibly well done sandstorm as Furiosa shepherds the women to a better life.
You'll notice Max isn't a terribly important part to that setup. And in many ways he isn't. Max is the monkey wrench in both Furiosa's and Joe's plans. At the film's opening, Max is captured and used as a "bloodbag" for a Warboy named Nux (Nicholas Hoult). Nux is desperate to prove himself in the eyes of Immortan Joe, and rides out to retrieve his wives, taking Max with him. Nux literally drives into battle with Max strung up on the front of his car with an IV pumping blood from Max into Nux along the way.
If that sounds insane to you, you clearly haven't read my previous pieces on the Mad Max series. George Miller has always been slavishly dedicated to his own brand of madness, but here he turns it up to eleven.
Miller, for his part in all of this, should be applauded. Fury Road is a rare fourth entry into a franchise that is about more than money. It is clear that franchises are what Hollywood values most these days. Even if it isn't a film that would inherently warrant a sequel or franchise opportunity, studios will find a way. And yet, somehow Mad Max remained a trilogy for thirty years. Instead though of a reboot that is a mere retelling of the first film with better cameras and younger actors, Fury Road stands as a proud addition to the mythology.
And by all accounts, Miller was excited to make Fury Road. He was steadfast in his determination to do as much of it as possible with practical effects, and to limit CGI as much as he can. The resulting film is a terrific example of how to use CGI to enhance a movie as opposed to creating it (something JJ Abrams has apparently also taken note of in the upcoming Star Wars).
And Fury Road looks incredible. Unlike most other post-apocalyptic entertainment, Fury Road strives for color. The film has sequences that are blue, and others that are orange, red, yellow, the film is the most colorful of the Mad Max movies by far. Nothing is bland or boring. Everything stands out. Which is nice because the stunt-work has to be seen to be believed. Miller has been one to set the bar for stunt-work since the beginning. Here you see what happens when a visionary has a budget to match. Spoiler alert-it looks fucking incredible. Miller also wisely does his villains a bit differently this time around. The Warboys are especially demonic with powder white faces and bodies but black eyes. They feel different than the previous lunatics we've seen. These guys are zealots, eager to die in the most glorious way. On the other end of the spectrum are a bunch of scavengers in the wild, whose cars are as rusty as they are spiky. Their entire design looks set to mangle you as well as give you tetanus. It's nice to see Miller not return to the BDSM crazies who have become part and parcel with his vision but rather give us something new and still distinctly George Miller.
The movie is a glorious two hour car chase, which once again shows that when Miller keeps it simple is when he is at his best. But as simple as the plot the film is, there is still a lot going on. Much has been made about how feminist Fury Road is, and that's certainly true. Miller even brought in Vagina Monologues creator Eve Ensler, who has worked with rape victims in the Congo, to help write the Wives and consult with the actresses who depicted them. Much has been said, and will be said about how feminist the movie is. All I'll say is this. There are more women, of a wide variety of ages, with speaking roles in this movie than 99% of other films out there with a male lead. There are women who are smart, who are tough, who are cowardly, who have romantic ties, who live, who die, who wield guns, and who shy from fights. Feminist or not, Miller has given women in this movie equal share of the screen time and plot necessity as the men. And after a certain point of debating whether it is or isn't, I would argue there is only nitpicking. I also believe Furiosa is the next sci-fi female icon, after Ripley and Sarah Connor.
Speaking of which-we have to talk about Furiosa. Charlize Theron kills it as the Imperator who finally decides to take charge. We see no buildup of her plan, no time before the chase, yet Theron tells us everything we need to know. You don't care. She even makes her METAL ARM seem like it's not a big deal. Theron can fight and hold her own, but is still driven by something other than being a sci-fi female badass. Theron truly steals the show from Hardy. But her relationship with Max is a lot of fun to watch develop. Watching them grow together is engaging from start to finish.
Which brings me to Tom Hardy as Max. How does he do in comparison to Mel Gibson's iconic performance? Short answer: he smartly avoids trying to mimic Mel.
Hardy's Max is a different animal. Gibson was quieter and smarter. Hardy on the other hand is more animalistic. Gibson felt like an anti-social loner who spent too much time eating dog food. Hardy feels like a man who has never been allowed a moment's peace and as if he is very close to the edge of breaking. By the end, it feels his relationship with Furiosa is something that kept him from going over the edge entirely. I enjoyed Hardy as Max, even if his Max is something different. I only hope in future films, Max gets to take more of the center stage. That being said, the Mad Max films have always kept Max as the 'sane' guy thrown into these insane adventures. The stories always bounce off Max, he never drives the story himself. We'll see. My only complaint about Hardy as Max would be his voice, because it still reminded me of Bane and that is not okay. Hardy's natural speaking voice would do fine for the character.
Mad Max: Fury Road is everything you'd hope it to be, and just a bit more. George Miller's return to the wastelands is great, although his world building takes a back seat this time around to the action. I would have liked to see a bit more of the Citadel and the social structures there. But the film wastes no time in getting to the most spectacular car chase in movie history, and that's what is most important. Such a kinetic film still has incredible character development from a traditionally basic George Miller story. I can't wait for the next one. I think The Road Warrior still is the strongest of the series, but this one is great for other reasons. It's a different film, but that's not a bad thing at all. As an evolution for the series, you can't do any better than going down Mad Max: Fury Road.