Last we saw ‘Mad’ Max Rockantansky he was still wandering alone in the desert ruins of our world, and when we finally catch up with him again, that’s where we find him. It isn't before long that he’s captured by a cult called The War Boys, whose leader, Immortan Joe, realizes that his best driver Imperator Furiousa is escaping with all of his ‘treasures’; a set of mutation free and beautiful women in a war rig (a supercharged and heavily armored tanker). Max is literally dragged into the efforts to recapture them by a War Boy called Nux, a true believer and great driver himself, who is sick and low on blood. With Max strapped to the front of his car acting as his blood bag, the chase begins.
It’s been 30 years since George Miller last made a Mad Max movie. That movie remains the weakest link in the franchise, and is part of why it’s taken so long for there to be another, but other reasons include terrorist attacks and freak weather. If Miller hadn't been so driven to make this movie then it definitely wouldn't have been made. In fact he’s spent over 15 years trying to make Fury Road, and since it was originally intended to start shooting way back in 2001, it’s a project I've been looking forward to (for a very long time!)
Tom Hardy steps into the title role of Max with a self-aware effortlessness. Max is unsure of himself for always failing to make enough of a difference. Maybe that’s why he never sticks to one place. If survivor’s guilt took corporeal form and hit the gym, you’d get Max. See, Max has come to understand that he’s going to survive whatever mess he gets caught up in, sticking around longer just means watching more people you failed to save, die. So of course Max isn't going to stay strapped to Nux's car. Of course he’s going to end up escaping. Of course his wants for escape and Furiosa’s rescue attempt are going to align, for a while, at least.
While Max is the title role, the main character and arguably the star is Charlese Theron as Furiosa. To say her portrayal here is ‘like we’ve never seen her before’ is really selling things short. Missing an arm, her hair completely shaven and motor oil smeared across her face, Furiosa is a woman who has had to adapt to a hard physical world wherein being the alpha is one of the only ways to survive. That she has risen to the very top of a cult with ‘boys’ right there in the name speaks to what she has transformed into. When she sees a chance to save the treasures from Immortan Joe, I think she’s saving them from more than a life of being treated like cattle. She’s also trying to take them to a better place, where they can be complete, without having to transform and amputate and streamline into something better suited for a world in which everyone has gone mad with thirst.
One big upside of having production fall through time and again over 15 years is it gives you 15 years of pre-production. And in Fury Road it shows in the details. The film features some of the best world building I've seen since perhaps Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. Every steering wheel is different, and reportedly has its own story. I believe it. Every custom vehicle is unique, physical, believable and threatening. Everything feels weathered… like it has history to it.
Fury Road basically takes the end of The Road Warrior and stretches it out into a movie. Just seeing a single car chase become a worthwhile movie is impressive enough, as characters grow, form new allegiances, and ultimately die. My favorite details though involved the use of that insane horizon endless flat desert affords you, letting Miller keep the impending threat of the chasing hordes of War Boys right in shot even when they’re miles and miles away. As passengers of the war rig argue amongst themselves, or rush to try to keep the war rig on the move, there in the background is the smoke and dust of an approaching army. And when that army gets even closer, the thrashing guitar and pounding drums of the war boys mobile entertainment truck get louder and louder in one of the best uses of diegetic music I can remember since Tremors 2 put a boom box inside a Graboid.
The movie is about as deep as the road is long. Never letting up. Never failing to raise the bar on the previous peak in its almost never ending action. It’s an action movie that renders people as fully realized beings. It’s not surprising that George still understands his main character, and knows to keep him quiet, and to one side, much as Sergio Leone did with Eastwood in the Dollars trilogy to great effect. What’s surprising is how energetic, creative and vibrant Fury Road feels. This doesn't feel like the work of an experienced director at the end of their career. This is the work of someone with fire and spark and passion, who is prepared to do things the hard way and to take risks with real car crashes and actual stunt people.
This is a movie about a world gone mad, and all the ways we try to survive as individuals and as a people. Furiosa helps show at least some of the survivors that there are better ways. That you don’t have to follow in her footsteps into the madness. You can be without transforming.
And Max? Max remains unchanged since The Road Warrior. A survivor. One who walks away at the part where a movie about Furiosa’s adventure would end, because the people he helped save would eventually fall, and if he didn’t leave… he knows he’d survive whatever madness took them and be there to witness it all.
And as for our other hero, George Miller, somehow I don’t think he’s about to walk away any time soon. But if he did, he’d be doing so after what I would personally call his finest work yet.