Sometimes, it works …
It’s fairly depressing to contemplate another summer where the studios have pinned their blockbuster hopes to the likes of Jurassic World and Terminator: Genesys – reboots of long-dormant action franchises. Doing a Mad Max movie in 2015, but with Tom Hardy in Mel Gibson’s old leathers, seemed just as dodgy a concept, especially after the lingering memory of how the original series petered out with Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and the way series creator George Miller drifted through a peculiar Hollywood career before reinventing himself as the man behind Babe and the CGI penguin Happy Feet series. But Fury Road is a rare knockout in a field which more usually throws up the RoboCop remake or the last two Die Hard films.
If you’ve seen the trailer – which, cannily, gives almost nothing away but that this is going to be exciting – you’ll know that this marks a return to the car chase/tribal punk mode of Mad Max 2. What’s almost a surprise is that this a rare movie which is exactly like its trailer, only two hours long. Remember the opening car chase from Mad Max and the closing road battle from Mad Max 2? Fury Road is practically all like that … it has dialogue, characters, a premise and even a familiar arc for the hero (from refusal to get involved to commitment to a cause), but its forward motion overrides everything, even as its central quest goes into reverse. Miller, aided and abetted by stellar stuntwork and driving (and vehicle design), creates a film which delivers overlapping action beats like a symphony of thrills. The villain’s armada includes a vehicle which is all amps and tribal drums, with Burning Man-style drummers and a front-man (Iota) belching flame and power chords from a killer guitar while bobbing on bungee-chords. Between him and snatches of Verdi’s Dies Irae and Tom Holkenborg’s score, this pulses with music. As brilliantly-edited as it is shot, Fury Road is almost a cardiac workout. Its action is never confusing in the way the big battles of Marvel or Zack Snyder movies tend to be, though there are always complications as characters have to perform tasks (sometimes as simple as plugging in a fuel line) while hanging off vehicles at high speeds while other characters are throwing exploding spears at them. It’s as if Miller sat down with co-writer Nico Lathouris and comic book artist Brendan McCarthy and they thought ‘what haven’t we seen before?’ – then came up with warriors on poles bobbing above racing cars and many, many other licks.
The original Mad Max films were rooted in the concerns of the ‘70s and ‘80s, including the oil shortage, anarchic youth movements and nuclear war … here, we have a post-collapse wilderness that riffs on Boko Haram with skull-masked warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who was the first Mad Max villain) devising a Viking religion to persuade his hordes of loyal maniacs to die for him in battle and hoarding a harem of wispily-clad women as breeding stock so his thin bloodline can continue. Max, a shaggy derelict who only has his beat-up car and hallucinatory flashbacks of his lost family to connect him to the past, is captured by Joe’s tribe and hung up as a living blood-bag, connected to pale, bald Nux (Nicholas Hoult). Tom Hardy spends the long first act hidden behind a mask, trussed up as a hood ornament and generally treated like a prop … while the heroic protagonist is actually Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a one-armed warrior who defects from Joe’s tribe and tries to ferry the rescued brides to a matriarchal utopia called ‘the Green Place’. The eclectic harem includes Rosie Huntington-Whiteley (from that Transformers sequel), Zoe Kravitz (X-Men First Class) and Riley Keough (of the underrated lesbian werething movie Jack & Diane). Of course, Max gets free eventually … and, as in Mad Max 2 and Beyond Thunderdome, is enlisted on the side of the righteous and against tyranny. Theron has taken a few action heroine roles before (Aeon Flux) but is outstanding here – there’s a tiny romantic sub-plot between Nux and one of the brides, but no time for touchy-feely between the male and female leads, who have no wish to replace what they’ve individually lost in a conventional relationship.
What was distinctive about the first three films – especially the hit-or-miss third entry – was the way details of costuming, art direction, vehicle design, slang and location choice established a great deal more about the world of the series than the plot really showed. There’s broad (and very Australian) humour in this, and the film goes so far as to include a whole tribe of spiked vehicles in homage to Peter Weir’s The Cars That Ate Paris. Here, Miller constantly lets tiny aspects register and then moves on – a two-headed lizard that becomes a snack, the way Nux has not only named the tumours that are killing him (Larry and Barry) but drawn smiley faces on them, a warlord’s curlicued false nose and watch-chain nipple piercings, the berserkers’ habit of spraying their teeth with silver aerosol paint, an old warrior woman harbouring a bag of seeds and passing it on to a successor, the medals stuck to Immortan Joe’s see-through plastic breastplate, bursts of crimson flame in black smoke (after so many drab, blurry movies it’s a shock to see vivid colours again), stilt-walkers over a muddy flat and a blend of Namibian and Australian desert locations. A sole criticism is that it takes Hardy so long to get his Max on that he doesn’t quite register as the mad messiah Mel Gibson essayed, but if this is the first part of a reborn franchise – which seems likely – there’s time for him to become more mythic.