You haven’t seen action like this before.
The first thing you need to know before you walk into Mad Max: Fury Road is that it’s far and away the best action film of the year so far; and I’m definitely not the only critic lining up to drool all over director/writer/producer/creator George Miller‘s shoes. Miller released the first Mad Max, an A$400,000 exploitation classic by way of Australia that immortalized the steampunk desert wasteland for movie geeks the world over and moved on to gross significantly more than A$400,000 ($100 million). The first Mad Max, starring former actor and full-time crazy person Mel Gibson, carved its own action niche out of the engines of muscle cars and a testosterone-soaked desert hellhole back in 1979, and over 30 years later, the Road Warrior is back to reinvent the wheel all over again with a diverse cast led by Charlize Theron, an efficient and punchy narrative, and some of the most jaw-dropping action spectacle this side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Mad Max: Fury Road is the crown jewel of 2015’s summer blockbuster stable and the new gold standard for pulp action filmmaking for the foreseeable future.
There’s real beauty in the decision to make the world of Fury Road large and expansive but keep the story refreshingly simple. It’s the year 2060, and any number of doom-bringing catastrophes (economic collapse, nuclear war, dwindling resources, take your pick) has rocked the world to its foundations. Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) has seized control of the remains and has his army of sickly pale-skinned War Boys to back him up. Drifter Max (Tom Hardy) is kidnapped by the War Boys to be used as a blood bag for Joe’s sick, but eventually breaks out and forms a reluctant alliance with Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a head gasoline scout gone rogue in an attempt to shepherd a group of women known as the Five Wives to a better land than one where car tech fetishists worship steering wheels as gods and water is used as a bargaining chip to control the poor. In fact, Furiosa, in some respects, is the real protagonist of the story; while she may not be the POV character, her pain and the spark of hope in her heart drives the narrative and Theron’s reserved cyborg warrior is easily the standout in a cast full of compelling sociopaths, including an almost unrecognizable Nicholas Hoult as a War Boy on the path to redemption and Keays-Byrne’s completely go-for-broke turn as Joe. The story is told in broad strokes, as the others in this series were, but Max is a reduced to a powerful cypher on the periphery of the narrative while the women, including a group of silver-haired biker assassins, do all the major plot moving. It’s incredibly refreshing to see a female-led blockbuster in the summer landscape, especially after Maleficent and Lucy proved that badass women can lead the box office, too.
But the one aspect of Fury Road that goes the hardest in undoubtedly the action. Miller proved his action chops in the first three Max features before going on to direct kids films like Babe: Pig In The City and Happy Feet, but he returns to the Mad Max series with a reinvigorated spirit; Miller’s gamble on no green screens and minimal CG with the car stunts really paid off, and cars crash, explode, and drive over each other while cameras fly around it all, and it’s all filmed so tightly and with such clarity that it really needs to be seen to be believed. Miller manages to sell a story that amounts to nothing more than a two hour long chase scene with real emotional heft and a breakneck pace that just shouldn’t gel coherently, but its boldness is the glue that binds all this nonsense together.
It was hard to find complaints with technically flawless madcap pulp like this, but there is one elephant in the room; Fury Road is yet another whitewashed post-apocalypse. This is a problem that’s plagued apocalyptic fiction ever since it was first popularized and is still as confusing and borderline offensive as ever. The film was shot in Namibia and takes place in Australia, so it’s extremely hard to believe that not a single person of color besides Zoë Kravitz as one of the Five Wives survived to the end of days. She’s a magnetic presence, but Kravitz’s tokenism only serves to accentuate the problem, the one major blemish on this otherwise perfectly assembled flick, especially sad considering that it earns so many brownie points for its pro-feminist message.
Other than the unintentional racial stigma, Fury Road is razor sharp on all other fronts, devilishly fun pulp action filmmaking at its finest. Expect green screen costs across Hollywood to decrease dramatically come Monday morning.
– Dylan “CineMasai” Green