SPOILER WARNING. I mean, I can’t stop you from reading this, but I’m not being careful about spoilers because for crying out loud see this movie IMMEDIATELY. Quit your job if necessary.
Usually if you’re still watching a movie for the first time, it’s kinda premature to start thinking “this is a masterpiece.” Not so with MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. It’s part 4 in an old series, but it truly feels like an entirely new type of movie. It is thrilling, explosive, inventive action at its most pure and relentless, yet it manages to weave a moving and powerful story around and within and through the hundreds of spectacular stunts. As he has in each successive MAD MAX movie, director George Miller re-invents his post-poxyclipstic world with even more ornate detail and flair than before, unfolding a fantasy world as teeming with weird characters and happenings as the whole HOBBIT trilogy without ever dumping a bunch of exposition on us. He explains what we need to know economically, mostly visually, and leaves the rest for us to daydream about.
This is a movie that will transform people’s brains. It just might be the most elaborate action movie ever made, both in the complexity of the stunt sequences and in the meticulous design of the people and things in it. Now the cars aren’t just cool and beat up, they’re built from unlikely combinations of multiple vehicles piled on top of each other, covered in spikes, flame throwers, animal skulls and creepy doll heads, with weapons hidden inside and out and half naked goons climbing all over them firing guns and throwing spears and bombs. Steering wheels are removable, heavily decorated and carry some sort of religious significance. One character pulls his off and holds it aloft during a chase to show that he’s ready to die.
FURY ROAD does for vehicle action what HARD BOILED did for gunfights. It has an action to non-action ratio comparable to THE RAID, and even some of the quiet dialogue scenes take place inside a truck involved in a high speed chase and battle. But even without that I’d love staring at this world of asymmetrical leather jackets, weird masks, goggles, binoculars, telescopes, facepaint, chains, clothing made of bullets, exploding lances. It has a STAR WARS level of factions, weapons, vehicles and terminology. It’s the highway action of THE ROAD WARRIOR multiplied by the detail of the Barter Town scenes of THUNDERDOME, stacked with a Cirque Du Soleil show and a jigger of 300-style macho barbarianism, wrapped in a Hieronymous Bosch painting. It’s probly the closest thing we’ll ever have to a Jodorowsky comic book put on film. It’s too good to be true, but it is.
Of course it’s a different actor playing Max now, it’s Tom Hardy. And it’s funny, because before we even get a clear look at this new Max’s face his Interceptor gets flipped, he’s abducted, branded, caged and hung upside down, literally used as a bloodbag for Nux (Nicholas Hoult, CLASH OF THE TITANS remake), a bald, disease-ridden “Warboy” brainwashed to fight and die for the cruel leader Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played the villain Toecutter in MAD MAX). Max spends the epic first act chase scene mounted to the hood of Nux’s vehicle with an I.V. pumping his blood in. Just as he used to scour the desert looking for gas to steal, these guys look for people to use for blood. Their boss uses beautiful women as sex slave “breeders”, others for milk (not for the babies!), and has a water pump which he occasionally uses to spray water off the mountain so all the poor, downtrodden and misshapen come begging with empty buckets and trays. This world is all about sticking tubes into things and sucking out precious fluids.
Or the reverse, come to think of it. There’s a great scene where Max and Nux hang on the front of a truck spitting gasoline (or something) into the blower.
While Max is being used as human medical equipment, a new character earns her cinematic icon status. She is Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, YOUNG ADULT), a robot-armed badass and lieutenant of Immortan Joe driving a huge “war rig” truck on a supply run for gas and bullets. But the tyrant’s trust is misplaced. Today Furiosa has hidden Joe’s five indentured wives (one of them very pregnant) in the truck and is going to take a left turn and try to make a run for freedom. As with the settlers in the refinery in part 2 and the lost kids in part 3, Max gets in the middle of it but gruffly refuses to help until his essential goodness gets the better of him and he goes into action.
That involves several chases that are bigger and more jawdropping than the classic climactic truck chase in THE ROAD WARRIOR. I don’t think I could choose a favorite. One contender is the one where dudes on motorcycles are jumping over the truck dropping grenades, and Furiosa is shooting them in mid-air and dodging their tumbling bikes. But what about the one with dudes swinging from 25 foot bendy-poles and stabbing at them with chainsaws? Many (including a nerd talking way too loud during the end credits) have praised it for its “practical effects, not CGI” (read in Toby from AMERICAN SPLENDOR voice). I feel like there’s gotta be more digital enhancement than they’re letting on (supposedly they mostly just erased safety rigs), but even if it was 100% animation it would be impressive to me. And until I read about it I didn’t even think about all the impossible camera moves, swooping around the action on a sophisticated crane attached to yet another vehicle driving in the middle of all this mayhem. How the hell did they do all this and keep it comprehensible?
The only thing I don’t like about this movie is the thought that kids who grow up on it will think THE ROAD WARRIOR is boring.
Richard Norton, twelve-time Cynthia Rothrock co-star, plays an Imperator in there somewhere and was fight coordinator. There’s actually a bunch of hand-to-hand fighting, including an excellent knock-down-drag-out between Max and Furiosa when they first meet. She has one arm but he’s chained to an unconscious guy, so it’s a good match up. But Max’s greatest fight happens off screen, when he wanders into the fog and comes back covered in blood carrying a steering wheel, a boot and a ridiculous amount of weapons. It would be funny if somebody was disappointed by that gag, as if there wasn’t enough action in the movie already.
Technical note: Miller wanted to shoot this in 3D, but the special cameras he had made ended up not working out, and he had to post-convert it like every other chump. I’m usually not a fan of that process, but I think they did a good job on this one. Although I haven’t seen the 2D yet to compare, I think the stereoscopics really bring the viewer into this world and make the spatial relationships in the chases even more clear. At one point a grenade was tossed and it made me flinch. And there’s one particular moneyshot (you probly know the one) where I will definitely miss that third dimension when I’m watching it on flat blu-ray. If you’re not into 3D it’s not necessary but if you like it sometimes I say this is a good one.
In the great MAD MAX tradition, this will leave viewers wondering about alot of things by not seeming to follow continuity. In guilty hallucinations and nightmares Max seems to have had a daughter that died. Is this in place of his son Sprog from part 1? Did he have another kid since the poxyclipse? Or adopt one of those plane crash survivors that didn’t need another hero? We don’t know. In narration he says that he was a cop, so I like to assume that this is the same Max Rockatansky of the previous movies, who was around before “all this,” as Aunty Entity once called it. But in the timeline of this movie that seems impossible, because Furiosa expects the place of her birth and childhood to still be there, signaling that she was born after the shit hit the fan. That would mean she’d have to be twenty-some years younger than Max, but she sure doesn’t look it (Theron is two years older than Hardy). Also, Immortan Joe’s gigantic son Rictus Erectus is surely a child of the poxyclipse, and he’s played by Nathan Jones (TOM YUM GOONG, FEARLESS, MUAY THAI GIANT), who is 7 years older than Hardy. But I guess his beastly manchild could just age fast.
None of this matters. Awesome trumps sensible. It did make me think about how this movie would be with grey-haired, disavowed Mel Gibson returning as Max. But Hardy is great. To me he actually looked a little like Gibson at times, especially with the muzzle on, but he doesn’t do an imitation, or even an Australian accent. He puts his own spin on it. He gets to be weird, grunty Tom Hardy at times, it’s not one of those blockbuster roles where the actor suppresses what it was that made you like him in the first place.
And honestly Theron is as much the star as he is. It’s a great performance from the nervous but resolute look on her face as she starts her supply run pretending like everything is normal, to the Max-like ruthlessness when she tells the wives “Everything hurts out here!”, to the way she acts to the crushing revelation of what happened to her home, and that’s just a bonus on top of all the badass shit she does. Theron has been great in alot of movies, but she hasn’t had too many full-on action star roles. This one fulfills the promise she showed in AEON FLUX, which was not a particularly good movie but she gave a very dedicated physical performance.
If there’s one thing this movie is missing – and there isn’t – it’s a pet for Max. In ROAD WARRIOR he had Dog. In Thunderdome he had a monkey. Here he could potentially have a two-headed lizard as a friend, but instead he eats it alive. Times are tough. He’s so isolated he forgot how to talk, and he keeps dreaming and hallucinating the people he left behind.
Of course in a movie so jam-packed with everything good, you’re gonna have alot of Miller’s favorite themes and motifs and shit. One that I really enjoyed: music. I recently pointed out how both Max’s wife in MAD MAX and one of Aunty Entity’s people in THUNDERDOME play saxophone that acts as live scoring to the movie. HAPPY FEET TWO features a scene with a human playing electric guitar on a boat and watching a penguin play air guitar to it. And now one of the war parties in FURY ROAD includes a vehicle with a wall of amplifiers and a masked electric guitarist (some Australian musician named iOTA), plus a band of drummers, who score the battle as they take part in it, and serve as a rumbling warning when they’re headed this way. Also The Bullet Farmer (Richard Carter, THE HOWLING III) blares opera music and declares himself “The Orchestrator of Death” as he blindly waves and fires his machine guns.
You also have Miller’s love of goofy character names (Toast the Knowing, The People Eater, The Dag), pocksycliptic language (they call it “guzzoline” now instead of “the juice”), crazy ranting and speechifying, and Max getting things stolen from him (his Interceptor, his jacket, his blood). Like in THUNDERDOME he loses his car in the opening scene and leaves the movie a pedestrian.
In fact there are are plenty of things that could be considered references to the other installments, for example when Max starts trying to chew Nux’s arm off to get it out of a handcuff it’s a nod to what he told the guy in the first one when he cuffed him to an about-to-explode-car. But I like that these things are never underlined in dialogue. When Furiosa realizes he’s been threatening her with a gun that doesn’t work she could say “Dishonest!” like the gyro pilot did in THE ROAD WARRIOR. But Miller knows that kinda shit is corny.
The lead villain Immortan Joe is like The Humungus if he graduated from gang/cult leader to pharaoh. He stands atop his mountain fortress The Citadel overlooking thousands and speaks to them as their god. Then later he gets in a monster truck/hot rod hybrid and goes to battle. At least he’s willing to get his hands dirty.
But these are little things. A more substantial Miller motif is that of forgiveness. In THE ROAD WARRIOR he feuds with the gyro pilot for most of the movie but they’re friends at the end. In THUNDERDOME he saves Master and lets him join them on their escape, despite what he’s done. And remember that scene in BABE: PIG IN THE CITY where the pitbull is trying to attack Babe, but he falls off the bridge and is nearly strangled by his leash? Babe saves his life, and the pitbull becomes fanatically devoted to him. I believe a similar selfless act happens in HAPPY FEET TWO when a bullying sea lion (or something) falls off a cliff.
In FURY ROAD the wives take pity on Nux even as he’s attacking them, and stop Furiosa from killing him. Good thing they do, because he eventually decides to help them, and saves their lives twice. Also, Max is playing ruthless nomad, he hijacks Furiosa and the wives at gunpoint and fights Furiosa, but they later forgive him.
This is their way, but it’s not the way of the Citadel. One of the wives tries to give up and go back to Immortan Joe, saying “He’ll forgive us!” Because that’s what they’d do, they’d forgive somebody. But the others know better than to expect that from Joe, and indeed the next time he sees one of them he puts a gun to their head.
The wives are prized for their priceless beauty and health. They live in a suite inside a vault, forced to wear chastity belts decorated with vagina dentata and the Immortan Joe flaming skull steering wheel logo. The staple-faced Warboy Slit (Josh Helman, ANIMAL KINGDOM, JACK REACHER) refers to the wives as “Immortan Joe’s stuff” that was stolen. Joe refers to them as “my treasures” and to one’s unborn son as “my property.” So they keep repeating the mantra “We are not things.” Like an ex-con they’d rather die than go back.
They look like super models and you can immediately imagine what kind of vacant placeholder characters they could be. I admit I can’t keep all their names straight (favorite name: The Splendid Angharad, played by Rosie-Huntington-Whiteley) but they’re all likable and capable, each getting chances to take the wheel, climb down the truck and repair something, talk shit to an enemy’s face or help a poor Warboy find redemption. And they support and encourage each other.
Then they meet Furiosa’s people, The Vuvalini, a band of weather-worn, grandma-aged warriors. They can shoot and drive motorcycles and one (Melissa Jaffer) brags about the headshots she’s provided for everyone she ever met in the desert. Their only non-grey-haired member “The Valkyrie” is played by Megan Gale, the model who Miller had set to play Wonder Woman when he was supposed to do a JUSTICE LEAGUE movie, and she makes a strong case for how perfect she would’ve been. These old ladies kick ass, and it’s never played for quirkiness or laughs. It’s just how it is out here. Warrior Woman and Auntie Entity aren’t the only strong women in the wasteland. I guess the strong are the only ones left.
So we have a great female badass as the actual main character, and a dozen or more excellent supporting ladies, with only two men on the good side and not a single woman on the other. And their goal is to escape from the clutches of a vile sex slaver, reclaim their bodies, their reproductive freedom, their lives. The potent pro-woman themes are a rare treat, but they’re not the only righteous subtext.
While Barter Town was run by gangsters, the Citadel is run by a tyrant. He lives in cartoonish, mother’s-milk-drinking decadence while the masses suffer, and he uses religious zealotry to brainwash his victims into fighting endless wars. Immortan Joe, I am convinced, is the best MAD MAX villain yet. When we first meet him he’s a pathetic, wheezing old man, his back covered in enormous, cancerous sores. Then he squeezes into his fake plastic muscles (decorated in mlitary medals) and his horse-skull gas mask, stands on the mountain and makes a vainglorious speech. He enslaves children as cannon fodder and wheel-turners, and we see him personally fueling their zeal to die in battle, filling their heads with Valhalla and reincarnation, everything but the 72 virgins. They have a ritual of spraypainting their mouths silver before death, turning their teeth into chrome grills. You just know he made up that shit.
Since he controls the water (or Aqua Cola, he calls it) he controls them. But when his time comes the people go full on “Ding Dong, the Witch Is Dead” or Brad Wesley “I didn’t see anything.” The people of Barter Town were prone to mindlessly chanting bloodthirsty slogans like “Two men enter, one man leave!” and “Bust a deal and face the wheel!,” which I always found depressingly accurate. So it’s nice to see these crowds welcoming the revolution and chanting “Let them up!”
Whatever happens after the credits roll, we see a society working in microcosm in the cab of that war rig. A crazy ex-road warrior, a rogue Imperator, a bunch of escaped wives, a lapsed Warboy and some old ladies, all working together to solve problems. When the precious steering wheel gets yanked away it doesn’t matter, Furiosa clamps a wrench on the steering column, then straps some other things to it, and they never lose control. They don’t need that organized religion, they can find their own way. And they carry with them a bag of heirloom seeds which they don’t really treat as precious cargo, but it represents something none of them have probly had for a long time: hope for a better world.
* * *
These days I rarely see a movie twice in the theater, if even on video. But I already watched FURY ROAD two days in a row, and loved every second of it. Just between you and me, I got teary-eyed during the credits the second time, just thinking about how good the thing is. Had to put the glasses back on. And I’ve spent hours talking and wondering about the little details in the movie. Does the skeleton arm stencil on the side of the war rig mean Furiosa lost her arm while it was hanging out the window, or is it just a badass decoration? What does it mean that she hisses “Remember me?” before killing Immortan Joe? Were the War Pups really gonna tear that little telescope hogging guy (apparently called Corpus Colossus, played by Quentin Kenihan) apart when they looked over at him and he was like “gulp, oh shit“? What all did they brand on Max’s back (I caught his blood type, something about being a road warrior and “genitals intact.”) What specifically made him switch from survival mode to wanting to help Furiosa?
You know who’s one of a thousand great minor MAD MAX characters? The one credited as “Organic Mechanic” (Angus Sampson from the Fargo tv show and the INSIDIOUS movies). That’s the guy who cuts the baby out of dead Splendid, finds out the baby is dead too, but not deformed, and admires a piece of the umbilical cord. He smiles as he talks about what a shame it is, like he’s talking about a scratched paint job or something. And he seems to feel a little honored to be able to tell Rictus that it was a boy. Then Rictus yells “I had a baby brother! And he was perfect in every way!” Such a simple character, but definitely the best performance I’ve seen out of Jones. And the movie has dozens of characters with great little moments like that.
I guess that’s a George Miller thing. But I also suspect it comes from the way he planned this one, developing and storyboarding it with Judge Dredd comic artist Brendan McCarthy before even doing a script. It makes for an endless supply of colorful, visually compelling characters. And then they had more than a decade to give them all backstories.
There’s been talk of potential further Mad Max adventures. Hardy is signed on, if it does well enough, they already have a script for what was supposed to be a tie-in anime about where Furiosa came from, and either a completed script or a rough novel (depending on where you read it) called MAD MAX: THE WASTELAND. I’m no fool, I want all the George Miller movies I can get, but I don’t think we need to rush things. As frustrating as it was to wait this long for FURY ROAD, I have no doubt that the long journey contributed to its greatness, and that another one made under ordinary circumstances would have a hard time comparing.
In fact I like that this being MAD MAX forces me to abandon the usual franchise-fever that many (including me) have learned from modern blockbusters. I enjoy watching, say, a Marvel or Star Wars or especially Fast and Furious movie, and hoping that in a future movie we’ll see more of this character or they’ll explore more of that place or get into the backstory of such-and-such or this character will become a good guy or what have you. In the four MAD MAX movies, no character besides Max ever reappears. Not even locations, like Barter Town. Each time Miller builds a new world for Max to drift into. So as much as I love Furiosa, I would be disappointed if she showed up in a MAD MAX 5. It would be against the rules.
By all means have Theron playing a different character, though, as Bruce Spence and Hugh Keays-Byrne did.
I’m actually not worried about overhyping this one, because I feel like it can stand up to anything. If you love movies, and you don’t like FURY ROAD, I think you’ll at least be able to see why it’s so impressive and groundbreaking. To me there’s no question that this is a classic on the level of ALIENS and T2. I should probly have shaken the hand of the guy who showed up early for the first Thursday show with his two kids. Building a better future.
It’s 15 years Miller’s been trying to make this, and I’ve been waiting for it anxiously the whole time. I love the original trilogy and I think Miller’s run of kids movies were brilliant too, and they convinced me that he wouldn’t just rehash his old work in this part 4, he’d take it to another level. I always think about how after I had read about it for some years it was actually ready to start filming with Mel Gibson returning as Max. And the plug ended up getting pulled at the last minute because, if I remember right, a sudden change in currency exchange and security in the filming locations in Namibia made the budget skyrocket. The reason for that change? The start of the Iraq War. So that’s how long I’ve been excited for this movie. Since ODB was still alive and Usher had the #1 selling album and there was only one PUNISHER movie.
Those are the type of expectations no movie could live up to. Except MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. Somehow it’s still better than I thought it would be.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.