It has been thirty years since Max Rockatansky last appeared on screen for us and showed us how to pilot a desert buggy whilst cradling an injury and punching a bad guy in the face. It’s no easy feat, I can tell you. I think his efforts have paid off, because in this new Max movie, Fury Road, he resembles not the hard-boiled warrior of the earlier pictures, but a weathered catalyst for strange and violent acts. He is like Don Corleone — his presence is great, his input is minimal, but his effect remains indomitable because he has experienced so much and knows precisely how and when to offer advice. This is the greatest action movie not made in Asia, and one of the most audacious, blisteringly scorching thrillers I have ever seen.
George Miller is a real sneaky bugger. He knew when he created the earlier Mad Max pictures that his trump cards were the action sequences. They ignited the audience and glued all the dialogue and exposition together. Fury Road begins almost instantly with a vehicular chase, with roars and bangs, smoke and dust. If Miller is anything, he is a student of himself; if the action sequences worked so well the last time, why not make this new movie one giant chase?
You’d be surprised what results a simple unassuming question like this can produce. The plot of Fury Road lifts off easily, partly because there’s not much of one, partly because whatever there is of it appeals to our better understandings of blockbuster moviemaking by drawing attention to action with a story that doesn’t require brain power. Instead, our heroes must get from Point A to Point B, and a lot of explosions happen in between. It’s an engine operating with as few pistons as possible. Now imagine a plot as labyrinthine as Inception (2010). We wouldn’t know where the characters end and the violence begins.
What Miller has done here is laid a foundation on which to build action, and he has exercised immense discipline. Are his stunts over the top? Yes. But oh how graceful they are. They are technically sound, innovative, gripping, relentlessly bloodthirsty. They evolve as the movie speeds along so that even though we are essentially traversing the same expanse of desert over and over again, the action never feels repetitive. It unfolds, as Gandalf so rightly put it, like “the falling of small stones that starts an avalanche in the mountains.” Fury Road is a two-hour avalanche.
Observe also how Miller utilises the desert. He solves the problem of perpetual sandy yellow by blotting his landscape with black vehicles and tints of blue, grey, red, even turquoise. There is a scene that is bathed in a rich cobalt and an entire sequence that takes place in the dusty bowels of a sandstorm. Not since Wong Kar Wai’s Ashes Of Time (1994) have I seen a desert look so hypnotically decadent. It becomes alive, ready to devour the weak.
What of the plot? It is the distant future now. Civilisation has long but crumbled. In the middle of the desert lies an oasis called Wasteland, controlled by a merciless Fascist named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who perches high into a rock face and speaks down to his hoard of starving children like a god among peasants. His skin is pale and aerated. His face no doubt disfigured (he dons a mask of teeth and tubes that is, quite honestly, menacing). He lives off the milk of enslaved mothers and stashes away vestal virgins that only he can mate with. To breed a world of Immortan Joes — that’s his ambition.
His chief driver is an Imperator called Furiosa (Charlize Theron). Her task is to drive a tanker to the nearby Gas Town for gasoline, but on the way she makes other plans. Hidden away in the truck are Immortan Joes wives, garbed in white, hair flowing in the dirt wind.
What breaks out from here is a movie-length chase, as trucks, jeeps, buggies, bikes, tankers, tanks, and all sorts of menacing vehicles tear through the scenery like hounds from hell. The design of these machines of war are incredible (I can imagine Miller sitting with his design crew, giddy as teenage boys at a comic convention as they devise new looks for the film). There is a truck composed of monstrous speakers as a crazed guitarist spews riffs in front of them and a battalion of drummers pound away on the truck’s back. Immortan Joe’s vehicle of choice is a double-deckered Hotwheels monster car, which towers so high above the rest of the pack it almost deserves a lightning conductor. We saw designs like this before in the earlier Max movies, but Miller has outdone himself — no movie has defaced classic automobiles and looked this good.
And that’s it. Mad Max: Fury Road is a jacked up adrenaline ride through a barren wasteland, pumped full of speed, violence and creative ingenuity. This is skilful filmmaking at its most immodest. The plot’s there, but it’s not important. Furiosa is given weight and depth as a conflicted yet hopeful heroine, crusading for feminist rights. There’s room for understated romance, which I enjoyed. Nicholas Hoult plays one of Immortan Joe’s cronies, and he finds love in one of the wives. There’s even something brewing between Max (Tom Hardy) and Furiosa, but Miller knows all too well that romance only makes Max madder.
You could argue that Max hardly plays a hand in this adventure. It’s true, he passes the reins to Furiosa. But like all the Max movies, Max is a drifter. He passes through, embroils himself in dangers he wants no part of, does his job, walks out refreshed. Walking out of Fury Road is also refreshing, in a dirty, wild, violating way. 2015 can close its doors. I’ve just seen its best movie.
Best Moment | Need I pick one?
Worst Moment | When it ended.