One of my desert island, all-time favorite movies is Billy Wilder’s classic, Sunset Boulevard. One of my favorite things about that slice of demented genius is the knowledge that the guy who came up with it also came up with Some Like It Hot. How could these two vastly different creations have been born out of the same brain?
I had a similar thought process watching the long gestating Mad Max: Fury Road. How is it possible that this bit of inspired lunacy came from the same brain that gave us Babe, one of the most charming family films of all time? After certain bits of truly spirited mayhem exploded onscreen, I heard James Cromwell’s voice saying, “That’ll do, pig. That’ll do.”
It’s been about 30 years since director George Miller has visited his post-apocalyptic wasteland, and it’s definitely worth the wait. Fury Road was so long in the making that a pre-meltdown Mel Gibson was supposed to reprise his role as Max Rockantansky. Time marched on, and now Max is played by Tom Hardy, who brings real acting chops to the considerable pandemonium. Hardy has said publicly he’d like to play Frank Castle, and Kevin Feige needs to make that happen.
When a film has a troubled production life, it’s usually bad news for the finished movie. Delayed release dates are usually a bad sign. Mad Max: Fury Road started principal photography nearly three years ago, in the summer of 2012. Three weeks of reshoots (not World War Z-level reshoots but still not insignificant) were ordered in November of 2013. Instead of being the sign of a looming disaster, the reshoots were more of an indication of a really complicated birthing process that’s led to a really extraordinary baby. Fury Road is frequently astounding and very, very much worth the wait.
I’ve heard the film described as a chase that lasts the duration of the movie. That’s not entirely untrue, but it also oversimplifies things. People seem to clamor for non-stop action, but that’s usually not a good thing. A movie needs to breathe, it needs to offer enough story and character for the audience to be concerned about what’s unspooling onscreen. Fury Road most definitely has its pedal to the metal, but Miller gives us more than enough to care about.
As we meet Max, he’s just been taken prisoner by a weird cult that worships cars. That cult is led by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a formidable and amazingly designed villain who rules over a rock fortress called the Citadel. Max is being kept alive to provide blood transfusions for Joe’s War Boys, whose shaved heads and white skin make them appear like corpses or wraiths. As the film begins, Furiosa (Charlize Theron), one of Joe’s trusted drivers, is taking her behemoth War Rig on a gasoline run. Accompanied by an escort of War Boys (including Nicholas Hoult as Nux, who has devotedly bought into Joe’s screed), it becomes quickly clear that Furiosa has other ideas and is smuggling something very vital out of the Citadel.
I don’t want to get into the story any more than that setup; part of the fun of the movie comes in not knowing what’s coming next.
The modern film industry talks a lot about “shared universes” and “world building,” so it’s a blast seeing an old pro like Miller remind us what immersive world building looks like. This is the fourth movie in the Mad Max series, and I think newbies won’t have any problem following what’s going on. Even the fourth time to the well, Miller keeps piling on the creativity and the visual invention. Fury Road is almost completely filled with one great idea or bit of visual invention after the next. The Avengers just dealt with a flying city which now seems like child’s play compared to the massive chases that rumble down Fury Road. An army of flaccid CG robots still (Still!) has nothing on flesh-and-blood stunt performers, and Fury Road blows Age of Ultron out of the water when it comes to spectacular action and at a fraction of the price. There’s an actual sense of peril for the heroes, and that goes a long way. A long-time master film artist, Miller has made a movie that is simultaneously visceral and gorgeous. As much as I love Joss Whedon, he’s just not much of a visual filmmaker.
The union for stunt performers has long been lobbying the Motion Picture Academy to present an Oscar for stunt coordination, but the Academy continues to balk at that idea, even though the Screen Actors Guild does recognize the work these professionals do, sometimes at their own injury. The really ridiculous thing about the AMPAS’ position is that as the industry depends more and more on these gigantic, tentpole action pictures to drive the international market, stunt performers are more vital to the bottom line than ever before. The stunt work on Fury Road is simply mind boggling and will hopefully cause the Academy to re-think their stupid and short-sighted omission.
The big, climactic chase sequence involves so many moving vehicles and live-action elements that I had a difficult time explaining to somebody after I’d seen the movie — it involves fighters on counter-weighted swooping poles, if that makes any sense. It all makes perfect visual sense onscreen, and it makes you sit back slack-jawed and in awe of just how in the hell they possibly did it. Fury Road is thankfully rated R and gives just enough splatter this havoc needs.
Another shout-out has to go to production designer Colin Gibson for dreaming up all the insane vehicles on display; he started building them as early as 2003. With the Fast and Furious movies becoming more and more dependent on CGI to create normal cars, it’s awesome to see these Mad Max death mobiles being lovingly handcrafted, which give this world a very tactile sense of reality.
Tom Hardy is a great Gibson replacement and probably a better actor. Max is clearly not a guy who speaks all that much, but you can always see Hardy’s thoughts and feeling reflected across his expressive face. I saw a film recently in which another actor attempted playing a similar level of taciturn and that guy just came off as blank onscreen — that actor needed words to be expressive. Hardy is totally credible as an action hero and has the talent to give the role a lot of depth.
And then, there’s Charlize, one of the most beautiful women in the world who has never relied on just her looks to define herself as an artist. Furiosa is pretty much what her name implies: a fierce woman not to be trifled with. Like Hardy, Theron is such a great actor that she’s able to give Furiosa an inner life amid all the ass-kicking. If the Alien films were just being made today instead of the late ’70s, Charlize Theron would be the ideal person to bring Ellen Ripley to life.
Fury Road is a blast, but it’s also got something on its mind. Themes of human trafficking and the dangers of religious fanaticism are on display. Near the third act of the film, the on-the-run heroes realize that their best plan of action isn’t to run away. Instead, they plan to go back and transform the Citadel and that idea of societal transformation is a pretty cool one.
Fury Road is definitely worth the 30-year wait and shows the modern summer blockbuster how it’s done. I can’t wait to see this again.