‘the car chase to end all others‘ – Fred O’Connor on Mad Max: Fury Road
In case you’ve missed the billboards, the TV ads and one hell of an online trailer, Mad Max is back. After a thirty year absence, the movie series that unleashed Mel Gibson onto the world, made Australia cool, kinda, and made Tina Turner even more intimidating has returned to stake its claim among the rebooted greats of cinema. George Miller, the original director, is at the helm once again and gives the Road Warrior’s fourth installment the kind of love and attention only a father could. As a title, Mad Max: Fury Road reflects the film very well. There is an abundance of madness with at least three quarters of the characters as mad as a bag of spanners. There is lots of fury with a raw aggression in the action scenes that is absent from many of today’s polished action spectaculars. And there is lots of road too – about two hours of it in fact. One thing there isn’t a lot of is Max. But more on this later.
Despite the decades long absence from our screens, Mad Max: Fury Road is not a total reboot as we have come to expect. The role of Max has been recast with Tom Hardy now dodging the homemade bullets. There is also a new generation of fans born after 1985 there for the taking, but Fury Road is no origin story. This is a straight up sequel. Following the mandatory voiceover detailing the nuclear war and how the crap the world has become, we find our hero bearded and feral, his battered but reliable Ford Falcon V8 sharing the frame, in a post-apocalyptic wasteland that is as parched as it is familiar. After a brief lunch of live, two-headed lizard, the calm is mercilessly shattered by a ferocious gang of heavily armed warriors, who chase and capture Max with surprising ease. As a universal blood donor, Max has value to them as a living blood bank or ‘blood bag’ as he is referred to for much of the film. This particular warrior cult is built around the philosophy of the candle burning twice as bright for half as long. Many if not all of them are suffering from some form of cancer – presumably from all the radiation – and are kept at fighting strength by a combination of fresh blood, the lion’s share of the food and water and a religious devotion to their leader, Immortan Joe.
As the man who controls the region’s most abundant supply of fresh water, Joe is a god-king both to his warriors and the starved peasants he doles the water out to. But Joe can’t enjoy his kingdom for long as one of his generals, Furiosa, played masterfully here by Charlize Theron, absconds with a heavily armoured big-rig carrying a precious cargo. After a very economic setup, the car chase to end all others ensues, as Joe unleashes his entire army to pursue Furiosa and her precious cargo across the desert. Now a blood bag, Max finds himself chained to car driven by Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a hungry young self-starter in the fast-paced and glamorous world of high speed carnage. It’s hard not to feel sorry for Max at this point. There he was minding his own business, eating a live lizard and trouble found him once again. With all the mayhem he gets inadvertently caught up in, Max is like the apocalypse’s John McClain or Jessica Fletcher – no matter where he goes or what he does, chaos and death follow.
The meat of the film is effectively a two hour car chase, with short stops here and there to reload weapons, guzzle water and re-attach prosthetic limbs. Max takes more than his fair share of punches and stabs and is dangled precariously from vehicles more times than you might have thought possible in one film. The moving fight sequences are the centre-piece of Fury Road and Miller is adept at finding new and inventive ways to mangle, impale, dismember and generally obliterate his characters. This is a film about a warrior culture that grew out of late 20th century civilization. Nowhere is the visual statement of this more clear than in the vehicles – all of them modified, rebuilt from spare parts and customized with weapons to make them modern day chariots. Many of the vehicles are nothing short of monstrous. A Mustang combined with a tank track. Classic fifties tail fins sitting atop huge beasts of engines that once hauled road trains. A VW Beetle clad in metal spikes like a giant hedgehog. The vehicles are intimidating, mutated creations that act as eerie reminders of both the happier times that spawned them but also the horribly scarred and twisted people driving them.
This is a director confident in his ability to write and shoot thrilling action sequences, who adds visual detail and depth to the warrior characters whenever possible. Like Vikings or Klingons, these soldiers dream of dying in glorious battle and many end their lives spectacularly. This gives the story great dramatic tension because you never know when one of them will try to suicide bomb himself into heaven. The character of Nux is used very effectively in this regard, drawing on every ounce of Nicholas Hoult’s puppy dog charm and naiveté to show the warriors’ utter devotion to Immortan Joe. There are also stylish flourishes like the mobile heavy metal platform – complete with kettle drums, speaker stacks and a fire-breathing guitar – that accompanies Joe’s horde and cranks out the film’s soundtrack with a little comic relief on the side.
Fans of the earlier films will find a good old-fashioned actioner here. The pace is solid, the violence is satisfyingly brutal and the grotesque villains are equalled only by the obscene amount of weapons they wield. But the film has one major drawback that doesn’t kill it but might leave some fans walking out feeling a little underwhelmed. This film has action and bizarre villains in abundance but seems to be missing its hero. Max is not literally absent from the film, but he’s not really present in the plot either. Although Max is the title character, it is really Furiosa who dominates the story. Furiosa is the one who has history with the main villain. It’s mostly her actions that drive the plot forward. Her altruistic goals are much more noble than Max’s simple wish to survive and be alone. She even does most of the driving. Although Max has a much more decisive part to play in the third act, he spends so much of the film up to that point reacting to other people and not talking very much that it feels like he’s just along for the ride instead of being the film’s protagonist.
It doesn’t seem like this is accidental. Miller is clearly trying to show Max clawing his way back from his feral state to a certain level of humanity, or even an acceptable level of madness. This is a nice character journey and one worth showing, but it’s just not enough to sustain interest in the central character in this type of film. Given the previous films and Max’s well-established laconic nature, this isn’t necessarily a fault but could be more of a stylistic choice. These days audiences have gotten used to more well-rounded and verbose action heroes. Not that anyone expects Max to start cracking jokes like Tony Stark, but giving Tom Hardy so little to say and so little to do beyond shooting and hitting things just feels empty in 2015 in a way that fewer fans noticed or cared about thirty years ago. Having said that, it is still great fun to watch and satisfying to see a sci-fi actioner that was made for adults. They may have put a few stripclubs and F-bombs in the X-men movies but Mad Max is about as far from PG as you can get with your clothes on and in a cinematic landscape that is overly focused on family-friendly heroes, that alone deserves to be celebrated.