Back in 1979, a little film from Australia known as Mad Max, directed and co-written by George Miller and starring Mel Gibson, was released. Showing society falling apart at the seams and the crushing blows to the life of police officer Max Rockatansky, the film had a polarized response from critics when released. However, it is the sequel that would make Mad Max a familiar name, a sequel known to most as The Road Warrior. Set fully in a post-apocalyptic wasteland with Max pulled into an ongoing conflict between survivors in an oil refinery and the forces of the brutal Lord Humungus, the movie gripped people’s attention when it hit theaters. Its pure action and its vision of a punk and leather wasteland not only made the film stand out in its release back in 1981, but still remains at the defining point for most post-apocalyptic tales. From video game franchises like Fallout and Borderlands to comic books such as Tank Girl, the impact from The Road Warrior is still being felt. Now, 30 years after the last movie (Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome), George Miller brought the world back to the wasteland with a new entry in the franchise. Back in May, at the beginning of the 2015 summer movie season, he gave to us Mad Max: Fury Road. Well, the wait was most certainly worth it.
Still keeping with its post-apocalyptic setting, the film starts with Max (this time played by Tom Hardy) captured by a group of chalk-white psychos known as the War Boys. As he seeks to escape and regain his freedom, he is pulled into a conflict that bubbles and boils around him. On one side is Immortan Joe, a masked tyrant who rules over his land by rationing out fresh water and who is desperate for a genetically-pure male heir to succeed him. One the other side is Furiosa, a driver who has left his ranks and is seeking to set his wives (a group of women kept locked up, seen by Immortan Joe as his property) free from his cruel treatment. The result is a near-nonstop chase, with cars and trucks speeding along the wastelands as Furiosa and Max journey to freedom while fighting off Immortan Joe and his War Boys.
This is a film that feels like a breath of fresh air when it comes to the action genre. Regarding the action itself, it is marvelously handled. The film is able to bring something fresh to each action sequence, with the movie as a whole pulling off its spectacle through real stunt work and as much practical effects as is possible. The result is that each fiery explosion, each tumble of a car or truck sent barreling off-course, each high-flying War Boy leaping through the air, is real. Having such a tangible and physical element better sells the action, instead of relying upon just CG to deliver its thrills. The writing is also top-notch. Though its core story may be brief, the film is filled to the brim with character development. What’s striking about that is how bare-bones and sparse the dialogue is, mostly used for those details that must be said. Otherwise, the movie allows its tale to unfold through action and implication. It’s a wonderful showcase of the classic screenwriting rule of “Show, Don’t Tell”. The visuals are also a sight to behold, with a clear camera view of the action and colors that are striking and bright. The overall result is a film that is top-notch with its visuals, its storytelling, and its action. There is another thing, however, which is worth noting that adds to the film’s strength: Furiosa.
Played by Charlize Theron, Furiosa is one of the strongest female leads I have seen in a long time for an action movie. She fights and battles for these wives, doing all that she can to ensure that they are finally free from the cruel clutches of Immortan Joe. However, it is also clear how much she cares for them, knowing their pain and fear oh so well. The mixture is one that captures a fine balance between her strength and support. It is not over-layered by “feminine” elements in some desperate attempt to define her solely by that, nor is it so overloaded in hard edge and toughness that she could be easily swapped with a guy with no loss in content. No, the balance allows Furiosa to shine as a character who can be appraised as both (if you’ll understand my phrasing) a strong female character, and a strong character who happens to be female. In fact, this movie is really more of her story. Max is just along for the ride at first, though he does grow more invested beyond a basic need to survive. At the chase goes on, he undergoes his own changes and becomes a helping hand in this battle between Furiosa’s path for freedom and Immortan Joe’s hunger for control. Though his help is definitely a great aid, it is Furiosa who is the real central figure for this tale.
It’s almost hard to believe that it has been 30 years since the last Mad Max film. The franchise has left such an indelible image of the post-apocalypse, of punk-fueled and leatherclad psychos zooming across the wastelands in their cars, that it almost feels like no time has passed. Still, it is a great thing that George Miller has returned to bring such an iconic world and hero back to the big screen. Under his skilled craftsmanship, he has shaken up audiences with something wild, something brash, something masterfully told. In short, he’s given us something a bit mad, and it’s all the better for that.
If you’re ready to go beyond Thunderdome, Mad Max: Fury Road is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD. Also, at the time of this post, the movie will be re-released to certain IMAX theaters for one week only starting on September 11th.