George Miller resurrects Mad Max in a perfect storm of chaos and madness
Imagine a blind man driving at ridiculous speeds in a custom made vehicle across the desert firing two machine guns into the distance, all the while laughing manically to the sound of Verdi’s Dies Irae. That scene in your mind (it’s also in the film) is the quintessence of Mad Max: Fury Road, an explosively loud, unstoppably fast, and relentlessly aggressive movie – and also one of the best actions films of the decade. It opens with a chase sequence and doesn’t slow down, speeding along at a lightning pace, and even when it offers brief respite it feels more like a pit stop to the longest cat and mouse in cinema, one guaranteed to have your heart rate up by the time the credits roll.
All this takes place in the vast desert of a brilliantly realized post-apocalyptic Australia, the remaining settlements separated by miles of emptiness, and each being inhabited by a different sort of gang or clan. The story starts in the Citadel, home to the main antagonist Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who also played the bad guy in the first Mad Max) and his faction, the War Boys, who paint themselves chalk white and are generally pretty obsessed with their leader, to the point of deification. They actually remind me a lot of the Psychos from Borderlands, but there is a slightly darker side to their nature beneath the full throttle of the action, that being they (and it would seem most other humans in this film) are not cleanly born and only live “half-lives” – Nux (Nicholas Hoult), one of the more important War Boys in the story, for example, has two visible tumours (and has drawn little smiley faces on them). That’s not to forget that they are all, for the most part, totally insane. If due to whatever illness they are plagued by or the near religious cult they have been born into, these guys can get pretty unsettling to watch in certain scenes, especially when they use what seems to be an amphetamine of some kind to give them one last suicidal kick before doing whatever they have to do to please [almighty] Joe, but it all works very well with the vision Miller clearly had in directing this film.
And what a vision it is – after Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) betrays Joe in stealing a precious cargo he calls in reinforcements from the nearby Gas Town and Bullet Farm, the leader of the first is afflicted with an extreme form of lymphedema and wears a aged suit, and the latter has a wig made of bullets and drives a car modded to use tank treads. These are the kind of bad guys who stand out, especially next to Joe in his translucent armour covered in military medals complimented by his toothy mask and disheveled hair, these aren’t generic villains to be forgotten the next day, like most of the film, they’ll stick in your mind for a while to come. They also don’t come with a needless sob story (this is an action film, come on), they’re just full on bad and each have some pretty sinister scenes to reinforce that.
The design of the antagonists is just touching on the creative direction the film takes, a post-apocalyptic madcap world that is just about physical enough to believe – when a War Boy jumps on a rig using a stop sign as a shield, or when you notice one of the vehicles used is a modded Mercedes, it pulls it just enough in the real world to remind us it’s not total fantasy, but not so much to remove us from its madness. One particularly cool detail is, at the back of the bad guy convoy there’s a guy standing in front of a huge stack of amps (loaded on the top of some kind of vehicle of course) shredding a double necked guitar for the entirety of the film, when he’s nearby at least. The guitar is also a flamethrower. Rock on, mystery flamethrower guitarist, rock on.
On that musical note, Junkie XL provides a suiting soundtrack to the chaos that ensues on screen, featuring plenty of powerful bass notes on strings on brass, occasionally complimented by some electric guitar which all in all works very well, though it isn’t particularly outstanding otherwise. JXL’s work with Zimmer has obviously rubbed off a bit as this has a lot of his trademark sounds going on (particulary the emphasis of keeping the melody in the bass), but this is by no means a bad thing. The sound otherwise is also excellent, with explosions and whatnot all giving suitable impact, and the car engines growling like the monsters they are. The cinematography and set pieces are also incredibly well done, wide angle shots catching all the action from a distance, then zooming in to see the gory detail as two rigs collide into one another (or whatever mechanical mash up you prefer, most of them are featured at some point). One interesting choice was to zoom in suddenly to the gear stick when it was pushed into nitro (that is probably not the correct term, read: very fast mode) signifying ludicrous speed. In another film I could see that being ridiculously cheesy, but Miller’s direction and editing seems to have pulled it off, simply adding the kinetic energy that’ll overwhelm any viewer (in a good way).
It also doesn’t surprise me that there were over 450 hours of footage filmed before principal photography ended – the scale of the set pieces and the angles used must have required a ridiculous amount of retakes, but it payed off, especially due to the fact most of the effects used appear to be physical rather than CGI, with the cars (and so on) all being real and most explosions too, the only section being CGI heavy would be when they all drive into a huge sandstorm, for obvious reasons. This again grounds the insanity in reality, and aids immersion. That said, I wouldn’t discount the post-production at work here, as it has clearly had a lot of work to add to the tone and colour featured, ensuring continuity in the look Miller set out to create.
Last (but certainly not least) is the acting talent, and I wouldn’t hesitate to place Charlize Theron in the leading role for this film – though Max does feature in most of the action, his silent but violent routine only lends itself to so much storytelling (that’s not to say I’d want a talkative Max, I think Hardy did an excellent job reprising Mel Gibson’s role), whereas Furiosa has a more interesting journey to go on, and it’s ultimately her story being told, not to mention that Theron delivers an excellent performance throughout.. There was some uproar about there being a leading female in a ‘boy’s film’ (I don’t know why either), but Mad Max actually exceeds expectations in terms of featuring both genders – the Bechdel test will have been passed many times here due to its strong female supporting cast (and also because Mad Max doesn’t really talk too much), which is a nice change to see in the action genre. Nux, as played by Nicholas Hoult, is also an interesting character as he allows us insight into the other side of the playing field, and Hoult portrays his innocent madness at the same high standard that the other actors exhibit. In terms of the story it isn’t very dense, but then it isn’t meant to be. Action films sometimes build themselves stories far too convoluted for their own good (remember that film where the trade federation blockaded a former trading partner threatening their monopoly? Yeah that was The Phantom Menace), so this is a refreshingly simple deal, though the world in which it is sent is slightly more nuanced with a remarkable level of detail and world-building which make it feel very alive beyond the story itself.
Mad Max: Fury road is one hell of a ride, almost non-stop and at its best, some of the best spectacle in modern cinema. Some have said it values style over substance, and though some of the latter is hidden away in the corners of the world Miller has created, they would otherwise be correct. But that’s not bad thing when the style’s as good as this, the visuals alone could almost carry the film through single-handily and it is a pleasure to watch, although you might feel exhausted by the time it’s over (but again, in a good way). George Miller has kicked Mad Max back into gear, and if it gets sequels anywhere close to this one, it’s gonna be a good time for action movies.