You can practically feel the whole drive-in history of revenge-oriented biker pictures come roaring up from behind and crashing through the beginning of George Miller’s 1980 original Mad Max, informing the movie’s every lunatic move and guiding it as it charts a change in trajectory for the course of business-as-usual action filmmaking to come. Even the American International Pictures logo that accompanied the movie’s American release, which was initially shown in a dubbed version populated by American actors, lent a sense of connection to movies like The Wild Angels (1966), The Born Losers (1967), Hells Angels on Wheels (1968), The Cycle Savages (1969) and Chrome and Hot Leather (1971), many of which had been staples on the American International menu. (AIP’s The Born Losers gave birth to its own mythology, introducing audiences to actor Tom Laughlin and a character, Billy Jack, whose next movie appearance would set him on a different sort of vengeance trail.)
Mad Max feels out-of-control dangerous right from the beginning, its high-powered cars thundering across a bleak, but still recognizable landscape on a high-octane trip to oblivion. (The complete societal collapse which would characterize the subsequent Mad Max films is here still only a work in progress.) Miller sets the movie’s high-speed action low on the highway—the threat of road burn seems constant-- and so thoroughly redefines the concept of that staple of ‘70s action filmmaking, the car chase, and the level of stunt work required to realize his anarchic, yet graphically elegant vision, that there could be no looking back, only constant forward motion.
For me, there may still be no single moment in Miller’s action portfolio to match the hair-raising sight in the 1980 film of the Night Rider’s car making an evasive move to avoid a wrecked truck and skipping sideways down the road (along a slightly compressed focal plane) before crashing in a ball of flame into another pile of cars. Miller’s signature image, that of a pair of bloodshot eyes opening wide in horror and intercut with the moment of impact, gets its grand, unforgettable introduction in this sequence.
Mad Max is, of course, Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), a traffic cop charged with maintaining the last vestiges of law and order in this increasingly shattered world, who will lose everything—wife, child, sanity— to an even madder band of punk bikers, led by the Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), before the first picture is over. Mad Max’s final image, that of a deadened Max speeding down a seemingly endless night-shrouded road, leads straight into The Road Warrior’s dried-up, post-gas wars organizational breakdown, where paradigms of societal cooperation have disappeared in a desperate scramble for enough juice to keep the throttle wide open.
Miller’s 1982 sequel, known in Australia simply as Mad Max 2, sets the pattern of Max as a wanderer and reluctant savior pressed into the service of a cause that is not his own—he only wants to scavenge for “guzzoline” and keep moving fast enough to keep his demons from catching up—that would become the series template to date. The landscape in The Road Warrior is even more barren, the mad punks now even more numerous, more scurrilous, motoring about in a fleet of vehicles seemingly cobbled together and modified from the world’s junkyard of mismatched spare parts. They’re led by the likes of the shrieking, Mohawk-capped Wez (Vernon Wells) and the unforgettable Humungus (Kjell Nilsson), with his strangely Nordic vocal stylings and the throbbing, mutated skull at all times covered by a goalie’s mask. (Jason Voorhees would popularize the look later that same summer in Friday the 13th Part III, but Miller and the Humungus got there first.)
The nomadic band of survivors with whom Max hooks up may be considerably less individually fascinating than their villainous counterparts (some things never change, even after civilization crumbles). Even so, the company of good guys include Bruce Spence’s vividly comic Gyro Captain (“Remember lingerie?”); a mechanic (Steve J. Spears) with useless legs who is hoisted about, like Peter O’Toole’s Eli Cross, on a crane; a warrior (Virginia Hey) who resembles Jennifer O’Neill in extreme survival mode; and the unforgettable Feral Kid (Emil Minty), who seems at times only one or two steps past Land of the Lost’s Chaka on the evolutionary timetable.
Miller doesn’t tip his hand until the end, after he’s finished his sequel’s mission of upping the ante on Mad Max’s insane vehicular propulsion with a climactic truck-car chase that would be the gold standard for years to come, but the saddened, articulate narration with which The Road Warrior begins (“My life fades. The vision dims. All that remains are memories…”) and ends (“As for me, I grew to manhood…”), turns out not to be the words of an older Max. That narration turns out to belong to the Kid, spoken from a time long after the movie’s story, and the personage of Max himself, has faded into the past and become myth. It’s just the right touch to send Max off into another endless night, its dark skies choked with burning rubber and exhaust fumes, a weary, burnt-out hero relieved to be alone yet again.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t stay alone for long. The opening of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) finds Max wandering yet again, some years after the events depicted in the previous films. But quite unlike Mad Max and The Road Warrior, this time our hero doesn’t burst into the frame through the air-gulping carburetor chambers of a nitro-fitted V8 Interceptor. Rather tellingly, he’s first seen rolling across the endless, blighted landscape sitting in a crippled vehicle being pulled by a team of camels. Then he’s set upon by an airborne Bruce Spence (not playing the Gyro Captain this time—he’s barely playing any character this time) who separates Max from his carriage, thus forcing him to trudge into a strange boondock city called Bartertown on foot. It isn’t long before Max is co-opted into the town’s strange slave society, where brutal one-on-one fights are staged for the amusement of the citizenry, of course, but even more so for that of Bartertown’s evil overseer, the Amazonian wonder known as Auntie Entity. (Auntie Entity is played by Tina Turner, who should have dropped the mic after charring the screen as the Acid Queen in Ken Russell’s Tommy—there’s just no topping that cameo.)
There are several darkly humorous, designed-to-be-quoted lines in the Bartertown section of MMBT (“Ladies and gentlemen, it’s… dyin’… time!”), but everything leading up to the fight sequence feels arbitrary, overstuffed and indifferent, and so does the fight itself, as it turns out. The danger beneath the Thunderdome feels too safe, too prescribed, and nearly inert— now there’s a word fans of the previous two chapters would hope never could be used in describing a Mad Max movie. And it doesn’t help that the outrageous, occasionally lyrical bombast of Brian May’s scores, which lent the first two films a patina of Wagnerian tragedy, has here been replaced by the nondescript orchestral ornamentation provided by Maurice Jarre. (Turner’s pop hit “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” heard over the end credits, is the movie’s more memorable musical contribution—it may be the best thing about the movie, period.)
The metaphorical wheel-spinning continues when Max, having emerged victorious from the Thunderdome’s two-men-enter, one-man-emerges scenario, is banished from Bartertown and left for dead in the desert. This being a sequel with seemingly at least one eye on the looming shadow of Steven Spielberg, Max is rescued by a group of lost children, survivors of an air crash who think he’s the savior prophesized in their favored myth of a downed pilot, Captain Walker, who will someday return and lead them out of desolation. At this point, one can actually feel the movie creaking under the weight of too much applied warrior hero mythology. The second half is overpopulated by these charmless, uninteresting kids and Max’s halfhearted attempts to get them to understand that he’s not who they think he is, with Miller himself seeming all too willing to indulge the logy import of the Max mythology.
The demands of the plot find Max and kids breaking back into Bartertown to perform a rescue and hotfooting it out of town on some sort of train truck, pursued by Auntie Entity and her minions in another set of underimagined vehicles which look for all the dystopian world like mutated golf carts. And it’s here you may connect the movie’s general malaise and lack of narrative energy to the fact that it’s been an hour and 20 minutes before anyone in MMBT even fires up an engine. Eighty minutes without any car action. In a Mad Max movie. Even the vehicle used by Max and company in their escape is a disappointment—they hightail it aboard a modified train engine which rides a quite finite set of rails. Incredibly, the forward motion that all but defines the force of Miller’s vision is largely absent in this movie, and what there is remains restricted to a simple line—no side trips, straight ahead and, despite the presence of those pursuit vehicles, no real chaser.
This climactic rundown here seems as perfunctory and prescribed as everything else, and by the end it’s not just Max who seems exhausted—the entire series seems to have limped to a dead end. And a 30-year change of pace for George Miller, which included the production of three great movies made for children that couldn’t have been less post-apocalyptic—the Oscar-winning Happy Feet, the Oscar-nominated Babe and its brilliant sequel Babe: Pig in the City-- seemed to confirm that the saga of Mad Max would, in fact, be left alone to limp to an unsatisfying conclusion.
But now, after about 15 years of trying to make it happen, George Miller, the movies’ great, now-70-year-old punk of the pop epic apocalypse, has finally returned with a new Max Rockatansky and a renewed sense of urgency. His new movie, Mad Max: Fury Road seems like an epic summing up of everything that has ever compelled Miller to put images on film, and the use of similar words in their titles will serve to remind viewers, if they could possibly forget, which summer action spectacular truly embodies the furious. Essentially one long, extended chase, Fury Road is so dynamically, startlingly choreographed that you begin to feel as though Miller himself is possessed by the glorious promise of unchecked propulsion, directing his picture almost as penance for, and an exorcism of the inertia that plagued MMBT.
Mel Gibson has been replaced as Max by Tom Hardy (Locke, The Dark Knight Rises), and—no slight on Gibson, who always carried Max’s cynicism with the sort of gravitas from which one could hardly look away-- the new casting registers like an upgrade right out of the box. Hardy’s opening narration seems similar to that which opened The Road Warrior, but this time the speaker’s identity is no mystery, cuing us not toward any mythopoetic perspective on Max but instead offering a clue to the identity of the voices bashing around in his head. “I am haunted by those I could not protect,” he intones, “running from the living and the dead,” those dead embodied by the vision of a pleading pre-teen girl who addresses him as “Dad” and whose continual appearances undermine what’s left of his sanity, which isn't much. (Fans of the series will likely remember that the child lost by Max in the first film was a toddler and a boy.)
Max is soon captured and enslaved by one Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, once the Toecutter), a psychotic dictator irradiated and ravaged by disease who presides from behind a sardonic metal rictus over the Citadel, a literal oasis in the desert where greenery is cultivated and an entire people remains subject to Joe’s control over a deep, apparently endless supply of water, which he doles out on occasion in order to keep the rabble in line. This aspect of Fury Road is likely to resonate with an extra frisson for the drought-stricken citizenry of California and the rest of the Southwest—“Do not become addicted to water,” Joe offers with a patriarchal sneer as the thirsty gather beneath him, awaiting their periodic drenching. “It will take hold of you, and you will resent its absence.” (In the years since the gas wars that crippled society just before the time of The Road Warrior, we’re informed that the population has also set against itself in an attempt to secure possession of water rights as well. So we have that to look forward to.)
Joe also presides over a brood of female slaves who are literally milked and kept in perpetual pregnancy, the better to provide hopefully healthy, non-mutated, male offspring to perpetuate Immortan Joe’s lunatic rule. But not all females are exploited for procreational purposes. Joe’s right-hand woman (who just happens to be missing her own left arm) is Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a fierce warrior who is sent out on a mission to collect up a supply of gas and bullets which will keep the Citadel mobile and defended. But what Joe doesn’t know is that Furiosa has smuggled five of his most prized females, two of whom are pregnant, along with her— unbeknownst to anyone, they’re really headed for the “Green Place of Many Mothers,” a mysterious oasis of plenty where Furiosa was born. She intends to deliver the women to a new world where they can take up residence far away from the oppressive patriarchal rule of Joe and so many others like him.
As is so often the case, in movies as in life, the getting there turns out to be almost all the fun. Joe and his Warboys, mounted on a delirious assortment of surreally modified vehicles, each one seemingly more awesome than the last, give chase. (Here a special, awe-inspired salute must be reserved for the movie's production designer, Colin Gibson.) Max is literally mounted on the front of one pursuit vehicle, driven by a dying Warboy named Nux (Nicholas Hoult) who seeks a glorious death while siphoning off Max’s replenishing supply of plasma. (Nux refers to Max as his “blood bag.”) As critic David Edelstein observed in his splendid assessment of the movie for New York magazine, seeing Mad Max: Fury Road for the first time may involve a slight disorientation, a sensation that the movie has started mid-story, and it’s something of a marvel to realize how Miller and co-scenarists Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris, dole out important character information in seemingly reverse order, setting up revelations instead of simple backstory. A second viewing certainly relieved me of the obligation to try and beat the clock of the movie’s relentless pace, figuring out relationships and situations on the fly, and also made clear that everything you need to know is just as likely reinforced by what Miller and his brilliant cameraman John Seale are showing as much as what the characters can tell. And there is a lot to process.
But part of the joy of experiencing this movie is recognizing the degree to which its chaos is precisely modulated, our eyes being offered exactly what we need to see. Yet the movie never plays like a control freak’s vacuum-packed vision. The action sequences are breathless and relentless, but somehow Fury Road never tires you out. Part of that may have something to do with never getting the sense that Miller, despite this being the fourth picture of the series, is repeating himself. He shows us some of the most insane action choreography ever committed to film, edited at a pace that is much more in keeping with up-to-the-minute action movie velocity, yet he never loses the audience in a clutter of cutting. The fighting, man on man, vehicle and vehicle, is all staged and assembled with intense graphic intelligence and awareness—one action leads logically to another, and we’re left to follow a line of visual thought rather than throw up our hands in frustration at not being able to sort out shards of edited flash meant to generate artificial excitement.
And occasionally, mid-chase, Miller pulls back to orient the pursuer and the pursued in a long shot stretching over miles of desert, doling out an amused god’s sense of geographical and spatial relationships, a gentle reminder that no moment of respite can ever last too long.
There are levels of wit to discover within the design of almost every shot of this picture too, and you may find yourself laughing a lot in between shallow, adrenaline-fueled breaths. Film buffs will delight in how nods to filmmakers as disparate as fellow Aussie Peter Weir and Andrei Tartovsky have been woven into the landscape of motion within Miller’s points of reference. In one of my favorite seemingly tossed-off moments, during the quiet aftermath of a raging sandstorm, a long shot of a desert mountain turns out not to be quite what we thought it was. During one extended sequence, the front end of Furiosa’s truck catches fire and she uses the cowcatcher attached to its nose to churn up a giant cloud of red earth to extinguish the flames, a move which is then followed by a quick shot of the carburetor sucking in a forceful gulp of air. And when Max is finally given a proper introduction to the female cargo on the truck, Miller stages them hosing themselves off in what might, in other circumstances, register as the world’s end of wet T-shirt contests. Max, however, is more practical— he keeps a shotgun pointed in their direction and douses himself with a mighty drink of water.
Hardy is terrific here, going toe to toe with our memories of Gibson’s sexy disaffectedness in a feat of pop culture approbation that will likely stand alongside Mads Mikkelsen’s hijacking of Hannibal Lecter from the Oscar-winning likes of Anthony Hopkins. He even benefits from Miller’s delayed gratification strategy of keeping Max behind a harness mask for the first half hour of the movie—you’ll want more of Hardy’s magnetism, and Miller assures that you’ll get it.
Actually, the movie is full of faces you want more of— Hoult and Keays-Byrne, of course, but also Zoe Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton and Riley Keough (Elvis Presley’s granddaughter) as Immortan Joe’s prized harem on the run, Nathan Jones as Joe’s overdeveloped son Rictus Erectus, John Helman as Slit, Nux’s rabid Warboy counterpoint, and Melissa Jaffer as the leader of the Vuvalini, a group of tough, weather-beaten old women who know the secret behind the Green Place of Many Mothers.
But as much as the movie is called Mad Max: Fury Road, it could just as easily be called Furiosa Road. The beating heart of the movie is located within Charlize Theron’s angry, almost feral performance, and she holds the screen here in a way that she never has before. Her body language, her unwavering glare, the tension and wariness in her voice all contribute to Furiosa’s weary resolve—in this outrageously stylized role, she has never been more natural on screen, and certainly there has never been a character in this series so strong, so concisely delineated, one so capable of heroism and moral resolve, to provide a counter to Max’s haunted persona. Furiosa is the emotional nexus of the movie as well, and when her moment of devastation comes Miller and Seale honor her, and Theron, with the most memorable and moving of tableaux in a movie saturated with kinetic visual poetry.
Resistance going in to Mad Max: Fury Road is understandable—the movie has been showered with so much advance praise that it’s almost impossible not to feel like expectations have been unreasonably raised. And like Boyhood last year, the only reasonable response to the hyperbole is to remember that only time can reveal the enduring appeal and significance of any piece of art. Spending too much time debating whether or not Fury Road achieves instant masterpiece status is to risk missing what it has to offer in the here and now. But I would go so far as to agree with a friend of mine who felt, in his qualified admiration for Fury Road, that all other purveyors of modern action cinema should look at this thing and be embarrassed and ashamed.
In the here and now, Miller and company, as they did in 1980 with the original Mad Max, have once again raised the bar not only for the outrageousness of practical stunts, but also for how those stunts can be composed and arranged for maximum clarity and effectiveness and emotional resonance. In an age where computer-enhanced imagery (and there is some on display here) is the coin of the realm and editing has been reduced to slamming a succession of images together with little regard for what they all add up to, the relentless physicality of Mad Max: Fury Road is a particularly welcome tonic. While watching this amazing movie a second time last night and considering the prospects of every other action movie of the summer scheduled to follow in this one’s wake, I was reminded of the words of Bill Paxton’s panicked marine sergeant in Aliens, another big action movie from many summers ago: That’s it. Game over, man.