Mad Max: Fury Road Review: A Cinematic Storytelling Spectacle Thirty Years in the Making

I consider Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior to be one of my all-time favourite films. A powerhouse sequel to a solid action film, it went on to become George Miller’s most recognisable work. Its unique story, setting and capacity for visual flair and literal high-octane action were totally unmatched… that is, perhaps, until now.

Spoilers after the jump.


Mad Max Fury Road 1
Max is back and madder than ever.

In some ways, this is a remake of The Road Warrior. In others, it’s a new entity entirely. The general plot and flow of the action is lifted straight from that film, but it also strikes out on its own, hopefully charting a fresh course for the reinvigorated series. Despite the patent similarities between the two films, I’d say it’s more appropriate to call this a spiritual successor.

In both movies, Max Rockatansky finds himself reluctantly helping a struggling community of oppressed people from a savage army of bandits hungry for blood and fuel. Unlike the 1981 film, however, there’s a lot more depth and a greater cast of characters. The highs are higher, the lows are lower and nearly everything I loved about the old movie isn’t just intact, it’s been cranked up to eleven.

Just as in The Road Warrior, Max is a grizzled, reluctant anti-hero who claims to only care about survival, but we know that deep down he’s trying to suppress a strong sense of justice and heroism. In Fury Road, he finds himself roped into helping a rogue Imperator – a high-ranking marauder under the command of this movie’s villain – in her desperate attempt to free a small harem of slaves and return to her homeland in her stolen War Rig. And this is the part in which we see this movie’s streak of brilliance, what makes it really stand out from the other films: Furiosa. 

Whilst Max and Joe both have their analogous counterparts in The Road Warrior, there is no one quite like Imperator Furiosa, and that’s what ultimately makes this film feel fresh and unique compared to older titles. Portrayed by South African actress Charlize Theron, Furiosa is one of the strongest female lead counterparts I’ve seen since Mako Mori in Pacific Rim. She probably has the strongest arc out of anyone in the film, arguably more than Max.

Her motivation isn’t anything we haven’t seen before; she’s seeking redemption for her actions. What makes this surprisingly tragic, however, is that she never chose to join Joe. She was taken from her homeland and likely trained as a warrior against her will after her mother perished. All that we know of Furiosa prior to the start of the movie is that she has worked under the command of Immortan Joe – this movie’s version of Lord Humongous – something she deeply regrets. What’s really messed up about is that she’s seeking redemption for crimes she was forced to commit. Not only does this lend extra depth to her character, it characterises the villain as an especially terrible bastard.

Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa, an entirely original character who has quickly become a fan favourite.

Over the course of her journey, she struggles with the concept of hope, something that Max and the other characters deal with in their bleak and desolate world. What makes me love her so much as a deuteragonist is how her arc not only wide and well-defined, but also perfectly intertwined with the other lead character, Max. She gradually goes from being his enemy to his hostage to his ally to his friend over the course of the movie’s 120-minute chase scene. Their relationship felt very natural and, like Mako Mori and Raleigh Becket from Pacific Rim, completely platonic, without any ham-fisted, clichéd romantic sub-plot needlessly taking up precious screen time.

Their relationship felt very natural and, like Mako Mori and  Raleigh Becket, completely platonic, without any ham-fisted, clichéd romantic sub-plot needlessly taking up precious screen time. In fact, much like Pacific Rim, there was a moment in which my friend and I were very afraid the male and female leads would kiss in the end and were very relieved when they did not.

This is an action film, and more than anything else, Mad Max and Imperator Furiosa are an action duo like Riggs and Murtaugh. They even do the thing where they fire their guns side by side like the end of the first Lethal Weapon. In fact, they do this multiple times throughout the film, and it never gets old, thanks largely in part to the quick camera cuts and brilliant choreography. Overall, both of them get plenty of time to shine in the spotlight, and neither is shown as being clearly superior to the other.

I’ve seen some complaints that Furiosa gets too much attention, more than the titular character even. Whilst it is true that the film’s attention is divided between multiple characters, I find that this instead enriches the narrative, even if I don’t particularly like Max as a character in this film compared to the original trilogy (more on that in a bit). My reasons for not liking Max, aren’t at all tied to the attention given to the other character’s arcs, and the additional characters and depth provided to them only make the movie more enjoyable. More than the original films,

More than the original films, Fury Road has an insane amount of depth as well as clarity of vision, and Furiosa is the best example of how George Miller has been able to take a simple story and make it even greater.

As an aside, I think it's important we recognise Furiosa not just as a strong female character, but a strong character in general.
As an aside, I think it’s important we recognise Furiosa not just as a strong female character, but a strong character in general.

Thinking back to The Road Warrior, I can remember some interesting characters and people that I kind of liked, but I never really remembered any of them beyond their role in the story and their character design. In this movie, however, we have Furiosa and Nux and Max and a few other minor side characters that get decent characterisation. Max, as the titular character, ultimately pushes through as the hero of the film, just as he does in the previous two entries in the franchise. Only this time, there’s a lot more nuance and depth to the story.

In The Road Warrior, I’d say the most interesting and well-rounded character besides Max was his dog. The action is split pretty evenly between Max and Furiosa, who have slightly different skill sets. Max, likely having been trained as a (pseudo) police officer as he did in the original series, is more skilled in hand-to-hand combat and short-ranged weaponry such as pistols and shotguns. In fact, we see this in the extremely beautifully choreographed three-way fight between Max, Furiosa and Nux as he just manages to beat out Furiosa in a physical bout. However, Furiosa, being a seasoned and clever driver, stops him thanks to the cutoff switch in the War Rig’s engines, similar to how Max booby-traps his V8 Interceptor in Mad Max 2. What happens next, however, is a defining moment for Furiosa and Max’s character arcs.

Rather than retaliate, she lets down her guard and allows them to be taken hostage by Max, who is naturally reluctant to trust anyone and is especially reluctant to become attached to anyone. Through this simple act, she shows Max that there is still decency in the world and that you can fight for something other than survival. And when Furiosa reaches her lowest point near the end of act two, Max picks her back up. In this way, the characters are nectary to each others’ development.

Ultimately, they learn from each other and whilst I enjoy both of their story arcs, what I appreciated most about the characters was how they were so well connected. Furiosa as a character isn’t as interesting without Max and vice versa. That being said, I actually didn’t like Max as much as I did Furiosa overall, and the reason for this is because the original Max Rockatansky (portrayed by Mel Gibson) from the ’79-’85 movie series was a much more rounded character.

Tom Hardy gave a powerhouse performance as the iconic wasteland warrior.

This new series – which seems to be a reboot – starts with a pseudo remake of The Road Warrior best described as a sort of spiritual successor. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior and Mad Max: Fury Road both start with Max in roughly the same place: wandering the wasteland after the tragic events of his past leave him a wounded shell of a man, uncaring about the strife of the world. Max appears to be a former police officer (of a sort) who’s left his days of pursuing justice and taking down dangerous criminals to travel aimlessly in search of food, water and gasoline.

The problem with this is that whilst Mad Max 2 had an entire movie preceding it to explain Max’s backstory, Fury Road feels like it just jumped in the middle and ran with it, giving us small hints and glimpses of the protagonist’s tragic backstory rather than properly fleshing them out. So whereas Max in the original series was far more understandable in his actions and motivations, this character is a lot vaguer, and not necessarily in a good way. It simply feels as though we don’t have enough context to fully appreciate his character arc.

Now, this is a shame, because whilst the original Mad Max definitely holds up in spite of its low budget, I really love the concept and setting of that film and would love to see a successor to it. What made that movie stand out to me was the way in which it depicted the downfall of society, rather than skipping to the post-apocalyptic setting like most films in this genre. It makes for a weird blend as we still see some semblance of societal order, even whilst motorcycle gangs and dangerous thugs wreak havoc across the Outback. The movie had leather-clad motorcycle gangs (portrayed by actual outlaw biker gangs!) fighting leather-clad (technically vinyl for all but two of the actors) police officers in a desperate and ultimately hopeless struggle to preserve justice, law and order. Nowadays, a film such as this would be very much appreciated, especially in light of recent events.

With a comic book series, a video game, and plenty of sequels on the way, I hope this movie will only get better in retrospect.
With a comic book series, a video game, and plenty of sequels on the way, I hope this movie will only get better in retrospect.

Without that essential first chapter, we miss a lot of what made Max understandable as the protagonist. The new version of Max (portrayed by Tom Hardy) has some slight differences in demeanour, but the same character we know and love is still here, just with a few more rough edges. Whereas Gibson seemed to portray Rockatasnky as cold, cool and apathetic – even when killing people – Hardy’s version seems almost more grizzled and when he speaks, he practically does so in short grunts. Both are perfectly valid takes on the character, with one being slightly more psychotic and the other being more feral. They’re both interesting and they work well for the actors playing them, which is what really matters to me.

However, it’s ultimately a meaningless distinction. The only real takeaway for me is that whilst the original Max, whilst tarnished by the chaos of the dead world, was somewhat above the savages that inhabited it. In this film, Max seems far more savage on the outside, not totally unlike the brutal War Pups they fight. In both series, Max has the same basic personality and goals along with the lightning-fast reflexes and quick thinking that help him survive each encounter. Both interpretations of the stoic anti-hero are valid. I just wish that the newer version had the same level of depth the original Max had from The Road Warrior. Which is ironic, given that this movie adds more depth to just about everything else.

Right now, I’m not a huge fan of Max as a character in this movie, though he did have a great character arc (part of that, however, is my bias from having seen the original movies). Without that first chapter, we’re given an incomplete picture of the movie’s hero. Hopefully, his backstory will be expanded upon as the series continues (and it most certainly will, given this film’s rampant popularity and success right now). As Mad Max: Fury Road gets more sequels and prequels, Max and the many other characters of this film may end up being much better in retrospect. For the time being, it’s just a little rough around the edges.

Nux is perhaps the most sympathetic character by the end of this movie.
Nux is perhaps the most sympathetic character by the end of this movie.

Speaking of War Boys, Nux is another great character in this film that deserves attention. I’d say he’s roughly analogous to the Gyro Captain from The Road Warrior, but with a much broader and more surprising arc. He starts as sympathetic comic relief but ends as the tritagonist which probably came as a surprise to many of the viewers including myself. I wasn’t expecting Nux to be anything more than a joke character, but he ended up becoming the most sympathetic character in the story. Most importantly, however, he gave us a glimpse at the culture and inner workings of the world of Fury Road, specifically because of how he is tied to the film’s antagonist, Immortan Joe.

The baddies in the original movies were all just mindless thugs looking to indulge themselves in carnage and bloodshed, reduced by the apocalypse to savage animals as they murder, rape and pillage. The enemies Max faces in this new movie aren’t much different, but there’s a lot more nuance to Immortan Joe’s War Boys than the simple albeit effective marauders under the command of Toecutter and Lord Humongous.

These boys are misled through a strange religion recognising Valhalla as the afterlife for those who die honourably for their leader and the words of the imposing and oddly charismatic Immortan Joe. These boys are, in addition to being very young, very sick. One of Joe’s wives refer to Nux as being at the “end of his half life”, indicating that they’ve been adversely affected by radioactive fallout, something we didn’t see a whole lot of in the first two films. Nux himself is shown to have twin tumours on his necks (affectionately referred to as his “mates, Larry and Barry”). As the movie progresses, Nux gives us surprising insight into the new world of Mad Max through his insistence to “die historic on the fury road”.

Nux provides us with much-needed context for the other side of the film's conflict, something we never saw in The Road Warrior.
Nux provides us with much-needed context for the other side of the film’s conflict, something we never saw in The Road Warrior.

For the first half of the film, dying gloriously is Nux’s sole character motivation. In the previous films, the enemies were shown to be unhinged, psychotic and extremely violent because why not? After the fall of civilisation and the rule of law, it’s just kind of a given that warlords and gangs will rule the world. But aside from intimidation, we don’t see why people follow Lord Humongous.

In Mad Max: Fury Road, it’s not so black and white. Immortan Joe, a former military officer, is extremely charismatic and commanding. He isn’t just a delusional lunatic (though he clearly is) he’s as inspirational as he is oppressive. Given that the War Boys are said to live “half-lives”, it’s possible that they suffer from a form of cancer similar to leukaemia in the aftermath of the “Pox-eclipse”. Thus, it’s not difficult to see why the disease denizens of the wasteland would devote themselves to Immortan Joe, who gives meaning to their short, violent lives. For Nux, the alternative would be dying alone in the savage wastes. With this context, I think it’s fair to say that Nux and Furiosa have similar goals, to find hope in a dead world.

Just... look at this guy.
Just… look at this guy.

At the centre of all of this post-apocalyptic culture is Immortan Joe, ruler of the Citadel and leader of the War Boys. Compared to the other Mad Max villains (Toecutter, Lord Humongous and Aunty Entity), he stands out as the most well-rounded and imposing. I love all of the villains in this franchise, but out of all of them, Joe is my favourite. Everything from his unique Darth Vader-like design to his booming voice and powerful delivery (provided by Hugh Keays-Byrne, the actor who originally played Toecutter) comes together to make a purely fun villain. As a big fan of the original movie, It’s amazing to see Keays-Bryne come so far after so long.

Though somewhat one-dimensional (not that I have any problem with simplistic, static villains), Immortan Joe is the literal driving force behind the movie. In the second major scene, we see him give a rousing speech to Nux before letting him rush the War Rig in a botched attempt to assassinate Furiosa and return his “property”. The music is nothing short of inspiring, and the dialogue is extremely powerful. For just a short moment, I felt genuinely inspired by Immortan Joe, who gives hope to Nux by telling him he can “ride eternal; shiny, and chrome.” In that one pivotal scene, I totally understood why the radiation-addled War Pups follow Immortan into battle and why they would want to die gloriously for him. Just this scene alone makes Miller’s new take on Mad Max a far more mature and sophisticated one.

At first glance, Fury Road is just a standard-fare popcorn flick. And it is. But it’s much more than that. The film is populated by a well-rounded cast of character all driven by the major theme of the story: hope. Furiosa seeks to redeem herself and return to her home. When that hope is lost, it takes Max to put her back on track with an insane against-all-odds battle plan. He himself is spurred on by his past, and through his interaction with Furiosa, he too learns that, perhaps, hope is not a mistake.

In the penultimate scene, he desperately gives her a blood transfusion (after having been used by Nux as a blood bag because of his O blood type) to try and save her. He shows real compassion and worry for the dying Furiosa, revealing that Max has changed as a person. He is no longer a husk of a Man; he has rediscovered his humanity. Nux similarly finds hope in their desperate mission to take the Citadel at the film’s climax. For him, his hope and redemption is found in dying for the betterment of his friends rather than selfishly sacrificing himself for a place in Valhalla alongside his god-king.

The future looks bright for the Mad Max franchise.
The future looks bright for the Mad Max franchise.

Mad Max: Fury Road isn’t just a blastastic action-packed joy ride. It was a reminder of why I love going to the movies. It’s probably the best movie I’ve seen in theatres since Pacific Rim, which is the reason I started going to the theatre again. It reminded me that movies can be fun, epic, bittersweet and mind blowing all at the same time and without necessarily being one hundred percent original.

I think of Fury Road as a film thirty years in the making, not for the Mad Max franchise, but for George Miller, who has shown himself to be a master of the craft with this extremely creative re-imagined vision of a landmark Australian film. Miller has come a long way since directorial début in 1979, but what makes this movie great is how it not only enhances, but expands upon the series. What made the old movies so great was their creative flair and nearly non-stop action. All around, it does just about everything right. The characters are fun, creative and colourful, the story is thoughtful and nuanced whilst being subtle and non-intrusive and the action scenes are well-choreographed with plentiful helpings of fisticuffs, melee, gunfights and car chases throughout It’s everything I want out of a fun action movie, and it goes beyond just being a fun action film. It’s without a

All around, it does just about everything right. The characters are fun, creative and colourful, the story is thoughtful and nuanced whilst being subtle and non-intrusive and the action scenes are well-choreographed with plentiful helpings of fisticuffs, melee, gunfights and car chases throughout It’s everything I want out of a fun action movie, and it goes beyond just being a fun action film. It’s without a doubt greatest action films we’ve seen in a very, very long time.

It is a clearer, cleaner version of Miller’s original vision, and it not only stands up alongside them, it surpasses them in nearly every way. Mad Max: Fury Road isn’t just a worthwhile entry into the series; it’s the best one to date.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s