George Miller has revived his Mad Max punk-western franchise as a bizarre convoy chase action-thriller in the post-apocalyptic desert. There are what seem to be dozens of huge rigs and chunky 18-wheelers driven by large, cross men with long hair and bad teeth, or no hair and no teeth, their rides pimped out with skulls and other badass accessories. Everything looks churned and charred: the heat and desert have turned everyone mad, like Max.
In a post-apocalyptic wasteland, a woman rebels against a tyrannical ruler in search for her homeland with the aid of a group of female prisoners, a psychotic worshiper, and a drifter named Max. Max, a man of action and a man of few words, who seeks peace of mind following the loss of his wife and child in the aftermath of the chaos. And Furiosa, a woman of action and a woman who believes her path to survival may be achieved if she can make it across the desert back to her childhood homeland.
From deep inside of my mind, Mad Max: Fury Road is, quite simply, the greatest action movie ever made. Miller found a way to tell a moving, mythic, larger-than-life story in a fully-realized alternate world, and he did it without ever letting up on the throttle. He spent nearly 20 years developing the movie, keeping at it through false starts and heartbreaking dead ends. And when he got the chance to make it, he went all in, devising entire societies full of baroquely souped-up death machines and screaming war-cults.
He found ways to devise, stage, and film stunts that are like nothing anyone’s ever accomplished. He recorded stunning image after stunning image; practically every frame of Fury Road could be a painting. He did justice to the most iconic character he’d ever created, even though he had to recast and reimagine that character, and then he paired that character up with an even more iconic one. And he made something so vivid and undeniable that every remaining cultural gatekeeper had to give it up, making Fury Road the exceedingly rare pure action movie to score a best picture nomination.
If you enjoy beautifully shot, highly cinematic, kinetic action movies, this movie has all of that by the bucket load. Brash bold color washes over the desert for the most spectacular, non stop, car chase through an orange saturated wasteland.
Miller famously tried to use as little CGI as possible in Fury Road. Instead, he got people to make the freaky, impossible cars he’d envisioned—the spike-covered scavenger-mobiles, the monster-truck hot rod, the enormous War Rig that really serves as a main character in itself—into functional vehicles. And then he crashed the fuck out of those vehicles. He hired Cirque Du Soleil acrobats and Olympians as stunt performers. He found ways to film fiery, elaborate car-wrecks, keeping everything visually clear and beautiful without killing or even seriously injuring anyone. On a sheer technical level, the movie is a marvel.
Miller’s respect for all of his characters, even the minor ones, elevates Fury Road almost as much as its stunts. The movie’s greatest character arc is probably that of the Doof Warrior, the blind mutant who wails on a flame-throwing electric guitar as Immortan Joe’s army rides into battle. To play the Doof Warrior, Miller cast an Australian musician called Iota, and he built him a fully functional mobile stage and a flame-throwing guitar. If all we saw of the Doof Warrior was the image of him wheedling away in that initial roll-out scene, that would’ve been glorious. But the Doof Warrior shows up again and again, even getting a pretty great fight against Max in there.
“Fury Road” is a violent film, but the violent acts in this world don’t feel like arbitrary action beats—they emerge from a complete lack of other options or a firm sense of straight-up insanity. Miller’s new vision of Max isn’t a warrior. Rather, he’s a man driven by the memories of past sins to do little more than survive. He walks with the ghosts of those he couldn’t save, and his traveling companions have pushed him to the brink of sanity.
Mad Max: Fury Road is also almost a silent film in its way. Dialogue is at a minimum, and when Max says anything it is usually preceded by an eccentric rumbling, mumbling “mmmm” sound, like a macho Mr Bean. He is impassive, to say the least : the nearest Tom Hardy’s Max comes to an emotional outburst is when Splendid does something very brave while hanging on to the side of the truck. Max gives her a little smile and boyish thumbs-up. And when Nux wishes to express defiance or euphoria, he sprays his mouth with silver-grey paint, to make his face look even more like a skull. That is pretty dysfunctional.
Miller finds ways to tell his layered, humanistic story within the context of that car chase, which is a staggering achievement. Consider the case of Nux, the gibbering War Boy soldier who starts out as a raving true believer. He fights hard, he howls a lot of the movie’s best lines, he fails, he doubts himself, he falls in love, he finds new purpose, and he finally sacrifices himself to save the people he’d been trying to capture just a day or two before. That’s Shakespearean. That’s beautiful…