If you threw the entire cast of The Expendables into a blender, you’d probably only get enough testosterone to last the first 20 minutes of Mad Max: Fury Road. That counts as a very high compliment, because Fury Road is an eye-popping, exhilarating thrill ride from start to finish, a movie that puts all other summer action spectacles to shame and reminds us how good action films used to be.
George Miller returns to direct this reboot of the original Mad Max trilogy, with Tom Hardy replacing Mel Gibson in the iconic role of Max, who wanders a desert wasteland torn apart by conflict resulting from a lack of resources, particularly fuel. In Fury Road, Max is haunted by the events of the previous films; all the people he couldn’t save, including his wife and child, create tortured visions. At the beginning of the film, Max is captured by marauding bandits and taken to a city run by the nefarious Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Wearing a hellish breathing mask that gives him the visage of a deranged skeleton, Joe doles out his underground spring of water to his parched subjects, keeping them reliant upon him and squarely under his foot.
Max is put under the watchful eye of one of Joe’s War Boys, Nux (Nicholas Hoult). But he’s soon taken along on a ride to rein in Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), one of Joe’s most trusted advisors and war leaders who has gone rogue, stealing Joe’s sex slaves in order to save them and take them to the “Green Place,” a supposed safe haven. It isn’t long before Max teams up with Furiosa to save the girls and escape Joe’s clutches.
The plot quickly takes a backseat to the action, which is some of the best ever put on screen. In an age of green screens and an overuse of “photorealistic” CGI, there’s something to be said about how real everything feels here. Every action sequence has weight, because we know those are real cars flipping and exploding, real people flying through the air and under giant trucks. In fact, several sequences seem downright dangerous; when you begin to fear for the actual lives of the actors, you know the movie you’re watching is pushing the limits. As with previous Mad Max films, the vehicles are marvelous creations; Furiosa’s War Rig is one of the coolest damn things I’ve ever seen.
The action also benefits greatly from Miller and cinematographer John Seale’s decision to actually let us see it. The fight and chase sequences are so balletic and operatic, it would be a shame to cloud them in a haze of shaky-cam. Fury Road blessedly never falls into this trap. As chaotic and busy as some scenes get, the action is always clear.
The film avoids another trope of the modern blockbuster: a convoluted story. There’s no research required going into this one: even someone unfamiliar with the original films need only read a quick summary online to understand a couple of scenes. The story hums and character motivations are always clear. It’s simple but not simplistic.
What really sets Fury Road apart for me, however, is the authentic world it manages to create. Within minutes, we’re in Max’s deranged desert dystopia, where everyone is trying to kill you and everything is just a little off. This is a delightfully strange flick, some might say batshit insane; it’s every bit as weird and wonderful as its predecessors, perhaps even more so (a guitar that shoots fire makes multiple appearances, but it’s far from the strangest thing here). In other words, it feels like an actual Mad Max movie, and that’s probably due to Miller’s clear, guiding hand along with co-writers Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris. The mood is further driven in by Junkie XL’s wonderful score and Seale’s gorgeous cinematography.
It would be dishonest to call Fury Road deep; it is essentially a two-hour chase movie, after all. But the strange sights and explosions never get in the way of the characters. Max is an everyman, essentially a blank slate, and always has been. The far more interesting character is Furiosa, played with ferocious intensity by Theron in yet another career-defining role. It’s a tremendously physical role, but one that also requires a great deal of emotional vulnerability, and Theron plays it startlingly straight, with nary a hint of overacting in sight. It’s great to see a badass female action hero completely own a movie when she isn’t even the title character. I also loved Hoult’s character Nux, who probably gets the film’s most defined arc.
Fury Road is gritty, grimy, gory and absolutely great. The clarity of artistic vision, the melding of auteur weirdness and satisfying summer thrills, is breathtaking. I had a huge grin on my face the whole time, satisfied over the fact that a movie this odd and ambitious could even get made. It’s a true game-changer in the world of action movies, and everything you could want from a Mad Max movie. Actually, it’s everything you could want from a movie period.