George Miller returning to the world of Mad Max has something of the action story to it; the old gunslinger, almost forgotten, returns to fight once more and show the younger generation how it’s done.
He may recently have focussed on dancing penguins (Happy Feet) rather than the high octane carnage that he made his name with, but with Mad Max: Fury Road Miller doesn’t just recapture the old magic, he creates something better than anything he’s achieved before and in doing so hands out a warning to other action directors out there that they need to step up their game.
The original trilogy is iconic rather than truly classic in my mind, introducing audiences to a world on the brink of absolute collapse, ravaged by environmental decline and man made disaster. Over the course of the three films we watch Max, a police officer in the first film, suffer and fight just to survive at great personal cost as the world falls apart around him. Part classic western, part dystopia fuelled by ‘80s fear of oil crisis and nuclear war, they build one of the more intriguing post apocalyptic worlds film has offered. The films themselves had plenty of weaknesses and they haven’t aged as well as some of their contemporaries (Terminator, Aliens, etc), but Miller’s skill for action, mood and world building are all on display.
The latest film starts with Max, now played with taciturn aplomb by Tom Hardy, being captured by the War Boys, a collection of young men who serve Immortan Joe, a warlord who made himself into a demi-god with the control of what little water there is in the area. The opening act races by, almost a little too fast it seems, but as the film develops you realise the frenetic pace and often slightly sped up action is all designed to keep you unsettled and immerse yourself in a world where life is short and death is often brutally quick.
The central plot kicks in when Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a trusted driver/warrior for Joe, steals an oil tanker as part of an escape plan for her and several young girls who had been kept as wives/breeders for Joe to create a dynasty.
All the War Boys from Joe’s citadel and the neighbouring fuel and bullet towns set off in pursuit, with Max strapped to the front of one of the lead cars and so one of the longest, most brilliantly inventive car chases in film history is launched.
Eventually Max is able to escape the War Boys and forms a reluctant bond with Furiosa and the girls, haunted throughout by memories of those he hadn’t managed to save.
The film cavorts from one beautifully executed, metal smashing, bone crashing set piece to another, held together by some solid character work from all involved despite the potentially one dimensional character types on display, excellent cinematography and one of my favourite scores in recent years.
It is a wide ranging score which involves at various points a mobile heavy metal rig, tribal drumming and soaring orchestral music. Like so much of this film, shifts in pace, tone and approach that could so easily have been jarring are handled with delicate skill.
It is also a much smarter film than I expected going in, packed with subtle moments and nice character moments. Miller understands that most crucial rule of film making - show, don’t tell - in a way that many action films seem to forget. Little looks, minimal dialogue and beautifully framed backdrops build characters and hint at the history of this world. Fury Road is a film directed with real confidence in itself and the story it is choosing to tell.
Amusingly Miller seems to have angered some “men’s rights activists” by having the audacity to have strong female characters and explosive car chases in the same film, and there is a measure of recommendation for me in their anger. While the film is certainly never heavy handed in its politics or agenda, it is refreshing to see an action movie that understands that female characters should absolutely cover a range of roles, motives and approaches in the film, rather than the usual narrow spectrum of wives/mothers or prize. To a number of the characters the women of this film are exactly that, but they are never just that to the audience and George Miller certainly deserves praise for delivering a more rounded central group of characters than we’re perhaps used to seeing. Plus as a general rule if you’re making bigots like them angry then you’re doing something right.
While the film does have one or two flaws, for example Max’s visions of those he believes he failed could have been handled with a little more subtlety, it feels like the height of bad manners to complain about a film which absolutely knows its targets and hits every one of them.
This is an action film that embraces insanity and intensity in a way few have, whether it’s the suicidal tactics used by the War Boys, the scale of the storms that wreck the country or the cult that’s developed around ‘daddy’ Immortan Joe.
Exhilarating in the extreme, Mad Max recaptures an epic tone and ambition that feels somehow nostalgic. This is very much a 21st century blockbuster, with all the technical expertise and grand scale that modern budgets allow, but the fact that George Miller insisted that every car used should be genuinely drivable hints at the old school director at its heart. While I’m sure plenty of CGI was used (the death count amongst the stunt men would have led to some sort of industry wide strike otherwise) it rarely feels that way. Every impact counts, every clash of metal on metal feels intensely real and this saves the film from the CGI fatigue that can afflict the majority of blockbusters these days.
There’d been rumours of a new Mad Max film for several years, but casting or costing always seemed to get in the way, and I’m glad they did. Because in the end we got the perfect cast; Hardy and Theron are superb, Nicholas Hoult, as an eager to please War Boy named Nux, continues to steal scenes in every film he’s in and the Five Wives each get moments to shine - Huntington Whitely especially shows that Transformers 3 was misleading and she really can act. We got the perfect score from Junkie XL and cinematography by John Seale. We got several of the best action sequences any film has served up in recent years with the final act providing some truly jaw dropping sequences. And we got a brilliantly twisted, dystopian world full of little touches that hinted at a whole host of stories just waiting to be told.
Most importantly we got the right director, a man who showed that experience and a desire to tell a fresh story in a familiar world could tie all the insanity and excitement together into the sharpest action film of the year.