Critical hyperbole, like a new house or a career change, is best slept on. Decorum suggests it’s best to assess during a comedown than to seize a slobbering high, right?
The 2015 summer movie season isn’t even two weeks old, but don’t kid yourself: There is Mad Max: Fury Road and, well, everything else lining up to deferentially bow down to it before Labor Day. Here is smash-mouth action filmmaking for the ages, born of brave stars and herculean stunt professionals who thrillingly court, and astoundingly cheat, death for two hours and of George Miller, a filmmaker who at 70 — seventy! — can still surprise us with what escapes from his feverish, fiendish mad-scientist imagination. In sorta-sequelizing / sorta-rebooting his signature Mad Max franchise for a modern age, Miller integrates contemporary technology without capitulating to it like so many elder statesmen before him.
He actually strapped Tom Hardy to the front of a speeding car. That’s really a fistfight on a wobbly pole several stories up that pauses, beautifully, for a crow’s-nest view of the cars and chaos below. That is definitely a guy with a flame-throwing guitar thrashing in front of a 50-foot wall of amps, as Miller’s idea of a post-apocalyptic drummer boy. Filming in Namibia’s deserts allowed sunstroke madness to mutate the film’s DNA in a most welcome manner. (Forget the converted 3D, though; it keeps up with neither Miller’s movie nor his mind.)
And yet Fury Road also offers up unadulterated, uncompromised thematic weight, something that rarely wriggles into the rumble seats of such nine-figure vehicles. Co-writing with Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris, Miller scrawls out punkish pop-art poetry within the pixels, interlacing spat stanzas of furious free verse with soft sonnets that champion compassion. Juggernaut action of the highest order is not enough for him; he transfixes us with plaintive wails for what its characters have lost and a fist-pumping optimism for what they may reclaim. A mid-movie moment where the good ones left standing choose to liberate people rather than gain ground feels like a thumbed nose to the post-apocalyptic genre’s pro forma expectations of nihilistic destruction, and it’s perfectly in line with Miller’s previous Mad Max films.
All of this adds up to an instant classic, a film you will certainly want to see again in the theater — at least once and likely immediately — to fully savor its precision, passion and primal thrill. After getting your balance back after round one, that is.
Here, Hardy steps into the role that made Mel Gibson a star. While Gibson’s presence would’ve brought intriguing dimensions to the film’s idea of choking out an aged, morally rotted patriarchy of entitlement, Hardy makes a sneakily exceptional substitute. He plays Max as less a hero and more a confrontational comrade, a corner man upon whom you’d still rely for well-timed, hearty haymakers. There’s a sort of a grunting calm to this Max, who’s haunted on the inside, and that Hardy, one of the most clenched actors around, represents the relative even keel of Fury Road clues you into how bonkers it becomes.
Max’s most savage solo moment is sequestered offscreen. And if it feels like he takes an at-times literal backseat, that’s because he’s equally matched — in reticence, rage, reticence and, eventually, respect — by Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa.
Theron’s performance — her finest since Monster and, genre bias be damned, as worthy of an Oscar nomination — is a triumph of convincing physicality and a near-silent ability to nail a full emotional spectrum. Not since Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hamilton has an actress achieved such depth without saying so little, and Furiosa constitutes the most robust rooting interest. (You get the sense even Max can’t quite wrap his head around her pain but is proud to fight beside her.)
Furiosa is a figurehead female folded into the power structure of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a self-appointed king fitted daily into a costume that conceals his decrepit, sagging and diseased flesh. Joe rules from on high in his citadel lest the underlings below see his true form. He placates them with pitifully small portions of natural resources he’s hoarding, and Furiosa is among his top lieutenants whom he trusts to make supply runs in the War Rig (a movable fortress) to nearby Gas Town.
Deep wells of rage run through Furiosa; it’s intimated that she’s only now gained back her full resolve after being physically and spiritually broken. And she taps them by hijacking the War Rig to facilitate the escape of Joe’s five pampered brides. Joe is mercilessly breeding them in hopes of genetically weeding out a plague that’s killing him, his people and his War Boys. The War Boys are a band of bald, burly, paint-huffing sycophants whose sole glory is to die and live again in Valhalla per Joe’s decree, and they’re just one gang whom Joe sics on Furiosa down Fury Road.
How does Max factor into all of this? I’ll leave that for you to discover, but his initial entanglement with Furiosa — and Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a War Boy whose insatiable thirst for a meaningful death becomes an unimaginably moving character trait — unfolds in an opening salvo of ingenious speed, surprise and stuntwork.
If ever there were a film with an alphabet worth of exhibits for a Best Stunt Team Oscar, it’s this. And what most action films save for the final course, Fury Road treats like an appetizer laced with glass shards. There are two even better chases to follow — including a climax that plays like a co-production of Cirque du Soleil, Motocross, Elizabeth Streb and Strange Fruit’s dance teams and whomever owns Truckzilla. Action unit director Guy Norris and his team deliver daredevil dynamics par excellence.
Meanwhile, Miller doles out horror and humor of Immortan Joe’s hegemony without teetering too far into either one, whether it’s the sight of women cradling dead babies while hooked up to industrial-sized breast pumps or a scene of combatants spitting petrol into their superchargers to gain ground. Even the breathers are built on twitchy anxiety; night falls and bodies rest, but emotional tachometers spike and minds race as swiftly as the copious Frankensteined vehicles.
There are also unexpected moments of grace and bravery from Joe’s five brides — introduced as a formless group but ideologically individuated by Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Zoë Kravitz, Abbey Lee and Courtney Eaton. The entire cast, really, is physically attuned to the import of motion and gesture in establishing a growing, if begrudging, camaraderie among this thrown-together platoon. It’s a herculean effort matched by everyone below the line. Composer Junkie XL’s mix of the martial and melancholy propels the film at all the right points. Margaret Sixel and Jason Ballantine have edited the film with precision timing and clarity. And there’s detail to marvel over in every corner of the frame from costume designer Jenny Beavan and production designer Colin Gibson.
But there’s also so much beautiful subtext beneath the spectacle. There’s a pitched battle of religious purity and perversion between Immortan Joe and a late-arriving faction of warriors. There’s the literalized take on the crucible of personal faith that sweet deliverance awaits you down a long road of despair and despondency. Miller bravely folds that idea into both an exciting exaltation of glorious mythological warmongering … and the way similar stories are spun in spiritual justification for gruesome acts of terrorism. And just as John Seale’s rampaging camera pauses just long enough to admire smoke billowing off Furiosa’s pistol, it also rests on affecting humanity, such as when a mortally wounded comrade reaches, without panic, to cradle treasured earthen tchotchkes.
Amid the frenzy flipped vehicles and fireballs, these are the things to which you’ll find your mind unexpectedly returning. They’re among the various, sundry and oh-so-welcome side effects of Fury Road, an unforgettable, habit-forming rush you’ll crave again and again (and probably again) as a way to mainline the very reason we go to movies in the first place.