Mad Max: Fury Road movie review

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Thirty years after Max Rockatansky scurried off into the desert to hide from Tina Turner with a bunch of pipsqueaks in 1985’s Beyond Thunderdome, the cantankerous road warrior stomps back onto the big screen with a brand new bod – the broad shoulders of English actor Tom Hardy – to reclaim centre stage as cinema’s go-to guy for a world gone to hell in a petroleum-doused handbag.

Hardy’s hulking presence makes the casting of Mel Gibson in the originals feel comparatively as menacing as a snowflake. The character’s James Bond-like re-assignment, with a second actor inhabiting the same role, reflects the extent to which the leather-clad anti-hero has become more an emblem than an individual – less a person than a state of mind.

The first Mad Max, released in 1979, bent over backwards to show us the human at the heart of it. There were tender romantic moments when the titular character lied in reeds with his wife; even trips to get ice cream with his infant son.

Such pleasantries would be unthinkable in Mad Max: Fury Road, which seems to have only hardened the resolve of director George Miller to deliver hard-boiled action freed from the sentimental stickiness of a moral point-of-view. The anarchic feel of it – the bedlam, squalor and jacked-up depravity of it all – is, in a sick sort of way, utterly refreshing in today’s culture of emotionally heavy-handed blockbusters.

Fury Road doesn’t have much in the way of a narrative: it is essentially one long car chase down vast arid stretches of the Namib Desert, where the film was shot after the original locations in Broken Hill NSW did something thoroughly un-Mad Max like and started sprouting flowers. In Miller’s iconic post-apocalyptic universe, former highway patrolman Max (Hardy) escapes captivity and partners up with Furiosa (Charlize Theron) who is crossing the desert with a band of former captives known as the Five Wives.

In a delicious turn of casting, the lead bad guy chasing them – Immortan Joe, who looks like a cross between Darth Vader and Friar John – is played by Hugh Keays-Byrne, who was the villain Toecutter in the original.

There are heapings of bat shit crazy weirdness piled up on Miller’s dystopian dinner table. Quentin Kenihan has a (topless) small role, Charlize Theron storms about with half an arm missing, a guitarist chained to a stage on top of a truck operates an existence entirely predicated on constant shredding, Angus Sampson is involved in a gnarly birth-gone-wrong scene and dirty ruffians literally drink mother’s milk.

This is the kind of madness three predecessors and a batch of pulse-pounding trailers have led us to expect; the big surprise is how concentrated the film is on a spatial level. That titular road is the centre of a more or less single setting film which unfolds like a car racing video game: narrowly, with a constant sense of motion.

Miller’s terrific carnage-strewn action scenes debunk once and for all the perception that great action is synonymous with fresh blood or young directors. With the right preparation and a cunning attention to detail even a mayhem-splattered opus such as Fury Road can feel like mature and precisely balanced art.

The pace is frenetic, a sonic-speed symphony of combustion at 24 strangled cats a second: loud, ferocious, ear-bleeding vehicular carnage whipped together with hell-for-leather momentum. This is bona fide dystopian road porn – a genre George Miller created, rigged and blew apart then created, rigged and blew apart again.

The Mad Max universe takes place in a world where the Planet of the Apes prophecy more or less came true, minus simian overlords. To paraphrase Charlton Heston, we blew it: the battle against climate change has been lost, commercial entities i.e. energy companies sped up the disintegration of society, rock music literally creates flames that puncture what’s left of the ozone layer and, perhaps most alarming of all, ’80s fashion returned with a vengeance — a BDSM vengeance, no less, with a wardrobe of freak-kink no other sci-fi franchise has dared to match.

How do you wrap a peaches and cream ending around this stuff? How do you tie it together with Hollywood string? You don’t – at least George Miller doesn’t – and the bleakness of his vision feels singular and liberating. Fury Road is the ultimate anti-Hollywood blockbuster, the one that shows 99% of its mega-budget predecessors were sissies: large and vacuous commercials for popcorn and soft drinks.

As blockbuster movie mentality gravitated to the centre, away from its origins in genre filmmaking (the first modern blockbuster was Steven Spielberg’s Jaws) an idea became engrained that financially viable mega budget productions should be first and foremost concerned with appealing to the widest number of people. This led a culture derided as ‘The Temple of Dumb’ back in the 80s. The critics, inspired by the second Indiana Jones movie to coin that phrase, could never have comprehended the shit storm of super-sized goop that was in the mail.

Mad Max doesn’t so much buck the trend of happy-go-lucky blockbuster filmmaking as collect all the niceties — men and women fall in love, good guys always win a yada yada — and detonate them. Fury Road is wickedly visceral, a monster art movie that ought to remind Hollywood of the power a striking artistic vision has not just to turn heads but to bring audiences.

Miller’s intensely choreographed graphic novel style (my kingdom for a book of the storyboards) won’t be everybody’s cup of tea, but the idea that we should be drinking out of the same glass was never a very appealing one.

16 responses to “Mad Max: Fury Road movie review

  1. Brilliantly penned review Luke, clever on lots of levels; as intelligent and informed as it is engaging and entertaining. Top shelf.

  2. Great review. Having seen it last night, my first reaction was “thank god they didn’t stuff it up.” The movie was bloody fantastic, and unsullied by that nauseous, OTT- Hollywood schmaltz we get served by the likes of Michael Bloody Bay. Most of the stunts were performed by actual stuntmen, and not some CGI crap that, no matter how big the computer, still looks like a cartoon. There was a lot of cheek and humour, especially the first appearance of the 5 wives, which a Grauniad review likened with words to the effect of “a post-apocalyptic Vogue photo shoot.” Fury Road is brilliant for the exact reasons you stated, and I am sure it will go down as a classic.

  3. I just saw this. It’s very good. I’d give it 4 out of 5 stars.

    My only criticism is that it’s completely humourless and takes itself a little too seriously. A few light touches, like the Toadie and the Gyro Captain from the Road Warrior, would have rounded it out nicely.

    1. Completely humourless? Maybe it went by so fast you missed it. Not even the tree joke? Mother’s milk? The wet t-shirt/car wash scene? Bueller?

      Light touches? Did you even notice he has a fucking *garden fork* for a muzzle?!

      1. Yeah, I noticed that stuff, but it was weird rather than funny. In the Road Warrior you have that great comic set piece where the Toady gets his fingers sliced off with the steel boomerang. And the Gyro Captain fighting with the dog over the empty can. There wasn’t that type of well set up, in-depth humour in Fury Road.

  4. Meh. All action, very little plot. Admittedly well executed action, but where’s the human interest? It reminded me of Transformers.

    The original, although dated now, had me caring about the characters, not least because they reminded me of people I know. Not so this generic action flic.

    1. Human interest? It would take a special kind of personality disorder to not sense the humour or feel for Nux, his half life mates, Furiosa, the wives, the mothers of the Green Place.

      Joe’s henchmen were surely the only non-sympathetic characters – Joe himself seemed more of a monster than a villain. You don’t hate monsters, you fear them. I was laughing and yelping for everyone, even the war boys eagerly “dying historic on the fury road!” After their hectic and excited scramble for the chase, every white painted goon’s violent demise held additional import and glory, stories to be told amongst his brothers for the rest of their short lives.

      I’m surprised Luke didn’t have a paragraph especially for Nux. From a one line moment in the trailer, he turned out to be the most interesting and entertaining character in the film. Max’s grunting and stunted vocabulary (presumably from years of isolation and mental anguish) put him nicely in the background, allowing us to follow the other characters and their stories.

      And weren’t all the Australian accents a treat!

  5. Hey Luke, Broken Hill was the setting for the second try, not the original. That was Namibia and they were already over there building vehicles when Warners pulled them out.

    And not much narrative, but the internal logic, story and allegory is deep and visual metaphors abound. People who think in words often mistake the lack of them for shallowness because they’re not fluent enough with the pictures. Film after all is a visual medium. And as Hitchcock once said, action IS character – this is one movie that actually shows it. It’s no accident the men are muzzled and can only express themselves (until a dialogue is pretty literally opened) physically, with body language and violence, and where both men and women are equally twisted, bandaged and scarred (often ritually) and deformed by their journey and the sick world around them. The literal maelstrom they encounter is rich with symbolism, as is the fetishistic adherence to a bygone age and technology and the religious worship of same. The archeological obsessions, the roman tyrants, patriarchs and matriarchs. It’s all there if you look…

  6. ‘Not your momma’s action movie’ – You are kidding right, crikey editor? Or did you miss the bits where the mommas win the day – what about the pregnant blonde hanging off the war rig and sacrificing herself to save the others, and the revenge of the band of armed desert motorcyle hoydens? Or the fact that the mommas in the audience are there in numbers and cheering? Hardy is a hulking presence: yeah, not bad granted, but he is a kitten compared to the women in this film. In fact, he appears to have been specially cast to provide those velvety lips and moondog eyes always on the point of tears. Plus the subliminal oedipal symbolism of the steel trowel being cast off when he is ready to meet his mate, the part-steel Furiosa, the warrior who was in turn launched by the memory of her mother. This is the quintessential mommas movie and more power to it – it will be a feminist icon for decades to come. Could not have been released at a worse time for politicians slating mothers. Should have been released on mother’s day. A worthy successor in the great line of feminist protagonists, including Ripley. Get it right, get this film for your mother; and, if you go along with her, you might prefer to reserve that deprecatory slant to yourself.

  7. Yes, there could have been a smidge more framing story.
    Yes, the ending was too neat
    and yes, some of the acting (especially among the supporting cast) was average to clunky awful woeful.

    But overall, FURY ROAD is utterly bonkers, ridiculous fun.

    Reminded me of when I first saw INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM as a young teen. Same over-the-top costumes and frenetic stunts. And story arc come to think of it …

    1. PS : I do wonder a little bit where the reported 150 MILLION dollars went seeing as CGI was supposedly at a minimum … but maybe the Doof Warrior just blew out a shitload of speakers

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