Mad Max: Fury Road Retrospective

This is a revised edition of a review of Mad Max: Fury Road originally published in Strange Skins Digital issue two (2017).

The star of the Mad Max films was never Mel Gibson; it was always, from the very beginning, George Miller’s stunning visuals. If evidence of this was ever needed, it can be found in the form of the trailer for Mad Max: Fury Road. There’s not a hint of Mel in sight and yet it is unmistakably a Mad Max movie from the moment we fade in on the desolate landscape of post-apocalyptic Australia (actually Namibia, but that’s another story). Maybe old age had made me a bit too cynical to get excited by movie trailers anymore; either that or I’ve just been disappointed too many times, but the Fury Road trailer got me uncharacteristically excited. I’ve little interest in either cars or violence, yet the grim industrial desolation of the original trilogy of Mad Max films has always fascinated me and seeing that trailer took me back to sitting in the ABC Cinema in Sunderland with Mr Ben Hudson of this parish to see Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.

I’m generally less critical of Beyond Thunderdome than most reviewers, but Fury Road is a very different film. Beyond Thunderdome leaned a little too heavily on the coolness of the Mad Max world, at times making that world seem like a fun place to live. The world of Fury Road is not a fun place to live, let me make that very clear. Gone are the trendy and over-styled residents of Bartertown; the human race in Fury Road is desperate, parched, starving and wracked by radiation sickness and out-of-control disease. Even central characters in Fury Road are diseased and crippled. This is a vision of man as desperate scavenger, feeding off the carcass of the old world.

In the middle of this is Tom Hardy’s Max – wild, broken, directionless, and speaking in guttural monosyllables. Early in the movie he’s captured and enslaved by the War Boys, minions of the diseased tyrant Immortan Joe (Hugh Keys-Byrne, the Toecutter from the original Mad Max, making an unexpected reappearance). Joe has a thriving society based around aggressive organised scavenging but his people are irradiated and mutated. He wants to perpetuate his family line with healthy babies and to this end has five genetically perfect ‘brides’ locked away in his complex. One of Joe’s senior officers, Imperitor Furiosa (Charlize Theron) disagrees with this situation and does a runner with the wives in a massive tanker. Joe and the War Boys (with Max strapped to the front of one of their vehicles) take off in pursuit, but before too long Max has escaped and formed a reluctant alliance with Furiosa and renegade War Boy Nux.

What follows is essentially an unremitting a 2-hour chase. Miller has acknowledged that the most popular part of the previous movies was always the climactic multi-vehicle scramble and so has dispensed with all but the briefest of preamble and, quite literally, cut to the chase. Don’t believe what you may have heard about this movie never letting up in its intensity though; there are some lulls in the action allowing for some character development. Max seems haunted by his inability to save not only his family but other unnamed visions from his tortured past. Also pay no attention to those who claim that the movie suffers from an excess of female characters. Those guys really need to stop stroking their cars and go and get a not-exclusively-decorative girlfriend. The events may revolve around Max, but it is Imperitor Furiosa and the brides that are at the heart of the story. A lesser film-maker than Miller might have made the brides bland eye-candy and, sure, they might be nicer to look at than anything else in this movie (unless you’re female or gay, in which case Tom Hardy ain’t exactly Quasimodo) but they are each given very specific character traits, be that feisty, cowardly, romantic or such.

Filmed in glorious 2D, the film definitely benefits from its old school techniques. When you see a vehicle crash and burn, 99% of the time it’s a real vehicle with a real driver, not another piece of soulless CGI. I remember the first time I noticed a CGI stunt in a Bond movie, in 2002’s Die Another Day, and the sense of crushing disappointment that instilled in me. Mad Max just wouldn’t be Mad Max without genuine tortured metal on the screen and Fury Road certainly doesn’t disappoint in that respect. As for the non-metallic stars, you’ll have forgotten ten minutes into the movie that Max was ever played by anyone other than Tom Hardy. I don’t mean to dis Mel Gibson, but Hardy fits as perfectly into Fury Road as Gibson did in the first three films. Sporting Mel’s Mad Max 2 haircut, Hardy plays the title character as a bedraggled victim for the first half hour or more – a brave move for what is essentially an action film – and it’s only when his slings on his battered leather jacket and harness that you suddenly think ‘oh yeah, Max is back!’

As Furiosa, Charlize Theron is the perfect counterfoil to Max; a natural successor to Mad Max 2’s Warrior Woman and Beyond Thunderdome’s Savannah Nix, but more hard-ass than both of them put together. She plays the tortured soul very successfully and her amputated arm is such a clever effect that you barely even notice it is an effect. My only gripe here – and it’s a very minor one – is that I’d like to have seen her play the part using her native South African accent, rather than her adopted American one, but I guess that’s kind of a concession to the Hollywood money that funded the production of Fury Road. No-one in the rest of the cast lets the side down. Hugh Keays-Byrne is brilliantly disturbing as Immortan Joe and Nicholas Hoult as Nux portrays the changing of sides, something which is notoriously difficult to bring across convincingly on the screen, with absolute conviction.

Mad Max may have lost its Australian location, but it’s still an Aussie film series to its very core. The distinctive Australian sense of humour which set the previous films apart from similar American fare is still present in the quirky dialogue and visuals. This isn’t a Mad Max reboot or a reimagining; this is as much a continuation of the series as Live and Let Die was a continuation of Bond after Connery left. George Miller’s original intention was for Fury Road to be filmed completely in monochrome, but unsurprisingly the big studio backers weren’t behind that idea, but a monochrome edition – the ‘Black & Chrome’ edition – was released on blu-ray. To be quite honest, I don’t share George Miller’s vision. The monochrome finish makes it look a tad artier perhaps, but black & white photography works best with highly defined light and shadow and the harsh desert sun is a little too unforgiving to provide that. 

There’s little about the original cinematic cut that disappointed me and almost nothing that I didn’t like. I’d like to think that this was the start of a new trilogy of movies because there’s been a Mad Max shaped hole in my life since 1986 and I’d rather not have it there for another 24 years. Unfortunately, a wealth of copyright issues and a certain ennui on George Miller’s part seem to be preventing this from happening. But, if we do get more, I only hope there are enough stories out there in the Mad Max universe to support further instalments because I’d hate to see the series descend into sameness.

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