We live in an era in which the word “awesome” can be used to describe a fast food sandwich, so perhaps we have either become immune to hyperbole, or perhaps our standards are far too low. In either case, into this jaded epoch power-slides Mad Max: Fury Road, a film that actively tries to be one of the greatest action movies ever made, and actually succeeds.
Let that sink in. George Miller’s long-awaited fourth film in the Mad Max series achieves what few action movies even dare to attempt: a nerve-jangling adrenaline freakout, packed to the gills with amazing (and real) stunt work, exciting characters, luxurious cinematography and manic detail. The tag line for the post-apocalyptic Mad Max: Fury Road seems ironic at a glance – “What a Lovely Day” – but actually undersells the impact that watching it will have on any 24-hour time period.
Fury Road was decades in the making, and now appears to be in a serious rush to get started. Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy, taking over for Mel Gibson with a convincing growl) is promptly kidnapped mid-car chase and brought kicking and screaming into the aqueduct doom lair of The Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who has set himself up with a loyal cult of War Boys who only live to die for his cause. Max turns out to be a universal donor, and gets plugged right into Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a War Boy who – like all the others – is suffering from all of the many grievous afflictions that the apocalypse will do to you.
Meanwhile, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, rocking her cybernetic arm) is on a typical supply run, but veers off course with Joe’s many lovely brides in tow. Joe sends all his War Boys off to retrieve his sexy property, including Nux, who can’t wait for glory and brings Max with him, strapped to the front of his car, their veins still connected via chains and tubes. And thus, a car chase to end all car chases begins. It won’t let up until the end of the film.
George Miller knows this world. With The Road Warrior in particular, he essentially invented the post-nuclear apocalypse as we know it, and the fiction writers of the world followed his lead. The specifics of his vision might not have the same effect as they did in the 1980s, after the onslaught of imitators caught hold, but they remain psychotically detailed. Every prop seems to come with an unspoken history, every character seems fully-formed despite only a few lines of dialogue (and that also goes for Max), and the psychology of these desperate live-for-the-now survivors has a plausible immediacy, even as they’re jumping over tanker trunks in motorcycles en masse, dropping bombs on it in a single take that blows the mind and shatters the senses.
There is CGI in Mad Max: Fury Road, but it’s for the little things: a robot appendage, a doozy of a sandstorm. Everything else, which any other filmmaker in their right mind would decide to create digitally, is real. And you feel it in your bones. The best visual effect is that there aren’t any to speak of. The death-defying leaps from car to car while throwing explosive-tipped spears: real. The unthinkable metronome vehicles that sway their homicidal assailants back and forth by the magic of counterbalance: real.
The drama: real. Tom Hardy is perfect casting for Max, all presence and action and shame. As he gets swept into Furiosa’s crusade – struggling to stay alive and rising to every challenge, even when it makes him look like the bad guy – he ably bears the imprimatur of the classic hero. His reluctance to get involved doesn’t take the form of detached or ironic snark, it’s the natural reaction of a man who has lived through madness to no longer wants any part of it. But the former police officer has seen more than his share of tragedy, and can’t quite bring himself to let more horror befall these hopeful fugitives, who haven’t quite accepted that fear – and a single-minded survival instinct – may be the only way to thrive in the desert wilderness of Miller’s creation.
And yet Mad Max: Fury Road is Charlize Theron’s movie, first and foremost. It is her will that drives it forward – almost literally – and her thoroughly convincing warrior persona that captures our gaze. The plot of Miller’s latest is one in which women are sick of being treated as objects, and fight off wave after wave of possessive masculine monsters in a last ditch, possibly futile bid for freedom. Theron and the many “wives” – Rosie Huntington-Whitely, Zoe Kravitz, Riley Keough, Courtney Eaton and Abbey Lee – come face to face with the harsh realities that destroyed the soul of Max Rockatansky, and they are all forced to evolve in the middle of the nitrous-fueled madness that besets them in practically every frame.
Mad Max: Fury Road is action, start-to-finish. Even the pauses between stunts are just setting us up to care more about the next upcoming ballet of acrobatic violence. It’s smart and thoughtful but more than anything else, it is an experience that must be seen to be believed. No hyperbole, no joke: Mad Max: Fury Road is the real deal, the kind of superlative action filmmaking that rips away at our collective acceptance of mediocrity. The bar has been raised, and it is the definition of awesome.