David Stratton gives his verdict on Mad Max: Fury Road
Mad Max: Fury Road (MA15+) National release
As the whole world knows, Mad Max is back. Thirty-six years after George Miller created and Mel Gibson incarnated the character of Max Rockatansky, a traffic cop keeping the peace on Australia’s endangered highways “a few years from now”, and 30 years after the third film in the franchise, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, the road warrior has returned. Was it worth the wait? Does the result compensate for the seemingly endless production difficulties, delays, re-casting, relocation and a budget reportedly blown out to beyond $US150 million? The answer to that depends very much where you’re coming from.
In purely financial terms, the new film looks like being a huge success, as it opens this weekend across the world. On a visceral level it delivers everything that revheads, video game players and lovers of nonstop action around the world have been waiting for. In the two extended chase sequences that comprise most of the film, the stunts are often amazing, though in this era of CGI and visual effects it’s not always easy to judge the genuine stunt from the digitalised artifice. Strange vehicles, imaginatively constructed from bits and pieces of recognisable cars, thunder across the dusty landscape (a landscape that, as has been widely reported, was far from the Australian settings of the previous three films but which was actually shot in Namibia). Shot at high speed as the pursuers and pursued constantly clash and vehicles spectacularly crash into one another, these scenes are undeniably exciting. Some of the cars, with their spiked bodywork, look as though they’ve driven in from the set of Peter Weir’s The Cars that Ate Paris, the wonderfully strange comedy that preceded the original Mad Max by five years.
While the stunt work is mind-bogglingly impressive, and in most respects the freaky imagination that’s gone into the characters provides lots of fun, the core of the film, the narrative, is almost nonexistent. It’s interesting that the lengths of the four films have gradually extended (the original ran just 90 minutes, while the new one clocks in at two hours), the budgets have ballooned (the first was made for a reported $380,000 in 1979 dollar value) but those essential ingredients, a good story and characters with whom we can empathise, have markedly diminished.
The new film begins with Max, now incarnated by British actor Tom Hardy, reminiscing that he was once a cop “searching for a righteous cause”. “Who is crazy? Me or everyone else?” he muses as he scans a desert landscape while stomping on, and eating, a two-headed lizard. The answer comes soon enough: Max is captured by minions of Immortan Joe ( Hugh Keays-Byrne), a formidable despot who rules the impoverished masses from a mountain domain known as the Citadel, parcels out occasional rations of priceless water to keep the people content, and maintains an army of “war boys”, fanatical young men with shaven heads, various kinds of piercings and white body paint.
The plot (scripted by Miller in collaboration with comic-book creator Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris, who, as Nick Lathouris, acted in the original Mad Max) kicks in when Immortan despatches Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) to nearby Gastown on a mission to replenish the colony’s supplies of fuel.
This proves to be no simple outing to the local petrol station, however, as Furiosa has another agenda, one frustratingly unexplored by the film: she has “rescued” five young women (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Zoe Kravitz, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee and Courtney Eaton), who had been forced to serve as Immortan’s concubines. Immortan and his war boys give chase when they realise Furiosa has betrayed them, using a dazzling variety of transportation, while Max, chained and encased in an iron face mask, is taken along for the ride. This pursuit becomes the film’s first big chase sequence and it’s repeated, with minor variations, in reverse in the second half of the film when everyone heads back to the Citadel.
The intermission between these two set pieces involves some hackneyed plotting in which Furiosa, who dreamed of returning to the Green Place where she grew up, finds that, in this postapocalyptic world, nothing stays the same.
Whether deliberately or not, Furiosa becomes the film’s main character. She drives faster than Max, she shoots better than Max (at one point, after he’s missed a couple of crucial targets, she takes over and scores a bullseye) and she’s marginally more interesting than Max. Though shorn of her hair and covered in grime, Theron still manages to create an intriguing character, perhaps because she’s the only character in the film given any layering. Hardy’s Max, when he finally emerges from that mask, has little to say and not much more to do. We know, from films such as Locke and The Drop, that Hardy is a consummate actor, but you wouldn’t know that from his contribution here.
Reviewing the original Mad Max for the American trade paper Variety in 1979, I wrote: “Stunts themselves would be nothing without a filmmaker behind the camera and Miller … making his first feature, shows he knows what cinema is all about.” That still holds true. Miller is a superb filmmaker, one of this country’s best, but I find it disappointing that he’s rarely stretched himself. Fans of the grotesque characters and amazing stunts that he and his team have created for Fury Road may well be satisfied, but Miller is capable of far more than this sort of extravagant mayhem. His best film, I think, is Lorenzo’s Oil, which he made in the US in 1992 and which told, most beautifully, the true story of parents seeking a cure for their sick child.
In that film, Miller demonstrated his skills as a storyteller, his facility with actors, and his ability to tackle a profoundly moving theme without resorting to mawkishness or cheap sentiment. He’s never made another film like this, and you wonder why. Fury Road is undoubtedly a thrilling ride, and maybe that’s enough; but Miller has much more to offer.
And yet Fury Road, despite its lack of an interesting plot, despite the absence of flesh-andblood characters (something the original Mad Max was able to accommodate between the stunts and the car crashes), despite the basic sameness of any sequel, still manages to thrill. Miller, who turned 70 earlier this year, remains a master of mechanical mayhem and I readily admit he delivers the goods in excitement. Credit should also go to his production team, especially to veteran cinematographer John Seale, whose work is exceptional, but also to Colin Gibson for some remarkable production design, especially the concept of the Citadel set.
Hardy and Theron aside, there are some strong contributions among the actors, with Nicholas Hoult giving a thoroughly engaging performance as a war boy who joins Team Max. And then there’s Keays-Byrne who, back in 1979, played the Toecutter, the leader of the bikie gang responsible for the deaths of Max’s wife and child; Keays-Byrne is as formidable as ever as the fascistic Immortan, a chilling presence of pure evil who dominates every scene in which he appears.
Charlize Theron as Furiosa, kneeling, on a mission to rescue a group of women forced to be concubines; Tom Hardy as Max, below