Mad World, Maximum Brilliance
Mad Max: Fury Road defies adjectives. “Blistering,” “Exhilarating,” and “Heart-pounding,” trite compliments often tossed the way of the latest “quality” action movie, bounce right off the hull of this seething oil rig of a film, which tears through miles of wasteland and leaves a trail of bodies and the memory of never-before-seen images in its wake. “Fever dream” and “gritty post-apocalyptic actioner” might have sufficed for a lesser film, but such is not Fury Road. From atop a bending pole in trapeze-artist-meets-pole-vaulter fashion, the film lobs grenades at the engines of conventional praise, detonating them so all that remains is scraps of burnt metal lying useless and pathetic on the ground. As you might have guessed, all these scenes are pulled from the movie itself, and indeed, the only way to do any semblance of justice to the latest installment of the wildly popular series from George Miller is to treat the film as its own superlative. The movie has been said to contain traces of Terry Gilliam and Cirque du Soleil, and it possesses obvious similarities with Mad Max 2: Road Warrior; I would throw 300 into the mix as well. But such descriptions are inadequate. Here is a film of such overwhelming kinetic energy, visual invention, sonic power, and weird, improbable beauty that any comparison inevitably falls short. This is the film action movies of the future will be measured against, in the unlikely event any director manages to pull off anything even remotely close to what Miller accomplishes here. Fury Road is a masterpiece and then some. It is quite possibly the greatest work of action cinema I have ever seen.
The premise of the film keeps in step with that of the previous two Mad Max installments: the titular road warrior (Tom Hardy, mesmerizing when in violent motion), haunted by past demons, becomes entangled in someone else’s problems and must find a way to survive. From there, Fury Road leaves the rest of the series in the dust with an exceptional sense of pacing and a plot that is both rich and exquisitely terse. At the start of the film, Max is kidnapped by the War Boys, a cult empire whose leader, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), commands a large following by controlling his city’s water supply. As Max sits in jail, one of Joe’s head officers, Imperator Furiosa (a radiantly tenacious Charlize Theron), steals the War Rig, an 18-wheeler lugging both an oil tanker and a fuel pod; stowed away in this vehicle are Joe’s “Five Wives,” women he uses to breed successors to his throne. Within minutes, the War Boys are giving chase; one of the pursuers, the cancer-ridden Nux (a maniacal Nicholas Hoult), straps Max to the front of his car as a portable blood bag whose contents will sustain the War Boy’s dying body. With all major characters now on the road, the ensuing film becomes one frenzied chase through the desert and into the annals of cinematic legend.
Most action movies, even the really good ones, hit certain key areas and miss others. The Raid 2 mastered mano-a-mano but botched its plotting. Furious 7, surely the greatest in the series, aced the stunts and let its self-aware goofiness cruise us through the absurdities and plot holes, but its cinematography was by and large unmemorable. The Bourne Ultimatum, probably my heretofore favorite film of the genre, nailed the chases and scuffles but burned out in its final minutes, plot-wise. Fury Road breaks the trend. It hits every area hard, managing to keep the performances convincing and the plot tight with tension and feeling even as everything else descends (or ascends) into high-octane savagery. Miller doesn’t give into temptation and release the reins on storytelling or crafting a compelling world with compelling characters; unlike so many genre auteurs before him, he doesn’t get lazy. As Max, Hardy wears the loner type well, and the Five Wives are a colorful bunch. Even Nux is given a surprisingly touching narrative arc as a zealot trying to win the favor of his (false) god. Above all, though, I found myself moved by the character of Furiosa, whose warrior ethos masks an expansive heart; it’s appropriate that the film’s title so resembles her name. Galvanized to action by the way Joe’s wives ar exploited, she takes it upon herself to chaperone their escape at the risk of her own life. Her courage and compassion, especially when framed against the brutal, male-run wilderness of Miller’s dystopian futurescape, strikes soul-deep.
Style, too, is Fury Road’s strong suit. This filmmaker doesn’t just make cars crash or guns go off – he puts on a show. And literally a show, too, in the scene where we get a screaming introduction to the War Boys’ war party: one of the vehicles was uniquely built so that its front opens up into a stage decked with stadium-sized speakers and an electric guitarist jamming on a flame-spouting instrument. The music he plays supplies the soundtrack on multiple occasions, playing tug-of-war with the film’s more tragic orchestral theme; somehow, the two never seem to clash. This unhinged musician belongs to a larger heavy-metal aesthetic embraced by the War Boys – they are all leather, chains, and white body paint, in this sense evoking the gang of bandits from Mad Max 2. Their screamo war chants would make Zack Snyder’s Spartans run for the hills.
But even when Fury Road is at its gaudiest and most carnivalesque, it never ceases to be gorgeous. That guitarist from before is clad in blood-red, a brutal but complementary contrast to the golden brown of the desert sand and the blue of the sky. The beginning stages of the War Boys’ pursuit are the first among the movie’s many great visual moments; the second occurs during a showstopping sandstorm. As fearsome clouds of sand roll in from the horizon, the end times are all but evoked, and from within the crosswinds of the storm, hell itself. A third, very different moment observes the War Rig, in a stretch of rare quiet, gliding through the indigo of desert twilight. Dead trees share the terrain with crows and folk in strange feathered garb who walk around on stilts. The dreamlike quality of this scene represents a digressive reverie, that of a filmmaker pausing the story to show us the ethereal beauty of his world.
When the action in the film happens, it is with all this still going on – the story running, the actors acting, the style baring its teeth in brazen and beautiful fashion. As such, the mayhem is given an added layer of urgency because it is presented as belonging to the larger film, moving with the tidal flow of emotions and sensations triggered by the movie’s other cinematic aspects. It isn’t so much that Fury Road features self-contained action “set-pieces” so much as a story that drives and is driven by the action. And this action is something else. In the film’s opening monologue, Max narrates, “As the world fell it was hard to know who was more crazy. Me…Or everyone else.” If the stunt coordinators and FX artists in Fury Road are included in “everyone else,” then good news Max, you’re relatively sane. Beginning with an early segment evoking silent cinema in the accelerated movements of the characters – Miller just recently announced that he will be releasing a black and white, silent cut of the film on Blu-Ray, exciting news indeed – the movie creates the most versatile arena for action I have ever seen.
Consider this setup, variations of which can be seen throughout the film. The War Rig, some 70-80 feet long, hurtles through space, flanked by a small army of assailants. These include the War Boys with their grenade-tipped spears and harpoon guns, as well as the occasional third-party band of marauders. The violence is organized around the Rig on account of its size and precious cargo, and the film utilizes every inch of space in, on, and around this vehicular behemoth to stage most of its action; that said, other cars are also fair game as platforms on which to fight. Cars ram into each other, and enemies board the Rig like pirates mounting a nautical vessel. People shoot and are shot, there is running and jumping and exploding and, somehow, all of this is presented with perfect clarity under Miller’s direction. We know who is where doing what at all times, a staggering feat considering how many things are going on at the same time. Many action movies presented with much neater scenarios don’t understand that lucidity is a winner; in the case of Fury Road, it is precisely this lucidity in the face of utter chaos that sweeps the floor of all competitors past, present, and likely far into the future.
Meanwhile, the characters remain staunchly soulful and idiosyncratic, the plot progressively growing in intensity. The music fuels the fire, and the view is amazing. All units mesh, synchronized to each others’ rhythms and the heat of the engine, which houses Miller’s vision. This vision is equal parts mad and maximally entertaining, miles from the dystopia that had grown stale by Mad Max Beyond Thunderdrome. Miller revamps this world, and though the film’s production has had a troubled history, the result was well worth the wait – every extra year the cast and crew spent perfecting this titanic achievement corresponds with another CC of adrenaline shooting through our bloodstreams, another beat our hearts skip. Nux, in a moment made iconic through incessant advertising, sputters with ecstasy, “Oh what a day, what a lovely day!” Such was my thought upon exiting Fury Road, except I don’t think even his excitement’s got anything on mine.