I remember watching Mad Max 2, also known as The Road Warrior, as a young-ish boy; probably about ten years old. I remember being transfixed by the final act, which famously features a long climactic chase as Mel Gibson’s titular hero fends off bad guy attacks while driving a giant, armoured rig across a post-apocalyptic wasteland with pedal firmly to the metal. It’s one of the all-time great movie car chases, up there with (but entirely different to) those that feature in The French Connection, To Live And Die In LA and Bullitt, and I expect I probably sat through most of it with my mouth wide open. I remember subsequently seeking out the low-budget first installment of the series, the cheapo 90-minute b-movie that implausibly became a worldwide smash, and being similarly impressed. Max was an iconic hero, director George Miller had created two fascinating alternative visions of Australia post-nuclear holocaust and Gibson became an international star. (I also thought Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome was pretty good, too, and think some of the indifference towards it that exists today is a shame, but let’s be honest: the highlights of the Mad Max trilogy are the car stunts and there are fewer in that third film.)
Anyway. That was 30 years ago, and I haven’t seen any of those original films since: in the mid-1980s a trilogy was a rare old thing indeed, and three Mad Max entries in quick succession had been more than enough for me, even at that tender age. I can’t say that I’ve thought about the series all that much since then, have never wished to revisit it, and wasn’t going to bother with Mad Max: Fury Road either until the overwhelmingly positive reviews started to appear a few days ago. I’d had it with Max Rockatansky, although it’s not hard to see why the series is cherished today by so many, particularly down under: the character is one of those charismatic, exaggerated, iconic individuals that encapsulates a certain aspect of the national psyche or a certain segment of society, at least in the eyes of the rest of the world, and the creation by Miller, original co-writer Byron Kennedy and Gibson certainly merited those three films. (An aside, but I feel the same way about James Bond: a character who is recognisably English to the rest of the world, who seems faintly ridiculous and anachronistic to me as an example of a modern English man, yet he remains a bizarre summation of many typical upper class white male English character traits: repressed, barely able to conceal his sense of entitlement, unwilling to open up and discuss his feelings with others, and unable to disguise his unfortunate superior attitude toward ‘colonials’, the working class or anyone in the position of ‘servant’.)
It’s a surprise, with all that in mind, to see the major roles in this new film occupied by Brits and Yanks, and to find out that much of it was shot in Namibia, though it’s not surprising to discover that both points have been put forward as part of a ‘Is Mad Max Still Australian?’ debate in the right-wing Australian press. Miller is back on board as director, and there are plenty of Australian actors in supporting roles and minor parts. It still feels like an Australian movie, more importantly, and though budgets have changed and special effects have improved there are plenty of links with the original movies; the production design is largely the same as the second two films of the original trilogy, even if some of the rough edges have sadly been dispensed with, and even though it glistens with the polished sheen of the modern blockbuster.
Part re-boot, part sequel, Mad Max: Fury Road takes that thrilling car chase from Mad Max 2 and expands it into a near-two hour action extravaganza, with Tom Hardy taking over from Gibson (in fact you might want to think of this as Locke 2: The Open Road). Hardy spends some of the film – though not all of it – playing second fiddle to Charlize Theron’s tough trucker Imperator Furiosa, a fearsome one-armed rig driver who has liberated half a dozen slave wives from the clutches of tyrannical warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played Toecutter in the original Mad Max). Furiosa and her party are chased across the landscape by the eye-bulgingly angry Joe and his army, are joined eventually by Max, and the group’s travels through different territories results in contact with a number of other hostile tribes to boot.
That’s it in terms of plot: there are other minor unimportant details while the long pursuit is sporadically interrupted by a couple of brief, quieter moments and bookended by scenes set at Joe’s Citadel, but the majority of the film is made up of kinetic, action-packed vehicular mayhem (plus the associated, wholly impressive, stunt acting). If something had been building up inside Miller while he was making animated family fayre like Babe, Happy Feet and their respective sequels he certainly found an outlet for it; I’m struggling to think of any film that relies so heavily on brutal, bone-crunching, ground-shaking action as this one.
And yes, that action is largely enjoyable to watch, even though Fury Road feels flabby at two hours. Vehicles repeatedly smash into each other; Joe’s army of war boys jump from one car to another, clamber along undercarriages and hang desperately on to bonnets; souped-up motorbikes fly through the air; spikes are used to impale; men fight and dangle from swinging metronomes; exploding spears are chucked; a guitar doubles as a flamethrower; some of this happens all at once, and if the velocity of the cars wasn’t enough in itself Miller often speeds up his film to enhance its cartoonish leanings. It’s zany, it’s pretty exciting and I expect that once again my mouth dropped open here and there. Credit must go to the actors (who are game and remain furrowed of brow throughout), the stunt drivers and stuntmen, comic artist Brendan McCarthy (who created the inventive character and vehicle designs) and the director, who presides over all this mayhem.
Even though I hadn’t been expecting anything else – I’d read enough to know what the film consisted of, and the trailer was a dead giveaway anyway – I still have to say that Fury Road is ultimately hampered by its paucity of dialogue and lack of story. There’s simply nothing here to stop this from being a minor blip on the cinematic landscape, a sugar rush snack that staves off hunger for an hour or two, and aside from one or two spectacular set pieces I doubt I’ll remember much of it this time next week. It exists simply to entertain for a couple of hours through its high-octane thrills and therefore most people who like action films, or watching fast cars, will enjoy it. Nothing wrong with that, of course.
As has been discussed many times elsewhere, it is interesting to see the male star take a back seat, literally, to the female co-star, but I think the suggestions that Fury Road is an important celebration or examination of womanhood that are doing the rounds are a little wide of the mark (seriously, watch this and compare). That said, as action films go, there are more feminist leanings here than the norm and yes: we get significant major and minor female characters, and as physically and mentally strong a female leader as I have seen in some time. However, as Dave Crewe succinctly points out in this review, there are certain choices made by the director and his writers that are more consistent with typically male-pleasing action blockbusters: ‘why didn’t Furiosa save Joe’s less conventionally attractive slaves?’ being an excellent case in point.
Still, Charlize Theron is the obvious highlight, and it’s great fun to see the manosphere getting its collective knickers in a twist: tough and strong, rarely needing to be ‘rescued’ and never once showing any desire for the love of a man, Theron’s Furiosa most obviously brings to mind Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, and the fact that I’m having to use a character as old as Max himself for comparison highlights just how rare such personality traits are in cinematic heroines. It’s a shame Furiosa isn’t developed further within this film, and it’s a shame that Max has lost a little charisma too (although you could never accuse Gibson’s Rockatansky of being verbose and the tradition continues), but the character probably needed the re-invention after all this time. Fury Road eventually becomes as monotonous as Junkie XL’s score, and I think it has been a little over-praised, but it’s a fun Saturday night movie nonetheless.
Directed by: George Miller.
Written by: George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, Nico Lathouris.
Starring: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne.
Cinematography: John Seale.
Editing: Margaret Sixel.
Music: Junkie XL.
Running Time: 120 minutes.