Scott F. Evans
George Miller just broke Summer 2015.
Let me reiterate that with some added perspective.
70-year-old George Miller just broke Summer 2015 with his first action film in thirty years. Now let that marinate before continuing.
With Mad Max: Fury Road, a senior citizen in the twilight of his career and his life, has made arguably the best action film in twenty years. And no, I’m not being hyperbolic. John Wick? Nope. Any of the superhero films? Uh-Uh. The Fast and Furious franchise? Please. 2011’s The Raid comes close but Fury Road edges it out. Yes, it’s that good.
The fact that Miller comes out this strong after not making a film of this type since the last Mad Max picture way back in 1985, is itself a major accomplishment. This feat puts him head and shoulders above his peers. He’s had an odd career that spans back to 1979 with the original Mad Max. He followed that in 1981 with the sequel The Road Warrior, a seminal action classic that influenced filmmakers for decades. His filmography takes an odd turn after that with the disappointing third entry, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome where we came to know a kinder, gentler George Miller. The neutered PG-13 film effectively killed the franchise (or so we thought). Miller goes on to direct such disparate work as The Witches of Eastwick, Lorenzo’s Oil and the Happy Feet series. Fans lit a candle to mourn the passing of a great talent. Or so we thought.
Mad Max: Fury Road feels like a course correction, an apology for the maudlin work he’s done over the past two decades. This is a return to a form created and perfected with his first two films.
Mad Max (and even more specifically The Road Warrior) almost single-handedly defined what a post-apocalyptic film should be. Hardcore, brutal, fetishistic, beautifully grotesque and oddly fun, these two films sparked an entire genre in the mid to late 80’s. Any knockoffs were cheap and schlocky, uniformly terrible and have been all but forgotten.
Well kids, the king is back and it’s like he never left. Like the previous Max films, Fury Road’s story (written by Miller, Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris) is insanely simple. No complicated twists or heavy handed themes. Just a plain A-Z plot. Simple, yet beautifully told using visuals and minimal dialogue. You can watch Fury Road with the dialogue muted and easily follow along. And despite the sparse wordplay, Miller still gets strong performances out of his entire cast.
Tom Hardy steps in as Max Rockatansky, replacing Mel Gibson from the original trilogy. Although Gibson originated the role, he’s not missed here at all. Miller wisely recast his lead. Hardy gives another strong performance, and creates his own character instead of imitating Gibson’s version. It’s still Max, but Hardy is more grounded than Gibson. His Max feels older, tired and even more laconic than before. This is primarily a physical role, and Hardy handles it proficiently.
Max may be the titular character but this story is about Imperator Furiosa, played skillfully by Charlize Theron. Sporting a buzzed haircut, greasy eye makeup and mechanical arm, Theron cements her place in the Badass Female Hall of Fame. Furiosa is tough and capable without sacrificing her femininity. Like Max, this is also a physical role, and she is just as proficient as Hardy. But Fury Road has a strong pro-feminist slant that gives Furiosa some additional levels for Theron to play. Forget about Black Widow or Sarah Connor in the upcoming Terminator sequel. This season belongs to Furiosa.
Rounding out the cast is Nicholas Hoult as Nux and Hugh Keyes-Byrne as the villainous Immortan Joe. Nux, a deranged fanatic, is easily the third lead and Hoult is excellent in a truly bizarre role. He’s over the top, but Hoult reels him in just before he turns into a cartoon character. Keyes-Byrne’s Joe is the stuff of nightmares. He’s grotesque and insane. The character is masked the entire film and it’s occasionally difficult to understand what he’s saying. But he communicates through his eyes and we’re able to follow his every motivation.
The other star of Mad Max: Fury Road is the stunt team. Crewed by precision drivers, Olympic athletes and Cirque de Soleil acrobats, they pull off some truly amazing work. There are definitely some computer generated shots, but most of the action is practical. It’s also perfectly shot and edited. Old school style, you can see everything that’s going on and there’s a clear sense of geography. The production design is equal parts grotesque and beautiful. Cinematographer John Seale brings everything together with a colorful contrast that defies the grittiness of the subject matter. This movie cost $150 million to make, and every single penny is up there on the big screen in glorious detail. The movie is, in a word, breathtaking.