Max is back, and apparently still quite angry about things.
It’s been 30 years since the last Mad Max film, and 34 since the last good one, but the legendary Road Warrior has remained alive in the hearts, minds and dashboards of fans and revheads. Lost in development hell for over a quarter of a century, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD has taken the long cut as director/co-writer George Miller explored family friendly fare in the Babe and Happy Feet franchises. Yet the series, like the titular character originated by Mel Gibson, has transcended individuals and conventional notions of cinema, becoming every bit the mythological figure in the real world that his fictional counterpart has.
With all the the self-assured swagger of a series whose last film was not Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD wastes little time in heralding its arrival. Max (now played by Tom Hardy), still overcoming the mental hardships of an off-screen adventure, is captured by the War Boys, minions of King Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) fascist leader of a dystopian community in the middle of the vast apocalyptic Wasteland. Here his story intersects with Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a woman attempting to drive a truck across the desert to deliver the Five Wives out of the captivity of Immortan Joe.
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is pure heavy metal. Miller has talked at length about designing the film in storyboards first, before committing any essential words to paper. 3500 panels later, he and cinematographer John Seale have delivered something on screen that looks like nothing less than a fully realised vision. Every one of the final shots is a slave to detail, conjuring a rich combination of European inspired comic book work found in the pages of Métal Hurlant (aka Heavy Metal) and the abandoned wastelands of the original films. From the introduction of Immortan Joe, a horrific combination of Japanese body horror and Blue Velvet‘s Frank Booth, to the constant driving soundtrack of the Coma-Doof Warrior (iOTA) – literally playing a flaming guitar on the front of a speeding truck – this is one long and meticulously staged car chase across the desert, raising the stakes for all vehicular action in the future. The film is a relentless storm of sound and vision that has few cinematic parallels.
Hardy’s Max is a tortured soul, and despite never quite settling on an accent, takes mere moments to make us forget that he is not the first to inhabit the role. Succumbing to flashbacks to a tragedy we’ve not yet seen on screen, and haunted by the souls of people he’s failed to save, Miller cleverly keeps him restrained for the first half of the film, literally muzzling him, allowing the visuals and the power of his physical presence to lead. It also gives a chance for the film to develop the six strong female characters, especially Furiosa, who is every bit as relentless as Max. If this had not been a Mad Max film, she would have been the lead, and indeed the original vision for the shooting would have seen her follow through to an immediate sequel shot back-to-back with this one. Miller’s feminist subtext is strong in this film, along with musings on the “One-Percenters”, but none of it is didactic or overbearing. It simply exists in this world, and Miller leaves the issues laying flat out in the desert, where their essential truths are impossible to escape.
Which is ultimately why MAD MAX: FURY ROAD soars over its contemporaries, in that Miller is fully aware of every aspect of this world. It was fully realised before it even came to the screen, and the world-building doesn’t require lengthy exposition. It’s a film that simultaneously pays homage to the original films while sitting comfortably within that series, but also cleanly breaks away and heads in a striking new direction. Indeed, the few set pieces that look less than authentic are within an actual dust storm of CGI, with everything else wholly created for the cameras. Not simply an essential piece of action cinema, but perhaps the benchmark by which the next wave will be measured.
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is released in Australia on May 14, and in the US on May 15.