It is a rare movie that muzzles its hero for the first half hour, but the apparent signature of writer-director George Miller, helming his fourth Mad Max film exactly 30 years after Beyond Thunderdome, is to do as he pleases, and the consequences be damned.
And nearly every time Fury Road goes off in an unexpected direction – which is often, though not at every possible fork in the road – its idiosyncratic but utterly assured vision makes for a refreshing change of pace.
This is a somewhat different Max Rockatansky from Mel Gibson’s, and not only is he more taciturn (even out of the muzzle), but much less personable. Tom Hardy as Max is less like a one-time family man than a denizen of Sin City (though that is the work of an altogether different ‘Miller’ esteemed for dystopic storytelling filled with perversity and violence), and one of the very first things he says – mercifully, in voiceover – is that “as the world fell, each of us in our own way was broken.”
Mad Max: Fury Road
Directed by George Miller.
If it’s an inauspicious beginning – following a newsreel introduction cribbed from the series’ second instalment, Max eats a lizard and is then unceremoniously captured in the span of a minute or two – it very efficiently catapults the audience into the real story.
Captive Max arrives in the citadel of water-hoarding warlord Immortan Joe (a straightforwardly evil antagonist played by none other than Hugh Keays-Byrne, the mercurial ‘Toecutter’ from 1979’s Mad Max) just as Joe’s lieutenant Furiosa (Charlize Theron) departs at the head of a war party.
Then Joe discovers Furiosa has liberated his five enslaved wives, one of whom is pregnant, and the crazed fever dream of a chase that follows takes up nearly the entire film.
Joe’s waifish wives – played by fashion models Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Zoë Kravitz, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee Kershaw, and Courtney Eaton – are no damsels in distress; they are imbued with agency of their own to counterbalance the inevitable baring of bodies and breasts.
But as Miller smartly subverts the outmoded stereotype by disentangling innocence from passive helplessness, Mad Max: Fury Road ends up dangerously close to an outright battle of the sexes, the exception being its eponymous hero.
And just as the title is half Mad Max and half Fury Road, the film itself belongs half to Max and half to Furiosa. Charlize Theron is grim determination incarnate as a shaven-headed, one-armed mercenary, bringing the essence of Ellen Ripley to a new generation. (That her bionic arm seems out of place in this barely-functioning wasteland is another of those things Miller gets away with by not trying to obscure inconsistency with overexplaining.)
Likewise, Hardy dives headlong into his own role, as unhesitating and gruff as the script itself, and the way this narrative death-car jolts from zero to 100, there is no time for second-guessing.
But Fury Road’s secret weapon is Nicholas Hoult as Nux, a bald, war-painted sycophant to Immortan Joe, whose overt expendability has been explained to him as martyrdom, with the promise of glory awaiting him in the afterlife. If this lends Joe’s minions a timely aspect of terrorist suicide bombers, it also serves, ultimately, to illustrate that almost no-one is beyond redemption.
Meanwhile, if The Road Warrior’s Lord Humungus had a large following, Immortan Joe’s is positively enormous, and the pursuing armada that assembles in Furiosa’s wake features not only the heavily modified vehicles, leather S&M get-ups, measureless firepower and pole-vaulting assailants of previous Mad Max antagonists, but also mobile war drummers and a frenzied guitarist attached like a living puppet to a truck composed almost entirely of guitar amps.
Accordingly, the boisterous soundtrack by Tom Holkenborg (known to electronica fans as Junkie XL) is a new superpower in the sonic arms race of modern action scoring, an apotheosis of the thundering synthesizers that have dominated the field ever since Inception.
Aside from the thumping background music – which aggressively undermines the meaning of the word “background” – what gives Fury Road real impact is the kind of astonishing stunt work that is as rare in the digital era as it was unavoidable in the days of William A. Wellman’s Wings. Computer-generated effects and backdrops still make their presence felt, but to accentuate the action rather than conjure it out of nothing.
Fury Road is as bare-bones as any of its predecessors, and its narrative is the leanest of all, but at two hours it is actually Max’s longest adventure yet. It doesn’t feel like it – as the old saying goes, time flies when you’re the involuntary blood donor and hood ornament to a chrome-huffing kamikaze – but the experience might have benefitted from even more paring down.
Love it or hate it, the V8 Interceptor has returned, and prospects are good that it will come again, likely with Furiosa still on board.