As a child of the late 70s I grew up with the original Mad Max films. They were repeated so much on the late-night telly I shouldn’t have been watching that they formed a constant background noise to my childhood almost as much as the Police Academy movies or the Rocky movies. All films I didn’t particularly enjoy, they were just always on. Mad Max at the time I found particularly weird and depressing. Perhaps it was Mel Gibson’s gruff near-muteness, the alien terrain, the jarringly whacky performances or the grotesque body-horror, either way it was enough to put me off ever watching them again as an adult. A prejudice suitably bolstered through the general ickiness now felt about revisiting anything starring Mel Gibson.
Thankfully there’s a brand new Mad Max film out now, shorn of all its Ozploitation trappings and anti-semitic lead, and although I have now rewatched the original trilogy for ‘journalistic purposes’ I needn’t have bothered. Not only does Mad Max: Fury Road make only the vaguest allusions to earlier adventures, this hyper-violent, motor-fetishist’s oily wet dream kicks the face off them all.
“Mad” Max Rockatansky (here played by the gruff near-mute Tom Hardy) begins his fourth adventure as a ‘blood-bag’, strapped to the front of a car like a human cow-catcher, forcibly transfusing his blood to the sickly ‘War Boy’ Nux (played with a distressing naivety by the courageous Nicholas Hoult) as he pursues a stolen rig across the desert, while spears, porcupine-armoured cars and sawn-off shotguns explode all around him.
Never has the human body felt more vulnerable in a big budget movie then when exposed to so much shrapnel, a tsunami-sized sandstorm and the countless flailing bodies of devotionally sacrificed War Boys. As a viewer you’re as helpless as Max, feeling the compulsion to duck whenever a flaming tyre comes too close, or a rotary blade threatens to violate your soft, vulnerable skin. There’s nothing you can do but sit there with your breath held and a mini Pringle pot crushed in your hand, while reminding yourself you’re not actually the one strapped to the front of the car. It’s no easy task, as the pace is viciously unabated.
Taking one or two cues from Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Wages of Fear, the plot drives in a compulsively straight line but is ready to jack-knife into oblivion at any given moment. In a post-apocalyptic dustbowl, King Immortan Joe (a sort of geriatric Bane who is addicted to breast milk) resides over a Metropolis style class system, crushing the water-starved, tumour-riddled underclasses beneath him. Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa betrays the king by stealing a gigantic, reinforced rig bound for the oil fields and instead uses it to smuggle Immortan Joe’s five wives out of the city and away from harm. Furiosa and the wives are relentlessly pursued and attacked from all sides by Immortan’s War Boys and sundry other horsemen of the apocalypse. Non-stop brutal carnage ensues for two noisy hours of mayhem and it’s fucking excellent.
This world is one of fire, blood and rust. And dirt, so much dirt. All different kinds of dirt too. Sand, mud, sludge, grit… it gets in everywhere. Dirt mixes with blood, blood mixes with oil, bloodied War Boys spit oil into car engines to make them go faster, blood is drained from one person to another to make them stronger, sand is inhaled until lungs collapse. Every single man-made thing in this world is one spark away from exploding, creating a constant level of threat that never lets up.
Intriguingly, and most pleasingly of all, Mad Max: Fury Road is in fact Furiosa’s film. Theron’s broken hero is the character who drives the plot, she commands most of the action and has the most at stake. Theron’s performance is one of unrestrained badassery, but with multiple layers of compassion and vulnerability. The scene where she finally falls down to her knees in despair as the breeze carries the sand beneath her is one of utter devastation and beauty.
Max himself is just along for the ride, a “reliable” presence, who goes from dangerous stowaway to trusted ally, and whose major contribution to the battle in the first two-thirds of the movie occurs off-screen. It’s a brave gambit and it makes Fury Road all the more distinct from its action movie contemporaries and its helpless, token female characters.
Furiosa isn’t the only one who gets to wield a bolt-cutter like a medieval mace though, the heavily pregnant Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) bravely defends the moving rig and its inhabitants while under heavy fire and a team of older ladies are the movie’s third-act allies, equally as resourceful as Max and Furiosa but embodying a more macabre glee. Melissa Jaffer’s Keeper of the Seeds explains how she “snaps” her victims right in the medulla as they approach their land.
The fact that Fury Road manages so much complexity and character development with such little dialogue is a testament not only to the wild-eyed performances but also to George Miller’s extraordinary direction. Miller last directed a Mad Max film 30 years ago, and has since gone on to make two Happy Feets and a couple of talking pig movies. At the age of 70, and with that bizarre pedigree behind him, the fact that Miller has directed one of the most inventive, snarling works of cinema in recent memory is nothing short of miraculous.
Every jaw-dropping vista and white-knuckle stunt has the cinematography it rightfully deserves. Nothing is shied away from or made indistinct in the edit, screaming faces and shattered chassises are thrown at the camera with wilful abandon. The imagination that went into the creation of Fury Road is astounding, and there’s far too much here to cover in one review. Just know that, as befitting a film that features a guitarist chained to a high-riser with a fire-spunking guitar as part of the enemy fleet, this is the most heavy fucking metal film ever made. 5/5