It’s strange to see Mad Max returning to the big screen at the same time that his descendents are claiming absolute box office supremacy. Stranger still to see him prove once again who still runs Bartertown. The Furious movies were supposed to be his heir apparent, lending a cartoonish sheen to vehicular mayhem that picks up the slack left behind thirty years ago in Thunderdome. For the most part, they’ve acquitted themselves with honor, but the enormous success of Part 7 has highlighted some presumptuous speculation about the real king of the hill. “Were the Max Max movies ever this inventive?” some whispered. “Did they push the boundaries the way the Furious movies do? Seriously, they didn’t even have CGI! How can you dump a suped up Mustang out of a cargo plane without it?”
One can imagine Mad Max’s creator and spiritual guru George Miller listening to such talk, and responding with perfect, indisputable elegance. “I’m yesterday’s news, am I? Step aside kids. Let the old man show you how it’s done.”
Enter Fury Road, sporting a new Max in Tom Hardy and a willingness to play Hollywood’s game of regurgitating old titles rather than coming up with anything new. But Miller’s warped genius won’t fit into such neat dismissal, and while he resolutely sticks to the formula that made the original trilogy such a classic, it’s clear that he’s not bound by nostalgia alone.
This is cinema as pure sensory stimulation: a bolt of lightning launched by an established master at the top of his game and blowing us clear through the back wall of the theater. This is a nuclear detonation in the fundaments of our forebrain: adrenaline mined straight from the source and delivered with the power of an enraged pagan god. In short, this is exactly, precisely what a Mad Max film should be, and if you thought time had dulled those singular pleasures, strap yourselves in: the refresher course is going to knock you flat.
Fans have speculated on how Fury Road fits into the larger canon. Is it a sequel? A prequel? A reboot? But if you follow the logic of the first three films, those questions frankly become irrelevant. Miller seems to reboot the franchise with every new film, painting a basic arc but never worrying about the specifics. From the society in decay of the first movie, we move to the nuclear wasteland of the second, and the start of something new in the third. Fury Road lands somewhere in the middle of all that, unsure of its exact placement and frankly not giving a crap. Max starts out in his V8 Interceptor as decorum demands, but whether it’s his original or if he’s just found a new one, even he may not know. It matters for all of thirty seconds before he’s captured by minions of the warlord du jour, Immortan Joe (Hugh “Toecutter” Keays-Byrne) and turned into an unwilling blood donor in his fortress of doom. Lucky for him, there’s rebellion a brewin’, as Joe’s fiercest warrior Furiosa (Charlize Theron) absconds with his five enslaved concubines and makes a break for their freedom.
That’s the set up, delivered with due efficiency and quickly giving way to the real purpose of the exercise: ninety minutes of high-speed insanity. The heroes have a tricked-out update of the 18-wheeler from The Road Warrior, while Joe’s endless hordes drive funny cars designed by a steampunk enthusiast with a penchant for licking toads. And if you think Miller can’t pull rabbit after rabbit out of his hat based on such a simple equation, you haven’t been paying attention. Every new sequence takes us in directions we never thought possible. You like fistfights? How about a three-way brawl between eight combatants, two guns and allegiances that shift depending on who’s pointing which lethal object at who. What about car chases? We’ve got one Frankenstienian monstrosity that sports a buzz saw on the end of steam shovel crane, and another one topped by an apocalyptic muse playing a double-guitar flamethrower. Fury Road takes no prisoners in its concepts, and every time we think we’ve figured out where it’s going, it comes back at us in ways no could possibly predict.
While a certain amount of CGI is in evidence (mostly during a post-apocalyptic sandstorm that engulfs the vehicles at the end of the first act), the majority arrives the old fashioned way: hard-core stuntmen driving really, really fast and pushing the limits of what you’re supposed to be able to put on screen. They might assure us that no one died during filming, but your eyes tell a different story as crash after chassis-shredding crash pounds the bodies onscreen into jelly.
And for all its simplicity – for all the ways it exists as unparalleled stimulus response – Miller manages to sneak a quietly stunning subtext underneath it all. Furiosa and her charges rage against their status as male property: broodmares existing at the whim of a patriarchal control freak and treated as little more than cattle. They need no chosen champion in their battle for dignity, and while Max eventually backs their play – as he always does – it’s clear that these sisters are fully prepared to do it for themselves. The move sparked an uproar among the internet’s more misogynistic denizens, and their shrieks of insecure rage should provide all the reason you need to pony up the price of a ticket.
Miller adds a few more digs to contemporary issues (Joe runs his kingdom by controlling water, in a policy of brutality that the CEO of Nestle might envy) all woven into the sparse plot with a grace that belies the thundering lunatic asylum surrounding it. Fury Road also retains the mythic elements of previous Mad Max movies, with pieces of John Ford, Sergio Leone and Akira Kurosawa woven in to its DNA. Dozens of filmmakers have borrowed from similar sources, of course, but it’s easy to forget how beautiful – and powerful – they become in Miller’s hands.
That leaves Fury Road meeting the highest expectations of a fan base who demand nothing less than perfection from this franchise. Miller waited until he was good and ready before returning to Max, and he’s clearly lost none of his potency in the ensuing decades. This is far more than a nostalgic throwback: this is nothing less than a full-bore resurrection, bringing a classic series into the 21st century without losing so much as a single drop of gasoline. So many other filmmakers have tried the trick in recent years and none of them – not one – can pull it off like this one does. Thirty years later, and the bar has been raised again… by the same crazy old man who once leaned on the gas pedal and waited to see what happened.