Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Rating: ****
Review Date: 5/30/15
Director: George Miller
Fight Coordinator: Richard Norton
Cast: Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Zoë Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton, Richard Norton

I was fifteen years old the first time I saw "The Road Warrior" (1981). It was a profound moment for me, not only because it was an astounding post-apocalyptic action film, but because it planted a radical idea in my mind. I remember my adolescent brain thinking "the only thing that would make this movie even better would be if Max was a woman." "Fury Road" is essentially that, although it lacks the narrative structure and thematic strength of the original. In some strange way, "The Road Warrior" is what got me interested in female action cinema and I've never looked back.

It's unclear whether this falls into the established "Mad Max" continuity, or if it's an alternate sequel to the original film. Regardless, it works just fine as a standalone adventure. The story opens with Max (Tom Hardy) being captured by Immortan Joe's (Hugh Keays-Byrne) road raiders and imprisoned as a blood and organ donor for his "war boys." Joe rules the wasteland from his oasis fortress, where starving peasants worship him in exchange for food and water. Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is sent on a routine mission to Gas Town, but she disobeys orders and makes a run for freedom with Joe's harem girls smuggled in her truck. This initiates an extended chase scene that lasts for the duration of the film. Max is strapped to a pursuit vehicle as a "blood bag" for a zealot war boy named Nux (over-the-top Nicholas Hoult), which gives him an opportunity to escape. He eventually frees himself and reluctantly joins Furiosa's flight from persecution. While they don't like each other or trust each other, they share a common goal and a common enemy, which leads to an uneasy alliance. From there on out, it's blood, sand, fire, and fury, highlighted by spectacular stuntwork and outrageous vehicular mayhem.

It's an incredible piece of action cinema, and arguably one of the most dangerous films ever made. It also languished in development hell for nearly fifteen years, and the fact that George Miller managed to get it made in his late 60's is an astonishing feat. Most directors seem to lose their edge in their 40's, but Miller is as hungry as ever. It's a beautifully crafted film, and Miller uses as many practical stunts and effects as possible, which adds a level of realism and danger that hasn't been seen in decades. There were only two shots in the film that offended me due to gratuitous CGI work. Tom Hardy makes a passable Max, but his character has been reduced to a raving animal and lacks the emotional subtlety and tragic intensity of Mel Gibson's portrayal. The real coup is that the film isn't about Max at all, but rather Furiosa's quest for revenge and redemption. Charlize Theron delivers an incredible performance and she completely owns the film. What's even better is that Max doesn't even try to challenge her, and as two alpha characters, they simply keep an eye on each other and wait for a moment of weakness. My only quibble is that I didn't like Furiosa having a prosthetic arm, as it detracted from her character. The supporting female characters are surprisingly strong and presented in a refreshingly positive and no-nonsense manner. This is what female action cinema is all about, and George Miller nails it perfectly. Excellent work.

That said, it's difficult for me to review the film objectively, because it hits so close to my personal sensibilities. I've spent nearly a week mulling it over, trying to distill my thoughts into some sort of coherent and meaningful essay, but I'm afraid I can't. So many elements of the film reflect ideas and situations that I've been exploring in my own personal projects for the last twenty years, that it's like staring into a mirror of what might have been had I followed my dreams. Unfortunately, that also invites some harsh and unfair criticism, as there are numerous parts of the film that I would have handled differently. But that's not Miller's fault - it's merely the biased lens through which I'm viewing his work.

While it may not be the cinematic revolution that many are claiming it to be, it's definitely one of the best action films to come out in the last twenty years. Much like "The Raid" (2011), it's an example of cinematic purity that succeeds through single-minded simplicity and self-consistent logic. Action cinema is a sophisticated dance, where a story is told through movement and perspective. Action, reaction, cause and effect, sound, silence, light, darkness, color, texture, body language, expression. These are the elements that define the characters and the setting, and drive the narrative forward. Dialog is kept to a bare minimum, which requires the characters to communicate through their actions and movements. The silent non-verbal exchanges between Max and Furiosa are priceless, and give their characters more depth and weight than any sort of verbal interaction ever could. Actions do speak louder than words, which makes "Fury Road" a very loud picture. Action fans will undoubtedly be ecstatic over the film, but those who are looking for a more structured and meaningful story will probably be disappointed. And while it doesn't reach the levels of 80's era ultra-violence, squeamish viewers may be turned off by the film's violent tone and grim nature.