Follow Brendan Hodges at
A metal behemoth rattles and roars through a nihilistic landscape—bleak, empty, and hungry for life—charging forth as a last remaining beacon of hope and redemption. The behemoth isn’t just the War-Tanker central to the plot, it’s also Mad Max: Fury Road itself; and the setting is more than the scorched sands of a doomed Earth, it’s the barren wasteland of 2015 Hollywood. This is the antidote. The cure. Fury Road is shock therapy for the tired cinemagoer who’s seen the 100th CGI battle and nearly fallen asleep. I know you’ve been there. I have too. From the first frame Fury Road is a throttling engine of insane action, filled front to back with death defying stunts 90% of which were done for real. The stunt men that make these crazy sequences possible are athletes or come from Cirque De Soleil, and they leap, flip and fall from racing vehicle to racing vehicle in what looks like some of the most dangerous close-call stunts in the history of movies. Our imaginations are once again filled with the real world dirt, dust and danger that’s been largely missing in movies since Harrison Ford climbed under a speeding truck in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Few films beg to be called an instant classic in just its first weekend of release, but this is one of them. Fury Road is pure movie magic.
Our wizard is visionary writer and director George Miller, back with a spiritual sequel of his beloved post-apolcalyptic game-changers Mad Max, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, casting an arresting spell of powerful social allegory via action movie bliss, executed with some the boldest stylistic choices in decades. The bare-bones plot is more poetically minimalist than weak or hollow, rich with subtext that’s destined to be examined and written about. This largely non-verbal film marries film history to the technologically savvy present, combining the visual literacy of silent film—and the Citadel that opens Fury Road proudly homages Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to clue you in as to what it’s doing—with state of the art tech that opens up Miller to manic editing and stuntwork that’s unprecedented. Buying a ticket to Fury Road is the promise of something you haven’t seen before, a Greatest Show on Earth of electrifying R-rated action that’s forceful without being mean spirited.
Like silent movies, the plot is driven by what characters do rather than by what they say. Carefully constructed images, like one of Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) hanging upside down as blood is siphoned from his weakened body, guide us through the story. Relationships form through lingering glances and subliminal emotion, left to the viewer to infer. We aren’t stupid, and Miller knows it. After a brief opening voiceover recounting the fall of the world, the plot itself, as has been advertised, is one extended and surprisingly varied chase sequence. Suffice it to say Max is captured, leaving Hardy in a metal mask for much of the film. He becomes entangled with one Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a driver of a War-Rig (a kind of militarized semi-truck that carries gas) who, on a gas run, suddenly goes off-route and makes an escape carrying secret cargo: she makes herself a surrogate mother by freeing a group of sex slaves.
The self-appointed tyrannical leader of the local theocracy, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Bynre), who looks like an aging clown from hell outfitted with a breathing apparatus, promises his oppressed and malnourished tribesman water. He urges his citizens not to become addicted, and babbles about reincarnation and going to Walhalla. Upon seeing what Furiosa has done Immortan Joe is enraged, and casts his massive militarized car-army at her—including a driver named Nux (Nicholas Hoult). So the chase begins.
As a filmmaker friend said after her screening, Mad Max: Fury Road is for everyone except maybe those with an existing heart condition. The two hour running time flashes by at such a frenetic, almost numbering pace that Warner Brothers might be liable for injury without a proper warning. I recommend they hand out pamphlets before screenings for safety tips, such as remembering to breathe and listing an emergency contact. After one sequence that’s probably the film’s best, my muscles tingled with a slight pain after being dead frozen for about 10 minutes. I realized my mouth had been open during the scene—my jaw had actually dropped—and my lips began to crust. Suspense is constant, tension is relentless, and even a mid-film exhale meant to give the audience a much needed breather delivers an unexpected emotional suckerpunch. If there’s a serious flaw, it’s that the reach for big emotion sometimes exceeds Road’s grasp, but even those moments hit hard.
Few action movies deliver scene after scene of tantalizing, eye-pleasing, ear pleasuring, heart pounding euphoria. Every sense is aroused—John Seale’s gleefully vibrant palette of piercing blues and deep oranges, composer Junkie XL’s orgy of orchestra and industrial, and the bass rumble from endless barbed war-cars stampeding across the wasteland. Fury Road is a hedonist’s fantasy film.
As a purely action motion picture, Fury Road is a genre-defining moment for the action film. But Miller’s got a lot more on his mind than blowing stuff up. The surface plot serves as vivid and relevant social allegory, pitting matriarchy against patriarchy with a mythic hero thrown into the mix. In some ways but not in others, Max is us—a caged animal, wounded, caught in the middle. If I was in the wasteland, that would surely be me (and probably you too).
Theron’s Furiosa is one of the all time great female characters, a spiritual daughter to the Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley from Alien, and a feminist hero that’s already pissed off men’s rights groups. She kicks ass, and Theron’s fiercely physical performance says it all. She’s the best of the bunch in the film—Hoult is surprisingly great and Hardy is a terrific stand-in for Mel Gibson as Max—but she steals the movie with a shockingly raw turn. That she’s written so strong and played so strong makes an undeniably powerful statement. Cracking open the shackles of a corrupt society is a dominating theme, and every character, including Max, personifies this. Change must come from two places—from within the self, and from within the source of society itself. Sometimes a return to the origin of the problem is required to solve it. These ideas are absolutely massive for an “action-chase” movie to contend with; Fury Road is a masterpiece with a coat of many colors.
Fury Road practices what it preaches. In the same way Furiosa is a liberator of women, Miller is a liberator of modern movies. Mad Max: Fury Road is nothing less than a bold reinvention of cinema language, an elegant dance between hyper-speed motion and kinetic montage editing. In time it may be viewed as the Battleship Potemkin of modern cinema—scenes to be obsessed over, studied and replicated ad infinitum. Miller made two radical choices, first by playing with the movie’s frame rates. Unlike Peter Jackson’s failed attempt at 48fps for The Hobbit, Miller went through Fury Road shot by shot to adjust the speed—50% of the movie is less than the conventional 24 frames per second—it’s jittery, it’s unreal, and honestly, it’s exhilarating. Your eyes can’t move fast enough to catch the visual density from one glorious image to the next, where spiked trucks smash and crack into each other in a hyper-fast slow motion that resembles the movement in silent film.
The second radical choice is the cut-cut-cut editing with shots that rarely last longer than 2 seconds. Instead of following the action clearly, where one motion is continued from one shot to the next, Miller presents a mosaic of disorganized movement in a propulsive fashion, using contrast and rhythm to shoot off proverbial firecrackers at the viewer. Together the two choices discover a profound new way of telling stories in film, where the rhythm of on-screen movement compliments the rhythm of the highly stylized editing—it’s a totally new language, and that this editing to frame rate is just one of Fury Road’s achievements is staggering. What shots follow which, all in super fast succession, now not only depend on where movement began and ended in the proceeding shots, but also the frame rate. The effect is enormous. At 70 years old Miller set out to drastically innovative modern film aesthetics. And in a film that’s a defibrillator for the masses, he’s done it.
Follow Brendan Hodges at