How did this movie get made?
Don’t get me wrong; I’m glad it did. But as the credits rolled, and as the cinematic shock treatment I’d just experienced receded to a residual tingling in my brain, all I could think was, “How did this movie get made?”
“Mad Max: Fury Road” is not based on a tried-and-true comic book property. It doesn’t have a high concept story that was cooked up to appeal to the masses. And it lacks star power. Vin Diesel and The Rock are nowhere to be seen.
But it’s big, ballsy, and expensive. It’s also insanely creative, and creatively insane. It is a vision of the apocalypse given life in fire and blood and metal and splashed across movie screens in defiance of all that is holy in Hollywood. Yes, it’s just a film, but it is one hell of a film.
So, how did it get made? Someone gambled on George Miller.
Miller is the mastermind behind the “Mad Max” series, which include “Mad Max” (1979), “The Road Warrior,” (1981), and “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” (1985). For the uninitiated, the films are set in a time after civilization has circled the drain and gurgled down the pipe, and all that remains are ragtag bands of warriors scraping a meager existence off dusty terrain. Max, whose wife and child were killed by a gang of bikers in the first film, wanders this landscape alone, haunted by the loved ones he couldn’t save.
A few things have changed in the 30 years since “Thunderdome.” Digital effects have replaced many of the practical effects and real world stunts once seen in movies, and Mel Gibson, who personified Max so well, aged out of the role. But Miller, who spent the intervening decades making other good movies, clung to his dream of directing more “Mad Max” films. Thank God someone gave him a shot. “Fury Road” is smart, thrilling, and above all, FUN.
The story: A warlord named Immorta Joe rules an oasis of water and plant life in the desert. He counts among his possessions four women who serve as breeders. The children these women have become his servants. One of his soldiers, a one-armed woman named Furiosa (I love the names in this movie) dreams of her former home, a patch of greenery just beyond the border of the desert. She somehow sneaks the breeders aboard her 18-wheeler and goes AWOL during a fuel run. Immorta Joe grabs his goons and gives chase.
Where’s Max? He’s captured in the opening moments of the movie by Immorta Joe’s servants, known as warboys, and employed as a blood bag. (Warboys need frequent blood infusions to stay alive.) When the warboys leave the oasis, Max is tied to the front of a vehicle driven by a warboy named Nux and hooked up to the driver to keep him supplied. When Max escapes, he reluctantly agrees to help Furiosa reach what she calls “the Green Place.”
The driving force behind this thin narrative is the search for redemption in the absence of hope. Furiosa, who’s done doing the bidding of Immorta Joe, wants to save the breeders; Max is out to redeem himself for being unable to save his family; and Nux wants to “die historic on Fury Road” and ride gloriously through the gates of Valhalla. (Immorta Joe keeps his warboys in line by feeding them a false religion that promises them eternal life if they die valiantly in his service.)
But one of the many remarkable things about “Fury Road” is the lack of exposition. Miller doesn’t explain the plot; he reveals it through the actions of his characters. Even better, the characters reveal themselves through these same actions, all of which have a purpose that furthers the story. Say what you will about the razor thin plot “Fury Road,” it’s brilliant in its conciseness and in the way it conveys the narrative.
If you’ve heard anyone talking about “Fury Road,” though, they were likely raving about the action, which takes up about 80 percent of the movie. There’s a big chase in the beginning, a doozy at the end, and several smaller skirmishes throughout the middle. And therein lies the true miracle of “Fury Road.” Rather than relying wholly on digital effects, Miller had his team tear down countless vehicles and use the parts to build dozens of bizarre hybrids that could only have been given birth in the fevered imagination of a madman. Chrome engines grow like mold out of twisted chassis; smaller pursuit vehicles are covered in spikes like giant, rust-riddled porcupines with wheels; and the empty hulls of pick-up trucks sit where the cabin of an 18-wheeler should be. Somehow, these vehicles actually existed, and they worked.
Miller then sent these vehicles racing through the desert, convinced his actors to perform stunts that appear to defy good judgment, and stuck his cameras smack dab in the middle of the mayhem. The result are scenes of intense, dust-streaked brutality, sequences of breathtaking choreography, and moments of wild ingenuity. In one shot, Max clings to a pole that swings high above the vehicle to which it’s tied while a fuel tanker behind him explodes, blooming across the desert surface and swallowing up several smaller vehicles.
Miller’s use of real actors, vehicles, stunts, and explosions gives the action a weight, a presence, and an authenticity missing from computer-animated blockbusters like “The Avengers: Age of Ultron.”
But “Fury Road” is more than a slender story laid over jaw-dropping action; it’s also a work of unfettered imagination. Picture this: An electric guitarist strapped to a wall of speakers spits fire from the end of his instrument and shreds ear-splitting chords as a call to battle. A shoe measure serves as a gas pedal. And a warboy madly sprays liquid chrome on his teeth and shouts, “I live, I die, I live again!” before sacrificing himself in battle. These are just a few of the touches that give life to the world of Mad Max, and make “Fury Road” a fiercely original and entertaining film.
Best of all, Miller captures all of this with wide shots, following dozens of vehicles across the open desert as they stir up dust, allowing viewers to look where they want. He employs the same approach in the character centric scenes, smartly placing Furiosa front and center in one shot as several people around her debate their next move. My eyes darted from person to person, but kept returning to Furiosa, whose facial expressions said as much as the dialogue the other characters exchanged. Action moviemaking like this is becoming a lost art in the world of “Taken” sequels, where directors shoot actors up close because they can’t block a decent scene, and shake their camera at the action because they don’t know how to choreograph a decent fight or car chase.
Lastly, I want to mention the performances. Tom Hardy does good work as Max, although his take on the character was more reserved than Gibson’s. But to his credit, I saw him in the role, not Gibson not in the role. The real star of the movie, though, is Charlize Theron, whose performance as Furiosa has made me a fan for life. Somehow, in a movie packed with visual braggadocio, she takes command of each scene in which she appears (which is most of them) and propels the movie forward. That Miller was able to secure the services of two A-list actors for this film was a small miracle unto itself.
People will have different opinions about “Mad Max,” but for my money, it tops every action movie I’ve seen. I don’t think I’ll be able to watch another computer animation-heavy film again without thinking about how a 70-year-old George Miller took his cameras, actors, and vehicles into a desert and gave life to his dreams. THIS is how you make a MOVIE.
Four stars out of four. Rated R for intense sequences of violence and disturbing images.
David Laprad is the assistant editor of the Hamilton County Herald and an award-winning columnist and photographer. He’s seen “Fury Road” three times, and plans on seeing it a few more while it’s in theaters. Contact him at email@example.com.