There are few stranger curricula vitae in the movie business than the one compiled by the Australian director George Miller. In the late Seventies and Eighties, he was the auteur of the apocalypse, helming the three Mad Max movies that helped make Mel Gibson a star. Then he briefly segued into the adult mainstream, helming The Witches of Eastwick and then Lorenzo’s Oil, before retreating, disillusioned, back Down Under and reemerging as an auteur of children’s cinema — first with the beloved Babe and its critically praised though little-seen sequel, Babe: Pig in the City, and then the two Happy Feet penguin epics, the first of which actually won him an Oscar, in 2007, for best animated film.
I wonder very much how many of the parents relaxing alongside their kids at Happy Feet 2 realized that this was the same filmmaker who had once sent Gibson’s Max Rockatansky careering across a post-catastrophe Outback, chased by mohawked goons on motorbikes, taking down grotesques with such names as Master Blaster and Lord Humungus.
Well, Max is finally back — embodied now by the bulk and grace of Tom Hardy rather than the ill-starred Gibson, but still the reluctant knight errant of the Day After, his steed a black V8 Interceptor and his enemies riding the wildest junkyard war machines you’ve ever seen.
In the new Mad Max installment, which comes equipped with the superfluous subtitle “Fury Road,” those enemies catch him early, dragging him back as a prize to their fortress, where a masked warlord named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) controls the water supply and, with it, his subjects’ lives. Some of those subjects are the desperate crowds around his mountain; some are his “war boys,” white-painted and radiation-riddled, who are promised the chance to “ride forever in Valhalla, shiny and chrome” if they die fighting in Joe’s service; a prized few are his concubines (played by a cluster of starlets and supermodels), kept sealed away in a seraglio in the hopes that one will bear him a healthy, mutation-free heir.
Sealed away, that is, until an act of treason by Joe’s lone female lieutenant, the one-armed Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, shaven-headed and stunning), who frees his women and slips them into a compartment beneath her War Rig — the death’s-head-decorated truck that becomes the beleaguered stagecoach of the movie — before a run to his empire’s “Gas Town” for supplies. That run quickly becomes a run for it, a dash through hostile territory in search of the green and pleasant motherland (literally; it’s a matriarchy) from which Furiosa was abducted as a girl, and where she hopes to find refuge from the legions on her tail.
Among those legions is the captive Max, pressed into service as a “blood bag” for a young war boy named Nux, who straps him to the hood of what was once a vintage Chevy coupe while he roars off after Furiosa. It doesn’t give anything away, I think, to say that eventually Max ends up on Furiosa’s truck and fighting at her side. Beyond that, there isn’t much to give away: The film really is just a pure chase, all action and little embroidery, scored by revving engines that almost never fall silent.
And the chase is one of the more remarkable things recently committed to the screen. The cars alone are extraordinary creations: Some of them are completely rebuilt and fitted out for war and yet still recognizable for what they were (a stretch limo, a Volkswagen Beetle); others, like the vast “Doof Wagon,” on which drummers and an electric-guitar player urge the war boys into battle, are simply fever dreams.
But the action is even more remarkable, and in a very old-fashioned way: a little Chaplin and Keaton, a little Speed, and a lot of stuff that probably required special effects in the editing process but always has at its core something that really happened in front of the camera. That includes, for instance, the war boys on tree-tall poles, “metronomes,” who swing back and forth above the vehicles that carry them to drop grenades onto the vehicles they’re chasing. In a different movie, you’d shrug and say “nice CGI,” but in this one you’re left thinking about what it must have been like for the stunt men.
This compelling physicality is one of the two things that have made the movie mostly irresistible to critics. Here’s Miller, at 70, returning to his action roots and showing all those slick fake weightless superhero movies how it’s really done! The other is that the movie marries its old-fashioned-seeming action to a narrative that can be read as feminist and revolutionary, in which even the titular hero is ultimately there just to help Furiosa turn the tables on the Man. “Who killed the world?” the rescued concubines repeatedly ask of their former master. And the answer might just be what Immortan Joe’s war machine and sex-slave operation recapitulates: the patriarchy.
Whether Mad Max is actually this ideological is still at least a hundred online think pieces away from being settled. I won’t take sides, except to say that it’s an impressive accomplishment for a 70-year-old male director to win social-justice points for a film that drops Victoria’s Secret models into a post-apocalyptic wasteland and introduces them with a scene in which they hose each other down.
But if there is an ideological statement being made here, Miller makes sure it serves the cause of entertainment rather than dragging the entertainment down toward agitprop. Directors often go back to their genre roots disastrously — think George Lucas with Star Wars, Steven Spielberg with Indiana Jones. But Fury Road is proof that it’s possible to return, to reboot, and to find you’ve saved the best for last.