Film franchises or movie series rarely die. They simply go into suspended animation, awaiting a studio’s renewed interest in resurrecting a dormant property for nostalgia-prone fans and new, non-fans eager for anything with a recognizable brand name. That might sound cynical (because it is), but it’s also an indisputable truism of 21st-century commercial filmmaking. Rules, however, tend to have exceptions. Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller’s (Happy Feet I-II, Babe I-II, Lorenzo’s Oil) long-delayed return to the post-apocalyptic series he began in 1979 and — at the time — ended in 1985 thankfully belongs in the exception category. An old-school, self-taught filmmaker (he studied medicine), Miller melds traditional classicism with new-school action pyrotechnics to craft one of the most viscerally exciting, entertaining action films of the last decade.
When we first meet Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy, replacing Mel Gibson), he’s in loner/voiceover mode, dropping broad expository nuggets to clue forgetful fans or soon-to-be fans of the post-apocalyptic state of his world. Resource wars (oil, water, minerals), thermonuclear war (a holdover from Mad Max’s Cold War origins), and personal tragedy (the loss of his wife and daughter, among others he failed to save as the world fell into barbarity). Miller’s loose, improvisatory approach to continuity in the Mad Max universe hasn’t changed. The daughter replaces the unborn son he lost in the first film. Less the stoic, self-contained warrior of Gibson’s interpretation, the “new” Max suffers from the PTSD typical of a war veteran. That PTSD has left Max with a conscious desire to live apart, far from whatever remains of civilization, free of the entanglements and obligations of membership typical of communities, pre- or post-apocalypse.
The Ford Falcon/Interceptor closely associated with Max makes an appearance, but in a typically bold choice by Miller, it doesn’t last long. Before a long-bearded, long-haired Max can finish an impromptu meal, a raiding party attacks him, chasing him through the inhospitable desert that stretches every direction. They easily subdue Max, transporting him to the so-called Citadel, a mountain redoubt ruled by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), autocratic, dictatorial patriarchy personified. Immortan Joe rules through a combination of violence (real or threatened), singular control of food and water, and myth-making rites and rituals that literally elevate him into god-like status. He’s far from a god, of course. Old and covered with cancerous growths, he needs a Bane-like breathing apparatus to live and transparent body armor to stand and walk, but with a virtual army at his disposal, including “War Boys” who cling to him with the ideological zeal of secular or sectarian extremists, no one dares to challenge him until, of course, someone does.
That “someone” isn’t Max. After a failed escape attempt, Max becomes a passive observer or bystander, a “blood bag” for a sickly War Boy, Nux (Nicholas Hoult). He’s literally along for the ride when Nux joins the War Boys in their pursuit of Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), one of Immortan Joe’s trusted lieutenants who turns rogue to save Immortan Joe’s “wives,” Splendid (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), Toast (Zoë Kravitz), Capable (Riley Keough), The Dag (Abbey Lee), Fragile (Courtney Eaton), from continued enslavement. Furiosa drives the plot, making every central decision, essentially taking over the protagonist role until Max joins her crusade their relationship begins in understandable antagonism before turning into grudging cooperation. It’s to Miller’s credit that the shared protagonist role never feels forced or contrived, instead feeling organic and necessary, a function of Furiosa as a well-defined character with agency and autonomy (the latter in process, of course, as Mad Max: Fury Road unfolds at a near relentless pace).
The earlier Mad Max films were defined by Miller’s mastery of action and world building, along with a star-making turn by Gibson. Miller doesn’t have Gibson anymore, but he found a more than suitable replacement in Hardy, a “best of his generation” actor with the depth, range, and physicality necessary for a demanding role like Max. Like Gibson’s Max, Hardy’s iteration is a man of few words. To borrow a phrase, “acting is reacting” and Hardy has already proven himself a master of the reaction shot, of expressing his characters’ often tortured inner lives. Miller cheats by giving Hardy’s Max visions or hallucinations, but that’s a minor quibble considering Miller’s minimalist approach to exposition and Hardy’s completely committed performance. As Furiosa, Theron gives a fierce, uncompromising performance, matching, sometimes even exceeding, Hardy’s raw physicality.
For some, Mad Max: Fury Road may feel familiar, maybe too familiar, at least broadly, especially in comparison to the series’ previous high-water mark, The Road Warrior, albeit with a significantly higher budget and much more complex set pieces (shot over seven months in the Namibian desert). Both share similar story beats and involve similar conflicts (a Hobbesian war of all against all), though Miller has taken the central conflict in Mad Max: Fury Road to the next seemingly logical step: Human cargo (women) has replaced natural resources. Miller draws obvious parallels between Immortan Joe and extremist ideologues found in the contemporary Middle East and elsewhere. It’s no accident that Miller also puts the blame for the future apocalypse on one gender, men, ultimately suggesting that a matriarchal society might be preferable to a patriarchal one (a worthy suggestion too).
Of course, Mad Max: Fury Road wouldn’t be Mad Max without the deliriously demented, gloriously inventive set pieces that defined the earlier entries. Miller’s mastery of action choreography hasn’t diminished with time or age. Miller might have just turned 70, but he could teach contemporary action directors half his age more than a thing or two. Action doesn’t have to be unintelligible or incoherent. It can be fluid, it be comprehensible, and still keep moviegoers wholly and fully enraptured in a particular film (the goal, arguably, director should have). Camera movement and editing can and should serve the simple purpose of further narrative, not obfuscating it (as, again, too many contemporary filmmakers do). The result? A pure, immersive experience that doesn’t need 3D or a heavy dose of CGI that so many modern blockbusters rely on, to their detriment and ours.