The best delayed sequel ever made.
Well, I wasn’t expecting this. I mean, not just a satisfying comeback but an absolutely stunning one – Mad Max: Fury Road might very well be the best delayed sequel ever made. Okay, that’s faint praise given how long-awaited follow-ups turn out, but even on its own terms this one hell of a ride. This one took ages to make, and in the meantime former lead Mel Gibson parted ways with the project, but the results are quite breathtaking. No other veteran director in the action genre has proved their worth this long in their career. I mean, MMFR isn’t just a case of a director acquitting himself respectably and this definitely isn’t just a ‘phew, thank god it’s not crap’ sequel. No, George Miller is pretty much leading the field with this one – there are regular moments of jaw-dropping visual flair, gripping excitement and downright mental excess. I wonder how it will work on a smaller screen – I fear not as well, but we’ll see further down the line.
The plot? Max is still doing his wandering through the wasteland thing until he gets captured by the disciples of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a crazy overlord who keeps his women on tap (either for milk or motherhood, the latter in the form of his bevy of ‘wives’) and shows his mercy towards the little people by unleashing an all-too brief downpour of precious water in their direction. I must add that Joe wears a mask that appears to feature horse teeth. Max is hooked up to one of Joe’s crazy and anaemic War Boys (Nicholas Hoult, as cracked as his sore looking lips) so that he can involuntarily donate blood. However, Joe’s rule is compromised when the brilliantly named Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), one of Joe’s drivers, deviates from her regular gasoline collection and heads for freedom with Joe’s wives, towards the mysterious Green Place…
After that, it’s purely a pursuit, and this is the pursuit to end all pursuits. Joe’s legion of mobile warriors take to the road, and Max is hoisted up to the front of one of these vehicles like a bumper (a sicko practice first established in Mad Max 2). Naturally, he manages to escape, and joins Furiosa on her dangerous mission, through sandstorms and valleys, all the while under attack by the enemy, an enemy which, I must add, is so flamboyant, that it even has its own flame-throwing guitarist on hand to provide death-metal theme tunes to accompany the action. There’s a quarter of drummers too. Now the action is stunning. Really, seriously, stunning. Miller throws everything at us but keeps it all in control – he’s a total master, and it’s so wonderful that he hasn’t lost it after all these years. If anything, he’s got better! I only saw this in 2D (god knows what a 3D screening would be like, I think my eyeballs would have bulged out like the bad guys in the first film) and that seemed more than enough to appreciate the sheer mad vision Miller has delivered. Editing, pacing, effects, stuntwork… it all smashes together in some kind of orgiastic bliss. The lack of dependence on computer effects means that it all feels utterly real, and the destruction derby that makes up for a major part of the film is truly exhilarating. Some critics have complained of action fatigue but personally I didn’t feel anything like that – if anything, I wanted even more! Visually the film is so retina-scorchingly beautiful that it pretty much revitalises that tired old post-apocalyptic mise-en-scene within seconds, while the night-time scenes have a gorgeously sensual prettiness to them. This is definitely one of the best looking blockbusters in years.
So action is the main thing here, but it’s not the only thing. The energy is so cranked that I can forgive the lack of plot, but what about characters? Well, these aren’t exactly deeply observed protagonists, but what we’re about here are people thrown into a relentless situation with no time to slow down (except for the bit when their vehicle does, er… slow down) and the pleasure comes from their response to this action. Understandably, a lot of the responses are in the form of taking further action, which usually means driving faster and/or kicking the shit out of bad guys. Yet, despite the lack of cerebal exercise, I wouldn’t call MMFR a stupid film, no, not at all. There’s not really any time for the film to be stupid, it’s all about getting out and driving faster. Still, the characters are vividly effective.
Some have been disappointed that Max is sharing centre-stage with….a woman! Oh, I’m sorry, was that meant to be a bad thing? The thing is, Max, despite being the title character, was never really the sole focus of the last two films. He was a stray element in a bigger world of chaos, and there was always other characters that drove the action just as importantly. Remember Mad Max 2? That tanker he was driving didn’t even have any bleedin’ gasoline in it! This is why his equal status with Theron shouldn’t come across as that shocking, especially regardless of gender. I suppose given that this is Hardy’s first turn in the role, a more prominent role might have given the actor more room to shine and prove himself a more immediately worthy replacement. Don’t get me wrong, he acquits himself very well as Max – clearly he’s got a tough job trying to match up to three films worth of Mel Gibson. He’s as great a replacement as we could hope for, and for the first time in the series, Max does come across as genuinely mad. Ultimately, Max is one of the more complementary action heroes in cinema, and Fury Road is a film of commendable equal opportunities action. Actually, scratch that – the women in this film come off particularly well. Even that oft-dismissed fact of life, the elderly woman, is given something to do, and it’s a shame that even in this day and age that a film like this should prove to be one of the rare exceptions, but outside of Young Adult adaptations like The Hunger Games and Divergent, it’s the truth. As for Charlize Theron, she delivers and then some – not a cartoonish depiction of a kick-arse female action hero, just a tough, down-the-line, human hero. She’s great.It’s also great to see Hugh Keays-Byrne back – he was The Toecutter in the first Mad Max (his eyeballs from that film make a subliminal cameo during one of Max’s freak-outs!) and as Immortan Joe he proves insanely visceral. We never see his face underneath his horse-toothed mask, except for one bit and you’ll know it when it comes. Nicholas Hoult is a total live-wire as the War Boy Nux – seeing him driving ecstatically towards certain death (and a one way ticket to Valhalla) whilst exclaming ‘what a lovely day!!!’ is just one example of the film’s insane charge. The characters of the wives – beautiful and radiant they are too– have led to criticisms of double standards. How can a film this pro-female resort to featuring a group of characters who look like supermodels? Well, their great looks are the precise point – they were being kept as incubators for Joe’s offspring, and he clearly wanted the women he found the most attractive. Yes, it might strike a jarring note, but we’re not getting any Michael Bay-type ogling of the female body here, except for one clever bit where former Bay star Rosie Huntington-Whitely gets a slinky introduction that’s subverted by that conscpicious pregnant belly of hers.
The film is such a rush that any flaws were not that obvious to me. Maybe I’ll see them next time round, but in the meantime the only bad things the late Brian May’s tremendous music is missed, but Junkie XL’s music gets the job done nicely. Also, that Bruce Spence cameo I hoped for never happened. Nevertheless, this is something very special, and the highest compliment I can pay it is that it deserves to be recognised as the Mad Max 2 of the 21st century.