That's a decent way to start a review, right? After walking out of tonight's screening of Mad Max: Fury Road, I had so much built up energy inside of me, I literally had to jump around outside of the theater. Quite a few critics have been hailing George Miller's return to his seminal franchise as a "masterpiece". As far as movies that live and die on their action spectacle go, you can consider me one of the converted.
This fourth entry in a series that hasn't seen a new film in 30 years is basically a reboot, though you could also see it as a sequel to Beyond Thunderdome in a sort of James Bond sense. Tom Hardy steps into the role originally inhabited by Mel Gibson, and his version of Max Rockatansky basically picks up where his predecessor left off. The world has continued to devolve into a hellish landscape in a way that would make George Romero jealous, but any newcomer to Miller's post-apocalyptic fever dream will find themselves easily able to grasp the central details: Max is a former cop whose family was murdered, and he now wanders this scorched earth attempting to survive. Max gets caught by the minions of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a sort of steampunk Darth Vader/Papal-figure, who is treated like a savior by his men and farms women for their wombs and breast milk. While Max is imprisoned, Joe's leading lady, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) makes a break for it with his prized concubines, which sets off a chain of events that finds Max, Furiosa, the neurotic yet redeemable Nux (Nicholas Hoult), and a set of kick-ass ladies (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Zoe Kravitz, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, and Courtney Eaton) on a wild chase as they attempt to lose Joe's rolling army in dusty desert.
Allow me to emphasize the word chase, as this activity is what makes up literally 99% of Fury Road's running time. This is a film that is pretty thin on plot, but bustling with sheer momentum, action set-pieces, intricate design work, and the most rocking score I've heard in a film of this type in some time. Through the mostly desert surface, Max and company are pursued by white painted men with explosive muskets, pirates with spiked cars, mercenaries wearing clothes made of bullets, and of course Joe himself. On display is literally every deathrace cliche reinvented for the screen and taken to the next logical extreme. It's a film so high octane, that Miller even speeds up the action in a move reminiscent of the work of Jean-Pierre Jeunet; and it goes to show that Miller, even at 70, is a filmmaker is still willing to learn and adapt to new influences. Mad Max: Fury Road feels like the work of a much younger and hungrier director, and his collaboration with comics giant Brendan McCarthy (who both co-wrote the screenplay and provided much of the design work, and boy does it ever show!) may have done much to reinvigorate Miller post-films like Happy Feet.
However, despite the onslaught of Michael Bay style pyrotechnics, Miller still takes the time to give focus to the character dynamics of this rag-tag bunch that's formed by circumstance. Rather than cardboard cut-outs, each character feels like a fully-fleshed individual via sparse dialogue and taut performances. The script is the definition of "show, don't tell", as exposition is kept to an absolute minimum. Perhaps the biggest and most welcome surprise is that Max isn't even really the star of the show, though Hardy is quite good in the role, as that honor goes to Furiosa. Theron's shaved head, mechanically-armed warrior may very well be the closest thing we've had to a new Ripley, and I think you can easily argue that this is Theron's Aliens. I doubt she'll be up for Oscar consideration, as this is the kind of film that voters almost never go for (Sigourney Weaver's nomination came when the field for actresses was relatively slim), but I would wholeheartedly support a Best Actress campaign in this case. She's that good.
This added focus on Furiosa also underscores an important point; it's one of the most feminist action films in recent memory. Fury Road centers on a group of women taking their own agency and pushing against patriarchal rule. While this franchise has always had an undercurrent of pacifist themes, Miller has laser-focused his message, to a point where one interaction at the midway point of the film ends up stating the obvious: this is what happens when old white men run the world unchecked. That may rankle some feathers in the audience, but this is an action movie that isn't just empty spectacle or aiming for the lowest common denominator. This is a motion picture that's actually about something with a strong point of view, and that's worth standing up and applauding for. It's basically the film equivalent of an album by The Clash dropping in the middle of a sea of bad arena rock.
Mad Max: Fury Road began filming in 2012, and had to undergo reshoots in 2013 (and this of course follows the 25 years of development hell that the film underwent just to get to there). We often take issue with productions that have to undergo that dreaded process, but Mad Max: Fury Road is a diamond of an exception and proves that as an audience, it behooves us to trust in auteur vision, especially in the action arena which so sorely needs it. Much like Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer last year, Miller paves the way for what these films should look like and the level of care that needs to go into them. This effort proves that, sometimes, you really can go home again.