Not too long ago, I saw Mad Max: Fury Road for the first time. I hadn’t been interested in seeing it, largely because I hadn’t seen any of the previous Mad Max films, and also because I roped it into the franchise revitalization saga wave (aka sequels, prequels, and reboots). While this isn’t completely false, it does ignore the possibility that good films can emerge from it, something proven false multiple times before, such as with Star Trek (2009), Casino Royale (2006), and simultaneously proven true so many other times. However, when a few friends offered to screen Fury Road for a few of us, I was intrigued enough to see it; that coupled with the fact that my friends are fantastic cooks and I had a spare bottle of wine for the occasion, made it a good night. The film blew me away.
The reason that Mad Max: Fury Road is so great is rooted in the fact that, unlike so many other action films, it does not pretend to be anything other than what it is, and I view that as being fundamental to any film succeeding beyond its genre (i.e. you can sell it to non-fans of the genre). The film does not delve too deeply into the psychology of the characters; Max, played exceedingly well by Tom Hardy, is depicted more through his actions than his words, as best evidenced by the fact that he has fifteen lines in the whole film; the other characters manage to be better than clichés, not because we hear them talk about their lives, but because they express it every other way they can; the bad guys are just evil, and we see they’re evil without them having to tell us. Furthermore, the film does not have a complex, difficult to follow plot; it is literally one long, giant, elaborate but not too complex chase sequence. However, unlike Black Hawk Down, which is also one giant action sequence, Fury Road makes sure you know which characters are which, what they stand for, and does this quickly and simply. It does not try to be anything more than what it is, whilst not being cheap in the process; the emotions are real, unforced, and deserved; the characters are real; and the euphoria of the ending is a great moment.
A lot of people, usually idiotic men, accused the film of being feminist propaganda, which isn’t fair to the film; the female characters are stronger than most, yes, but just like in any post-apocalyptic film, they are fighting for survival like everyone else, and what the aforementioned idiotic fail to see, or realize, or just chose to ignore, is that they are running away from a woman-beater who treats them like crap in the name of prolonging the human race. (Seriously, it sounds like they’re rooting for the woman beater, instead of the women he abused.) I, on the other hand, applaud the film for being an action film that not only gives women strong, and unorthodox, roles, but for also not making them the target of some bad romance subplot. There is chemistry between Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy, but it is slowly earned, and takes the form more of mutual respect than love; Nicholaus Hoult learns the value of women, but as partners and warriors more than lovers; the film treats woman in a post-apocalyptic sense that seems honest and, surprisingly enough for a big budget action flick, realistic sense.
The villains; I mentioned they are shallow and evil, but that’s why they work. Immortal Joe and his marauding convoy are awesome in sight; the blind guitarist playing heavy metal (and sometimes the film’s score apparently) would seem crazy in any other context, but in this world, where Immortal Joe uses drugs and a cult of personality to inspire other men to do horrific things for him, it makes sense that he would use music as a means to transform men into weapons, and expendable ones at that. His posse is big, his lieutenants are rightly and perfectly cruel, and you get the sense that some men don’t like him, but the film avoids the cliché of the villains plotting against each other, because it would add layers to the simplistic nature of the story. Instead, you see flashes of things that add to the story, whilst not pulling you from it.
I’ve talked about the women, the baddies, now for the anti-hero; Tom Hardy has played many different characters over the years, and is an underrated actor; he disappears into roles sometimes. All due respect to Mel Gibson, but Tom Hardy is Max now. He sells the role by underplaying to an extreme, reflecting not an actor trying to get the part right, but a character who is cynical because of how many people he has come across since the world ended, and how few of them remain. Max doesn’t want to get to know anyone, he initially does now want to care; but he grows to appreciate Furiousa, and the other woman. He even grows to trust them, eventually telling them the most sacred thing he knows: his own name, the one thing the world can never take from him. Max is not portrayed as being too mad, actually, but more a world-weary, hard-bitten, and cynical man who wants to survive. Ultimately, he is the one character with almost no development across the whole film; rather we see different shades as his view towards the other characters evolves from one of association by necessity, to being forced to work together, to ultimately caring and risking his life for them.
Mad Max: Fury Road is the type of movie Michael Bay thinks he’s making, but he can never achieve it. George Miller (director, writer, producer) can, because he knows to avoid unnecessary elements; he chose to create a horrific world, populate it in such a way that we can appreciate it properly, and build the story within it. Compare Fury Road with most action films, and they let themselves get bogged down in emotional scenes which kill the pace and may not work, just so we see the guy get the girl; they throw in arbitrary character development, sometimes at bad moments (see: Star Wars prequels); and don’t know how to balance the pace in such a way that the film keeps going without rushing or sputtering. Miller accomplished this by being smart about what he wanted, and I get the sense that those decisions were made early, and never deviated from in any way.
Fury Road is being compared to the great action films of all time, and while I think we should give it a few years before we begin doing that, I do want to acknowledge its utter brilliance. It is a diamond in a rough land ruled by Michael Bay and filmmakers like him, and one I’m glad to see critics taking note of, and appreciating. Roger Ebert, in particular, had an eye for great films which by their description should not be great, and I miss the fact that I cannot read his review for this film. I hope that some young, aspiring filmmaker sees Fury Road and years from now creates an action classic of his or her own, and says that it was this film which inspired them, and that in turn, they inspire someone else. After all, great film should do that.
Thanks for reading. See you next time.