In an era obsessed with dragging the corpses of thirty to forty year old franchises out of their graves, it’s nice to see it work every once in a while. Max Rockatansky joins Rocky Balboa and Han Solo on the “people I never thought I’d see be great again” list of 2015. I’d say most moviegoers would prefer fresh ideas and the beating of fewer dead horses. I certainly would. But if the reboot craze is here to stay, let’s hope they all turn out half as good as Mad Max: Fury Road.
I have to confess before we move forward; this is the first Mad Max movie I have ever seen. But the same can be said for a surprisingly large percentage of the people who saw and loved Fury Road. George Miller’s fourth trip to the wasteland successfully revived the franchise, bringing it to modern day relevance. Even die-hard fans of the Mel Gibson trilogy, at least in the cases I’ve experienced, argue Fury Road is the best of the series. This fourth installment acts as a bridge that connects a nostalgia trip to a completely new wave of fans like me, who were ready for a different brand of adventure. And Mad Max is nothing if not different. I always say that you can only get away with as much weird as your movie is good. Films that sprinkle too much style over too little substance push audiences away. We’re only able to immerse ourselves in the many ridiculous concepts of fiction because we are guided through the world by a very relatable and understandable story. A school of witchcraft and wizardry, for example, would’ve been ridiculous if we weren’t following the more central story of the boy who lived. Mad Max doesn’t tell the most complicated story in cinematic history, something I’ll get more into later. But it does grab our attention using magnetic characters that earn the bizarre world’s appeal to a wider audience. When the flame throwing guitar player appears, you’re in your seat thinking “That makes complete sense to me. And it’s awesome.”
The film is driven by a trifecta of unlikely heroes. Tom Hardy delivers a powerful, understated performance as Max. I would have liked more dialogue from him, which I find myself saying about a lot of recent Tom Hardy roles, but the silence was well written into the character’s nature. And at least there are few actors, if any, who can say more with body language than Tom Hardy. His frenetic, violent movements matched that of the filmmaking style. Charlize Theron, effectively the lead character, brought Furiosa to the forefront of modern day action heroes. Gender aside, she is one of the most admirable characters in recent memory. I would have loved to see them slither their way into a bid for a supporting actress nomination, since the line between lead and supporting actress is so historically blurred. Once I see everything I’ll be able to confirm this, but I am certain she’d be worthy of at least being on that list. But the fact that Fury Road is up for Best Picture is honor enough, especially since so much of that comes from her performance. Nicholas Hoult, in a supporting role, stands right alongside these two. A lesser performance would’ve reduced Nux to a bit part, one used as a plot device and occasional comic relief. But Hoult gave us a look into the culture we witness (pun intended) throughout the film. Where there is a lack of straightforward explanations, we can use Nux as a window looking into the story behind Fury Road. The action genre has been upping its game recently, and I attribute a lot of that to the “don’t tell them, show them” mindset that ultimately leads to better storytelling.
Fury Road takes us for a ride from one hard hitting moment to the next, nearly disorienting us without ever giving the impression of some shaky cam, found footage movie. The use of practical effects was evident, and incredibly effective. Fury Road simply looks and feels different than other action movies of its time, and benefits from being placed into a sea of superhero CGI that we’ve become so used to. Naturally, we can’t build a real Iron Man suit and send Robert Downey Jr. into space, so this isn’t a knock on those movies. But it is a positive for Mad Max creating a fantasy story that feels real. The film follows a small scale, less is more scenario where the world is not in danger. In fact, the world already ended. We’re just trying to get from point A to point B.
The most common criticism against Fury Road is the lack of story. That’s an overstatement, but it’s true that you could very easily sum up the entire plot, details and all, in an article shorter than this review. Naturally, that’ll turn some people off and start talks of the word overrated. That’s a respectable opinion, as most are, but I believe Fury Road’s status as a worthy Best Picture nominee should be unaffected by this. You could sum up this latest Mad Max by describing it as a film that effectively tells an entire story in one setting through the use of some excellent filmmaking. We don’t get to know the title character as much as we’d like to, but we learn all we need to know about him as we watch how the supporting characters act around him, as well as occasional half-flashbacks, half-hallucinations. If we learn nothing else, we can piece together that the guy’s a little crazy. The music tells as much of a story as the writing does, and you can’t quite describe the abstract storytelling until you’ve seen it yourself. I did just describe Mad Max: Fury Road. But I also just described the reigning Best Picture, Birdman. That comparison may be a bit of a stretch; these two obviously don’t have too much in common. But they’re similarly unconventional. Evidently, this style can work, and I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss a movie as having “no story” just because it prefers to create a narrative using something other than intricate plot developments.
Mad Max: Fury Road raises the bar for not just modern action, but modern filmmaking. It’s a sequel-reboot hybrid that doesn’t need the promise of another two movies to keep us entertained. If we are eventually blessed with another adventure, that too will be one that stands on its own. George Miller’s latest accomplishment is exactly that, a cinematic accomplishment. It is a union between fun and art, one that we don’t experience often enough. Let’s hope everyone else took notes.