1981 was a good year for movies. I was a young teen, and movies were increasingly my escape from the real world, if only for a few hours. That summer saw some of the best movies of their genres hit — Raiders of the Lost Ark brought me to the theater eight or nine times; For Your Eyes Only gave us the best of the Moore-era Bond movies (holy shitsnacks, he’s acting!), Excalibur hit the D&D spot but I found the movie overly stylized and not particularly engaging, Escape from New York and Outland were solid sci-fi fun. But there was one movie that crept in under the radar that summer and thrilled me — The Road Warrior.
At the time, I hadn’t seen Mad Max, and I only got to see The Road Warrior one time that summer, but the cars-in-the-desert theme became my go-to idea of the apocalypse. F@#k that pushing a shopping cart crap of The Road, the end of the world is deserts, highly modded hulks of cars, leather and PVC, and hair care products (there must be some — look at that damned mohawk!) Later, Beyond Thunderdome — while inventive — lost that essential, core trope of a Mad Max movie…cars! Director George Miller had first crafted the original film as an examination of the Australian car culture, and was a response to his work as a traveling trauma doctor who saw the numerous ways that people get dead in vehicles. Without the cars, the apocalypse just doesn’t work.
Thirty years and some dancing penguin movies later, Miller returns to his creation with Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s a reboot, no matter what the director was claiming — the essentials are there: Max Rockitansky was a police officer who lost his family, and in this picture is frequently suffering PTSD flashbacks involving his daughter (not a son, this time) who he could not save. He’s blasting around the wasteland of maybe Australia/maybe someplace else in his Australian 1973 Ford Falcon XB GT so beloved from the first two movies. He’s a nomad looking for a reason to exist, and will, as in The Road Warrior, act more as a catalyst for the events.
The first act is curious — Max is captured about two minutes into the film and spends much of it caged or tied to the front of a warboy’s wagon. He’s a “blood bag” for the radiation sickness-suffering Nux, and is valuable only for his O+ blood. The world-builing is fast and crammed into the action well; a lot of action directors could learn from Miller on how to build characters and a world by showing, not telling. (For another superb example of this, see John Wick.)
There’s a grotto of green and water in the desert ruled by Immortan Joe, a horrific picture of ancient, radiation damaged man who is encased in clear plastic “armor” and wears a breath mask fashioned to give him a leering grin. He’s played by Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played Toecutter in the original 1979 Mad Max. He’s holding the survivors hostage by controlling access to water, and his army of warboys are a cult of sick and deluded young men who expect this “immortal” to bring them to Valhalla, if they are worthy. The subcultures Miller creates in this movie are inventive and believable — from the glory above all warboys, to the “we do what we have to” of the all-femael Vuvulan nomads we meet later. There’s load of grotesque character imagery — the Bullet Farmer who gets blinded in the movie and is randomly firing guns from his dune buggy while blindfolded; there’s the gas lord with his ornate metal nose replacement — Tycho Brahe would be jealous; Nux has ritual scarification on his chest and tumors he affectionately calls “his mates — Larry and Barry…they’ll kill me one day…”
The hero of the piece is not Max, and that seems to be a big point of contention for the reactionaries who don’t like seeing a woman displace their mighty Road Warrior…but even in that movie and Thunderdome he was a sidekick in many ways, the ronin that helps the Feral Kid and his tribe escape, or saves the kids from whateverthehell Tina Turner was playing. Here, it’s Impertor Furiosa, played brilliantly by Charlize Theron. Like the others, she has some level of disfigurement — she’s missing an arm and has a claw-handed prosthetic. She has kidnapped Immortan Joe’s prized “breeders” — a bevy of good-looking young girls that are his “wives” and whom he hopes will provide undamaged children — and is taking them to the home Furiosa was stolen from…”the green place.”
Queue two hours of cars chases and fight sequences. Miller never really lets up in these scenes, they’re well over the top, but in a world so grotesque and weird! as this, they never seem as ridiculous as they clearly are. The Road Warrior was a restrained piece, compared to this — the action sequences extreme, but well inside the realm of possible; some of the stunts (and Miller still did mostly practical stuntwork for this movie) should be laughable, but after a few minutes in, you’re in. One of the most defining images of the movie is Joe’s warband — a quartet of drummers on gigantic taiko drums on the back, and a blind guitarist in bright red jumpsuit bungee corded on the front, of a vehicle that is 90% a wall of speakers. The guitarist plays the beat of the action pieces on a double necked guitar that shoots f#$king flames ferchristsake!
There’s a lot of pixels being spilled about the feminist nature of the story, and it’s certainly got that in spades. Women are strong, capable characters that don’t need men like max to save them…just aid them. Furiosa and Max never get romantic; he’s also not in charge…it’s her journey, he’s just heling her get there. Women aren’t maternal, save the world characters. Furiosa and her tribe are violent, but they do it to save the breeders, who aren’t wilting flowers, themselves. Max and Nux represent masculinity in a way that is violent — it’s the end of the world and it’s a brutal setting; they have to be violent — but they do it in the service of defending people. Immortan Joe and his crew represent the acquisitive, coercive masculinity of bad guys, clergy, and politicians. But you can pack all that away for two hours and watch a great action pic, if you want to.
Visually, this movie is stunning in a way I haven’t seen since probably Avatar, and it’s better because this isn’t CGI. The action is occasionally ridiculous, but you’re unlikely to notice. The cars — they’re glorious mutants of metal. There’s one group where their vehicles are covered in porcupine-like quills…it’s bloody brilliant! The warband — you will leave wanting to have a big ass truck with your soundtrack, played by a lunatic shooting fire from his guitar, following you everywhere you go.
The worldbuilding is wondrously inventive.
The acting is generally very good from the leads. This is Theron’s movie and she owns it. Nicholas Hoult (the Beast in the retro X-Men movies) steals almost every scene he’s in. Tom Hardy is solid, if underused, as Max; they never really let him off the leash, and that is a good point of contention some have with the movie. Max is almost a spectator in his own film. The brides are all developed well in bits of dialogue and action that give them all simple, but recognizable, personalities.
Go see it. It’s everything we wanted Thunderdome to be in 1985. It’s a movie I saw for a matinee price, but I wouldn’t have felt gypped at full price.