"I thought you weren't insane anymore."
In the interest of full disclosure, I feel it only fair to let you know that I normally abhor belated sequels. Whenever a sequel comes more than ten years after its predecessor, it almost always feels like a half baked attempt to recapture the magic of a given series. Until tonight, I had always chalked this up to a nostalgia problem, but having seen Mad Max: Fury Road, I can safely say that the problem is not with belated sequels in and of themselves. It's with the people who make them, and Fury Road will forever be the gold standard by which all other late arriving sequels shall be judged. That's more than likely unfair to any of those films, but if this one proved nothing else, it's that franchises can find their groove immediately if there is time, love, effort, and care put into their creation.
Coming nearly thirty years after the last entry in the franchise, Mad Max: Fury Road isn't a true sequel as the leading role has been recast, but it's hardly a reboot either. Series director George Miller is back at the helm following a nearly twenty year detour into family friendly territory, but he hasn't lost even an ounce of his edge or imagination. Tom Hardy takes over the title role from Mel Gibson, and while there's sure to be plenty of grousing about the decision to replace Gibson, Hardy is just about the only actor around with the charisma, stature, and talent to take on such an iconic character. Hardy is also savvy enough to not attempt to mimic Gibson, but he also stops short of reinventing the role, which makes him ideal as Max Rockatansky, the man whose only mission in a post-apocalyptic world is survival.
Staged as a two hour chase sequence, Mad Max: Fury Road is one of the most intense and entertaining films ever made, and its unrelenting pace actually proves to be an asset in a time when most action films are similarly bombastic. What Fury Road gets right is that it never feels the need to separate the action from the story, melding the two in a way that's simultaneously innovative and quaint, like a throwback to a time when plot mattered as much as the visual effects. This time around, Max's tale of survival finds him initially at the mercy of a vicious cult led by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a menacing bastard who controls hordes of people by promising them riches in the afterlife if they pledge their fealty to him. Max begins the film as a helpless blood bag to one of Joe's warriors named Nux (Nicholas Hoult), who affixes Max to the hood of his car as he and a slew of other mercenaries chase down a rogue leader of the cult named Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron).
Furiosa has absconded with five women whom Immortan Joe uses as a means of breeding to continue his bloodline, but who have gotten it in their heads that they're not things, and deserve the right to be free. While it's obvious that Max and Furiosa will eventually team up to get the women to safety, the fun in the film is discovering how Miller is able to bring these characters and their disparate goals together, and while the film is essentially a non-stop chase, the true genius of the film lies in its ability to drown out all of the noise and chaos and focus in on the more human elements at play. This is a filmmaker using action and spectacular visuals to tell a story, not the other way around, and it always treats the story as the most important element at play. It's downright refreshing to see an action film that doesn't demand the viewer turn their brains off to enjoy it to its fullest. It requires their attention, earns it, and then rewards it brilliantly.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the film is how beautifully grotesque it is, allowing the audience to embrace a variety of imaginative characters without ever really selling them short by making them palatable to the masses. Virtually every character in the film, particularly the second and third tier ones, is fraught with abnormalities and the film finds their beauty and individuality with little to no effort. It's exhilarating to see a film embrace its weirdness, and this film has got it in spades. If the film fails to connect with a wide audience, it will likely be because the general population often doesn't know what to do when confronted with such honesty and boldness of purpose.
The action sequences, however, will absolutely demand the respect of anyone that lays eyes on them. There are no fewer than three extended action scenes that are among the best ever committed to film, all of which are elegantly shot, supremely easy to follow, and pack enough surprises to jolt everyone in attendance with a rush of adrenaline. The film's mixture of practical and digital effects is mostly seamless, and its reliance on the practical is what makes it a true wonder to behold. The film is also incredible to look at, and Miller has truly outdone himself in his work with cinematographer John Seale, no stranger to desert landscapes having won an Oscar for lensing The English Patient. At the center of the film is an extended nighttime sequence with a blue hue that recalls the climax of William Friedkin's Sorcerer, another film about a doomed trip in a truck. It's a loving homage that won't be lost on the cinephiles in the audience, and one which serves as a constant reminder that action can, under the right circumstances, be high art.
The most savvy move by Miller and his co-writers Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris is the strong role of women in the film. Furiosa is every bit Max's equal, but there are more than a few badass women along for the ride. Much like Brian DePalma was always accused of being a misogynist due to his proclivity for placing women in danger, this film understands the visceral connection that audiences have with women in perilous situations. What Miller and company do is subvert that by constantly surrounding these women with danger and showing how they're able to use their own strength to their advantage. This isn't a film that relies on men to do the heavy lifting, and anyone that actually takes issue with that has problems that extend beyond their inability to enjoy a film with strong female characters.
Mad Max: Fury Road is every bit as good as you hoped it would be, and more. It's rare to find a film that manages to constantly one-ups itself without overwhelming an audience or beating them into submission. This is a film that expects you to keep up, pay attention, and engage with the action on screen. It's almost a shame to call it smart because it's so much more than just simply smart. It's brilliant beyond words and not only lives up to the hype, but actually comes out feeling slightly underrated. This is everything you could want in a summer blockbuster and more. At 70 years old, George Miller has managed to thoroughly kick the asses of the Michael Bays and Zack Snyders of this world and beat them at their own game. Years from now, this film will be studied in film schools across the world for its ability to balance action and plot, and deservedly so. I can only hope it finds the audience it deserves now, however, because there is truly nothing else like this to be found anywhere in theaters. Don't wait another minute to see it, because you'll only be kicking yourself later if you do.
GO Rating: 5/5
[Photos via Box Office Mojo]