Mad Max: Fury Road

May 23, 2015
Tom Hardy in 'Mad Max: Fury Road' (2015)
Tom Hardy in 'Mad Max: Fury Road' (2015)

Last week I got off a plane from Europe and within a few hours found myself at the movies waiting for the jet lag to kick in. I need not have worried because there is never a moment’s respite in Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s like absorbing a triple expresso on an intravenous drip. Some films reach out and grab you by the throat, Fury Road takes hold with one imaginary claw while clubbing you around the head with a blunt instrument. After two hours you emerge into daylight feeling dazed but exhilarated.

There are two aspects that distinguish Fury Road from most big-budget fantasy flicks: the reliance on real-time action, massive props and stuntmen; and the snarled fragments of Australian accents. I never thought I’d be thrilled to hear that nasal twang in a movie. Like Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie, with its South African voices, the accents take us away from the limbo of Hollywood and embed the story in a specific place – ruined but still recognisable.

Such is progress. When the first Mad Max was shown in the United States in 1979, the dialogue was dubbed because viewers couldn’t be expected to understand what the Australians were saying.

36 years have passed since George Miller’s debut feature, and 30 since the third Mad Max film, Beyond Thunderdome. In the intervening decades CGI has advanced to the point where the computer lords it over the camera. Miller reverses the ratio, producing a spectacle that feels convincingly real and gritty.

The actual amount of dialogue in Fury Road is negligible. We are thrown headlong into a story the director has described as a “fever dream”, and allowed only a few gulps of air between chase sequences. Normally this would feel monotonous, but not here, largely thanks to the sheer inventiveness of these scenes with their accumulation of detail.

During the drawn-out production process for Fury Road, Miller kept the Mad Max franchise ticking along with illustrated novels that provide pedigrees for the characters. Little of this makes its way into the film, although there is no time for perplexity. If someone is chasing you with an axe you don’t stop and wonder if it came from Bunnings.

Max, as we know from the earlier films, is a wanderer, haunted by guilt over the death of his family. In Fury Road this is signposted by hallucinogenic flashbacks. That’s all the history we get, and pretty much all we need.

The setting is a land that has reverted to a medieval state after “the Fall” – the destruction of civilisation by wars over scarce natural resources. Science fiction fans will have been here many times, in classic stories such as A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) by Walter M. Miller Jr.

Immortans Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) is a feudal warlord who keeps his starving subjects in line with small hand-outs of water and a vision of salvation. The left-over technology has been put into the service of his Cult, administered by shaven-headed goons called the war boys. At the start of the film Max (Tom Hardy) is captured and tortured by these marauders, before being tied to the grill of a mutant car that roars out into the desert in pursuit of a runaway tanker truck.

The truck is being driven by Imperator Furiosa (a virtually unrecognisable Charlize Theron), who has smuggled out five of Joe’s wives, or “breeders” – a multicultural group of actrines and supermodels dressed as harem girls. Only as the credits roll do we learn they have names like Cheedo the Fragile, The Splendid Angharad, Toast the Knowing and The Dag.

The goons are after Furiosa, who is taking the wives to a vaguely remembered haven called The Green Place. Max escapes his captors and joins them, along with a war boy called Nux (Nicholas Hoult), who is gradually awakening from his bloodlust.

The plot is basically one long chase. The pursuers, their modified cars decorated like cannibal huts, are as frightening as some barbarian tribes the Romans must have encountered. They descend on their victims by means of long swaying poles sprouting from speeding vehicles. They don’t simply use guns – they throw bombs, wield flame throwers, axes and chain saws. They are strummed into combat by a blind heavy metal guitarist strapped to the front of a truck, whose instrument spurts fire.

To prepare for the role as the new Mad Max, Tom Hardy apparently worked hard on his glaring, as he barely utters a coherent sentence. Charlize Theron does slightly better, although it’s hard to get past the prosthetic arm and Pict-like war paint. When Furiosa says she is seeking “redemption”, one almost laughs at this preposterous piece of pseudo-religiosity coming at the end of such an onslaught on the senses.

The talking point, beyond the non-stop action, is the vaguely feminist idea of women in revolt against an oppressive patriarchy. Once again, it’s hardly a revolutionary idea, having been rehearsed from the time of the Amazons. It would be foolish to go looking for profundity in a movie that uses a threadbare plot as a framework for the most remarkable action sequences you’re likely to see this year. George Miller’s credentials as a cult leader inspire the same scepticism as those of Immortan Joe, but one can only worship his ability to create pure cinema.

Mad Max: Fury Road
Directed by George Miller
Written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, Nico Lathouris
Starring Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keys-Byrne,
Australia/USA, rated MA 15+, 120 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 23rd May, 2015.