Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015): George Miller

Imagine spending thirty years thinking about one creative project. You were ready to make this thing three decades ago, but forces of nature (and Hollywood, and Mel Gibson) conspired against you, always pushing back back back the thing you were trying to create. Imagine now that someone with some power somewhere gave you the green light, allowing you to unleash decades of pent-up ideas and energy, despite your seven decades of life. What would your creative work express? Imagine now that your long-dormant idea was a movie, a movie about the destructive nature of men, and a whole ton of things to blow up. Congratulations, you are George Miller, and you just made Mad Max: Fury Road.

ONE-SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: A renegade general steals an armored truck to ferry fertile females to freedom as her boss pursues her with his glut of gonzo gas guzzlers. 

Hero (7/10)

The world is changing. Gasoline and water wars have sent Earth’s societies to the ash heap of history. As Max says, “My world is fire and blood.” It’s not a good time to be alive, when gas, bullets, and water are the only tradable commodities. This is the world the movie presents us.

I know the title of this movie is Mad Max, but he is not the hero of this piece. Max gets swept up in the events started by Imperator Furiosa, a name more people should have. Furiosa is one of, if not the most, respected general of Immortan Joe, who controls about all the water to be found in…wherever they are. She is taking a war rig just down the street to Gastown, and will swing by the Bullet Farm, then hit up Mickey D’s for some McFlurries before returning to The Citadel.

But Furiosa has no plan to do any of this. She likes Frosties, anyway. Also, she hates Joe and his mutated, cancerous War Boys. Soon after departing The Citadel, Furiosa turns off the road, telling her crew that they have new orders to “head east.” We don’t know what she’s planning at first, but the determination is present in her face. The War Boys are on the trip for fun or for work, but Furiosa is on a mission.

It turns out that she’s taking some of Joe’s favorite breeders to the Green Place, where Furiosa was raised. What we never learn is whether she’s doing this primarily to get back at Joe, or to save the women. Probably she wants both.

Everything goes smoothly (well, as smoothly as things can go when you’ve stolen a War Rig from a warlord), until about halfway through the movie, when Furiosa contacts the Many Mothers. They tell her: Remember that radioactive hellscape with the crows and stick walkers? That was the Green Place. Furiosa goes off and has a good scream about that.

There’s a saying somewhere: Don’t get mad, get even. Furiosa, with a little help from Max, gets even. The only green place left in the world is The Citadel, so she’ll take the women back. It’s undefended after all. To get back, she’ll take the Fury Road.

I guess I’ll bring in Max now. Max, get in here. [OK yes] Max has his name on the marquee, but though he’s not the primary hero of his own movie, he’s not a sidekick either. Max is haunted by the ghosts of dozens of people he failed to save. Or so we think. We only know that Max thinks it. These visions are part of his world, and they torment him early in the film, only to save him later. Max is a guy who’ll “make [his] own way.” Isn’t that right Max? [grunt yes grunt].

Max is serving as a blood bag for a war boy when Furiosa steals the Rig. Nux, the recipient of Max’s blood, chains him to his car while going after Furiosa. Max somehow survives the encounter and, after nearly dying from Furiosa’s hand, helps her recapture The Citadel.

Max and Furiosa are peas of the same pod. She’s trying to save the women, but I think she does it secondarily. She wants to return to her home, and she brings along the breeders as a nice gesture, and maybe because they can help. Max works in much the same way, but instead of running to a place, he’s running from his past. But you can never escape your past, only bury it.

Villain (6/10)

The Citadel is lead by Immortan Joe, an old man incapable of breathing on his own. By way of other characters we learn much about Joe. He pumps the water from beneath the Earth and “Claims it for himself,” thus owning the people as well. We don’t know how he got to his position, only that he runs it with a crumbling fist.

When first we see Joe, his deformed children are strapping on his mask. This plastic shell covers the peeling skin of his back and whatever disgusting situation is occurring in his mouth. The face mask provides oxygen so Joe can go on looking immortan. And what a mask it is–gnashed teeth with black gums, evoking Venom from Spider-Man 3.

Joe has taken all the beautiful women and locked them in a vault. They are his breeders, wearing chastity belts to prevent any other men getting inside them. Joe has taken other women and fattened them to milk their breasts. And these are the women treated best in The Citadel. The decrepit ones rotting away hundreds of feet below are carrying bed pans to catch the water Joe deigns to release, which he does in an early scene, before cutting it off almost immediately, telling them not to give in to an addiction to water.

Joe leads the charge after Furiosa when her treachery is revealed. He drives a double hearse, and after a rock fall blocks his path, he commandeers a monster truck. We assume Joe would normally act with ruthless efficiency and blow up the war rig, but his precious women are on board, so he knows he can’t do it. That makes his effort far more difficult, and it actually softens his character a bit, until you remember that he wears a mask of bared teeth. (Joe looks like he could be a real life COBRA villain.)

Working against Joe is his failing body. He still gives the orders, but we have to believe he is on his last legs anyway. Someone, perhaps his enormous son Rictus, or the tiny son with the telescope, would have overthrown Joe in a coup. Joe doesn’t seem to possess any secret to getting the water (in fact, the women unleash a deluge on the people after his death). His powers derive from religious fervor, which he uses well, but anyone else can wield as well.

Action/Effects (10/10)

Fury Road leaves little time for backstory, dialogue, exposition, or the sweeping landscapes endemic to epic films. All the more time for breaking stuff. And my God, does it break stuff. This movie goes full throttle and never lets off the gas, pausing just long enough to refill the gas tank and crank the engines to maximum rpm again.

We are introduced to Max immediately, when he is chased and captured by War Boys. They tattoo his blood type into his back, but he escapes and runs through Immortan Joe’s workshop, fighting his way through ghosts real and figurative until he escapes–only to be recaptured. Max shows tremendous fighting skill, and he tells us his life has been reduced to a single instinct: survive.

Action kicks up again after Furiosa steals the War Rig. Joe sends everything with wheels to chase, and every War Boy is eager to take their place in Valhalla. Furiosa drives into enemy territory, where they speak a different language (meaning this world has been long enough dead to have Australians speaking other languages, which some of them certainly do now, but they receded to their native tongues in Fury Road) and drive cars with spikes on them. First she has to take care of the spikers, avoiding their traps. The War Boys think the approaching war party is to aid them, but they soon learn the truth of what Furiosa has done. She rids her rig of them.

Joe’s people fight the spikers so they can get to Furiosa. They can’t just blow up the truck, because the breeders are on it. So we get a triangle of destruction, in which each side fights the other two. Miller treats us to rapidly changing alliances, based on who wants to live the most. This first, opening salvo, introduces us to the concept of “witnessing” (so that the War Boys can ride with Joe in Valhalla, and also a requirement for British soldiers to receive the Victoria Cross), the chrome spray to hype the warriors, and the explosive spears Joe’s fighters possess.

Furiosa spends most of her time shooting at War Boys and driving her rig over them. Some War Boys board the rig, but Furiosa uses her rig like an extension of her body, one packed with hidden weapons. Max follows her, but only because he is chained to the front of a War Car, his blood providing a pick-me-up for the driver, Nux, who is too weak to fight on his own. Max, the titular hero, dodges shrapnel and barely survives. Furiosa is soon to be overrun, but she’s in luck, because a sand hurricane is raging her way.

The Imperator drives into the storm. The War Boys follow, because they are insane with religious fervor and chrome spray. The winds sweep the cars from the ground and rip them apart, but the War Rig is heavy enough to withstand it. The only car able to survive first contact belongs to Nux. He drives on, but Max frees himself and flips to the back of the cab to shield himself from the wind. Nux fights Max, and both fight the storm. Similar three-sided conflicts occur several times throughout the film, raising the action to great altitudes.

Sidekicks (6/8)

Max and Furiosa,  co-heroes, earn the support of the breeders (who had terrific names like The Splendid Angharad and Toast the Knowing) and the Many Mothers. The women always opposed Joe. They represent life, as the carriers of seeds both human and floral. The five women Furiosa has rescued are not fighters. They wear flowing robes and one is pregnant. One of them knows weapons, but another wants to go back to Joe and beg forgiveness. They have a lot of tenacity but can only do so much in a fistfight. The Many Mothers are equally tenacious and damn good with a rifle, but they are aged women, and one blow is enough to finish them.

Nux is a War Boy with a date in Valhalla. He fights shiny and chrome. But when he is instrumental in the death of Joe’s pregnant baby mama, he knows his afterlife is over. So Nux joins Furiosa’s cause. How many henchmen have switched sides mid-film? What a rare an interesting development Miller gives us. Nux turns out to be a big help with engine work, and he gives his life to the cause, just not the one for which he set out.

The sidekicks in Fury Road are atypical–they do not crack jokes nor blindly follow the commands of their masters. Without them, the heroes would surely die quickly. For all this they deserve recognition.

Henchmen (4/8)

Joe has an entire army at his disposal, it seems, and “all [the action is] for a family squabble.” Most of Joe’s particular army consists of his own sons, which ensures little good long-range planning, but ensure much short-range obedience. Joe’s underlings are chasing the women because they carry their potential brothers and sisters. For all we know, the guitar freak could be one of Joe’s, making Joe the Father of Modern Rock.

Joe’s allies are the men from Gastown and the Bullet Farm. The Gastown leader has pierced nipples and feet so large enough to make his legs look like bulbous trees. Presumably the man has not walked in decades, and probably couldn’t if he wanted to. But he has someone to clip his nails, so why would he want to? The Bullet Farm guy is a crazy death angel, who drives through mud at night, unescorted, firing bullets randomly into the night sky. His car has a searchlight, but Furiosa makes quick work of that, and Max makes quick work of the rest.

These henchmen do little except color their world and make us chuckle at its absurdity. But do they strike fear? Not nearly as much as the soldiers. The pole cats and War Boys do the actual fighting, and they are terrifying. Rictus tears an engine block from the War Rig. A War Boy spits gasoline into Max’s engine. These guys spray chrome into their mouths to get amped for a fight. They’re absolutely nuts, and death means nothing to them. Except it means immortality and glory in Valhalla, so really it means everything to them. Hey, Earthlings, can we avoid nuclear war and gasoline scarcity please?

Stunts (6/6)

Every stunt person in the business should watch this movie, study it, learn it, know, it, worship it. George Miller was lauded for eschewing CGI, so those pole cats rocking along the cars are really doing it. But I want to talk about a fight.

After the explosive sandstorm Max wakes up covered in sand. He recalls he is still attached to Nux, and quickly learns he won’t be able to detach easily. But the War Rig is close, and he sets out for it lugging Nux and a car door.

After some threatening glances, Furiosa fights Max. Here’s the Tale of the Tape. MAX pros: muscle, fighting skills, face mask can be used as weapon. MAX cons: chained to dead weight, blood drained for hours beforehand, spent night face down in sand, just carried 200 pounds several hundred yards. FURIOSA pros: knows where guns are, has backup, fighting skills. FURIOSA cons: one arm, less muscle.

As far as we can tell, Max’s and Furiosa’s fighting skills are equal, so they cancel. In a ring, Max would probably overwhelm Furiosa with his muscle mass and his protection from facial blows. The loss of blood does not appear to affect him much in the scene, but it must. The chain is what really does him in. It is very long, and the breeders working in tandem subdue Max easily.

Until Nux wakes up. He’s on Max’s side, though Max is not really on his. But since they are connected by the chain they can use it against Furiosa. Nux is enough to counter at least one of the other women. Max fends off shots from Furiosa’s secret gun stash, and finally he gets the upper hand (with Nux’s help) to point a loaded pistol at Furiosa’s head. When he refuses to kill her, she accedes to his demands.

The fight ranks as one of cinema’s best of the decade. It is a fully believable sequence, in which each side has distinct advantages and disadvantages, which are exposed during the fight. Allegiances shift throughout, and new variables are introduced. (Nux fills both those categories, really.) The Max-Furiosa fight is a perfect fight scene.

The Internet has not enough space for all the great stunt work. Many of the stunts would be dangerous at rest. Remember those Pole Cats? The stunt people bobbed on the long ends of 30-foot metronomes attached to cars speeding across sand. The people living in the canyon used motorbikes to get around, spectacularly jumping rock ramps to throw grenades at the War Rig.

Climax (5/6)

Fury Road gains steam (no pun intended) when its heroes are deep in the desert. Furiosa and her crew are riding across salt flats for 160 days. On motorcycles. Crazy, yes, but desperate times…. Max, after telling her he’ll find his own way (To where? How? He’s in the middle of the desert.), convinces Furiosa that the best way forward is to go back. The Citadel, they realize, is unguarded, and it’s the only place in the known world where plants grow and water flows unpoisoned. They would drive the most fortified vehicle known, and they have picked up some sharp-eyed snipers to help. So they go back.

Warriors from The Citadel, Gastown, and the Bullet Farm await. The Gastown fighters send their first foray, the terrifying Pole Cats, which ride oscillating poles that reach twenty or thirty feet above their cars, a clever way of boarding other vehicles without getting close to them. These black-clad Pole Cats board the War Rig, and they carry chainsaws and other bladed weapons. Our heroes pick off as many as they can with sniper fire, but the forces of Gastown are overwhelming. The Many Mothers do not last long in hand-to-hand combat, but Max does. The ghosts haunting him throughout the movie finally help him out, forcing him to block his eye from a crossbow bolt. Max manages to board the car of Gastown’s leader, using him as a human shield before blowing it up in a tremendous explosion.

Many Pole Cats are dispatched, along with their cars, but Joe’s double hearse rises to the challenge. The whole fiasco is in the rock canyons now, and Max finds himself on the guitar car, still slaying, literally and figuratively. One of Joe’s women coaxes Rictus to help her board the hearse, but this time it’s a ruse. She only wants to help Furiosa board. Nux drives the Rig. Rictus tears out the engine. Max gets on the hearse, as do the remaining breeders. Nux reaches the narrow gap, again clear, in the rock canyon and flips the Rig, causing a wreck that likely had the DOT working in triple shifts.

After some brief fighting, Furiosa uses the giant tires to rip away Joe’s face mask, killing him instantly. Her one-liner “Remember me,” is OK. I would prefer a callback or a more inspiring line. But she was barely able to breathe in that moment, so she gets a pass. Max helps her bleeding problem (remember how he’s a universal donor?), and the team drives back to The Citadel, using Joe’s further-ravaged corpse to negotiate entrance to the hallowed grounds. Max disappears into the crowd.

Fury Road‘s climax worked well, tying many elements together. Nux was redeemed, having fully turned to the side of good. The first chase scene remains the best, and in a movie during which a scene takes place in a moving vehicle for perhaps half of the running time, we need the last chase to be the best chase.

And will Furiosa be a benevolent leader? Who knows? We don’t even know her primary reason for liberating the breeders. But she can’t be worse than Joe. Right? I hope so.

Jokes (1/4)

Fury Road has no time for jokes. Seriously, this movie is serious. The names, costumes, and cars are so gonzo crazy that you might describe the film as one long tragicomedy. Funny moments in the movie are rare: the Bullet Farm leader among them, but we forgive you your sins, George Miller, for your action scenes are terrific.

Setting (4/4)

The previous Mad Max films took place in an increasingly bleak Australia. But it was Australia. Where is the Fury Road? Google Maps was helpless, so I’ll speculate. It’s in Australia. How do I know this? Well, Max drives a car. Cars tend not to cross water. Australia is surrounded by water. Thus, he has not left Australia.

But this ain’t your father’s Mad Max Australia. The lands here are as desolate as any put to film. Much of shooting took place in Namibia, a country named for a desert. Many sand dunes, sand storms, and sandstone. Bad for carburators, as evidenced by the scene after the sand storm when Furiosa bangs her engine’s intake valve to rid it of sand. The world of Fury Road is brutal, perfect for raising the insane characters that populate it.

The details make the movie soar. Each of Joe’s soldiers rides to battle not with a special sword, axe, or gun, but a steering wheel. They ride “shiny, and chrome.” Each group uses their landscape well. The motorcyclists in the rock canyons jump over ramps and fly through the air with their two-wheelers, something the enormous tanks of Joe’s can’t do.

Commentary (2/2)

A question asked by and of characters in the movie is “Who killed the world?” From the opening montage, we know that there was a nuclear war over gasoline and water access. So it was “we” who killed the world. The movie strongly implied that the patriarchy killed the world.

Fury Road is, without question, a woman’s movie. They are the heroes. Furiosa liberates Joe’s breeders (though her motives are murky), the Many Mothers are the keepers of the seeds. One of the women in Joe’s vault is covered in tattoos, presumably scribblings of knowledge from the old world. The men own the water, own the oil, own the bullets, and make sure that everyone else serves their ownership. Joe calls his children his “property.” His War Boys are strictly for war. Dudes killed the world, ladies be bringin’ it back.

Offensiveness (0/-2)

Whether or not the anti-masculine outlook offends depends on your thoughts. It’s hard to argue that men still run the world, at least on face we put to the world. In America, twenty women serve in the U.S. Senate, a record high. No woman has served as president, chief justice, vice president, or President pro tempore of the Senate, once as Speaker of the House, and three times as Secretary of State.

Women have barely cracked the absolute top of the power system in the most powerful nation on Earth. If you think the world is in bad shape, you might be inclined to a change in leadership. If you think things are going just fine, then an opposing viewpoint might trouble you. I leave the thoughts to you.

Others

  • (-3) I had trouble hearing every single line of dialogue. For a movie that so nailed the sound effects, the dialogue capture sucked. Max mumbles to himself a lot, which is OK as it’s part of his character, but every other character was damn near unintelligible throughout the film. Fortunately, this ain’t Shakespeare, but I missed much of the small details that further painted the world so well. Were the dialogue more important to getting the movie, I would deduct 5 points.
  • (1) Guitar car.
  • (2) The stunts in the film are spectacular, of course, but they might be good enough to usher in a new wave of stunt work in cinema. If Hollywood has not reached peak-CGI/superhero, Fury Road might be the push to the summit.
  • (2) The movie’s feminist themes are well documented. Charlize Theron, in an interview, claimed that she can’t stand it when tiny women beat huge men in fistfights. That does happen in Fury Road, but Miller gave his characters external strengths and weaknesses to even the score, and his fights were even more believable and memorable for them.
  • (1) Miller took what we normally consider some of society’s weakest people, old women, and made them as heroic as anyone on screen. Their inner strength, and rifling skills, helped Furiosa and Max kill Joe and overtake his Citadel.
  • How ’bout when Max finds all the hidden guns in the War Rig cabin?
  • How ’bout when Max runs off in the blue night and destroys the spotlight car?
  • How ’bout a guy named Rictus?
  • How ’bout that tracking shot that traces the disintegration of the car in the sandstorm, following one of the bodies as it hurls over a crouching Max?

Summary (54/68): 79%

Mad Max: Fury Road is George Miller’s symphony of chaos, a testament to visual storytelling, and a master class in action filmmaking. Professors, critics, directors, and fans will discuss this movie for years to come.

Don’t let the seemingly low score undermine this movie’s power. Fury Road was easily the best action movie of 2015, the 2010s, perhaps the entire century.

Unlike many action films, this one has much to say about our world, our culture, and our potential. Its method for taking common tropes and turning them on their heads makes this an action movie worth thinking about for more than great action. Don’t let the scaled-down score fool: this movie is a titan of the action genre. Miller set out to make a world and set an action spectacle in it. He succeeded.