What A Lovely Day
Most films have flaws, that’s a given. But there are a few of them out there that are perfect. So much so that you can’t imagine cutting a scene, or removing a performance. They tell their story correctly, with intelligence, style and honesty. Goodfellas is perfect. No Country For Old Men is perfect. The Silence Of The Lambs is perfect. The Princess Bride is perfect.
Mad Max: Fury Road is perfect.
By all rights, it shouldn’t be. It’s the fourth film in a franchise, which is often the point where the filmmakers desperately hope somebody, anybody, sees it before it slinks away from theaters in abject shame. Its director and co-writer, George Miller, is 70 years old, the point in which many directors have either retired or are coasting on their laurels and staying firmly in their comfort zones. Plus, the last time Miller directed was in 2011 with Happy Feet Two, a cartoon sequel about dancing penguins. The last time he directed live action was in 1998 with Babe: Pig In The City. That doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
Miller has been trying to get Fury Road off the ground for years. He probably would have done so earlier, had his original choice to play Max, Mel Gibson, hadn’t gone publicly insane. But that was probably a blessing, because he’s got a new Max in the form of the incredible Tom Hardy. He’s also got Charlize Theron, a woman of astonishing talent, and these two actors help to make Fury Road a masterpiece.
It doesn’t really matter if you’ve seen all of the Mad Max films or not. All you need to know is that some sort of global war has taken place. The majority of humanity is dead, and what’s left is forced to scrabble for survival in the wreckage. Fury Road begins with Max pensively staring out across the blasted wasteland while he thoughtfully chews on a two-headed lizard. He’s run down and easily captured by the War Boys, the followers of the warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). They take him to The Citadel, an incredible fortress built into a mesa. With gigantic pumps, Immortan Joe has devised a way to extract water from deep underground. Since water is a scarce commodity, Immortan Joe is a major player in the region. He’s also worshiped as a living god by the inhabitants of The Citadel, which is nice work if you can get it.
But none of that matters to Max. He’ll be used as a blood bag for Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a wounded War Boy. It looks as if Max is destined to slowly bleed out, when everything goes to hell. Imperator Furiosa (Theron), Immortan Joe’s most trusted general, is leading a supply run to the Bullet Farm and Gasolinetown. She abruptly deviates from her route and hauls ass into the wasteland. Furiosa has spirited away with Immortan Joe’s five wives, the breeding stock used to give birth to healthy babies. The War Boys are in pursuit, and Max ends up strapped to the hood of Nux’s car in the midst of an enormous chase.
Of course, Max doesn’t care at all about Furiosa’s quest. He just wants to survive. But in order to do that, he’ll need to help Furiosa and reluctantly become a hero. He’ll also have to deal with the gigantic war rigs that relentlessly pursue him.
So is Hardy a better Max than Gibson? Not better, just different. Both are fine actors who do great work with the character. Hardy brings a little more humor to the role, with his constant exasperation at the increasingly insane situations he finds himself in. He also plays Max as more overtly traumatized by the people he’s lost. His performance is very loose, but absolutely magnetic and lots of fun. He’s that rare performer that is not only one of the best actors working, but he’s also a straight-up movie star.
But while the movie is named after Max, he’s not the hero. That honor absolutely goes to Theron’s Furiosa. She’s the real focus of the story, and she gives an amazing, clenched fist of a performance. Theron invests deep emotion within the character, and wisely plays her strength against the turmoil that bubbles within her. There’s a nasty habit of big action films to downplay the femininity of female characters. That doesn’t happen here*, because even with Furiosa and her mechanical arm wreaking havoc, she’s still profoundly a woman. She doesn’t want revenge, she just wants to help free the women who are Immortan Joe’s sex slaves. But perhaps the greatest weapon Furiosa possesses is her willingness to stand up and defy Immortan Joe. His followers are death obsessed fundamentalists, and they can’t imagine anyone not bowing down to their savior. She does, though.
That’s a big reason why Nicholas Hoult’s Nux is such a compelling character. He’s a fanatic, and to die in service to Immortan Joe is the highest honor he can imagine. Hoult helps to put a sympathetic face on a religious lunatic, and he helps us understand what might motivate someone to become a suicide bomber.
Canny viewers will recognize Hugh Keays-Byrne, or at least his eyes, as Immortan Joe. Miller loves reusing actors, and Keays-Byrne originally played Toecutter in the original 1979 Mad Max. He’s definitely got the charisma to play the aging and ruthless warlord, and he’s created a villain that’s an icon.
In a lesser film, the brides (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Zoe Kravitz, Courtney Eaton, Riley Keogh, Abbey Lee), would stay in the background, looking terrified and occasionally be threatened with rape. But here, all of them are given distinct character arcs and personalities. They’re individuals, and each of them react differently to the insanity going on around them. Mad Max: Fury Road is an utterly feminist movie. Women are helping women, and the male lead is along for the ride. Early on, there’s a scrap of graffiti on a wall that reads, “Who killed the world?” Men did, and now women are putting it back together. That concept is absolutely excellent. **
I also need to point out, again, that George Miller, at the advanced age of 70, directed this film. Miller absolutely throws himself into the film, and it’s alive with crazy energy and constantly escalating action. Watching the film, you’d think it was made by someone in their 20’s or 30’s who had just one shot to make an impression. But as bonkers as the action is, Miller remains a consummate professional. He never uses shaky-cam, never overloads the screen like Michael Bay does. Miller keeps things moving so well, in so many different places and directions, that I couldn’t believe what I’d seen afterwards. Not only that, but most of the action is achieved through stunts and practical effects. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear that there’s a desert grave filled with hundreds of dead stunt professionals.
Action movies are wrongly looked down upon as not being real cinema, but this is one of the best directed movies ever made. Mad Max: Fury Road is without doubt a triumph. In a just world, we’d see George Miller win an Academy Award for Best Director. Unfortunately, that probably won’t happen. Instead, we’ll have to settle for knowing that, against all odds, a movie that shouldn’t be this good actually exists.
*Partly because playwright Eve Ensler, who wrote The Vagina Monologues, was brought in by Miller as a consultant. Ensler spent time in the Congo working with women who were raped, and was able to advise the cast on the psychological after effects of that kind of trauma.
**Unless you’re a Men’s Rights activist. Then you’re upset that you were “tricked” into seeing a film that is “a feminist piece of propaganda posing as a guy flick.” This comes from the controversial pro-masculinity site Return of Kings. If you’re not in the know (or not delusional), Men’s Rights folks have the hilariously wrongheaded notion that straight men are experiencing persecution in these United States. But to give you an idea of the lack of critical thinking skills on display, they also refer to the proudly Australian Mad Max franchise as a piece of “American culture.” Hey, it ain’t easy being a misogynist, apparently.