The latest in a long line of belated sequels to hits from the 80’s was a long shot in many ways. No truly bankable star, a huge budget and a director whose most distinctive work to date was the original series he made decades ago. The good news is, the film is great – really, really, really great. The long gestated and hotly anticipated fourth chapter in the Mad Max series is an extraordinary experience from writer/director/producer George Miller that instantly throws you back into his unique, cool, crazy punk-inspired post apocalyptic world and doesn’t let up until the end credits roll. It’s left unclear as to whether we’re in re-boot or middle sequel territory here but it’s not relevant – with the exception of a different actor playing Max this tale could happily sit anywhere around the Road Warrior point in the story. Speaking of which, this film evokes the strongest of the original series hugely, with another relentless truck chase across the nuclear blast-scorched open plains of Australia. But as we’re learning with films like the upcoming Alien 5, if you’re going to dive back into a franchise, you may as well aim for the point where it was at its peak.
The premise is as simple as any from the original series. Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is kidnapped by a local gang to be used as a living blood donor to the radiation-poisoned War Boys. The leader of the War Boys, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Burn, who also played the villain Toecutter in the first installment), sends his chief trucker Furiosa on a quest for fuel but she goes rogue, freeing his five slave wives and driving them to safety. Cue an epic desert assault on the truck with Max along for the ride after he manages to escape capture. The ensuing chase (as with that in The Road Warrior) is reminiscent of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s epic French classic The Wages of Fear, with an unrelenting sense of tension that is sustained throughout. The constant threat of the pursuers is ever visually evident with the dust cloud above their vehicles always in plain sight on the horizon, and it creates a sense of dread felt previously in other films that depicted flight from an unstoppable menace; such as Spielberg’s Duel and the original Terminator.
If you’re a car chase junkie this delivers in spades. The production chop shop must have had a blast welding together the machines on display here – a 60’s VW Beetle here, a 70’s Cadillac hearse there – and they look phenomenal. The director wisely elects to avoid using any modern cars so we feel we’re in the exact world he created almost four decades ago. Credit must also go to the stunt team, the director of photography, production designer, editor and sound mixer as the design and execution of this film is largely achieved with practical effects and is an unparalleled feast for the senses. In fact, it’s often hard to conceive how many of the scenes were shot. There is one incredible sequence in particular where the bad guys attack the truck on poles – like Cirque de Soleil on wheels, it is truly mind-blowing
Hardy is a great choice to step into Gibson’s knackered biker boots. His moody presence is a good match for Mel in the original trilogy and his aptitude for the physical stuff works well. He is very much on the verge of mega-stardom here in the same way as Mel was in the original, so it’s an exciting time in the man’s career to be afforded this opportunity, and a brave move from the studio to cast him in such a megabucks production. Max is an anti-hero in the vein of The Man With No Name or Han Solo, and he’s perfectly written here – an enigmatic accidental hero looking out for himself but deciding to do the right thing and help the afflicted. Theron is a revelation as Furiosa – a one-armed truck driver on a mission to save the slave wives of the villain and find her own salvation. She’s the real heart of the film and her performance is a perfect balance of action and emotion. Nicholas Hoult provides the other notable performance as Nux, a disenchanted War Boy who desperately craves an idol to follow and who switches tracks to help Furiosa and Max. His role is off the wall but ultimately sympathetic, giving the young actor another opportunity to deliver on his promise as a child actor in About a Boy many years ago.
The man of the moment here is Miller. A little in the wilderness on directing detail for many years and notable largely for producing the Babe franchise in the 90’s and the Happy Feet animated series in the 00’s (yes really). On the evidence of this you’d think he had been cryogenically frozen for three decades and awoken to carry on from exactly the point where he left off. The screenplay feels like it was written with no concept or concern for current trends in blockbuster filmmaking or contemporary film methods, which is what makes it so compelling. Next to a number of recent franchises re-visits, such as the much-maligned Star Wars prequels and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, this feels really refreshing. One obvious nod to the digital age is a sequence where the rig is driven into a dustbowl nuclear storm with the villains in pursuit, and it’s one of the most intense and outstanding scenes in the whole film.
It remains to be seen whether this will turn into an ongoing series but for now, this has earned its place as THE franchise addition of the year worthy of every cent lavished upon it. Let’s see if a certain Lucasfilm property can beat it to the post before the year is out. Mr Miller has laid the gauntlet down firmly for Mr Abrams to pick up.
Mad Max: Fury Road is out now in UK cinemas
Words> Roy Swansborough