One of the interesting side affects of the ongoing remake craze in Hollywood is the fact that purity has become a problem. After a few too many half hearted reboots the audience has gotten wise to the mercenary rebranding of blank scripts. The ongoing arms race has finally brought us round to digging in the old wells again for untainted product. Increasingly, the word of the original creators is sought, adherence to the source material is considered virtuous, and the knowing nods and cameos greeted with great aplomb. Trying to make something both good and popular is extremely difficult, so recently the studios have abandoned twenty years of patronizing guidance and let the nerds gorge themselves. Which brings us the peculiarity of Mad Max: Fury Road. Some twenty years after Tina Turner helped plow the franchise into a sand dune for good, the original director is back. George Miller, best known to most people under 40 for talking pigs and penguins, helped turn 80’s action cinema on it’s head with the original Australian trilogy, but while its former star Gibson has long since spoiled in the fridge, the director’s chair has boomeranged back ready for action. It’s surprising that the current studio climate is willing to trust a $150 million hard R film with this guy. The result is they get the pure product they were after; Mad Max Fury Road is less an update than a roll down memory lane, a return to the physicality and weirdness of that unique band of 80’s action cinema that Miller, Verhoeven and Carpenter were working in, united by their undying love of mutants.
Mad Max begins in media res. Eschewing an origin story, a pack of Warboys overrun our dusty hero minutes into the film. The world has been over for a long time, and besides an Aussey accent, Max is unattached . An unexplained flashback to past trauma suggests a story which never gets told, and the film is all the better for it. Instead, the story mostly concerns the drama unfolding in the Warboy camp, where rogue elements are undermining the fascist Immortan Joe. The film quickly steers into the storm, filling the remaining runtime with bullets, gas, dust, and steel.
The events that drive Max (Tom Hardy), Immortan Joe (Hughes Keayes-Byrne, returning from the original), and his spunky lieutenant Furiosa (Charlize Theron) into the race are understated, reasonable but uncomplicated. Fury Road is really about the set dressing, the practical effects and the bizarreness. Filling every corner of the film, the mutants are baked right into the script; names like Slit, The Bullet Farmer, and Rictis Erectus round out the pro-nouns. Immortan Joe’s brother is like a pupa, his warriors are covered in mysterious cancerous lumps, and I don’t even know what’s going on with the crows. Crucially, all of this weirdness is completely inessential to the plot, none of it necessary to put Max behind the wheel. This is the sort of detail that gets clipped, forgotten, or never conceived of in the first place when workshopped tenth draft scripts try to recapture lost magic. Mutants are instant world building, their presence is a two second didactic on how far the Earth has skewed since air conditioning went the way of the dodo. They contribute to the frenzied state of Fury Road, demonstrating how only the weird hard bastards can carve out a niche in this type of environment.
That carving is the main event. Everyone uses heavily modified cars to shoot bullets, flames, and explosives, which resonate with the satisfying chunkiness of practical effect work. Miller claims that 90% of the effects were done with real models, cars, explosives, and actors, with most of the remainder spent on a single setpiece. It pays off; CG is getting better every year but the disconnect is still there, the brain still knows it’s fake most of the time. A little movie magic on an actual exploding car, however, is an actual event. Especially considering that the vehicle fleet is made up of weighty diesel powered battle trucks, avoiding the antigravity of CG helps Fury Road distill down to higher purity. The most awkward scene, where something tethered flies at the screen after an explosion, is painfully obvious CG and could easily have been cut. The rest of the time, Fury Road is the sort of straight ahead action movie everyone always promises but never seems to deliver. It relies on its weirdness to build the characters and setting through osmosis, rarely wasting a breadth. We don’t need someone to tell us Furiosa is strong yet vulnerable by having some lout shout “Why won’t you just let me in??” It’s obvious from her bizarre mask and actions what she’s about. This film’s temporal economy is very modern, introducing people on the fly and in the moment, lingering for just a second here and there. Fury Road succeeds as an update by fusing the gritty weirdness of Miller’s original work with modern storytelling tricks.
Another modern touch that bears mentioning is the feminist undercurrent. Miller is no stranger to strong women, Tina Turner ruled the Thunderdome after all. Here however he takes it a step further, shifting much of the spotlight away from Max and the Warboys and onto the various women that drive the plot. It’s an interesting move in a movie that doesn’t really need it, but it does hint at the thoughts driving Miller in this update. He seems just a little bit bored with the status quo, avoiding the action hero climax a bit in addition to cramming in weird gross out details. Although the message is somewhat obvious (a girl can shoot you in the face just as easily as a boy), it still comes off as refreshing, which is too bad. It’s a nice addition to the slew of recent films like Hanna and Haywire that let women snap elbows and fire guns.
Perhaps it would be most fitting to close on Fury Road’s pallet. Composing a visual feast, the brilliant blue sky looms over the rust red desert. Explosions bloom like red and orange roses, and the cars that race over the landscape are all chrome and black engine grease. The film is shot and processed in high contrast, each particular shot a hyperreal collage. This is the core of Fury Road; make something that stands out, that features a new strain of spectacle. In this sense, it is nearly a perfect action movie, even without doing anything particularly special with choreography or setpieces. Mad Max is well served by this compelling revival of the old genes.