Mad Max: Fury Road may be the great action film of our time.
I use this phrase advisedly: since time is the authority on art, no one could, would, or should call it the best of all time until humanity dies out. Which, incidentally, we are on the brink of doing in this splendid film.
Anyone who doesnʼt know Mad Max has a serious gap in their cinematic education. Aside from helping to send Mel Gibson into orbit, it is an indefatigable bulwark in the history of post-apocalyptic thrillers and any film where cars do anything other than go fast. Unlike a great many spurious takes on a dystopic future, writer/director George Miller and his original screenwriter drew on the ferocity spawned by the 1973 oil crisis in Australia and imagined a world where gas is more precious than gold. A great sequel would be followed by a less successful one.
Fast forward to 2015. Miller has diversified as few could have imagined, including adding the Happy Feet franchise to his directorial oeuvre. He proved once he can turn a bigger budget into a bigger movie without waste or sacrifice, with Mad Max: Fury Road, he provides us with the action film we didnʼt know we needed.
We open on our eponymous hero, here embodied for the first time by the redoubtable Tom Hardy. Heʼs shaken and haunted by his hitherto escapades, so much so that he ends up on the wrong side of a wheezy warlord, embodied by the original filmʼs antagonist Hugh Keays-Byrne, whose minions capture and bleed Max on the eve of the latest campaign for guns and gasoline. Only this time, the warlordʼs trusted right-hand woman Furiosa, a spectacular Charlize Theron, has a redemptive ulterior motive; free the warlordʼs sex slaves to the last green place she can remember. Unsurprisingly, Max ends up being her unwitting expediter, and where he travels, action and violence is oft to follow.
Paragraphs, pages, and entire volumes could be scribed on this chase. One of the many problems with contemporary action films, like the proceeding sequels to the original Taken, is that they fail to capitalize on the notion of a larger plot that engenders the smaller entanglements that make or break the rest of the film. Every moment in Mad Max: Fury Road surges with sinfully octane delights, from the hand-to-hand dissensions to the demolition derby displayed with explosive charisma and astonishing authenticity. Each weapon, and each vehicle, is predicated on their very real ability to inflict the maximum devastation on each conveyance and its operator. Imagination rules the day, from steampunk siege weapons to exploding spears to more ʻconventionalʼ flamethrowers. And as each attack is repelled or internalized, the drivers must make adjustments established on the legitimate operating procedures of their given rigs.
Meanwhile, Miller understands, better than most, that movies must move. Endless descriptive dialogue is sacrificed at the altar of showing, not telling. We understand the characters and their actions not by what they say, but what they do, and, more importantly, how they do it. Particular deference is given to the characterization of the sex slaves. What other action director would hire Eve Ensler of The Vagina Monologues to better ensure the authenticity of a group of women whose bodies and minds are enslaved by a man who views them as property? Yes, Mad Max: Fury Road is a feminist action film. It even passes the Bechdel test with flying colors.
Even better, like the most creative films in the genre, the stakes are not mired in the fate of mankind. Honestly, how boring would it be if these characters were trying to save the world? The drama of Mad Max: Fury Road is much more localized, fixated on how Furiosa can achieve the goal of freeing these women to a better society, bringing them a modicum of hope in an apocalyptic world where the mere concept creates a utopia out of a thought exercise.
Mad Max: Fury Road goes one better than sci-fi films as thoughtful, but obvious, as the daunting District 9. Whereas Neill Blomkamp seemed adamant in wearing the socially and historically relevant themes of his film as a badge of honor, Miller is reserved, never bogging down the narrative with digressions delineating the obvious sexism of a male-dominated society, the self-serving nature of political dictatorship, the evils wrought by hoarding resources which should be a natural bequest, and the emergence of simple human decency in a world where survival is the status quo. These theses never overpower the might and heft of what is first and foremost a truly singular action film. They are, instead, incorporated organically into an odyssey of refreshingly interesting character dynamics and invigorating duels.
Put simply, there is never a dull moment in Mad Max: Fury Road. Itʼs intelligent, thrilling, well-written, superbly acted, masterfully staged, and beautifully shot with a type of singular vision that is woefully absent from the multiplexes. If there is justice in a world where films as lousy as Beasts of the Southern Wildand American Sniper can snag multiple nominations at the Academy Awards, Mad Max: Fury Road should lead the pack this year. Why is this important? Because awards given in a realm as subjective as the arts should reflect achievement regardless of genre. And no film this year has achieved as much as Mad Max: Fury Road. Itʼs simply a miracle.