MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Mad Max: Fury Road


U.S.-Australia: George Miller, 2015


1. Overdrive

Head-banging, car-crashing action movies with minimal dialogue and maximum carnage may make a lot of money, but they’ve also gotten (deservedly) a bad odor for some film-lovers, including, sometimes, me. George Miller’s sequel-and-a-half Mad Max: Fury Road though, demonstrates how to make those seeming clichés work, how to rev that engine up again. It shows us that almost any movie genre can sometimes produce a masterpiece — even if you have to create a whole world and then blast it apart to make it.

In Fury Road, the world, at least the one that most of us live in, has definitely been blown apart, or rotted away. But somehow, Miller, his astonishing crew and his highly gifted acting company make that wreckage seem marvelous, terrific, crazily beautiful. The fourth film in Miller’s “Mad Max” series — which began back in 1979, with a low-budget scruffily exciting Australian action movie starring the then-unknown Mel Gibson as Max — Fury Road is the most elaborate, the most expensive (more than 150 million dollars), the most thrill-packed and the most gloriously mad of all the Maxes: a non-stop hell-on-wheels super-thriller that virtually consists of one long, wild and violent chase through the Australian (actually Namibian) desert.

The film is not just another sequel, but a donnybrook on wheels in which a mob of grotesque, insanely vicious, post-Apocalyptic bad guys and fascist creeps pursues Max (now played by Britisher Tom Hardy of Bronson and Locke), along with five runaway brides and their kick-ass female general Furiosa (played in what will surely be one of her defining roles by Charlize Theron).

Furiosa, or the Imperator Furiosa as she‘s also known, is a lady Road Warrior who’s trying to rescue the five women, one of whom is pregnant, from their slaveringly evil buffoon Alpha captors and make it back to a matriarchal refuge run by an all-female society, the Vuvalini (Joy Smithers, Antoinette Kellerman, Melita Jurisic, Gillian Jones and others), located somewhere in the sunburnt wilderness that our water-starved and natural-resource-bereft world has become after the bomb or global warming or whatever the Hell happened.

Furiosa is the female counterpart of Mad Max, and, in those two intentionally iconic roles, Theron and Hardy generate the chemistry of a bottle of nitroglycerin, hurled and exploding. At first the two seem to hate each other, get under each other‘s skin. They’re one of the ultimate feuding motion picture couples, expressing themselves through fierce combat and slashing insult. But, like all great movie couples, or anti-couples, they grow on each other. And on us.

Both of them are refugees and outlaws, fleeing from a bloody awful tyrant warlord in a mask, and armor, riding the hood of a couple of Cadillacs lashed together. This is the hideously amused and amusing fiend, the Immortan Joe (played by Hugh Keats-Byrne, who was the memorably grotesque Toecutter in the very first Mad Max). Joe is chasing the Imperator, Max and company, with a troupe of vicious Hitlerjugend-style War Boys and his two villainous sons: the iron-muscled man-mountain Rictus Erectus (Nathan Jones) and the eerie childlike Corpus Colossus (Quentin Kenihan). Also backing the dictatorship: the People Eater (John Howard), boss of the area’s fuel-producing center Gas Town, and the local munitions manufacturer, The Bullet Farmer (Richard Carter);

The source of Immortan Joe’s power, and that of his oddball kill-crazy despot sons is a huge mountainous water reservoir called The Citadel, located in the scorching desert (The Wasteland), whose inhabitants they have turned into chattels and serfs, and whose women have become their unwilling sex slaves and breeders. As Max (at first Immortan‘s prisoner, then his nemesis), and Furiosa and her Furiosa Five (and also a war boy turned romantic sidekick named Nux, played by Nicholas Hoult), hurtle their way through the Wasteland, the Immortan‘s army is only part of the gauntlet of weird and wonderful menaces they have to outsmart and outrun: a high-speed rogue‘s gallery that includes the soaring Polecats, acrobatic warriors who swing from one racing vehicle to another on flexible poles (played by actor-gymnasts from Canada’s renowned Cirque de Soleil); the underground Buzzard Tribe who rise terrifyingly out of the depths of the desert, and the Rock Riders, who lurk and ambush from the canyon rims above.

All these colorful and stone-murderous foes show their scurvy faces or zoom along behind our anti-hero and heroines as they plunge through the Wasteland (a kind of comic book Monument Valley, shot in the Namib desert in West Africa), the gals on their mammoth War Rig (fashioned, or so the press notes explain, from a Czech Tatra, a Chev Fleetmaster, and a six-wheel-drive 18-wheel truck.) and Max occasionally on his Interceptor, the high speed vehicle (made from a 1974 black Ford Falcon coupe) he’s had (in various incarnations), since the beginning. What transpires, stretching over most of the two hours it takes Miller’s story (co-written with Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris) to race by, is probably the single most amazing movie car-chase since the great old silent movie days when D. W. Griffith used to race the train in Intolerance.

Most of the great movies, including Intolerance, can be translated or translated back into novels, plays or other literary works — even if that wasn’t what they were to begin with. Not so Mad Max: Fury Road. In fact, if all this sounds a lot like a wildly magnified and over-elaborated comic book or video game — well, that’s obviously part of Miller’s intention, as well as part of the current Road Warrior saga’s post-movie agenda.

It’s also strangely enough, part of what makes it great. That someone can take what is essentially a comic book/video game scenario and cram it so full of color and detail and back-story and raise it to such operatic heights and such loony grandeur is impressive in itself — though that’s what been intended and sort of happening (not this well) in some other comic book super-hero or action movies.

None of them are as good, or as well-made, or as  mind-blowingly exciting, as Mad Max: Fury Road.

2. Dead Stop

Mad Max, of course, isn’t a super-hero. He’s a lot more like Clint Eastwood‘s bounty-hunting wanderer in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: a pulp or movie genre hero with a human, vulnerable dimension, carried to mesmerizing extremes. In playing him, Hardy doesn’t show too much of Mel Gibson’s matinee idol qualities in the role. He’s tougher, bluffer, maybe a bit more virile, and he doesn’t quite have the bedroom eyes that made Gibson (before his meltdown and PR problems), attractive to both male and female audiences. This Mad Max, like Daniel Craig’s James Bond, is less sexy than tough — though his toughness doesn‘t make him immune to the pain and torture the villains dish out. That hardcase demeanor and non-seductiveness might be the reason Fury Road seems to tip so much toward Theron’s Furiosa, whose shaven head and burning eyes make her, paradoxically, look like more of a classic action hero. Or a non-classic action heroine. And definitely a sexy one.


That sense of human vulnerability is heightened here by the way Fury Road was shot — mostly with actual vehicles and gadgets and people doing actual stunts, and with much less CGI or special effects work than we‘ve become accustomed to. As it is, the slam bang achievements of the movie’s second unit director and stunt co-ordinator Guy Norris, whose association with Miller began with stunt work in 1981’s The Road Warrior, is also one of Fury’s great plusses, as is the gorgeous sun-splashed cinematography of veteran cinematographer John Seale and the super-orchestral score by the movie’s rock ’n roll composer Tom Holkenborg aka Junkie XL — much better, more Bernard Herrmannish and more ambitious here than he was with the action score for Run All Night.


All of this is woven together expertly by George Miller, who has been working on this project for a couple of decades, starting back during a time when he could have cast Gibson, and whose persistence suggests one of those grand, obsessive projects that often don’t get made and sometimes make emotional wrecks out of their creators. Mad Max: Fury Road not only took twenty years to prepare and complete. (Miller wasn’t exclusively devoted to it during that time.) It was mapped out with over 3,500 storyboards (by Miller and others), thousands of workers and actors and collaborators, and no less than 150 drivable vehicles — resulting in 400 hours of footage, assembled and cut down expertly by Miller’s longtime editor (and wife), Margaret Sixel.

Considering all the problems and logistics, it’s a movie that shouldn’t work this well, but does, and a movie that takes what usually seems wrong and excessive in our pictures today — the excessive violence, the endless car-chases and crashes, the near absence of dialogue and the limitations on humanity, interaction, and psychological depth — and somehow makes it right. It gives us human depth where most shows of its type just give us another comic book or video game, inflated to preposterous proportions.

And after all that, Pitch Perfect 2 outgrossed it this weekend. As Furiosa might say: Never underestimate the power of a woman, or of women. Anyway, there will be another Mad Max, they say, and one hopes it won’t take twenty years and another 150 million to make (though in the latter case, it probably will), and that it cooks and blazes and roars along like this one. If the world is going to end, it might as well look this good when it does. It might as well be George Miller and Margaret Sixel and Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron that rev it up and show us the death throes. They grow on you.


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And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
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