**SPOILERS for the plot of “Mad Max: Fury Road.”**
George Miller’s fourth installment of the “Mad Max” franchise begins and ends at the Citadel, a canyon fortress housing a last warped gasp of humanity. In-between, the only reason the characters of “Mad Max: Fury Road” step down off their salvaged vehicles — the Interceptor, War Rig, and Gigahorse being just a few — is by force. Dust-storm tornados, collapsed passages, or a well-timed explosive thunderstick to an engine that cuts the speed to zero; meanwhile, everything else is cast into relief by a blurred background as Miller’s intense and ambitious action thunders across its Wasteland.
Films of the post-apocalyptic genre that Miller helped create are often bound by the decay of its world, or made incoherent by the lack of internal logic within it. The “Mad Max” ripoffs stick mohawks and leather on a bed of senseless violence, while more stripped-down concepts pit beleaguered protagonists against the hollowed-out technology on which they relied.
But Miller’s vision for his series has always been one of repurposed invention, and the same holds true for ‘Fury Road.’ The director stated that, in his universe, “hot rods and muscle cars not only survive, they become almost fetishized, like religious artifacts”. This mindset — and the fact that Miller and co-writers Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris created backstories for nearly every character, vehicle, and prop — wrings energy from its surroundings. It also conveys character through primal action, little dialogue, and with the Doof Warrior always plunging Slipknot riffs a few hundred yards behind.
It helps that ‘Fury Road’ is only barely connected to any franchise-building timeline — there’s no end credit sting revealing Max’s daughter to be a Road Warrior two towns over. Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) and his Interceptor are captured by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), an ailing overlord of the Citadel, and made a living IV “blood bag” for one of Joe’s minion War Boys, Nux (Nicholas Hoult). Focus quickly moves to Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who’s taken her War Rig tanker off its fuel supply course and further into the desert with Joe’s five harem Wives (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Zoe Kravitz, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee and Courtney Eaton). This leads to Joe and the War Boys pursing her with all of his forces, including Nux and Max attached, and eventually Max and Furiosa form an uneasy alliance to find the utopian “green place” of Furiosa’s people, and possibly redemption while they’re at it.
“Furious 7” remains the nearest surface comparison to “Fury Road” this year, but I’d rather place Miller’s film further in execution toward Abbas Kiarostami’s taxi-set “Ten” than agree. Tokyo, L.A., Abu Dhabi, the Caucasus Mountains — “Furious 7” chose to define raised stakes by stuffing every series character in as many locations with the largest potential for CG-aided stunts possible. ‘Fury Road’ does just the opposite, its plot going from one end of the same desert and back again with only a few character additions and subtractions.
When prepping to make “On The Road”, director Walter Salles wrote in the NY Times that no two road movies look alike. “In terms of film grammar, the road movie is limited only by one obligation: to accompany the transformations undergone by its main characters as they confront a new reality.” ‘Fury Road’ is not exactly rife with character transformation, and only one real change of reality, but it is unlike any film of the genre you’ve seen before. It takes the forward movement of the road movie literally — almost every plot point or twist takes place through on-the-go action and not exposition — and comes out feeling extremely fresh in the process.
Actually, the film most resembles John Ford’s 1939 western “Stagecoach” in its construction, as both feature a ragtag group forced together by a common goal of destination, and numerous character-building obstacles along the way. ‘Fury Road’ has five stops to the three seen in “Stagecoach,” but they are extremely brief, and include: Max’s battle with Furiosa, after discovering her and the Wives, is cut short by an incoming Immortan Joe; Furiosa’s negotiation of a shaky deal at a canyon pass quickly crumbles; when the War Rig becomes stuck in mud, its wheels are turning the entire time. Otherwise, they remain on the road, with even a birth occurring at 120mph (“Stagecoach” had to pause at the Apache Wells outpost to hit that plot point).
However, that birth from one of Immortan Joe’s Wives highlights a key tweak to convention from Miller. At the Los Angeles press conference I attended the director relayed that, while dreaming up the possible story for ‘Fury Road’ a major breakthrough came when he realized the MacGuffin for the film could be human cargo — the Wives. By Alfred Hitchcock’s most well-known definition, the MacGuffin falls away in importance as the plot takes its turns. In the journey from worrisome eye candy to the optimistic, humanistic element of an all-too-bleak landscape, Huntington-Whiteley, Kravitz, Keough, Lee and Eaton actually add some needed thematic weight to Miller’s focus on redemption and victimhood.
Not that there’s long-winded exposition about their Eve Ensler-guided backstories. Just as the scars on the Wives’ arms tell us all we need to know, the details in the production design and actors’ performances example the power of when a vision is fully realized onscreen. There are a few false steps: Max’s flashbacks to his wife and daughter are weak moments of haunted house imagery, and when dialogue does eke out it tends toward the on-the-nose dynamic that the film avoids otherwise. But thankfully we have to consult Miller afterwards to discover the film takes place 45 years in the future, after “economic collapse…wholesale climate change, some nuclear skirmish on the other side of the globe.”
Miller also approaches his villains from a twisted vantage point of practicality: Immortan Joe has built a society of breast milk for the rich and Aqua Cola (or simply, water) for the poor, with a wheel as a religious symbol and Viking-esque promises of reaching Valhalla for the War Boys sacrificing themselves (“I live, I die, I live again,” they scream before imbibing chrome paint and leaping onto enemy vehicles). Obviously the notion of suicidal warriors has taken on a changed significance than when Miller first starting writing the film in 1999, but he notes the connection as simple proof that “history always repeats itself.” It’s also an idea that bridges Miller’s thematic touchpoints to the eye-popping action delivered by Miller and his 1000-plus crew members.
“Central to this story is the War Rig: a big tanker truck covered in spikes,” Miller said in an excellent Wired article concerning the film’s stunts. “I had to think of a way people could get on it, like pirates boarding a ship. I saw a performance with people on flexible poles, swaying in the wind. I thought, ‘Oh, that would be an interesting way to avoid the spikes.’ Which is why half the action takes part on top of enormous 25-foot poles.”
And with that, the first proper, story-driven explanation of a stunt in 2015 was recorded. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another quarter-decade more to hear the next, while also appreciating the intense resolve and creative energy put into Miller’s long-delayed masterpiece.
“Mad Max: Fury Road” is now playing.