It’s not often that an artist releases a worthy follow-up to a classic piece of work after so much time has passed between the two. Madchester legends the Stone Roses released one of the great debut albums of all time in 1989, only to see its follow-up Second Coming arrive to almost universal disappointment five years later. While not a disaster by any means, the record was met with a worldwide sigh at the tainting of their legacy. After so long a gap the lure of nostalgia had set in, creating unrealistic expectations on all sides. And that may have been a best case scenario.
Chinese Democracy, Axl Rose’s 2008 Guns N’ Roses long player 15 years in the making, fared even worse and was all but redundant by the time the public got their hands on it through a mixture of fan apathy and long broken promises. People everywhere asked the question – after that long a gap is there any point in trying to recapture the magic? The answer should be, and has always been a resounding no. Whether it’s five years or fifteen, trying to reignite the spark after that much time is an absurdly bad decision all round. Or so general logic suggests.
Mad Max: Fury Road is the mind destroying counterpoint to that argument. Rumours of a sequel to 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome had lingered ever since its release, both gaining and losing steam in the decades that followed. Mel Gibson was attached to the project at various stages to reprise the role that made him famous, until the man who played Mad Max onscreen suddenly became Mad Mel off it with a string of reputation destroying incidents. Seemingly exiled by Hollywood, Gibson’s name was soon struck off the list, although by the time filming was set to begin his age would have ruled him out anyway.
The movie’s creator and director George Miller meanwhile had spent his years away from the franchise moving further and further from the genre he had made his name in, becoming more known for children’s fare like Babe and Happy Feet as time went by. Dragging this long promised sequel from development hell with Tom Hardy now in the lead role, Miller refused to let the series lie dormant any longer. And now, thirty years after its predecessor comes Fury Road. This film doesn’t so much dodge the many red flags that stood in its way as it does burn them to the ground, grinding them under its heels into the ashes of every other action movie of the last three decades.
Miller isn’t releasing this movie to the public – he’s unleashing it onto us like a feral dog on a wounded bunny. From the moment this new Max Rockatansky starts the engine on that legendary V8 Interceptor it is complete and utter mayhem. The post-apocalyptic wasteland Miller envisioned in his original trilogy is taken to a new level of despair this time around, exemplified by a range of dementedly brilliant characters. The evil tyrant Immortan Joe, a hideous figure with a back covered in boils, breathing through a mask and worshipped by bald, chalk-white minions called War Boys.
There’s the five wives, the enslaved breeders who provide the film its main plotline with their assisted escape from Joe’s clutches. There’s Nicholas Hoult’s Nux, the sickly War Boy who makes Max his “blood bag” and chains him to the front of his vehicle for the car chase to end all car chases. And at the centre of all the bedlam is Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa. As Joe tears across the desert hunting his prey, an army in tow crowded with warped creations like The People Eater and flamethrowing guitarist The Doof Warrior, Furiosa manages to make Max a passenger in his own story as she attempts to lead the wives to freedom aboard her “war rig”.
Hardy performs admirably as Max, his grizzled growl overcoming any accent inconsistencies. He doesn’t own the role the way Gibson did, but as shown in the underrated Warrior and even as the masked Bane in The Dark Knight Rises he has a physicality and menace to him that offer more in the way of characterization than most actors can with entire monologues. With little dialogue to work with, he adds a touch of lunacy to his Max in place of Gibson’s understated confidence that works well given the chaos around him.
Theron is the star here though. In a movie dripping with iconic images, her Furiosa stands out like a beacon. Much has been made of the movie’s strongly feminist undertones, a rarity for the genre, but in any context this is one of cinema’s great characters played by one of the great actresses of our generation. A strong and stoic centre amongst the anarchy, Theron plays Furiosa with a silent determination, a coiled wire of tension refusing to break until she gets these women to their destination.
All of this is just the canvas for Miller to spill his genius onto. There is chaos on the screen, but not in the filmmaking. Every set piece is a masterwork in action choreography and stuntwork, a two hour car chase that dares viewers to doubt it. Miller is brazen in almost every aspect here, from the absurdity of the costumes and settings to the minimalist plot. From the seemingly repetitive third act to the benching of his number one player in favour of an Oscar winner in a mechanical arm, crewcut and grease streaked warpaint who has since been stamped into popular culture. Best of all is the way it sprinkles pieces of the original trilogy into its DNA – the heart and soul of the original, its sequel’s dialogue-lite adrenaline ride and the third’s religious imagery.
This shouldn’t work. The fourth film in a series released thirty years after a third instalment universally agreed upon as the weakest of the franchise. It shouldn’t be this easy. Miller is completely revolutionizing the genre. This isn’t so much a second coming as it is a boot to the face of every action movie of the last three decades. This is how it’s done.