Visual story-telling is a medium filmmakers have used consistently over the years; to convey deep themes, to create poetry, but mostly to let an idea sink in the most subtle way possible. Mad Max: Fury Road employs the same technique, but it has about as much subtlety as an ammunition-loaded tank-car with a head-banger strumming a metal-guitar which shoots fire on its deck. If you think that last reference was way too specific, that is because it is actually in the film. No, George Miller’s return to the franchise is the loudest, most explosive and exorbitant fare ever – and I mean that in the best way possible. This manages to do what every Michael Bay film aspires to do: to transcend the tough barrier of meaningless *crash* *boom* *sploink* and deliver a glorious punch to the face. A film almost entirely devoid of dialogue, it has undoubtedly the best action on screen in a while, and tears down through the wild like the Oil Rig that Charlize Theron’s character drives.
We are welcomed into a barren landscape, a citadel on which work a million half-lives – white-smeared, dry, skeleton-like men – and beneath them, a sea of the impoverished, holding out vessels and looking to the skies for water to wet their cracked skin. A disfigured and diseased man is suited up and readied for his public entrance with armoured plates and a Bane-like mouthpiece that instead of tubes reveals a bared set of jagged wooden teeth. His name is Immortan Joe and with a booming voice, he recites the religion to which the people have succumbed – and of which he is the God – before he lets free gushing waters to the masses below, before turning it off after a few seconds. He tells them not to get ‘addicted’ to water, not to depend on it, as it will soon consume them. And thus with very few words and more than amazing visuals, we are introduced to this world and understand how it functions. The Mad Max movies – yes, there were three before this one – aren’t exactly known for their continuity or definitive timelines that most franchises today try desperately to stick to. No, Miller’s set of movies have always been sort of a series of legends or tales of this character Max, whose wife and daughter were murdered by oil-thieves; who are a lot more disturbing and scary than they sound, what with the primary race in this post-apocalyptic world being one of resources. In this film too, we see that that crucial element of his past hasn’t been altered, although his face has, from the majestic Mel Gibson’s to the more rough-and-tough Tom Hardy’s. It is also interesting to note that Hugh Keays-Byrne who took on the role of the primary villain Toe-Cutter in the original Mad Max is the one donning the persona of Immortan Joe in this latest film. Max is seen to fall prey constantly to visions of his dead daughter crying out for help, haunted by his failure to save them, and that is about as much introspection that we shall get into his mind.
As I said before, Fury Road makes famous action movies such as Death Race and The Expendables seem almost silent and grim, and their stakes like the first level of any Nintendo game. To those who love the old Mad Max movies, a word of caution: this one is in a completely different league, I wouldn’t say better or worse, but it’s just not the same film. While the older ones continued to follow a plot and events that were the elemental portions of those movies, Fury Road exists purely in the visual realm, with very little story-telling through words. This also means that you cannot go into this film expecting a deep look into the human psyche or contemplation of serious themes; hell, even the sliver of depth it has about resource dearth is only to further the insane chase through the desert. This is not to say that it is a characterless and emotionless rampage as say, Transformers: Age of Extinction is, for Miller has chosen a very suitable cast for the minimal dialogue they have to limit themselves to: Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy can both carry entire films on their faces alone without so much as a full sentence being uttered. That is exactly what Theron accomplishes amidst this action extravaganza – to deliver a story of redemption to which we know neither the history nor the thoughts riddling her mind. She carries herself about with dripping confidence and swagger that succeeds in belittling every male character in this film, including Max. Indeed, this is more Imperator Furiosa’s (Theron’s character) film than anyone else’s, with Tom Hardy’s usually dominating enigma being overshadowed by the steely yet hopeful glances cast by Theron.
The previous films were all about the man Max and his tale as saviour to orphaned tribes, to cities and races. In Fury Road, he is incarcerated at the very start, carried into battle tied to a pike as a blood-bag for the ridiculously insane half-life Nux (Nicholas Hoult), until he escapes dramatically to take over the Oil Rig being manned by Furiosa. There is a particular moment here, when Max reaches over to take Furiosa and the five maidens – Immortan Joe’s sex slaves – hostage and it seems as though he will take off into the chase and in the process protect the women. In actuality, quite a different situation unfolds, wherein even the meekest of Joe’s maidens seem dismissive of Max, and it is in fact they, along with Furiosa who take Max along on their mission. This isn’t your typical action film with a hero who saves the day, but rather a struggle for survival on the unforgiving sands where truly everyone fights for their own ends. It’s just that these ends do tie up and coincide with each other’s at times. Above all, it is an insane, guzzoline-charged adrenaline rush that will get your heart racing to the beat of the drums actually carried on cars into the chase, and will grip you with an insanity that resonates with the half-lives’ who are giddy from dehydration and skewed religious fever. The costumes resound and match perfectly with the treacherous and desperate, oil-stained landscape of yellow and grey, and there is incredible detail put into everything with one objective: to make every image as insane while limiting itself to reality.
To talk of the action itself is to recite paragraph after paragraph of pure praise, for it is strides beyond anything that can be seen in action films today, or even the past decade. While some critics have hailed this as the best film of the decade, I completely disagree, but would nod my head to the fact that it probably is the best action and energy put to film in the past decade. Every fight, every hand-to-hand combat on top of blazing metal-clad vehicles in-motion is enthralling and succeeds in keeping up the tension by not resorting to shaky camera action. In fact, the camera for the most part is surprisingly still and all the action is actually performed by people, which is a relief from the patch-up job that most directors resort to. The stunt work is brilliant, and visceral to the very core, actually instilling within the audience a fear for the characters’ lives and the atmosphere of the wretched desert. There is something, some inherent magical quality that practical effects and real explosions have, that continues to elevate them above and beyond anything we can conjure out of a computer screen. It’s the reason why the Star Wars prequels failed to carry the mythical quality of the original trilogy, it’s why Electro was pitiful in Amazing Spiderman 2, and it’s the reason why we shall crucify Transformers films as long as they are being made by Michael Bay. And that’s exactly why this film gets the stakes needed for an action film right: with its most realistic action pieces and weaponry, set in this desperate wasteland of Earth, every single one of us in the audience shudder every second with baited breath as no one truly is safe. Every frame of Fury Road reeks of energy, a blinding mania that on seeing the incredibly detailed and above all real set-pieces – the metal-amalgam vehicles with spikes protruding on all sides, the drummers riding them giving steady beat to the chase, and the fire-breathing metal guitar that I referred to at the start – makes you scream like Nux: ‘What a day! What a lovely day!’
Talking of Nux, I’ve seen Nicholas Hoult as Hank ‘the Beast’ McCoy in X Men: First Class, but his performance here is simply unnerving and ridiculous to the extreme. I especially love one of his very first scenes down in the mines at the citadel where he fights with another half-life to earn the chance to drive on the fury road alongside Immortan Joe, who he believes will ‘witness’ him and carry him into Valhalla (heaven). Nux is an insane, religious adrenaline-junkie who worships Joe more than anything and has his beliefs put to the test through the fury road. It is he who has the best character arc through this nightmare chase, and his last scene just makes for payoff for everything he was up till then. I particularly liked the portrayal of the half-lives in the film; their bodies white-painted and black around their eyes, with cracked parched lips on which they keep spraying chrome, and with a certain agitated lunacy and antics that chew the scenery around. Talking of the scenery, aside from the action pieces and the vehicles themselves, Fury Road boasts amazing cinematography, something that your average action film doesn’t deserve; and it allows the movie to rise above the sands, to stare in amazement at the majesty of the landscape in the pauses between the action scenes. There is a particular frame, where right after throttling chase action and clash of metal, Furiosa decides to head into the sandstorm raging within the fury road, and we shift to a wide angle shot of the huge wave of sand into which the tiny Rig is heading – nothing short of breathtaking.
I have to admit now that action isn’t a genre that I particularly indulge in, and therefore I have tried to review this from as objective a perspective as I could. That said, Mad Max: Fury Road was a thrill to watch, nay it was a rollercoaster ride through the sandstorm that had me clutching at the seats in front of me and resist the urge not to scream out loud in an attempt to ride on the adrenaline rush. The movie is not only breathtaking in its visuals, but it also has you gasping for breath with the pure kinetic energy that it exudes from every frame. It’s visual storytelling at the other extreme: not poetic, but an outrageous symphony of most epic proportions, one that neglects dialogue and dwells instead on the insanity unfolding on screen. Sure, there are times when you realize that the story itself isn’t all that brilliant, and neither is the plot cleverly filled with twists and secrets; but you will forget all of that once you hop in for the ride through the fury road. Fury Road delivers exactly what it promises: an unrelenting, ridiculously maniacal chase with strong acting and enigmatic characters, even if a little out of depth at times. And it is exactly the right amount of adrenaline and guzzoline injected into every striking image to convince you that this just might be the best action movie of the decade.