It is not often that the images and sounds of an action film can linger in one's mind for long after the drive home if the director wasn't by someone whose name rhymes with Bistopher Bolan. But that is precisely what has occurred—and continues to occur—with George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road, a film for which I had no expectations but yet utterly blew me away. It is not only one of the best films of 2015 so far (if not the best) but one of the best action movies of all time.
I mention Miller because he is the creator of the original Mad Max films from the late 70s and early-mid 80s. Those films starred a pre-insanity Mel Gibson as the eponymous hero, and had a lasting effect on the way we visualize the world post-apocalypse. The popular video games Borderlands and Fallout are indebted to Miller on a Lannister-family level, as are moments in pop culture as insignificant as throwaway gags in Family Guy. Any time you see a chump wearing a hockey mask and a single pauldron on his shoulder, Miller should be paid royalties.
It would have been easy for Miller to rest on his well earned laurels from his work on the previous three films (Beyond Thunderdome's quality is frequently called into question; I haven't seen it, or any of the other films), but he instead chooses to up the ante not only with the entire film, but with individual scenes as the film progresses. The first indication that MM:FR was something special was the fact that the original visionary was returning to resurrect his property (this does not always work; see: The Vanishing, Funny Games). And at 69, Miller deserves to take a break. Yet he does not with this film, by any stretch of the meaning.
The first area in which Miller shows that he is ready for the 21st century is in the predicament of "Mad" Max Rockatansky at the very outset of the film. Max (played now by Tom Hardy) is on the run, both from his checkered past and everyone else in the ruined world, but he is handily caught and thwarted escape—so quickly that Miller even speeds the framerate up in order to more quickly close the deal (and heighten tension). Max has been kidnapped by a mob of snarling, mindless War Boys, all of whom are sickly and to one of whom Max has been IV'd in order to provide his universal-donor, valuable blood to keep the brute going. Max then spends the rest of the first third of the film in some sort of thrall, whether it's in chains or even strapped to the front of a speeding murder-truck like the world's most vulnerable land-based figurehead. Strapped down and stripped of all agency, Max has been emasculated about as much as he can take.
Enter Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), the crew-cutted second-in-command to the head honcho dictator of this world, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Ostensibly on a mission to obtain valuable gasoline resources, Furiosa instead absconds with Joe's coterie of supermodel wives by means of her ludicrously enormous War Rig, an eighteen wheeler with more ways to kill an individual than the North Korean army. Thus begins the chase that motivates the remainder of the film (roughly 90 additional minutes) that mercifully lets up only briefly enough for the audience to catch its breath.
Furiosa is decidedly the protagonist of the film in the most literary sense. She drives the action, and is driven to change because of the action. Once she and Max join tentative forces, she literally takes the wheel from him because she is more suitable to the job. Indeed, Max can't land a proper rifle shot, and so he concedes the gun to Furiosa, who uses Max's shoulder as a bipod (and ear as a sounding board). Even further emphasizing the film's status as a stealth feminist treatise is Furiosa's presence in the title (the Road is filled with Fury only because she's driving on it). Finally, she accomplishes the most maternal of all actions, which is to save her children from the clutches of an abusive man.
On those abusive men: there's a lot of them in MM:FR, as there are in real life. That is the ultimate ace in the hole for this movie, because it acknowledges the legacy from which it originates (macho, testosterone-fueled action boom-em-ups) while simultaneously dismantling it. Hardy is the perfect choice for Furiosa's foil, because we've seen him take care of business in all kinds of ways in other films (physically as Bane and in Lawless; verbally in Locke; and mentally in Inception), and we are then shocked by his unimpressiveness in this film. His abilities are ultimately dependent on and subordinate to the success of the women around him—including some of the more crafty and self-sufficient wives of Immortan Joe. When he's not being used as a so-called "blood bag," Max is pushed to the front lines in the most vulnerability-exploiting and dangerous ways.
To the film's credit, it manages to wrangle its psyche-destroying action by means of precise editing, excellent music and sound cues, and expressive, nonverbal acting from the leads. There's never a moment throughout the movie's numerous action scenes in which you are unsure of the location of the principal characters in relation to one another, a state of filmmaking that is virtually non-existent in this post-Bourne world of visual incoherence. This proves to be especially important when our heroes are driving in particularly extreme circumstances. Naturally, this leads to more difficult shots on the part of the director, who delivers death-defying stunts by means of actual actors rather than invented ones in front of a green screen. When the actual lives of the actors are at stake, anything that seems to be remotely scary, difficult and unsafe is heightened even further.
Words simply do not capture the magnificence of Mad Max: Fury Road. This is atypical of me, and certainly not encouraged as a general practice, but I advocate for the viewing of the theatrical trailer, because it is what ultimately pulled me into being excited about this movie, even before reviews and advance screenings came about. Film is, obviously, a visual medium, and words can only go so far in capturing the weight of their meaning. Instead, see MM:FR for yourself (or at least the trailer) you will be unable to do anything but desire to see this movie. That desires does not end even sitting through it the first time.