I wasn’t particularly interested when I first heard about Mad Max – Fury Road. I’ve reached that age where every other movie out of Hollywood is a remake or a reboot of something that I remember from my formative years, and almost all of them seem inferior to the originals. But it turns out that Fury Road is the real deal: I don’t remember enjoying a sci-fi/action movie this much since Aliens.
The plot would fit comfortably on a post-it note. I’ve seen a few people on Twitter saying this as if it’s a bad thing. It’s not. Most films have far more plot than they know what to do with. Fury Road has exactly as much as it needs. Which isn’t very much at all, because it’s a demented punk hymn to speed and violence.
Basically, post-apocalyptic warlord Immortan Joe keeps a harem of young wives in his desert citadel, until his war-rig driver Furiosa decides to help them escape: the rest of the film is one long chase sequence. The wives’ predicament, and Furiosa’s growing sympathy for them would fill the opening scenes of a lesser movie, but Fury Road skips all that: we don’t meet the wives until they’ve already escaped, at which point Joe’s discovery of their empty room and a single line of graffiti fill in all the back-story we need.
A few details of Furiosa’s past are sketched in later, but only in passing. Max himself, the burned-out case who ends up helping the women (although they don’t seem to need a lot of help), is even sketchier: is this a sequel or a reboot? We never learn where he has come from, or who the ghosts that haunt him are. There isn’t much dialogue at all. There are certainly no long speeches, and the storyline is so stripped-down that it would work as a silent movie (like Luc Besson’s Le Dernier Combat, another post-apocalyptic punch-up in which one of the things lost in the fall of civilization is the power of speech).
That said, what dialogue there is is pretty good. In Beyond Thunderdome Max met a gang of kids whose feral upbringing had left them talking in lines from Riddley Walker. It was an interesting idea, and it’s an aspect of that movie which I quite like, but it did feel a bit arch, somehow. In the new movie there’s a similar scuffed and pidgin-y feel to a lot of the lines, especially the ones spoken by Joe’s mob of Warboys, but it works much better.
The warboys are impressive in other ways, too. A motorcade of maniacs in crusty white face paint, driven by a crackpot religion which promises them entrance to Valhalla if they ‘die historic on the Fury Road’, their main role is as filmic cannon-fodder, to be flung about like broken puppets as their ramshackle pursuit vehicles crash, somersault and explode. But we see one of them, Nux in more detail, and he’s such a goofball, trying so earnestly to do the right thing according to the twisted world-view he’s been lumbered with, that we tend to assume the others are probably like that too. They’re on the wrong side, but they’re not evil, and somehow they’re not just the faceless minions most movie villains send to do their dirty work. Even Immortan Joe himself – a wrong ‘un if ever there was – is understandable; you can see how he’s built his fierce little desert kingdom, and why his boys revere him.*
The costumes and vehicle designs pack in all the detail which has been left out of the script. That religion I mentioned above is basically explained by the way the warboys spray their teeth with chrome paint before they start their kamikaze runs, turning their clenched teeth into radiator grilles. The whole social structure of the Citadel is explained in a couple of shots; Joe above controlling the water supply of the huddled Sebastiao Salgado masses below (some of whom look like giant caddis fly larvae under their bizarre scrap-built sun-shields).
There’s a rich seam of black humour running through the old Mad Max films. It’s buried deeper here, but it still breaks the surface quite often, mostly in the crazy designs – the hedgehog cars, the bendy-pole men, the bobble-head bird skull thing on the hood of Nux’s vehicle. A hatchet-faced character who arrives in a sports car body attached to the top of a small tank, dressed in a judge’s wig and robes made out of bullets, is probably the funniest thing I’ve seen all year. And, of course, Joe’s warband carries its own musicians with it – a battletruck made of amplifiers, crewed by a team of drummers and a heavy metal guitarist with a flame-throwing guitar. I’m sure the film is stuffed with CGI, but the vehicles were real, as far as I could tell, and you could almost smell the oil and hot metal.
There are only a couple of bits which ring false. When the war rig and its pursuers drive into a monster sandstorm it looks incredible from the outside, like a beige tsunami. Even once they’re in the heart of it there are impressive moments, an episode of Whacky Races reimagined by John Martin. But when cars start to be lifted off the ground, colliding and exploding and spilling their crews, it gets a bit computer-gamey and loses the sense of reality the film has been building. I also thought the final chase/battle was cut a bit too fast. At a point where it becomes important who is in which vehicle and where the vehicles are in relation to each other it all got a bit confusing. And I slightly missed the broad Australian accents which were such a feature of the old films – this one has a more international cast, and was shot in Namibia rather than the outback.
But the desert looks great, and so does the blue-filtered swampland where wierdoes shamble about on stilts, looking a bit like those horse-bat creatures at the end of The Dark Crystal. And it reminded me of one of the things I always liked best about the Mad Max movies: there’s a complete absence of buildings (unless you count the caverns at the start). Most post-apocalyptic stories take us into the ruins of our cities, but Max is much more hardcore than that – in his future there is only the desert, and the only shelter is in the cabins of speeding vehicles.
*I’m always telling people that I don’t like violent films and TV shows, but I guess what I actually object to is sadistic ones: gorily sadistic ones which linger over gratuitous shots of wounds and suffering, or casually sadistic ones like Raiders of the Lost Ark where the deaths of countless extras are treated as jolly fun for all the family. Fury Road doesn’t keep slipping in grisly details for the sake of it (there’s very little actual gore until the climax, when the big villains start getting their come-uppance, and even then it’s cut quickly away from, just minor details in the broad sweep of battle). And the way it treats the cannon fodder means that the carnage is never too jokey – the cars and the clothes and the exploding spears may be ridiculous, but the warboys’ deaths have weight.