Mad Max: Fury Road is visually brilliant, action-packed, and thrilling — but has it been a bit too overhyped and overrated?
[WARNING: This review contains some spoilers]
A lot of praise has been thrown around for Mad Max: Fury Road with various reviewers hailing it as the best action film of the decade, an instant classic, and a masterpiece of the genre. But while I agree that it is indeed a very good action film, it is not flawless.
Mad Max: Fury Road is the fourth installment and semi-reboot of George Miller’s iconic 1980s post-apocalyptic film series. This time Tom Hardy steps into the role of former cop turned drifter Max Rockatansky that Mel Gibson made famous in the original three films.The new film is essentially one giant car chase, which is both the film’s greatest strength and greatest weakness. The action kicks off when Imperator Furiosa, a high-ranking soldier in service to warlord Immortan Joe, goes rogue and flees across the wastelands with his prized possessions– five women he uses as sex slaves and breeders. Max, a drifter with a tragic past, reluctantly joins the women’s flight to freedom as they are chased by Immortan Joe’s army.
Many have rightfully praised the film’s overt feminist themes and strong female characters, in particular, Imperator Furiosa, an action-hero in the vein of Ellen Ripley. Furiosa, played wonderfully by Charlize Theron, is a force to be reckoned with – a fierce, powerful, and highly skilled warrior who can out match Max himself. This is communicated perfectly at one point in the film when Max begrudgingly hands Furiosa a rifle and lets her use his shoulder as a mount to take out a distant enemy. He doesn’t like to admit it, but he knows that she’s the better shot. And yet, the film’s feminism only goes so far– the other main female characters, Joe’s wives, are not as well drawn and don’t leave as strong an impression as Furiosa. For most of film they more or less fit the standard damsels in distress role and do very little except serve as the film’s MacGuffins. Nevertheless, the story’s overall focus on women fighting to free themselves from a tyrannical patriarchal society is refreshing and allows Mad Max: Fury Road to stand out in a genre often defined by masculine machismo and derring-do.
On the visual side, the film is incredible– from the inventive character and vehicle designs to the beautifully shot action sequences that feel surprisingly tactile. It’s here that Miller’s old-school reliance on practical effects and stunts really pays off – helping his action sequences rise above those of the CGI-overloaded spectacles that have become a Hollywood mainstay. And yet, for all their much-deserved praise, the action sequences are not perfect. With so many cars in the mix and too many hastily introduced factions (Joe’s army, marauders, Gas Town gang, Bullet Farm gang, etc) it’s easy to get lost and these scenes can quickly become overly chaotic. Several times during the film, I became very confused about the general geography of the chase and where characters and vehicles were in relation to each other. This started to become very frustrating especially in the big climactic battle which involves simultaneous action occurring on several similar-looking War Rigs. In addition, the relentless car chases eventually start to lose their novelty and begin to feel a bit too repetitive. You can have too much of a good thing.
Having just watched the original Mad Max trilogy in preparation for Fury Road, I also couldn’t shake the feeling that we had seen a lot of this before. In some ways, it feels like Miller took the climax of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, which involves a rig chased by a warlord’s army, and supercharged it — extending it to a feature length movie. Nevertheless, I did appreciate all the new subtle world-building and typically crazy art design. The film also touches on a lot of interesting themes (religious indoctrination, reliance on oil, etc.) , but isn’t really sure what to do with them. The Mad Max films aren’t exactly known for their deep characters, but almost no time is spent developing the characters in Fury Road. Backstory is minimal, motivations are stripped down into single words like “survival” or “redemption”, and characters switch allegiances a little too quickly. Max goes from a cold-hearted loner only interested in his own survival to an ally of Furiosa in her fight against Immortan Joe. At first it’s a partnership born out of necessity and riddled with distrust on all sides, but as the film progresses it becomes a true alliance.
It’s suggested that Max is ultimately driven to help these women as an act of personal redemption, but this major character shift isn’t developed in any satisfying way. Max is a man of few words and is openly hostile to Furiosa and the wives for much of the movie. When he does finally come around to being an ally, the transition is marked by a hallucination that functions a bit too much like a deux ex machina. We get the general gist that he’s ultimately helping these women as an act of personal redemption, but if we knew more about Max’s demons maybe his character arc would have been more effective.
Nux, one of Joe’s “War Boys”, undergoes a similarly rushed transformation. He starts as an indoctrinated religious fanatic wholly devoted to Joe and later turns on his former God/master to fight for the women Joe abused. This is a huge character shift that occurs in a matter of moments and thus does not feel entirely believable. These characters have great arcs that could have been incredibly exciting and moving — Max becomes more human, Nux frees himself from Joe’s cult, Furiosa seeks revenge and redemption — but Miller’s approach to character is so minimalist that these storylines ultimately lose their potential impact and feel short-changed in favor of the action. Some critics have praised this minimalist approach to storytelling in contrast to the typical over-bloated Hollywood blockbusters that often drown in too much exposition. Miller’s film is indeed a lean, mean, fighting-machine. However, without characters you truly care about the vehicular mayhem risks becoming just empty spectacle.
Despite its flaws, Mad Max: Fury Road is one hell of a ride and an exceptionally good action film, but let’s not rush to judgment calling it a classic or masterpiece just yet. It’s exciting to see Max back in theaters once again and taking the world by storm. Fury Road‘s success is particularly noteworthy for an R rated blockbuster, an increasingly rare breed in today’s Hollywood climate. Miller has brought his old franchise roaring back to life and I’m excited to see where he’ll take us next.
Runtime: 120 minutes