ONLY THE MAD SURVIVE.
Who in their right mind believed in a fourth Mad Max? Most fans and critics agree that the first two films were classics and the third one not so much. In the early 2000s, when it seemed as if director George Miller had moved on, he started preparing for a fourth chapter in the franchise, once again starring Mel Gibson as Mad Max. 9/11 derailed the project, but eventually Miller ended up collaborating with British comic-book artist Brendan McCarthy on a story that he felt might really work, but at that point Max had to be recast.
If I had been a studio boss at that time, listening to a filmmaker pushing 70 and yearning to make a fourth entry in a long-dormant franchise, I would likely have said no. Fortunately I’m a critic. Turns out that number four is the best of them yet.
Some time after a nuclear war, Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is captured and used as a blood donor for the sick Nux (Nicholas Hoult) who is a War Boy, member of an army belonging to Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Joe’s a tyrant controlling water at the Citadel where people are held as slaves. When he finds out that his harem of sex slaves have been liberated by Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a truck driver collecting gasoline, he sends the War Boys out to hunt them down. Max joins the army unwillingly, strapped to a vehicle. The arrival of a sand storm offers an opportunity for Furiosa and her protégées to escape the War Boys temporarily… but Nux and Max soon catch up with them.
Colors play a huge part
There is a such a tremendous amount of courage and vision involved in the production of this film. Cinematographer John Seale was persuaded to come out of retirement and his work here is simply stunning, offering breathtaking views of a desolate landscape where colors play a huge part; the intense red and yellow hue of daytime and blue of nighttime is a backdrop that reminds us how artful cinema can be. That beauty is reinforced by action scenes involving all kinds of weirdly magnificent vehicles, as expected from a Mad Max movie. The chases and fighting were created with as little CGI as possible and we can virtually smell the fumes; one is often left wondering how some of the mayhem was done without anyone getting killed.
In a way, this is George Miller trying to perfect a formula he’s employed three times before and now he’s truly outdone himself, putting younger action directors to shame. And he’s clearly having fun doing it – the 3D becomes yet another furious asset, adding a campy tone just as much as that awesome War Boy who keeps playing his flame-spewing electric guitar through every battle, no matter what. All of these ingredients, along with Junkie XL’s merciless score, could have looked simply ridiculous, but they’re amazing.
Hardy is an OK stand-in for Gibson, sounding more like Bane from The Dark Knight Rises (2012) than anything else, but he falls in the shadow of Theron’s Furiosa, a worthy successor to Ellen Ripley.
Embraced by many feminists as a groundbreaking enterprise because of its portrayal of Furiosa, the story may be simple on one level. But the way it turns Max and Furiosa into equal partners as they start collaborating is smart and never feels forced. Some of this franchise’s most sexist male fans got up in arms over the film’s ideology, and their fear was justified. If the action had been disappointing, no one would have cared about its message. What we did end up with is a brilliant action movie that’s reached a revolutionary level – because of the way old formulas are obliterated.
2015-Australia-U.S. 120 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by George Miller, Doug Mitchell, P.J. Voeten. Directed by George Miller. Screenplay: George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, Nick Lathouris. Cinematography: John Seale. Music: Junkie XL. Editing: Margaret Sixel. Production Design: Colin Gibson. Costume Design: Jenny Beavan. Cast: Tom Hardy (Max Rockatansky), Charlize Theron (Imperator Furiosa), Nicholas Hoult (Nux), Hugh Keays-Byrne, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough… Zoë Kravitz.
Oscars: Best Film Editing, Costume Design, Production Design, Makeup and Hairstyling, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing. BAFTA: Best Editing, Costume Design, Production Design, Make Up and Hair.
Last word: “It’s very hard, when people are chasing across the wasteland, to write that in words. It’s much easier to do it as pictures. Because it’s almost a continuous chase, you have to connect one shot to the other, so the obvious way to do it was as a storyboard, and then put words in later. So, I worked with five really good storyboard artists. We just sat in a big room and, instead of writing it down, we’d say, ‘Okay, this guy throws what we call a thunder stick at another car and there’s an explosion.’ You can write that, but exactly where the thunder stick is, where the car is and what the explosion looks like, it’s very hard to get those dimensions, so we’d draw it. We ended up with about 3,500 panels. It almost becomes equivalent to the number of shots in the movie.” (Miller, Collider)