A distributor snuck it into town with a soundtrack dubbed into American English — apparently believing Yanks couldn’t understand Australian accents — where it played like the kind of fast-paced biker movie usually cranked out in those days by Roger Corman.
Only this one was set in a bleak, post-apocalyptic future and starred an unknown Aussie actor named Mel Gibson, who most definitely caught your attention as the movie’s sullen, single-minded hero with a glint of madness in his eye. Its high-octane energy and visual dexterity marked its maker, George Miller, as a man to watch.
“[T]he film is well made with some superior car and motorcycle stunts and expressive camera work,” I wrote in L.A.’s Daily News. Noting that the film gave off “brilliant filmmaking heat,” I said, “Miller lays off arty effects and turns the film into a road-happy, metal-grinding action spectacular.”
“Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior” arrived two years later with Warner Bros. spending enough money on its release so that suddenly the series had legions of fans that carried over into a third even bigger fantasy adventure, “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome,” in 1985.
Then everything went quiet. Until this week.
“Mad Max: Fury Road” roars into multiplexes 30 years after Miller and Gibson switched off the motors on the last film. This new baby, reimagined with considerable inspiration and a wicked production design, is a furiously good film, achieving Miller’s stated goal of creating a film with wall-to-wall non-stop action.
British actor (and the L.A. Film Critics Association’s best actor for 2014 for “Locke”) Tom Hardy takes over as Max while Charlize Theron adds what the series until now has lacked — a female road warrior who is Max’s equal.
As the two battle across a raw, barren desert against seemingly insurmountable obstacles from geography, weather and psychotic road gangs, the action splays across the screen in sequences of jaw-dropping splendor.
As reconceived by Miller and his co-writers, Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris, “Mad Max” leaves plot behind in a dust storm as about 150 hand-build desert vehicles and untold stunt performers slam through a road war (staged in the Namibian deserts) of increasing ferocity.
Not that Hardy and Theron disappear into the action. They indeed loom over that action, setting the tone and controlling the intensity with performances that rely on exceptionally brave physical action, haunted faces and commanding though often soft spoken voices.
They draw you into their inner circle in their aptly named War Rig, a driving machine of scavenged parts and fearsome weaponry that barrels away from the many gangs that give chase. Thus “Fury Road” is a western and a biker movie and a chase film all taking place in a savage world that feels almost biblical.
What makes this so exciting for the modern viewer, a thing that was taken for granted in 1979, is that the stunts are real and CGI used mostly for filing in details or erasing wires that keep actors safe from grisly injury. I’m guessing this movie contains the most stunts ever performed in a single movie. Yet everything feels spontaneous and natural.
The film also stands alone, unlike the impending “Star Wars” movies that virtually come with an owner’s manual of backstory, character histories and cross-references to movies past and future. “Fury Road” needs no back story nor does it demand a sequel.
It’s not really even a reboot. Rather it’s a souped-up old muscle car retooled and ready for modern action.
Thinking about this story for over a decade, Miller is able to fill in background details and flesh out characters in simple clean strokes. Even a character’s tattoo or an element of the production design can imply much about the apocalypse of some 45 years before and the descent of mankind into a barbarity that has locked humanity into tyranny and exploitation.
The movie opens with Max (Hardy), a solitary road warrior with nothing on his mind save survival, contemplating the vast Plains of Silence as he stands next to his battered Interceptor. His old life is a distant memory yet an ever-present nightmare of horrific images that flood his mind unbidden.
He is attacked and pursued by marauding War Boys, captured, then dragged back to the Citadel, a monstrous tower of terror run by the warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played Toecutter in the original film). With his destroyed face covered by a face mask fed by large oxygen tubes, the warlord is a vision of pure evil.
As ruler of the only aquifer in the Wasteland, he pumps and hoards water to subjugate the masses who’ve migrated there while trading this invaluable commodity for fuel from Gas Town and munitions from Bullet Farm.
An inner metropolis of blood banks, milk banks, and a breeding program keeps the human race alive (barely) including his War Boys. These ghostly youths are all shaved heads, tattoos and white body paint, living on borrowed time in the polluted atmosphere through the fresh blood of those captured such as Max.
Then a scheduled run to Gas Town lead by Imperator Furiosa (Theron) goes suddenly off course. Alerted to this run for freedom, the warlord checks his locked vaults to discover she has made off with his “five wives,” the harem selected to help him sire progeny to continue his imperial line.
The chase is on with Max, branded, masked and strapped to the grille of one of the pursuing car, blood being drained from his body and fed via intravenous tube to the driver, Nux (Nicholas Hoult).
After a long chase including a running battle with all kinds of pursuing vehicles — some with warriors attached to long poles that swing them over the War Rig to hurl fire bombs and spears down on the rig — and then a gigantic sand storm, the War Rig emerges in one piece, alone momentarily as its many enemies are lost in the storm.
This then precipitates a stand-off among Max, Furiosa and Nux. No one trusts the other and the five “wives” (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Zoë Kravitz, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton) are at their mercy.
Only after a lethal battle that results in more body wounds does this trio realize they stand a better chance of survival from the road gangs as a unit than separately.
So they join forces, first in a race to what Furiosa calls “the green place,” a memory of a lush oasis from her childhood, and then a final chase in a surprising new direction. (No spoilers here.)
The devil is certainly in the details here: The medieval-like caves and mechanized inner workings of the Citadel; an insane heavy-metal guitarist ( iOTA) strapped to the front of one car, ripping off cords of music to accompany the ripping action; the junkyard design of all the vehicles, the Halloween-like costumes and makeup on the marauding villains; and the Fellini-esque grotesques who populate this remnant of human society.
Meawhile Hardy transforms himself into a new kind of action hero. Throwing aside the wild sweaty jumping jacks of Tom Cruise and Matt Damon and ignoring the faux sangfroid of the many actors who have impersonated James Bond, Hardy goes for the steady, unflinching demeanor of a man accepting a short violent life in this new age. He trusts no one while seeking a home he knows he’ll never find.
Theron, with close-cropped hair and a missing forearm enhanced by a mechanical arm, is equally in a kill-or-be-killed mode. She sees others as mostly a means to an end and not companions. She asks for no mercy but clearly is one of the few humans with a conscience.
News reports indicate Miller plans to deploy Max again, but at 70 it’s unclear how many more times he’ll want to go into the Wasteland. For Mad Max, unlike other successful action franchises, is strictly the product of one man’s seemingly limitless imagination. Miller is Max and visa versa. Without him there is no franchise.
The work here by cinematographer John Seale, the cameras being exactly where they need be to record the astonishing stunts; Guy Norris in coordinating these bone-crushing, teeth-rattling stunts; the just-right swell of music from Tom Holkenborg and Junkie XL; the wild costumes designed by Jenny Beavan all come together in perfect precision.
Here’s hoping for at least one more Mad Max adventure. The post-apocalypse was never this much fun.
Opens May 15, 2015 (Warner Bros.)
Production company: Kennedy Miller Mitchell Productions
Cast: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Zoë Kravitz, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton, Josh Helman, Nathan Jones, John Howard, Richard Carter, iOTA, Angus Sampson, Jennifer Hagan, Megan Gale, Melissa Jaffer, Melita Jurisic, Gillian Jones, Joy Smithers
Director: George Miller
Screenwriters: George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, Nico Lathouris
Producers: George Miller, Doug Mitchell, PJ Voeten
Executive producers: Iain Smth, Chris deFaria, Courtenay Valenti, Graham Burke, Bruce Berman, Steve Mnuchin
Director of photography: John Seale
Production designer: Colin Gibson
Music: Tom Holkenborg, Junkie XL
Costume designer: Jenny Beavan
Second unit director/stunt coordinator: Guy Norris
Editor: Margaret Sixel
R rating, 120 minutes