There’s no other word for it; Fury “Road is a complete circus. Not "circus" in the P.T. Barnum sense, though that probably wouldn’t be entirely unfair either. More in the Roman sense, referring to places like the Circus Maximus, where chariot-borne gladiators engaged in high-speed duels to the death; brutal, fast-paced spectacles of color and thunder, played to the roar of enthralled audiences, delighting unapologetically in the absurdity of themselves.

Does that seem a little bit old-school? It shouldn’t. George Miller deliberately filmed Fury Road as a follow-up to The Road Warrior, and based a lot of the visuals and styling on the classic Japanese anime Akira. But he could just as well have drawn Fury Road from 80 B.C. than from 1980 A.D. From The Colosseum, with bits of Sparta, Greek naval warfare, and even a bit of Exodus thrown in for good measure.

So, how did Miller work this circus together for Fury Road? Was it really worth the three-decade wait? And how did Bane fare as Mel Gibson’s replacement? Read on.

Continue reading for the full story.

Plot

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Think of the penultimate chase scene in The Road Warrior — Mad Max, defending the semi against the incoming hordes of the Humungus, in order to protect the truck’s human cargo. Got it? Now, imagine extending that scene by 110 minutes or so; Fury Road.

We were told early on that Fury Road was a follow-up to Thunderdome, but that’s immediately belied in the pre-title sequence. The movie opens on a bearded man, brooding over a desert landscape. "My name is Max. My world is fire and blood," he intones. The camera pans away, and reveals a familiar thrill: a certain highly modified 1973 Ford Falcon XB. Max’s original Pursuit Special, "...last of the V-8 Interceptors." The very same destroyed in The Road Warrior — which kind of throws a wrench in the continuity.

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Doesn’t matter, though. Fury Road doesn’t give you much time to light on the details. Of anything. Ever. Quicker than the speed of thought, Max looks over his shoulder. Engines roar, and the movie immediately rips into high gear.

Max ends up at a place called "The Citadel," ruled over by the deformed and skull-faced Immortan Joe. There’s no missing the comparison between he and the Humungus; not least of which because they seem to have exactly the same voice. Or maybe that’s Bane...which is kind of ironic.

Quickly, we’re introduced to "the Half-Life Boys," ghostly white-painted youths who serve as Joe’s Praetorian Guard. They worship him as a god on Earth, even as he fills their heads with some pseudo-Nordic Valhalla mythology. Joe maintains them in a constant state of dehydration and starvation, and they keep themselves alive by taking blood donors. Max becomes one such donor, a "blood bag" for Half-Life Boy Nux, played by Nicholas Hoult.

The camera pans away, and reveals a familiar thrill: a certain highly modified 1973 Ford Falcon XB. Max's original Pursuit Special, "...last of the V-8 Interceptors."

The next scene takes us outside, where another oddly familiar vehicle awaits in the Citadel courtyard. There’s no ignoring its similarity to the iconic tanker truck from The Road Warrior. But this "War Rig" is to that original semi what a battleship is to an oil tanker. It’s a twin-engined, "two-thousand horsepower, nitro-boosted war machine," bristling with spikes, defensive emplacements and machine guns. But the scariest thing aboard is its driver: Imperator Furiosa, known formerly as "Charlize Theron."

With some ceremony, Immortan Joe sends Furiosa (essentially the captain of his guard) off on a mission to collect fuel from Gas Town, a large refinery some distance down "the Fury Road." Gas Town is one of three settlements in the movie, the other two being Bullet Town and The Citadel. The Citadel provides water and breast milk (from women used as human dairy cows), in exchange for the aforementioned goods. Furiosa’s tanker rig is loaded with both as she sets out for what should be a routine trade mission.

But within sight of Gas Town, she makes a hard left into the desert, heading for parts unknown. Initially, the Half-Life Boys obey orders, following their captain. But they quickly catch on that something is awry. So does Immortan Joe; he spots the detour via telescope and immediately suspects foul play. He receives word that his private harem, his five "breeder wives" have gone missing. Immortan Joe puts the two together, and assembles the entire War Boy army to retrieve them.

The wives emerge from hiding in the War Rig. Half-Life Boy Nux follows, strapping his "blood bag" Max to the front of the car. From here out, it’s one long, life-or-death chase down the Fury Road, as Immortan Joe pursues "his property," Furiosa desperately tries to spirit them to the "green place" of her childhood, and Max once again finds himself caught in the middle of someone else’s battle.

Let the games begin.

Visuals and Cinematography

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Miller’s referencing of Japanese anime (specifically Akira) shows through in spades, and it seemed like a potentially good idea just watching the trailers. I mentioned in my review of the last trailer how the anime style manifested in Fury Road. And those certainly carried through the movie.

Take for example the many still, artistic vistas seen throughout; lingering shots of epic, otherworldly landscapes are classic anime, and Fury Road has them in spades. When something does show up on that landscape, it’s either a suggestive shape in the foreground (like the "stork-men" walking through the swamp in the night sequence), or a colossal, epic, world-ending, apocalyptic maelstrom. Case in point, the dust storm you’ve probably seen in the trailer. It doesn’t look like a dust storm at all; more than anything else, this most stunning of all visuals resembles a rolling mountain made of lightning and bile. The inside resembles something like a tornado-driven electrical storm in Hell; the only things "small" about it are the ant-like semi trucks struggling to make it through. Pure anime.

As is the color palette.

One of Max’s strongest and weakest points over the years has been its necessarily monochromatic look. Sorry, Charlie — downside of living in post-apocalypse Australia, which wasn’t exactly a rainforest to begin with. That’s a hard thing to pull off and keep interesting, but Miller’s use of anime color technique knocks it out of the park.

When something does show up on that landscape, it's either a suggestive shape in the foreground (like the "stork-men" walking through the swamp in the night sequence), or a colossal, epic, world-ending, apocalyptic maelstrom.

One thing that’s almost universally true about anime: It’s never colored for realism so much as it is artistic effect. Anime is very impressionist that way, and so it is with Fury Road. The overwhelming theme of the movie is yellow — not beige, mind you. That’s the color of real desert sand. It’s lemon yellow...as in, the color you’d use to depict desert sand if you were coloring it for a cartoon. If you’re wondering, yes, that does get overwhelming from time to time, especially if you hate the color yellow like I do. But it’s mixed with more realistic shades of beige here and there, so your brain stays comfortably away from canary overload. But that’s just the start.

What really makes it work are the periodic punctuation of other, far more vivid shades. The blue of the sky and night; the insane crimson red of flares, fire and one character’s hair; the bone white and charcoal black contrast of the War Boys; the shocking crop of green atop the Citadel; even those few brief flashes of pure black-and-white, high-contrast film hit your brain like a bucket of cold water. It’s strange. It’s almost like every time you see a color — any color — it’s like you’re seeing it for the first time. I have literally never, in my life, appreciated the color of trees as much as I did that strikingly verdant patch atop the Citadel.

Talk about "complete immersion in the world." You can’t not know how the people who live there must feel. They say green is the most restful color to the eyes; in that regard, Miller makes it clear that Max’s world is a restless place. The simple fact that Theron spends the entire movie looking for her "green place" speaks to that much.

For sure, the colors and visuals are discordant. The props, costumes and cars are just this side of ridiculous. This version of Earth is not a place you could ever imagine finding peace; it never lets you find a place that feels comfortable or nonthreatening. It’s all discordant, always on edge. But that’s exactly the point. Miller’s visual style isn’t always what you’d call "beautiful" — but it is consistently striking, and absolutely perfect for the series.

Directing and Screenwriting

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Max is a man of few words, and he doesn’t spare many for anyone. That’s perfectly in keeping with the character, and the cast of Fury Road is no exception. I could be wrong, but I think his single longest exchange is with himself in the 20-second opening voice-over.

Charlize Theron probably has more lines than anyone else in the movie, next to Immortan Joe and probably Nux. All of them are very well written; especially Nux, who never says anything that isn’t worth hearing. Not all of Theron’s lines are completely golden; I found a few of them just a little bit clunky, or unnecessarily expositional. But I guess somebody had to do it at some point, and I didn’t see Thomas Hardy volunteering. Still, for the 5 percent of lines that probably could have been better written, Theron still carries them well on the strength of her acting.

This world tells the story of itself in the details, instead of the characters talking about those details.

The story itself has all the hallmarks of a professional writer. It’s actually pretty complex, and fleshes out the lore of the Mad Max world significantly. But it never seems that way. Few of the story elements really introduce themselves, and things just tend to unfold in the character backgrounds. Again, a call back to The Road Warrior, which was about as in media res as stories get. Personally, I liked it. This world tells the story of itself in the details, instead of the characters talking about those details.

Take for example the War Boys’ pre-death ritual...spraying chrome spray-paint all over (and about as much in) their mouths before doing whatever suicidal thing they do that takes them to Valhalla. Basically, huffing paint. That in itself brings to mind the Viking Berserkers, who were known to fly into battle high out of their minds on psychedelic drugs. Or, you could look at WWII bomber pilots hyped up on methamphetamines, or today’s African child soldiers doing cocaine before battle. It’s that kind of little detail that makes Fury Road, for all its absurdity, feel oddly real.

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So does the desert warfare itself. I remember the scene of Immortan Joe’s war party looming on the horizon, never seeming to come closer. It brought to mind something Erwin "The Desert Fox" Rommel once said about how fighting on the flat sands of the desert was more like naval warfare than anything else. Closer examination of the tactics they employ actual does reveal some militarily sound thinking, or at least something Admiral Nelson would have recognized from his own naval battles. Furiosa’s strategy of negating Immortan Joe’s numbers by luring them into a mountain pass was straight out of the Spartans’ or Hannibal’s playbooks.

Maybe I’m just overthinking things (it happens) but I really liked that element of subtle realism. Everything they do seems like something you would do in that situation. Again — it’s maintaining that balance of the absurdity of a skull-faced bad guy and cartoon coloring, with the realism of the world. It all just kind of...works.

But, visual beauty and military tactics aside, it all comes down to action at the end of the day. And wow, does Miller deliver on that.

Action

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If you accept Fury Road as a pure action movie that makes no excuses about its own absurdity, and keep the film in context to itself and previous Mad Max movies, it makes complete sense. And some would say that based on the criteria of everything that makes an MM movie what it is, this one could be the best of the series.

I wasn’t exaggerating when I said that Fury Road is in effect an extremely extended chase sequence. By my count, about 85 percent of the movie is nothing but one huge, high-speed demolition derby. Of course, there are plenty of ridiculous vehicles, and we will be covering most of them in a second article on the cars alone. Suffice it to say that while most of them are way over-the-top, even by Mad Max standards, somehow the context of the movie makes it all make sense. You can almost see how Immortan Joe, building on the cult of his own personality, might see things like double-decker Cadillac monster trucks, Olds Toronados on tank tracks and a rolling rock show (complete with deformed guitar player from a 1990s Tool video) as the standard bearers of his empire. Like Das Germans, Joe likes to make an appearance when he shows up to fight.

Hey, if the Waffen SS can fight wearing Hugo Boss...

There aren’t many frames of film that don’t contain at least one of the movie’s many automotive mutants, most of the time barreling around, crashing into each other or exploding. Calling the pace "frenetic" seems like something of an understatement — which is either a virtue or a vice, depending on who you ask. I took my 66-year-old father with me to see Fury Road — mostly on the basis that he took me to see Thunderdome, and to get an old fart’s opinion on it. His exact words:

"It was all real fast, with everything moving here there and yonder all the time. I couldn’t even tell half of what I was looking at half the time."

Yes, he really does talk like that.

I explained to him that quick jump cuts, POV angles and sweeping camera swings were just part of how they did action movies these days. It’s not the 1980s anymore. He just muttered something about The Eagles and his eyeglass prescription.

There aren't many frames of film that don't contain at least one of the movie's many automotive mutants, most of the time barreling around, crashing into each other or exploding.

For sure, the constant action sequences in Fury Road do suffer from time to time from Transformers Syndrome. There’s just so much mechanical stuff happening onscreen, and the camera angles change so often, it can be hard to keep track of relative motion and position. And the fact that a lot of the vehicles look roughly the same, and are mostly the same color, doesn’t help. Even I lost track of what I was looking at a few times in the jumble of jagged jalopies. But then the camera angle changes again, and that sense of vertigo passes. Say this about Fury Road: it may have faults, but it sure doesn’t give you much time to think about them.

It’s not all completely relentless; like a Greek battlefield, the sensory assault does come and go in waves. For the most part, I found them well-enough timed to keep the heart constantly thrumming to some amount of adrenaline, without legitimately threatening cardiac arrest. Mostly.

Characters

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One thing that’s always set Mad Max movies apart is the heavy emphasis on character motivation. Yes, they’ve always been big, post-apocalyptic action movies set in an atmosphere of epic despair. But Miller’s always managed the neat trick of driving us through that landscape by way of intimate, close-in, character-driven stories. Fury Road is no exception.

Immortan Joe is (visually, at least) the big stand-out character here — thanks not least of which to the skull-faced breathing apparatus he wears. Initially, it felt like Immortan Joe would end up as a one-dimensional rip-off of the Humungus; an over-the-top parody of him and Darth Vader. But Immortan Joe proves a good bit more than that. Yes, he’s still an over-the-top bad guy — but he also has a few surprisingly human moments, not least as he mourns the death of one of his "wives" and their stillborn son. A lot of Immortan Joe’s appeal comes from his portrayal by Hugh Keays-Byrne, an Australian character actor you might not realize you’ve seen before.

But Theron is no diva -- in every way, she's Max's female counterpart. She's hard, quick to violence, and often indifferently cruel.

Remember Toecutter, Max’s original nemesis from the very first movie — the bike gang leader who murdered his wife and child? That’s right: it was Byrne. Toecutter is Immortan Joe, and Immortan Joe is Toecutter. That’s just another one of those subtle layers in Fury Road — and its especially prescient when you realize that Joe’s scene of mourning, screaming as he holds his dead wife’s corpse, is an almost shot-for-shot reenactment of Max doing the same. Chills.

Nicholas Hoult is surprisingly good as Nux, who I’ve come to think of as a kind of Bazarro World version of Max. Not being overly impressed with Hoult’s portrayal of Hank McCoy in X-Men: First Class, I didn’t hold out a lot of hope for him here. Especially since in the previews, Nux was another character who it seemed would end up completely one-dimensional. But Hoult really pulls it off. I honestly can’t say I can think of anyone who might have nailed Nux’s combination of dangerously hilarious psychosis, sympathy and sadness better. Heath Ledger, maybe. But that’s about it. I hope he comes back for a follow-up, and the series seems to leave the possibility open. He really was surprisingly fantastic.

Charlize Theron, though...there was nothing surprising about her even more fantastic performance. And she’s no Tina Turner. I expected her to deliver the goods, and boy, did she. Yes, there were a few points where she felt a little bit deliberate, but the fire in her eyes never seemed anything but natural. Even during night sequences, when there were literal reflections of fire in her eyes that physically could not have been there. I wanted to groan a little at that, but eh — call it a stylistic choice. Either way, it worked.

But not as well as Theron’s portrayal. If I had to define her Furiosa in one word, it would be "Valkyrie." Valkyries (of the Norse mythology that the Half-Life Boys embrace) were the original angels of death. And Theron is that to a tee. I always thought Tina Turner’s character in Thunderdome was a little silly; something in me rebelled against the idea that a diva like that could survive in the world of Mad Max. But Theron is no diva — in every way, she’s Max’s female counterpart. She’s hard, quick to violence, and often indifferently cruel. She has the look of someone who can turn her emotions off to get the job done, and I’ve got no difficulty at all imagining her as a brutal killer, rising to the top of Immortan Joe’s personal guard. In fact, if anything, had she not had a crisis of conscience, I could easily imagine her as still heading the guard, hunting heads for Immortan Joe.

Put it this way: If I had my choice of meeting Max, Joe, Nux or Furiosa in a dark alley, I know who I’d give the widest berth.

Now...on to Max.

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Thomas Hardy had a lot to live up to in filling Mel Gibson’s shoes. Say what you will about him personally, but Mel was near perfect as the original character; and he got even better at being that character as the series went on. Did Thomas Hardy recapture that spirit? In a word?

No.

In some ways, certainly. Hardy’s good at the kind of subtle, manly communication you’d need for a role like this. He can say a lot with a look, or a squinting eye. And I swear for a brief moment, as Hardy gave a beleaguered thumbs-up through the window of the semi, I thought I was looking at Mel Gibson. So there were moments when Hardy nailed Mel’s character straight on. That said, his vision of Max is different. Gibson’s wild-eyed crazy always did translate well on screen, if not in his personal life. In another life, Gibson’s version of Max could have been a schizophrenic street preacher — Hardy’s version seems like a soldier who’d never been anything but. Gibson came off like a cop on the verge of psychosis; Hardy comes off like an Iraq War veteran with a serious case of PTSD.

And that is pretty telling.

Even though I personally liked Gibson’s Max better, Hardy’s portrayal was better-suited to the times. I don’t think you could get away with Gibson’s wild-eyed crazy anymore — with everything that’s happened in recent years, it seems like Hardy’s interpretation is the only one audiences would buy. Today’s audiences have a harder time buying into fantastic scenarios than audiences of the 1980s; like Max and Furiosa, we’re harder than we used to be. We see the world through a veil of irony, occasionally surprised by the sometimes painful prick of nostalgia. Hardy’s Max isn’t as fun as Gibson’s, but he is more relevant.

Summary

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Upon walking out of the theater, I gave Mad Max: Fury Road an 8.5 out of 10 total. Rating it strictly as an action movie, comparing it only to other action movies, a 9.5 would probably be fair. As of right now, it’s running an 8.8 on IMDB, and a 98 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Maybe I just ranked it a little lower because I’m more of a Two-Lane Blacktop sort of guy, and the Old Man and I share some sensibilities insofar as constant action is concerned. He gave it a 7.5 — which I expect would be about typical for people with bifocals. Then again, he’s also colorblind, so maybe he couldn’t appreciate the full beauty of the thing.

Experiencing this riot of color, thunder and carnage, you can almost imagine what it would have been like to sit in the stands of the Colosseum, roaring to Caesar "Entertain Us! Entertain Us!"

On that score, in terms of pure visual appeal, I’d give Fury Road a 9.8 out of 10; comparison to Jet Li’s Hero (2002) doesn’t seem like sacrilege. And Hero wasn’t even in the same league as Fury Road in terms of adrenaline. If you’re looking to sit on the edge of your seat for two hours with your mouth hanging open, I can’t think of many better movies for it.

And maybe that’s what makes Fury Road the true Circus Maximus that it is. Experiencing this riot of color, thunder and carnage, you can almost imagine what it would have been like to sit in the stands of the Colosseum, roaring to Caesar "Entertain Us! Entertain Us!" Because that this film certainly does.

They say we never did lose our taste for overwhelming sensory input; for the blood, dust, rust and melee of chariot races and gladiatorial combat. They say the theater has replaced the Circus. Maybe so, and maybe not. But one way or the other...all hail the return of the gladiator king, lord of the wastes and the Man With No Name:

Mad Max.

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