God bless George Miller for making a sequel that actually feels like the natural evolution of a concept, and not just a tribute band version of the original. Why can’t they all be like this? Sequels usually get “bigger” and “more” with no new ideas. Fury Road is that rarest of them, that actually moves the concept forward, that feels like a version 4.0 and not just the original with the volume turned up. Watching Mad Max turn into The Road Warrior and then into Fury Road (with a regrettable but perhaps necessary New Coke-style setback in Beyond Thunderdome) is like watching a biplane transform into an F-18. Fury Road could’ve been, and probably a lot of people wanted it to be, a turbo prop with a fancy paint job. Instead it’s pulling barrel rolls at Mach 1.
The evolved world-building matches the subject matter perfectly, because what else would a post-apocalyptic wasteland do but gradually evolve into a new world order? The cops vs. bikers milieu of the original still had one foot firmly in the pre-apocalyptic past. The sequel let go of that as S&M biker gangs became S&M warlord clans and towns became garrisons. All this has fully congealed into a new paradigm of warring tribes in Fury Road. Where Lord Humungus commanded his own raiding party with their own traditions and styling like a band of Comanche on the plains in The Road Warrior, “Immortan Joe” (Hugh Keays-Byrne) in Fury Road rules an entire citadel (called, simply, “The Citadel”), where he controls the flow of resources, with castes, his own cult of personality, and even a court religion. We’ve gone from “that’s the last of the V8 interceptors” in Road Warrior, to a child soldier played by Nicholas Hoult bowing before a massive idol made of steering wheels saying “By my deeds I honor him,” saluting “V8!” (And yes, Nicholas Hoult is the little kid from About A Boy, wrap your mind around that one).
I squealed with joy at this, as I did many moments of Fury Road, and in fact, hardly any note I jotted down during the film wasn’t followed by three exclamation points. A BLIND MUTANT PLAYING A DOUBLE NECKED FLAME SHOOTING GUITAR HOLY SH*T! Miller has managed to make Mad Max smarter and more sophisticated without losing the series’ panache or f*ck you charm, and with modern action camera work and choreography that manages to be frenetic without obfuscating. I hope a hundred shakey cam hacks see this and immediately jiggle themselves to death.
For a long time, I could never understand the meaning of the word “decadent.” I’d always hear it used to describe a rich cake or a hard-partying rock band, but then when it’d show up in English class vocab lessons, it supposedly meant “characterizing a state of deterioration, or decay.” How could the same word describe both incredible excess yet also penurious decline? With Fury Road, it suddenly makes sense. There’s nothing like a state of lack to make you revel in what you do have, even worship it. Fury Road manages to combine bleakness with excess, and in a way that feels entirely logical. Resources have all dried up and scavenging is the only way to survive – why wouldn’t you roam the desert in murder convoys of flame-spewing muscle car frankensteins driven by cancer-riddled suicide warriors?
In a post-apocalyptic wasteland, it just makes sense that a suicidal death cult would develop, and Fury Road‘s is so creatively realized that you’d accept it for its novelty value even if you couldn’t explain it. I’m going on and on about the logic of it all, but the “War Dogs” huff silver spray paint to pump themselves up (sort of like the Viking “berserker” myths, or Somalis chewing khat) and name their protruding tumors like pets (Nux has even drawn smiley faces on his). It’s visual brilliance, pure and simple. Fury Road‘s creative excesses are glorious, but entirely earned, such that the adult intellectual in me wants to jump right into the mosh pit with my punk rock teenage self screaming HOW F*CKING COOL IS THAT???
I hope you didn’t come here looking for a plot summary, but the gist is that Max (played by my man-crush Tom Hardy) has hooked up with a rebel band of Immortan Joe’s wife brigade led by fierce war broad Imperatur Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron. She plays her role admirably, but possibly the biggest disappointment of the film is that she doesn’t use her South African accent. This was the perfect opportunity! It’s set in antipodean wasteland! If not now, when? In any case, that sex is as much a prized wasteland resource as gas (“guzzleline,” in Mad Max parlance) was acknowledged in The Road Warrior, but becomes central to the story here. Like everything in Mad Max, it’s fairly self-explanatory without a lot of exposition or dialogue. And yet, this point has a lot of people calling the film “feminist.” Which seems not necessarily wrong, but unhelpful.
First of all, I don’t go looking for “isms” in my action movies (and I could write a whole separate essay on why basic fairness shouldn’t be considered an “ism”), but here I’ll just say that to call Fury Road “feminist” makes it sound reactionary, when it isn’t. It makes its own statement and doesn’t need to be a response to previous, sh*ttier statements in order to justify its existence. Yes, women have an important, even equal role to play in it, just like they do in real life. Is that a political statement? I think it’s just good storytelling. If you want to move forward, stop looking back. This is just the world now. Those who object can f*ck off and start their own ism.
There aren’t many knocks on this movie, as you might’ve gleaned from the headline, but one of the few moments that didn’t work for me was a scene that felt like it borrowed a little too heavily from the original Planet of the Apes. But for the most part, a lot of the similarities to other action and sci-fi movies just make you realize how many other movies owe a debt to The Road Warrior. There are the obvious homages, like Neil Marshall’s forgotten Doomsday, but also Waterworld and even the Fast/Furious series. Watch Vin Diesel’s crew hijack a convoy using muscle cars and grappling hooks and tell me it doesn’t remind you of Mad Max. In fact, The Road Warrior has been a touchstone for “badassness” for so long that I actually dreaded the idea of a sequel. What could possibly be gained from rehashing what’s been ripped off umpteen times before?
Luckily, I was wrong. Both in thinking that Fury Road would be just another rehash, and in assuming that any those ripoffs ever saw past The Road Warrior‘s surface sheen. In Fury Road, George Miller proves that The Road Warrior wasn’t just fashion. He doesn’t repeat, he articulates, and it’s wonderful.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.