Back in 2008, a young director named Christopher Nolan released the highly successful The Dark Knight. It not only reinvented the superhero genre, but created the most iconic depiction of its main character. It posited that comic book movies could have more than silly action set pieces and basic plot structures. It was revolutionary in a way that has come to define modern film making. It has been years since a late entry franchise film has made a dent in the zeitgeist. Who is the latest to revolutionize the action packed visuals that may become cliche within the next 10 years due to overkill impersonators? If you were thinking of director George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road, you may be onto something. It does to car movies what The Dark Knight did to superheroes: amplify its potential.
There's a lot of skepticism that can come into the latest Mad Max film. For starters, the aged director (now 70) hasn't made one of these films in exactly 30 years and has preoccupied his time with two Happy Feet movies. Also, the replacement with capable-but-not-Mel Gibson Tom Hardy as his lead Max Rockatansky was also a little hindering. Even The Fast and The Furious franchise's popularity suggests that this is a cash in. However, never discredit the man who created a genre on a shoestring budget and glorified the desert's beauty in ways that haven't been seen since Lawrence of Arabia. What Miller has done is not only update his franchise, but he has amplified what we love about it thanks to a massive budget and a diverse cast. What is this film about? It's about car chases. That's all that you really need to know.
The film falls more into the category of the dystopian western. Think of The Great Train Robbery in which trains have been replaced with cars slapped together from used parts and more liberties than a creative arts major. Add in Cirque du Soleil performers and BMX bombers and you'll get a sense of what is in store. Unlike the train robberies of old, these are done in the desert, going hundreds of miles an hour, and feature consistent robberies from the good and evil parties. In fact, there's several shots in which the main tanker of which protagonist Max (Hardy) and his partner Furiosa (Charlize Theron) navigate that are directly lifted from iconic films. The humor is even occasionally devolved into pure Buster Keaton routines (The General) in which the lack of trick photography makes everything all the more impressive.
Mad Max: Fury Road doesn't need to establish itself. It doesn't even need Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome to justify its existence. Nothing is carried over. All it really needs is visual cues from an assured director whose jerky camera motions cut frames and speed up images in ways that turn the already insane imagery into cartoonish works of art. Spliced in with occasional black and white shots, the film's visual style is itself jilted in ways that the more polished action films wouldn't waste time with. Its characters are more defined by their actions than long rambling speeches. It is a film that understands its purpose and goes to town with its potential. Despite the ridiculousness (and it is so much the case), it doesn't fall into shlock largely because of the ingenuity that goes into every step and leap. While there are some visual effects to enhance the desert look, it's mostly choreographed stunts by men in weird outfits that make this an exceptional journey.
Underscoring the whole thing is Tom Holkenborg, a.k.a. Junkie XL. Providing the best faux Hans Zimmer score since Henry Jackman's work on Captain Phillips, he highlights the themes of Valhalla, constant peril, and cartoonish violence with the loud aggressive drums, apocalyptic string arrangements, and a driving force that will immediately make you overwhelmed. Thankfully, it fits the oversized package so well that you won't notice. The film serves as a visceral experience with questionable camera angles and plenty of great twists on the familiar formula. For a senior citizen, Miller really knows what he wants. The film is too assured with every note of the score and every shot of the film matching up in chaotic synchronicity. For those who have long wished for an action film that doesn't get bogged down in story, this one is for you.
It is a film that is so unique that it barely seems like a Mad Max film at all. Tom Hardy is excellent, though he is often outshone by his co-stars Nicholas Hoult and Theron at every turn. For every piece of overacting, he grounds the film with his brute force. With manic editing, this is a film that feels revolutionary in its take on summer entertainment. While there's good wishes that this could change the tide on summer programming, it would also be unfortunate considering how those wishes impacted The Matrix and Jaws originals. Even with the promise of more Mad Max films, one can only hope that Miller manages to keep his luck running with crazier films that continue to put mainstream Hollywood to shame and change the way that we look at a basic car chase. It is a deliberate thrill ride that is nothing but action with the assurance of a director capable of having fun with the film's design. For the fourth film in a series, Mad Max: Fury Road feels surprisingly new and exciting in ways that the rest of this summer (or the next few) isn't likely to feel.