With all the sequels, remakes, reboots, and general scouring of any and all studio properties, a new Mad Max movie always felt like more of a when than an if. And the way your career has gone (i.e.: away), it would have no doubt been a dream to once again strap on the leather and pads, shimmy into a V8 Interceptor and roar into the wastelands once again as Max Rockatansky in Mad Max: Fury Road.
Alas, it was not to be.
Maybe having you star was director and co-writer George Miler’s original plan—you guys did make three Mad Max films together, after all—but I would hazard a guess that your own roadside adventures played a role in keeping you out of this installment. The only wastelands you’ve been wandering lately are those of Hollywood unemployment.
Worked out pretty great for us, though.
Instead of you in the tile role, we have Tom Hardy. As great an actor as he can be, I wouldn’t necessarily call this an upgrade: he’s definitely doing a gloss on your character, and let’s face it, Max has never been the world’s greatest acting challenge (as a man of very few words, though, it does require charisma, which both of you have in spades). What the recasting does, though, is allow Miller to pull of a subversive little trick, shifting the focus of the story almost without us noticing. Max is not the center of the story;he’s a way into the story. The story of Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa. Max is still the central character – his is the only head we ever truly get inside, but he partakes in events more out of instinct than will.
I don’t see this being any kind of possibility if you were the star. Your clout and ego would have required (and, lets be honest, at least semi-justified) a plot center almost entirely on you. That would have been a shame. I can’t see a Mel Gibson-fronted film placing its focus so squarely on a female co-lead. After all, the last time you tried to make a movie with Feminist overtones, we got What Women Want.
Instead, we have Hardy’s Max as our guide into the Citadel, a massive compound where the tyrannical (and, in a triumph of costume design, terrifying at first sight) Immortan Joe rules over his gang called the War Boys. These pasty-white disciples have a fanaticism for Joe’s brand of religious violence matched only by their worship of the steering wheel.
After he is captured in the film’s opening scenes, Max becomes a human blood bag for a War Boy named Nux, and as such, is attached to Nux’s battle car in the massive chase for Furiosa, who has stolen Joe’s most prized possessions.
That’s almost all the plot Mad Max: Fury Road has. And it’s rather beautiful. It’s one of the most basic formulas you can use to create a narrative: x took y from z; z wants y returned at all costs. There are nuances and extra details, of course, but this main structure is introduced efficiently. As you know, one of Miller’s specialties is world-building, whether it’s the post-apocalyptic landscapes of the Mad Max films, or the animal inhabited hotel of Babe: Pig in the City, Miller can convey more information in a single, striking image (say, a fresh back tattoo detailing blood type and donor information) than Christopher Nolan can in an entire monologue. This has the benefit of getting story mechanics out of the way to make room for the action. And that’s a smart move because my God, the action.
It’s amazing how much mileage you can get out of an action scene when the overriding goal is to simply stay alive. The modern action movie has become so reliant on upping the stakes on everything that it's led to a kind of suffocating numbness when it comes to actions spectacles. It might make logical sense that if the fate of the entire world hinges on the outcome of every action, that the audience will be all more emotionally invested. But destruction on that scale the opposite effect: it makes the concept of danger abstract and minimizes when it wants to inflate. Without a relatable, specific point of reference, it's hard for an audience to feel any real connection. This explains why recent attempts at the spectacular (Star Trek Into Darkness, Man of Steel, Avengers: Age of Ultron) have relied so much on 9/11 imagery: massive urban destructions is unfortunately something too many of us have relationship with.
But when the goal of a film's hero is to just not die, you can feel the narrative freedom it creates. Not dying is the most basic of instincts – it doesn't need any exposition. You know this fact as a much as anyone: you proved it with Apocalyptico, a film almost as dialogue free as Mad Max: Fury Road (your The Passion of the Christ standing as an antithesis, as its character’s goal was to die, and take the longest possible time achieving that).
More than that, though, because the risks in Mad Max: Fury Road are primarily physical (rendered exponentially more visceral by the reliance on largely physical effects and stunt work), Miller and his collaborators can put information—both narrative and functional—on screen with a speed and clarity I've rarely seen. The irony here is that as faster and furiouser Mad Max: Fury Road gets, the closer it achieves its greatness through what can only be called beautifully classical filmmaking. It definitively proves that a mastery of techniques close to a century old—techniques that have formed a grammar that now exists at almost a subconscious level—can actually create something both relevant and fresh.
And fast. There is a six or seven shot sequence in one of the many amazing highway pursuits that involves Max jumping laterally from one vehicle to another, grasping onto the side of speeding rig, only to be pulled vertically upward by another marauder. It lasts maybe 5 seconds on screen, yet involves multiple camera positions that travel from one vehicle to the next and then upward. Yet the editing is so crisp, and the motion carries so fluidly through every shot, we are never once unsure about where we are and, more importantly, where the characters are. It’s the kind of sequence that could be used to teach a filmmaking class the beauty of editing. It’s also the kind of sequence that can only be realized by a filmmaker with something lacking in much of today’s blockbuster environment: and overarching, coherent vision.
Look at me: getting all films school 101 on you when I know you don’t need it. You’ve worked with Miller three times; you’ve seen how he works, and I’m sure you learned from him on those sets. And I’m running the risk of making Mad Max: Fury Road sound like something only an academic would appreciate. Let me rectify that. Mad Max: Fury Road contains enough bizarre imagery, grotesque characters, and full-out jaw-dropping set pieces to fuel five regular movies. It’s been thirty years since Miller directed you in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, and every warped image and incident he could dream up in that time finds its way onscreen. After all, a blind albino death metal guitarist riding the hood of a monster truck might have felt a little out of place in Miller’s most recent works, Happy Feet and Happy Feet 2.
So don’t feel too bad that you didn’t get the call to return to Miller’s wastelands. You have enough other things you should feel truly bad about. Maybe you would have gotten the call if you hadn’t so thoroughly sabotaged your own career and good standing. But the Mad Max films were never all about you—or really about Max himself. He’s a through-line for the audience; a way in. Taking you out of that equation has allowed Miller to stay true to his own vision. And that’s something from which we all benefit.