Why ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ is the greatest action movie of all time

A still from ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’
A still from ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

Summary

Nine years ago, George Miller’s ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ not only redefined action cinema but transcended the entire genre

“Oh, what a day, what a lovely day."

What a lovely Thursday, to be precise. This week sees the release of George Miller’s Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga, and before we witness this brand new apocalyptic explosion in theatres, it is a fine time to rewatch the film that came before it—not that any excuses are necessary. Nine years ago, Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (streaming in India on Netflix) not only redefined action cinema but transcended the entire genre. It is a film unlike any film before it—which is ironic, considering it follows Miller’s cult classics Mad Max, The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome—and every single frame trembles with burning hot originality.

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I begin with The Doof Warrior. An enigmatic masked man, he epitomizes the film’s heavy metal aesthetic. Perched atop a monstrous, mobile stage with a guitar that doubles as a flamethrower, he is a wordless icon. He’s absurd as well as awe-inspiring, yet, against all odds, fits perfectly within the film’s world. He embodies surrealism and theatricality, turning chase scenes into heavy metal opera. Bringing to life the bombastic score by Junkie XL, the Doof Warrior—unforgettably—demonstrates the film’s embrace of maximalism and spectacle. 

Mad Max: Fury Road is a two-hour chase that yanks the audience along for the ride without preamble or exposition. The viewer enters the film like a character in a video game, on their feet and racing before even knowing what they are bolting away from. The story arc is as spare as a tyre: escape from the clutches of tyranny, only to turn back and confront it head-on. This simplicity, however, is the film’s strength—Miller crafts a narrative that is both epic and intimate, with every detail telling a story. It’s the poetry of pursuit.

On the run is Tom Hardy’s Max Rockatansky, a taciturn survivor haunted by his past, a brooding hero literally in the mould of Sergio Leone’s ‘Man With No Name.’ He is the archetypal lone wanderer, shaped by harsh environments and personal codes of honour. When Max mutters, "My name is Max. My world is fire and blood," it's less an introduction and more a mission statement.

The Western parallels run deep: The desert in Fury Road becomes a character in its own right, shaping the narrative with its endless horizons and treacherous terrain, much like Monument Valley in John Ford’s films. The Citadel in Fury Road mirrors the isolated frontier towns of westerns, such as the ramshackle outpost in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Both settings serve as bastions of civilization amidst chaos, where law and order are tenuous and contested by outsiders. Like the classic Westerns, Fury Road grapples with the conflict between civilisation and savagery.

Charlize Theron — in an incandescent performance — plays Imperator Furiosa, a fierce warrior with a profound sense of justice. She has made it her mission to free a grotesque tyrant’s enslaved “wives" from captivity, and thus the narrative of resistance and empowerment resonates throughout her journey. Theron conveys Furiosa's pain and strength through minimal dialogue and intense physicality. Her declaration — "We are not things" — underscores her fight for liberation and equality.  Her prosthetic arm symbolizes both her vulnerability and her formidable resilience, making her a compelling and iconic figure in action cinema.

Fury Road tackles issues of autonomy, gender politics, and ecological collapse without once feeling didactic. How could it when it feels like a fever dream?

The film is a visual tour de force, a baroque tapestry of flame and fury. Cinematographer John Seale paints the wasteland in vibrant hues and high-contrast shadows, creating a world that is both hyperreal and hallucinatory. It revels in an otherworldly aesthetic, where the sky bleeds orange and the night pulses with deep blues. A storm sequence brings about a cataclysmic dance of elemental fury, where lightning and sand create a surreal, apocalyptic tableau.

Perhaps most importantly, things go boom — for real. The Mad Max series has always relied on practical effects, and Fury Road is a non-stop guitar solo, shredding and angry and showing off. This choice amplifies the visceral impact of the action, grounding the film’s more fantastical elements in a physical reality that audiences can feel. Every explosion, every bit of the twisted metal carnage, feels visceral and breathtakingly dangerous. It’s like watching a motorcyclist at a fairground spin around a wheel of death, a maut ka kuan — multiplied by a million. The ‘Polecats’ sequence stands as the film’s pièce de résistance: warriors on pendulous poles swing and sway above speeding vehicles, a dizzying, vertiginous spectacle that redefines what action cinema can achieve. 

Miller is a master storyteller, a rare auteur who truly deserves the ‘visionary’ label. He reinvented the post-apocalyptic genre with the Mad Max films, explores nuance and satire with a wicked John Updike adaptation, The Witches Of Eastwick, revolutionised animatronics with Babe, the story of a talking pig, went darker into themes of urban isolation in Babe: Pig In The City, made two enormously loved Happy Feet movies that addressed climate change and conformity through a charming tale of a tap-dancing penguin. A couple of years ago he made the gorgeous Three Thousand Years Of Longing, a story about storytelling, a grand, sensual, all-encompassing romance between a woman and a djinn. 

Miller was 70 when he made Fury Road, a symphony of chaos that is as much a feast for the eyes as it is a jolt to the senses. The desolate wasteland comes to life with a vividness that speaks to the director’s background in medicine, an understanding of human fragility informing his depiction of a society on the brink. The vehicles, grotesque and majestic, are not merely props but extensions of their drivers’ identities and psyches. Now, nearly a decade later, he is back with the origin story of Furiosa, played by Anya Taylor-Joy. All we can expect is an explosion.

Mad Max: Fury Road is the single greatest action movie of all time. In my eyes, it doesn’t even come close. Calling that film ‘GOAT,’ in fact, feels entirely inadequate — it is rather a butcher, one that has slaughtered all existing goats. Every frame, every creative decision, every performance, is polished to shiny, magnificent perfection. George Miller's entire film gleams like chrome. Shine on, you crazy diamond.

Streaming tip of the week: 

Miller’s first Mad Max films — starring Mel Gibson — may not have the scale of Fury Road but are crammed with audacity and character. The 1979 Mad Max can be rented on Apple TV and Google, while Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) are on Amazon Prime. Ride hard.

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