With A History Of Violence, Tom Breihan picks the most important action movie of every year, starting with the genre’s birth and moving right up to whatever Vin Diesel’s doing this very minute.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
It takes a whole lot to turn The Road Warrior into an afterthought. George Miller’s second Mad Max movie, released in 1981, is a total masterpiece, and it’s one of the defining action movies of the ’80s, the golden age of the action movie. With that movie, Miller invented a whole new visual language for the way the apocalypse might look, and he staged some of the greatest car chases of all time. Every post-apocalyptic movie that came out after The Road Warrior took at least a few ideas or images from it. Plenty just ripped it off wholesale. The Road Warrior gave what might be the greatest pro-wrestling tag team of all time its name and its aesthetic. It probably gave the Friday The 13th series producers the idea to put Jason Voorhees in a hockey mask. It elevated the art of the cinematic car chase. And then, 34 years later, Miller returned to that character and that world and just wiped The Road Warrior off the map.
From where I’m sitting, Mad Max: Fury Road is, quite simply, the greatest action movie ever made. Miller found a way to tell a moving, mythic, larger-than-life story in a fully-realized alternate world, and he did it without ever letting up on the throttle. He spent nearly 20 years developing the movie, keeping at it through false starts and heartbreaking dead ends. And when he got the chance to make it, he went all in, devising entire societies full of baroquely souped-up death machines and screaming war-cults. He found ways to devise, stage, and film stunts that are like nothing anyone’s ever accomplished. He recorded stunning image after stunning image; practically every frame of Fury Road could be a painting. He did justice to the most iconic character he’d ever created, even though he had to recast and reimagine that character, and then he paired that character up with an even more iconic one. And he made something so vivid and undeniable that every remaining cultural gatekeeper had to give it up, making Fury Road the exceedingly rare pure action movie to score a 97-percent Tomatometer rating and a Best Picture nomination.
Look: I’m writing in pure hyperbole. I know this. I just don’t know another way to talk about this movie. Watching Fury Road in the theater on opening night, I worried that I was being obnoxious, gleefully cackling with glee and, more than once, literally throwing my hands up in disbelief. I had to react physically. I couldn’t help it. The things I saw that night—the Polecats swinging in mid-air over the speeding vehicles, the muscle car on tank treads, the wasteland scavengers prowling the poisoned ground on stilts—demanded it.
On a pure action-movie level, Miller deserves credit for noticing what was happening in the rest of the world and inflating it into a grand Hollywood-studio vision. Four years before Fury Road, the Welsh director Gareth Evans made the berserker Indonesian fight movie The Raid: Redemption, changing the game by reducing the action movie to its simplest elements, telling it with visceral style. The Raid was as much stunt-show as it was traditional narrative, and I like to think that Miller noticed. I like to think that he also noticed things like the absolutely insane scene in the 2004 Thai movie Born To Fight where stuntmen throw each other around on the backs of two trucks speeding through the desert. Miller took all that breakneck intensity and inventiveness and put it in service of a sweeping, operatic, big-budget opus. He scaled it up, and he made it sing.
Miller famously tried to use as little CGI as possible in Fury Road. Instead, he got people to make the freaky, impossible cars he’d envisioned—the spike-covered scavenger-mobiles, the monster-truck hot rod, the enormous War Rig that really serves as a main character in itself—into functional vehicles. And then he crashed the fuck out of those vehicles. He hired Cirque Du Soleil acrobats and Olympians as stunt performers. He found ways to film fiery, elaborate car-wrecks, keeping everything visually clear and beautiful without killing or even seriously injuring anyone. On a sheer technical level, the movie is a marvel.
And it’s a marvel that’s not afraid of pure, giddy, adrenaline-spiking awesomeness. Consider: As Rictus Erectus, the villain Immortan Joe’s bellowing dimwit muscle-monster son, Miller cast Nathan Jones, a former armed robber, convict, bodybuilder, and WWE wrestler. Before playing Rictus, Jones had done a lot of his work in Asian movies, taking roles as the towering white guys who fight heroes like Jet Li (in Fearless) and Tony Jaa (in The Protector). The one time I saw Jones play the lead in a movie, as the title character of the goofy Thai action-comedy Muay Thai Giant, he was stunningly awful. And yet Jones is perfect in Fury Road, a deeply dangerous human weapon who, because of his infantile need for respect from his father, somehow turns out endearing even though we see him ripping an engine from the hood and throwing it at the good guys.
Miller’s respect for all of his characters, even the minor ones, elevates Fury Road almost as much as its stunts. The movie’s greatest visual joke is probably the Doof Warrior, the blind mutant who wails on a flame-throwing electric guitar as Immortan Joe’s army rides into battle. To play the Doof Warrior, Miller cast an Australian musician called Iota, and he built him a fully functional mobile stage and a flame-throwing guitar. If all we saw of the Doof Warrior was the image of him wheedling away in that initial roll-out scene, that would’ve been glorious. But the Doof Warrior shows up again and again, even getting a pretty great fight against Max in there. The visual joke gets an arc.
I’ve seen people complain that Fury Road is just one endless movie-length car chase, as if that’s a bad thing. For one thing: It’s an absolutely spectacular car chase, probably the best ever put to film. For another, Miller finds ways to tell his layered, humanistic story within the context of that car chase, which is a staggering achievement. Consider the case of Nux, the gibbering War Boy soldier who starts out as a raving true believer. He fights hard, he howls a lot of the movie’s best lines, he fails, he doubts himself, he falls in love, he finds new purpose, and he finally sacrifices himself to save the people he’d been trying to capture just a day or two before. That’s Shakespearean. That’s beautiful.
Another complaint I saw a few times: Mad Max wasn’t even the hero of the new Mad Max movie. That one’s true, and it’s clear and intentional. With Mel Gibson unable to return to the role that made him famous for about 15 very good reasons, Miller cast Tom Hardy, a beautiful man, and then covered his face up completely for the first 45 minutes of the movie. In the few bits of narration early in the movie, Miller makes it clear that his hero isn’t really a hero. He’s just a pure engine of survival, one who hates himself for the people who he’s let die. “I am the one who runs from both the living and the dead,” he says early on—not an especially heroic sentiment. Two minutes into the movie, during a car chase that’s not remotely epic by Mad Mad standards, Max crashes and loses his Interceptor, the most iconic thing about his character. In the role, Hardy is perfect. He’s physical and monosyllabic. He does all sorts of cool shit, and he subtly rediscovers his own heroism without making a big thing out of it. But he’s a supporting character, and he knows it.
The real hero in Fury Road is Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, a classic character who, in a perfect world, would get a movie franchise of her own. Theron is an absolute badass in the role: hard, intense, quietly vulnerable, in charge at almost every moment. She fights Mad Max to a standstill even though she’s only got one arm. She takes his rifle and shoots out the light of the Bullet Farmer’s car when Max can’t do it. She’s the one rescuing Immortan Joe’s desperate slaves and daring to imagine a better world—a world that will turn out to be a heartbreaking fiction. At one point, Furiosa leaves the truck to talk to the biker bandits with whom she’s made a deal. Before leaving, she smears dark grease all over her forehead. Maybe it’s warpaint, or maybe it just keeps the sun out of her eyes. Whatever the case, it looks incredible, and the image of Theron’s piercing eyes staring out from under that grease is the sort of thing that stays with you. Theron’s only really done a few action movies—Fury Road, Atomic Blonde, The Fate Of The Furious—and she already feels like she could be an all-timer.
The movie gives her a great villain, too. (The villain is unquestionably hers, not Max’s.) The first time we see Immortan Joe, we see his repulsive back lesions. Then we see his underlings putting plastic armor covered in fake medals over that mottled skin. And we see Joe standing before the people he’s oppressing, bellowing, “I am your redeemer!” As luck would have it, Donald Trump declared his presidential candidacy one month and one day after Fury Road opened in the U.S., and there’s no way Miller saw Trump coming. But I can’t watch that scene now without thinking of Trump, his bearing strikingly similar, declaring, “I am your voice!” at the Republican National Convention a year later.
There’s so much Trump in Joe: the overbearing and vainglorious rhetoric, the hogging of all natural resources, the willingness to treat people like property, the disappointing offspring. They both command hordes of crazy-eyed, pale-skinned young male psychos, and they both boast nature-defying nimbuses of hair. The real differences, as far as I can tell, are Joe’s actual leader charisma and Joe’s willingness to ride into battle himself. (Admittedly, the fact that Steve Mnuchin, Trump’s vampiric treasury secretary, was a Fury Road executive producer complicates this whole parallel. I don’t know what to do with that. Even pieces of shit can, I suppose, be involved with great things from time to time.)
The feminist undercurrents of Fury Road got a lot of ink when the movie came out; critics loved pointing out that Miller had brought in The Vagina Monologues writer Eve Ensler as an on-set consultant. Some “men’s-rights activist” types even noisily declared that they would boycott the movie, and I hope those motherfuckers really did. They don’t deserve it. In any case, Fury Road is a long way away from being a political tract, but it is a story about heroic women overcoming the influence of a predatory, proprietary, evil man, and I do think that matters. In any case, I’ve been doing my best to enjoy politically repellant action movies for my entire life, and I can’t even tell you how great it is that my favorite action movie of all time happens to have ideas about life that line up with my own. That’s one of Fury Road’s many miracles.
As Joe, Miller cast Hugh Keays-Byrne, the Australian actor who’d played the villainous Toecutter in the original 1979 Mad Max movie. (It’s not the first time Miller did that, either. Bruce Spence played entirely different roles in both The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.) The choice makes sense because it doesn’t make sense. Fury Road only barely references the past Mad Max movies, and it makes no attempt to place the events of the movie within a larger Max chronology. Miller simply doesn’t care about stuff like that. He has stories he wants to tell, and if they don’t fit neatly into the mythology, then oh well. But that still underlines what makes Fury Road special. Miller made a great piece of blockbuster entertainment, and he did it in the context of 2015. Fury Road was, at least technically, a part of the summer-franchise-blockbuster economy. It was a big-budget sequel, a reboot, full of big stars. And it’s also a complete vision. As it turns out, that can be done.
Thus far, Fury Road hasn’t proven to be an influential movie. Nobody, as far as I can tell, has had an answer for that thrown gauntlet. And yet Fury Road still looms as 2015’s most important action movie, as well as its best, because of what it represents. We’ve been settling for half-assed bullshit for too long. The current cinematic climate doesn’t make it easy for directors to come out with massive, overwhelming pieces of art. But it doesn’t make it impossible, either. Miller, now 72, may never get to make the new Mad Max movie he’s got written; it was recently reported that he’s suing Warner Bros. over unpaid bonuses. But someone, somewhere, will someday have to answer the challenge that Fury Road represents. And when they do, I myself will carry them to the gates of Valhalla. They will ride eternal, shiny and chrome.
Other notable 2015 action movies: The jingoistic Chinese soldier-hero movie Wolf Warrior is a slick and watchable piece of entertainment. It pits star and director Wu Jing against the great British martial artist Scott Adkins. It’s a dumb movie, built around the idea that a gangster would be willing to send his guys after an actual military battalion in the middle of war-games exercises. And in one truly goofy scene, its wolf warriors have to fight actual CGI wolves. Still, the movie was a surprise monster hit, and it launched what seems likely to become a globally dominant franchise. For that, it gets runner-up honors.
Speaking of globally dominant franchises, 2015 also gave us Furious 7, the movie where we finally had to say goodbye to the late Paul Walker. Amazingly, the movie remains pretty coherent even though it had to make up for Walker’s absence with stunt doubles and CGI trickery. It also added a bunch of great action-movie presences to the Fast & Furious world: Jason Statham, Kurt Russell, Tony Jaa, and Ronda Rousey. For my money, Furious 7 is the movie where the Fast & Furious movies really became the unforced version of The Expendables. And 2015 gave us the fun-as-hell Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, in which Tom Cruise attempted to top the incredible Burj Khalifa stunt from the previous movie by clinging to the side of a taking-off airplane and by holding his breath underwater for way, way too long. And then there was the Bond movie Spectre, which had an amazing opening scene set during a Mexico City Día De Muertos parade and a fun performance from ex-wrestler Dave Bautista but which mostly weighed itself down with endless exposition and backstory that nobody ever needed.
For a better take on Bond-style hijinks, I’d recommend Guy Ritchie’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E., a deeply silly and charismatic Cold War spy romp that sadly didn’t make enough money for Ritchie to go forward with the franchise that he’d clearly been planning. And while Hollywood didn’t have anything else anywhere near the level of Fury Road, there were plenty of American action movies that, like The Man From U.N.C.L.E., were way better than they had to be. Run All Night is an unjustly overlooked entry into Liam Neeson’s late-period badass canon, with Neeson as a regretful Irish-mob hitman, Ed Harris as his vengeful boss, and Common getting a dry run at the elite-assassin role he’d later play in John Wick: Chapter 2. (Why is Common so good at playing elite assassins?) And Michael Mann got to have a lot of fun with the hacking-themed shoot-’em-up Blackhat, another movie that calls out for rediscovery.
It wasn’t all good news. Point Break got a pointless remake, and The Transporter got a pointless reboot. Salma Hayek got to make her own Taken with the single-location death party Everly, while Sean Penn at least attempted his with the dour The Gunman. Jason Statham played a big role in the Melissa McCarthy/Paul Feig spoof Spy, and while that’s a fun movie, it foreshadows a grim future where Statham will make fun of himself in big movies when he should be kicking people and choking them out in small movies. (On the plus side, Statham did get to do plenty of fighting in the decidedly small, William Goldman-penned revenge movie Wild Card.)
In China, the arthouse master Hou Hsiao-Hsien riffed on the wuxia tradition with the sumptuous The Assassin. Jackie Chan co-starred with, implausibly enough, John Cusack and Adrien Brody in the awkward historical epic Dragon Blade, which made buckets of money in Asia even though Americans love making fun of it. In South Korea, Assassination wove an old-school espionage story around the Japanese occupation of 1933. And Veteran had fun telling a story about a rich-kid mobster who always evades legal consequences.
Japan had a big year. With Yakuza Apocalypse, Takashi Miike told a riotously violent story about gangsters becoming vampires and gave The Raid’s Yayan Ruhian a lot of room to fight people. In a slightly different twist, the knowingly silly Deadman Inferno had yakuza fighting zombies instead of vampires. And Nowhere Girl had a troubled telekinetic girl going to war to protect her school. And even South Africa came out with Momentum, with Olga Kurylenko as a special-ops badass who becomes a thief.
Next time: Wu Jing and Tony Jaa join forces for a state-of-the-art pan-Asian martial-arts story in Kill Zone 2.