By Mark Olsen
Los Angeles Times
AUSTIN, Texas — The three films in the “Mad Max” trilogy have always felt like primal epics, as if they were fables handed down for generations by word of mouth. Former police patrolman Max Rockatansky, who lost his family at the hands of a marauding motorcycle gang, drives the wasteland on the run from everyone, perhaps most of all himself.
The first two films, “Mad Max” and “The Road Warrior,” helped make an international superstar of Mel Gibson and announced Australian filmmaker George Miller, onetime emergency room doctor turned high-impact visionary, as a force to be reckoned with. Thirty years after the third film, “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome,” Miller is unveiling a new Max and a world he describes as “uniquely familiar” with “Mad Max: Fury Road.”
Max is now played by Tom Hardy, best known to mainstream audiences as Bane from “The Dark Knight Rise” but also an actor who combines physical brawn with wounded sensitivity like few others. Max comes across Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who is shepherding a group of women away from the tyrannical Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played the villain in the original “Mad Max”).
The character of Max is meant to be the same person as from the previous films — “How many James Bonds have there been?” asked Miller — even if the timeline is now slightly wonky.
“This is interesting, the chronology. It doesn’t make sense,” Miller acknowledged with a chuckle. “First of all, Tom Hardy was 6 weeks old when we shot ‘Mad Max 1.’”
The four “Mad Max” movies nevertheless exist on a single timeline, with the previous three films taking place in the space between now and “Fury Road.”
“As I say to people, the apocalypse starts next Wednesday,” explained Miller, 70, the day after his South By Southwest Film Festival presentation of “The Road Warrior” and a bit of footage from the new film.
“All the bad things we see in the news come to pass: all the economic collapse, oil wars and water wars, even stuff we never see coming,” he added. “Then we jump 45 years in the future.”
He was deep into preparing the fourth “Max” film in 2001 when circumstances caused a series of delays. When the film team regrouped more recently, production had shifted locations because of unexpected rains in the Outback, and well over 100 elaborately customized vehicles had to be shipped from Australia to Namibia.
Guy Norris, second unit director and supervising stunt coordinator on “Fury Road,” has worked with Miller since “The Road Warrior.” (That famous moment of a man launching off a motorcycle into a ravine? That was Norris, and he broke his leg doing it.)
“To me the action is just unspoken dialogue, it’s moving the story along. And that’s really what George is a master at,” Norris said by phone. “And it allowed us to really make the action the narrative of the story, so all the action had to work to inform all the characters.”
Just as audiences are now used to tales set in post-apocalyptic dystopias, a whole vocabulary has become commonplace for serialized stories — franchise, sequel, prequel, reboot, re-imagining. So how would Miller categorize “Mad Max: Fury Road” with its recast lead and admittedly off-kilter in-universe chronology?
“A revisit? Can we invent a new term?” Miller asked. “It felt like going into familiar territory. It’s like returning to where you grew up, it has this intense familiarity, at the same time it was a new thing. The world had changed so much — I’d changed, cinema had changed, audiences had changed, and it became a new thing.”