Set aside the anti-Semitism, sexism and abusiveness that’s stained his reputation, and Mel Gibson remains a formidable movie star in whose path to follow. And yet this Friday, Tom Hardy will do just that, assuming the role that helped make Gibson a star—and then later solidified his A-list Hollywood credentials—when he transforms into heroic post-apocalyptic nomad Max Rockatansky in Mad Max: Fury Road. The first installment in the Australia-set franchise in thirty years (since 1985’s largely lame Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome), and the first to not feature Gibson as its protagonist, director George Miller’s return to the high-speed, crash-and-burn fold may be the most purely adrenalized film of the summer. A no-holds-barred onslaught of vehicular mayhem, Fury Road ups the ante on all future car-chase films. But more than that, it also finally elevates Hardy to the pinnacle of action badassery.
Take a look back at Hardy’s initial big screen foray, and that status hardly seems likely.
After a bit part in Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, Hardy starred in 2002 as the villain of Star Trek: Nemesis, the last film to feature the Star Trek: The Next Generation cast. As Shinzon, a clone of Patrick Stewart’s Enterprise captain Jean-Luc Picard, Hardy strikes a slender, slightly effeminate pose, his presence one of a delicate child roiling with fury and anger. Barely recognizable when compared to his current, burly form, Hardy—who was born in England, and cut his teeth on the London stage and small screen—seems in Nemesis like the type of actor more fit for period dramas than slam-bang action adventures. And his slightness, in fact, is one of the reasons that the film feels so unbalanced—he’s simply not imposing enough to register as a real threat to Picard and company.
Over the next few years, Hardy morphed into a versatile actor who more comfortably fit into a variety of genres, be it literary adaptations (Sophia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette) or grungy crime sagas (2008’s RocknRolla) and over-the-top violent fantasies (2008’s Sucker Punch). It was 2008’s Bronson, however, that first truly suggested—by which I mean completely, unconditionally confirmed—that Hardy was the perfect actor to portray men with whom one did not want to mess.
Nicolas Winding Refn’s blistering biopic recounts the real-life story of British convict Michael Gordon Peterson, who was better known as Charles Bronson thanks to his penchant for being the baddest (and scariest) man around. With a shaved head, a mustache, and a 42-pounds-heavier physique marked not only by bulging muscles but also by the fact that it’s often coated in grime and blood, Hardy is a jaw-dropping revelation in Bronson. With transfixing intensity, he embodies Bronson, who spent much of his adult life in solitary confinement thanks to a fondness for picking fights in prison just for the hell of it, as an unhinged animal. Like a character from a Stanley Kubrick film (Kubrick being the stylistic influence that weighs most heavily on Bronson), his criminal is someone whose inherently feral instincts cannot be tamed by civilization. A modern-day variation on A Clockwork Orange’s ultraviolence-loving droog Alex, Hardy’s Bronson is impervious to societal domestication, and the way that Hardy stalks around the screen, fuming with rage that inevitably explodes in brutality, showed that fearsomeness was almost a natural state of being for the actor, at least on screen.
Hardy’s Bronson turn wasn’t missed by Hollywood, which immediately began casting him in roles that took advantage of his unnerving presence. In 2010, he brought a measure of cool, masculine confidence and poise to Christopher Nolan’s Inception, before further returning to more pugilistic terrain in 2011 with Warrior. Gavin O’Connor’s mixed martial arts drama is perhaps the most underrated guy’s-guy film of the decade, a Rocky-esque saga of estranged brothers competing against each other for a heavyweight title while also contending with traumas of both a paternalistic and wartime nature. Again sporting a ripped body, this time covered in imposing tattoos, Hardy re-establishes his expertise at playing furious men wracked by inner demons. Yet unlike in Bronson, he also paints his character’s anger as a byproduct of harrowing experiences on the Iraq battlefield, not to mention lingering issues with his father (Nick Nolte).
If Warrior finds Hardy coloring (and complicating) aggro-manliness with layers of deeper emotional turmoil, he affects a more cartoonishly awesome pose in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises as the social anarchy-inspiring Bane. Even with his mouth (and half his face) covered by a teeth-like mask, Hardy is unforgettable as the brawny Batman adversary, conveying a depth of corrupted idealism and commitment to his cause that does much to compensate for the film’s sometimes-nagging shortcomings. Be it throwing punches or delivering speeches with his hands clasping the furry lapels of his coat, Hardy is magnetic, a physical slab of granite made all the more terrible by the lengths to which he’ll go to achieve his ends—and the lack of remorse he feels about the fallout wrought from his actions.
Bane made Hardy something of a star, but because he was unrecognizable in the role, it also didn’t define his blockbuster big screen persona. Thus, his subsequent work has allowed him to further develop a decidedly masculine movie career in varied projects: as a bootlegger determined to keep his clan (and operation) together in John Hillcoat’s 2012 Lawless; as a man whose life and business fall apart in one phone conversation after another during a single night’s car ride in 2014’s Locke; as a bartender in mob trouble (opposite the late James Gandolfini) in last year’s The Drop; and as a Russian agent intent on catching a serial killer in this year’s Child 44. In all of these films, Hardy exudes a muscular, manly sense of self, all while refusing to make his characters so invulnerable (to pain, to suffering, to loss) that they come off as less than human. On the contrary, Hardy’s charisma is born from a careful balance of roughneck attitude and carefully masked weakness—and thus the reason he floundered in his one stab at mainstream romantic comedy, 2012’s This Means War, is because it drained him of the very force-of-nature power that makes him compelling.
In that context, then, assuming the stoic, driven Mad Max mantle isn’t so much a daunting task as a natural next step for Hardy, and his career. Dour, determined, and driven by a combination of necessity and nobility (not to mention marked by a sly, dry sense of humor), Max is the ideal Hardy protagonist—just as Hardy has, in turn, become Hollywood’s ideal badass.