Film Review: “Mad Max: Fury Road”

Minimalist in characterization and dialogue, over-the-top and bombastic in direction and action choreography, Mad Max: Fury Road is exactly the sort of masterfully schizophrenic film making that fans of George Miller’s original trilogy of “Mad Max” films would and should expect in a new entry in the iconic series. Unlike so many sequels that take too long to produce and thus arrive far too late to add anything of value to the series, Fury Road takes advantage of modern film making techniques to ratchet the intensity up an insane notch while retaining the tone and spirit of the original films. There’s no mistaking that what we’re seeing is the same dystopian world and the same “Mad Max” Rockatansky that Miller introduced us to decades ago.

It’s just gotten a whole lot bigger and scarier.

Max looks a bit different this time, too, but only on the outside. Played by Tom Hardy this time, “Mad Max” is still the haunted, solitary figure driven only the need to survive that Mel Gibson last portrayed twenty years ago. Tormented by visions of past failures and lost loved ones, he steers his way clear of people and settlements, but sometimes people who want what little he still has come looking for him. Though certainly a formidable target, Max at the very start of the film finds himself overwhelmed and taken prisoner by fanatical servants of the warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who rules the lives of thousands from the top of “The Citadel”, a massive fortress carved out of massive rock formations jutting like knives out of the desert wastes. Immortan Joe controls the lives of his followers by hoarding things like water, shelter, and women, but his most important element of control is belief. His most fervent followers, the “War Boys” are fully indoctrinated in the cult he’s built around himself, with his divinity and divine right to rule at its heart — they gleefully live for the chance to drive and die carrying out his will, for in doing so they hope to earn a place in a better afterlife.

But one of his top lieutenants, the Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), sees through the lies. She makes off with her massive War Rig carrying Immortan Joe’s most prized “possessions” — the beautiful, perfect “wives” he keeps locked in a vault to breed his future heirs — and leads his murderous minions on an epic chase across hundreds of miles of wasteland, hoping to keep them all alive long enough to reach safety. Max, now the captive of a particularly zealous War Boy named Nux (Nicholas Hoult), finds himself literally a hood ornament chained to one of the dozen armed-to-the-teeth pursuit vehicles chasing after the traitor and her stolen “property”, forced to watch as the War Boys try to run their prey down any way they can.

But this is a “Mad Max” movie. You know he won’t stay a captive for very long.

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Since George Miller last visited the dystopian wastelands of his “Mad Max” films 30 years ago with Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, his work has influenced an entire sub-genre of action films built upon imagining the struggle for existence after an apocalypse, the collapse of order and reason, and the depths of depravity reached by mankind on the brink, without hope of a better tomorrow. Everything from the classic Japanese manga and anime Fist of the North Star to Tank Girl to two separate and distinct Kevin Costner box office busts, 1995’s Waterworld and 1997’s The Postman, owe a debt to what Miller and his star, Mel Gibson, delivered on screen with the tales of Max Rockatansky.

Now, with Miller’s long-awaited return to the genre, he makes a pretty good case for the idea that he alone should be allowed to make movies like this. For almost its entire two-hour running time, Mad Max: Fury Road is naught but a very long and elaborate chase scene, featuring short pit-stops for terse dialogue exchanged in order to transition from one leg of the chase to the next. The characters here are more archetypes than fully-realized human characters, given colorful names such as “Furiosa”, “Rictus Erectus”, “Splendid”, and “Capable”, and set against one another and the bleak landscape with their epic struggle meant fully to be an allegory for the fight to hold on to hope in a world that often rewards compassion with savagery and greed. There’s nothing subtle here, no attempt at nuance whatsoever. It’s all pedal-to-the-metal, twisted steel and explosions, blood, death, and sand, punctuated by the occasionally meaningful glance or slight gesture to indicate that humanity is still present in this most inhumane of places.

And yet, despite none of it really being new, it all still works marvelously, thanks to Miller’s mastery of the material and his sense of spectacle and scope. You might think you’ve seen stuff like this before, but you’ve never seen it brought to life this way, and almost all of it with practical sets and effects. There’s a modernity to the feel of the production thanks to what cast and crew can do these days with camera location and positioning, and also with 3D, but for the most part what this production achieves it achieves through good old fashioned stuntwork, pyrotechnics, and imaginative production design.

As for the actors in front of the camera in the midst of all those speeding cars, raining explosive spears and sand flying in all directions, they give audiences just what’s needed to provide a beating heart to all the mayhem. Hardy, as always, delivers an on-point performance that should remind audiences of the Mel/Max of old while still bringing his signature gravitas and bearing. Theron is his equal as the stoic, battle-weary Furiosa — the two performers find a simply synergy in their scenes together, portraying two characters with a lot in common in terms of what they’ve lost and what they’re seeking in what’s left of the world. Hoult also stands out in the early going as the fanatical Nux, though his character arc takes a bit of a maudlin turn by the midpoint and after that doesn’t register much. The performers playing the “wives” certainly stand out visually, swathed in white, looking relatively pristine against the backdrop of all that desolation and depravation, and among them Rosie Huntington-Whiteley (Transformers: Dark of the Moon) shines brightest, but the script gives them each just enough to do to keep them from being just walking, talking scenery, and so no presence feels wasted.

All in all, it’s tough not to regard Mad Max: Fury Road as a triumph in every measurable sense. It may not appeal to particular audiences due to all that blood and bedlam and lack of depth, but to those who know what they’re walking into and welcome it, it’s quite possibly the cinematic experience of the year thus far.

Mad Max: Fury Road
Starring Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Zoë Kravitz, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton. Directed by George Miller.
Running Time: 120 minutes
Rated R for intense sequences of violence throughout, and for disturbing images.

Felix Albuerne
Felix Albuerne
One-time Blockbuster Video manager, textbook editor, trivia host, and community college English/Humanities teacher. Now a digital media producer, part-time film critic, amateur foodie, semi-retired beer snob, unabashed geek, and still very much a work in progress.

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