Tom Hardy stars in the role made famous by Mel Gibson in the fourth Mad Max film from George Miller. In the post-apocalyptic wasteland of the desert, Max teams up with a woman, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), after the loss of his wife and child and together they try to survive the anarchy of their existence.
First, an admission, or maybe it is a declaration of principles. I am a shameless, dedicated follower of the Road Warrior. Which is to say that Mad Max (1979) was as important to me as say Breathless (1960) was to an earlier generation. Mad Max 2 aka The Road Warrior (1981) was as close to an out-of-body experience I’ve ever had watching a movie: all that chaos and metal doing the impossible lifted me out of my seat and left me gasping and had me crying for more. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) had its moments but it had Tina Turner too, which gave proceedings the icky splendour of MTV rock. It felt like a betrayal.
In the 30 years since, George Miller’s franchise has been fetishised, argued over, imitated, parodied, ripped off and mocked into movie kitsch. But true believers anxiously awaited this last mega budget, long-prepared-much-delayed, fourth instalment.
Mad Max Fury Road then has a little to live down and a lot to live up to.
The hype has been relentless (foreshadowing the relentless energy of the thing itself.) The good news is that it is better than being very good. For the record I loved it and I’ll see it again soon and after that, often.
It’s a cranking, imperfect, delirious, loud, elegant, provocative, violent, dazzling, bizarre and truly, weirdly nutty movie chock full of ideas and teeming with so much detail it seems tooled for repeat viewings. Still, it's more nuanced and complex than the net chat has suggested.
"cranking, imperfect, delirious, loud, elegant, provocative, violent, dazzling, bizarre and truly, weirdly nutty"
For starters, it is not one long chase. The drama is carefully and cunningly modulated; in those moments where Miller and co. alter the pace from a fierce rush to a vigorous strut, he mixes in much tenderness inside the bleak, grim reality of the characters where say, a stillborn death is met with about as much heartbreak as a misorder of take-out. It is not a silent movie; there’s actually quite a bit of dialogue, much of it smart and funny, though the film’s leads have very little to say. It is very funny. Miller and co-writers Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris create a dark world where not even a two-headed lizard is safe from human hunger; the gags are here to prevent gloom from settling in.
Still, what is true is that the film is at its best when it hits the road. There are a dozen chases here (or more) and each one has its own individual style, tone and velocity. They’re like numbers in a musical; advancing and developing the narrative; my favourite were the bikers who use the desert hills to launch themselves into the sky so they can dive on their victims with fire bombs…
Miller remains a supreme master of action. With his splendid tech cohorts, the action here is immersive and high impact; it has a nasty, believable edge. It plays well, real… when characters are close to die, we feel it. Still, many may succumb to action fatigue by the halfway point and Miller’s adoration for emblematic characters (as opposed to the psychological) will exhaust the impatient.
But then it’s about the vision: the post apocalyptic wasteland here eclipses the grubby make-dos and biker and jock primitivism of the earlier pics. Imagine an old-fashioned Hollywood Egyptian epic crossed with a Heavy Metal comic and the fevered third world bits from the Koyaanisqatsi trilogy with a little of Metropolis, Soylent Green, and The Omega Man chucked in. But then that’s selling what is here way short. The films real art punch comes out of its story concepts: human blood, mother’s milk, the womb itself, and water are the stuff that makes this demented society rock. Its dictator is a guy who looks like the monster from Predator but with, you know, clown make up. He’s called Immortan Joe and played by Hugh Keays-Byrne (who was the villain in the first Max film. Indeed Fury Road abounds with references to the series history…). Joe keeps a string of ‘wives’ - Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Zoe Kravitz, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee and Courtney Eaton – a multi-racial group of very young and beautiful women who meet his sexual needs and bear his children.
When one of Joe’s trusted warriors, Imperator Furiosa, (Charlize Theron with sensibly shaved scalp and an imposing musculature) attempts to rescue the ‘wives’, the balance of this twisted fascist world is upset. Joe gives chase with an army of spear-chucking acrobatic irradiated bad guys in desperate need of dental care who self-declare a desperate need to “die historic”. They’re led into battle by a team of drummers and a rock guitarist who seems to be the mutant son of Kiss.
It would be spoiling it to explain just how Max (Tom Hardy) insinuates himself into the story of Furiosa and the women. But he starts the movie as a human hood ornament in a medieval facemask playing second lead to Theron’s troubled heroine. Max ends the story in joining a fight he felt he was never any part of. The only backstory we get of Max is that he is visited by visions – ghosts perhaps – of all the people he failed to save.
Guilt and redemption then, are the drivers here but as always Miller has much on his mind. Fury Road is a sublime action movie that flies in the face of the macho posturing that dominates this kind of cinema. Miller insists that the characters desire more than survival. Can life be more than political expediency? Is it better to search a new horizon or stay your ground?
Action movies celebrate the individual. Fury Road is about the formation of a female dominated collective bent on reform. (My favourite bit in the entire film is the double-take Hardy has when he first lays sight of the ‘wives’ – dressed in white primitive chic like extras in Roman epic and washing themselves in a red desert – it's like a bizarre parody of some dumb glossy photo shoot. Like Max, we learn to see these women as more than an alluring picture.)
What’s impressive about all this is Miller’s ability to have so much fun with it, keep it moving and not make it nonsense. His gift lies in his cinematic sense; it’s got to do with rhythm, pacing, and keeping the emphasis just where the audience needs it. The cast are all very strong, but what I liked best was that I saw things here I’ve never seen before. Now that’s something I wish I could admit to, more often.
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