Let's just get this out of the way, shall we? Mad Max: Fury Road is full on, straight-up, high-octane crazy, but it may be one of the best examples of cinematic insanity captured on celluloid since Stanley Kubrick died.
Pretty amazing for a reboot, which, in many ways, had absolutely no business making it to the cineplex in the first place.
Reboots of cinematic franchises are becoming a familiar element of 21st century moviemaking; James Bond, Batman, Spider-Man (twice!), and now Mad Max.
This time though, it's the original creator, George Miller, who is overseeing the re-birth of one of the all-time great action movies. 70 year old former physician, George Miller, who made the first Mad Max movie almost forty years ago and pretty much invented the 'Oz-ploitation' genre, has spent the last three decades making family films like Happy Feet and Babe: Pig in the City (a great film, by the way). Oh, and not succeeding in getting a Justice League movie made about 8 years back, which now feels more tragic than ever.
How a person matching that description could get $150 million dollars to revisit the post-peak-oil wasteland of Australia, And with so little studio interference that he can make his own leading man the sidekick to Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa, then take the whole she-bang to Namibia to scratch his David Lean itch is absolutely astonishing.
The fact that he has crafted a tightly knit and gripping, though minimalist, narrative to tie the whole works together is nothing short of miraculous.
Fury Road has been out for a couple of weeks now, so you have probably already heard how Tom Hardy, as the titular Max, probably has less to say than Kurt Russell's Soldier in that film, and how he gets captured and waylaid for the majority of the first act. You may have heard Furiosa is the real main character, enabling the film to take a surprisingly feminist stance at some points. Worst of all, you may have heard that his iconic ride, the last of the V-8 Interceptors, gets taken out of action very early on in the story.
This is all true.
But it doesn't make the movie any less awesome, and here is why:
You may have noticed that the Mad Max trilogy has been gradually amping up the intensity and societal craziness as the films progressed. In Mad Max, there is very little separating Max's world from our own, but in The Road Warrior, with a bit more gestation time, some experience and a bigger budget, you know right from the jump that things have gone off the rails. Seeing Max's battered car evade crossbow-wielding biker savages in order to sop up some leaking 'guzzoline' with a dirty bandana, you are given a very clear picture of how things have deteriorated, and without any dialogue for the first ten minutes or so.
By the time we get Beyond Thunderdome, with MasterBlaster running Bartertown and Tina Turner's Auntie Entity demonstrating her authority with a one-hundred pound chainmail dress, it finally sinks in that civilization and society have irrevocably changed.
Miller has had his ideas about Mad Max's madder world percolating for three decades now, and the place is crazier than ever now. The outlaw gangs are no longer on the outskirts of society, they are society, and their leader, Immortan Joe, is worshipped as a god on Earth, or at least a prophet of old. He has used his control of water to exert total domination of the populace via the speed cult of chrome-coveting 'half-lifers' that wish for nothing more than to die in his service so they can be reborn and live again in his twisted take on Valhalla.
Using slaves like Max as 'blood bags' to help stave off what is either radiation poisoning or just the high cost of red-line living, these half lifers take him in pursuit of a rogue Imperator driving one of the Immortan's War Rigs. Once Max has the chance to break free, Furiosa and her precious cargo becomes his best shot out of the desert, with his vampiric nemesis Nux (an almost up recognizable Nicholas Hoult) in close pursuit.
As mentioned, there are those who feel Max's role is incidental, and unbecoming of a hero in his own film, but I have bad news for these individuals, as they are madder than Max:
Max has never been the hero.
He is the focal point and the protagonist, sure, but does very little in terms of selfless bravery. In the first film, Max starts out as a normal fellow who loses his bottle when the lawless ones destroy his family (the madness being played up very effectively via flashbacks and intrusive visions in Fury Road); he is as much a victim as a hero, and his vengeful actions make him an anti-hero at best.
Likewise, it can be argued that Max is not the hero of The Road Warrior, merely the viewpoint of a crazed survivalist bystander who encounters a community trying to save themselves. They do something heroic by breaking out of a besieged refinery with a tanker of precious fuel, with Max essentially along for the ride with only a fatalist's choice in the matter. Even in Thunderdome, the mantle of hero comes uneasily to Max, he is mostly a man willing to do what it takes to survive, but with some lines he is still unable to cross, despite his loss.
This film starts out much the same, rebooting the series at point well after Max has lost his family, and for most of Fury Road, Tom Hardy's take on Max is a crazed, rock-hard and soul-deadened shell of a man unwilling to let the plight of others distract him from his ultimate goal: freedom or death, but on his terms. No explanation is given, no single transformative moment builds the trust both sides need in order to transcend their horrible and hopeless situation, but progress is made, regardless.
Fury Road is a visceral, visual feast of the action canon, and is well worth seeing in the cinema. The landscape shots of the Namibian desert standing in for the outback are breathtaking, punctuated at times with colourful signal plumes, and at others with astonishing cloud formations. Personally, I think D.P. John Seale gives guys like Roger Deakins a run for their money in several places in this film, and would love to see the Academy give a cinematography nomination to it.
The stunts are absolutely top-notch, making me fear that Namibia perhaps has the same lackadaisical attitude towards stunt performer safety as, say, the Thailand of Tony Jaa. When your film is essentially a 90 minute chase scene interrupted only by the barest requirements of plot and exposition, your chase had better be awesome, and Fury Road delivers the goods. Outrageously re-worked vehicles that make Lord Humungus' armada look like Shriners on parade, and jumps and crashes that make those from The Road Warrior look like they were filmed on a 1:72 scale slot car track, and almost all of it real. A minimum of CGI was used, primarily to enhance the landscape or remove safety harnesses and wires.
Best of all for me, though, is the production and art design. Miller takes care to bring beauty and detail to his harsh environments and encampments, because that is what humans do: we try to pretty the ugly things up, no matter what our circumstances are. From the audacious vehicle designs to the motorhead's temple, thought and care and purpose has gone into everything you see on screen. And yes, that even applies to the fellow riding the truck full of amplifiers who is playing a flame-throwing guitar as he whips Immortan Joe's acolytes into a frenzy. Fury Road takes place in a world as alien and off-putting as anything ever seen off-world in science fiction, and is all the more disturbing because of its familiarity.
If you are looking for a complicated or nuanced story with deep character development and crisp dialogue, you will need to look elsewhere. On the other hand, if you are comfortable with a gorgeous (but minimalist), imaginative and highly kinetic vision of a nightmare future that gives Warhammer 40,000 a run for its money, then go check out Fury Road. Theron balances out her toughness with a surprising vulnerability, and Hardy's intensity about the eyes make him a real treat to watch on screen, even when he has very little to say.
Me? I'm counting down the days until I can get my hands on the BluRay, and then I will begin waiting in earnest for the next instalment of Mad Max; Tom Hardy has been signed on for three more films. I only hope they are as chrome as this one; Fury Road is a movie that goes to 11.