It seems like just yesterday—well three decades ago—when a brash Australian actor, Mel Gibson, stormed on to the screen in the post-apocalyptic Australian Outback action film Mad Max. The original director/writer George Miller has breathed new life into that classic franchise and the result is an absolutely riveting, visually arresting and perfectly acted film that sets up a netherworld where water and gasoline are at a premium, evildoers rule and humanity is down on its luck.
Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy, The Dark Knight Rises), the Road Warrior, is a loner, wandering the desert wasteland until he is caught and imprisoned by pasty white War Boys who have sworn allegiance to a diabolical leader, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, Mad Max), who treats the plebeians who live in his outpost, a Citadel, like peons. He lords over them, with the generosity of Marie Antoinette, sometimes giving them a bit of the coveted commodity H2O.
All fear him except Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, Monster). She is a warrior who drives a fuel tank rig. Her job is to pick up gasoline, but on one fateful day she goes off course to find her homeland. And she has the Immortan’s wives—breeders—hidden inside her tanker. She’s helping them escape. She and her cargo are being followed—chased by Immortan Joe and his men. Fate puts Max in her path. And so it begins.
As with the original Mad Max, the core of this film is the action sequences, with trucks, tanks, motorcycles and other vehicles in a near constant state of chase and chaos. The stunts, all real and not CGI, are amazing to watch. They are a testament to George Miller’s visionary direction. He sets a style, somewhere between sci-fi, adventure, action and thriller, and rarely takes the pressure off. John Seale’s cinematography is so graphic that the fiery rust color of the Namibian desert is burned in your eyes and the arid parched wilderness so dry you thirst for water. Fight scenes, gun battles, flamethrowers, stabbings and characters dangling in-between menacing wheels… It’s a parade of mind-numbing action (stunt coordinator Guy Norris) that glues your eyes to the screen.
The netherworld that Miller, co-screenwriters Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris and production designer Colin Gibson create looks alternately like a desert war zone, the backstage of a Wagner opera and a stock car race on steroids. There is no preparation for what you will see, even if you can remember the old Mad Max series. There are also moments in which the dialogue is evocative, “My name is Max. My world is fire and blood,” or revealing, “I am the one who runs from both the living and the dead.”
Though Max and Furiosa are enigmatic characters, you don’t feel like you need to know more about them than you do. They have gravitas, as do most of the supporting characters except for the crew of super models who play The Wives. They are a faux pas. They look like refugees from a Victoria’s Secrets ad.
There could be a good debate about who interprets Max better, Mel Gibson or Tom Hardy. Hard to imagine Gibson, in his present state, ever being rough enough to be Max. But back in the day, he handled it well. Tom Hardy, a 37-year-old 5’9” actor looks like an ageless giant on screen. Laconic, tough, mysterious, haunted, his Max is fighting as many demons inside as outside. Theron, who had not found another role as career-defining as her Oscar-winning turn as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster, takes this opportunity to show she is all guts. You never question her ability to drive a truck the length of a railroad car, or beat down a warrior, or take a bullet. She is the real deal. Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe like a villain from Shakespeare. Very theatrical. Very flamboyant. The more subtle performance comes from Nicholas Hoult (X-Men: Days of Future Past), who gives the War Boy named Nux a cunning, devious side and an innocence that makes him more complex than the rest.
When the chase scenes subside, there are moments of depth, clarity and exposition. There are also some lapses in judgment and timing. There are points when the lush cinematography focuses on scenes (The Wives pouting) that belong in a Vogue magazine and not a hardcore action film. There are gaps when people seem to be staring off into space. Clocking in at 120 minutes, the movie can be excused for these faults. Once Furiosa puts her bloodied foot on the accelerator, or Max leaps to another truck to kill a fiend, or a vehicle somersaults and bursts into flames, all is forgiven.
The memories of the original Mad Max series are intact. This is not more of the same. Fury Road takes you down a different trail. More arty, more violent, more relentless, more pageantry. If this is just the first in a series to come, imagine what’s coming next. Just imagine.