Mad Max: Fury Road–George Miller’s Excessive, Surreal, Exhilarating Actioner, Starring Tom Ford and Charlize Theron

Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller’s eagerly-anticipated reboot of his Mad Max trilogy, is everything that the fans could have hoped for–and more.

Extensively marketed by Warner for months now, and benefiting from a strong word of mouth, Fury Road world premieres at the Cannes Film Fest this Wednesday (out of competition) before opening in Europe on May 14, a day prior to its American bow.  The audiences likely to line up for this picture on its opening weekend were not even born when the first Mad Max hit theaters, back in 1979.

The studio should have no problem recouping the large budget (rumored to be about $200 million) now that Furious 7 and The Avenger: Age of Ultron have largely played out their fields.  Artistically and technically, Fury Road is far more complex and superior to both blockbusters, aiming to redefine the very parameters of the action genre.

An ultra-violent actioner for the new millennium, Fury Road is also vastly entertaining, providing a non-stop thrilling ride. The movie grabs you with its first impressive sequence and doesn’t let go until the finale, which is one of the most longest and most spectacular chases ever staged, edited and shot.

Among many achievements, the sun-scorched wasteland–the tale is set in Australia but was shot in Africa–has never been conveyed in such graphically detailed way.  Miller has storyboarded over 3,000 images and worked with over 480 hours of footage to achieve his taut, shapely movie, which runs precisely two hours.

Future scholars ill have hard time determining whether, nominally, Fury Road is a remake, reboot, or sequel–it’s all of the above.  Smartly conceived, Fury Road knows that the trilogy’s central idea–scarcity of gas and water–has lost its shocking novelty.  Moreover, over the past decade, the post apocalyptic movie has become a genre onto its own.  As a result, the filmmakers have constructed a narrative that uses these themes as background, but doesn’t draw or dwell on them for too long (or too deep).

There were always elements of B-movie to the 1980s saga, and the new film doesn’t entirely escape that level. When the first Mad Max was released, in 1979, it featured a gifted and handsome actor, Mel Gibson, who was not known in the West and was certainly not a star.  Brit Tom Hardy, who has inherited Gibson’s role confidently, is a more skillful actor than Gibson was (or is), though it’s hard to tell whether Fury Road would make him a bona fide star.  Hardy renders a compelling if also terse and understated work, resulting in a performance that’s less powerful or iconic than one would expect.

Perhaps the shrewdest decision of Miller and his team was to write a strong female role and to cast it with the best actress around, Charlize Theron, a beautiful and fearless star, who displays the strength and charisma that Sigourney Weaver had possessed when she appeared in the “Alien” franchise.  Will Theron bring more female viewers to what’s usually a male-driven picture?

You may recall that there were hardly any women in the “Mad Max” movies.  In the first chapter, Max’s wife was murdered early one, providing the motivation for the revenge drama. In the last panel, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, the sexy singer Tina Turner had a major role, but it did not help that artistically it was the weakest segment of the series, not to mention the fact that film was watered down and contained elements of camp (both intentional and unintentional).

Why did it take so long?  Numerous reasons.  However, a versatile filmmaker, George Miller, who is now 70, has not been idle.  Moving to the other side of the spectrum, he directed and oversaw Babe: Pig in the City and the two Happy Feet musicals, all pictures targeted at very young demographic.

“My name is Max, my world is fire and blood,” rumbles Max in voiceover as if feeling a need to prepare (or to warn) the audience of the ensuing saga. “It was hard to know who was more crazy, me or everyone else.”  He is not kidding.

Captured by scavengers, Max is taken to the mountain lair of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who had played Toecutter in the original), a crazy warlord, sporting a bizarre white wig and horse-toothed muzzle.

Soon after Max’s arrival, Imperator Furiosa (Theron, muscled-up with buzz cut and mechanical left arm) sets out in nitro-fuelled tanker the War Rig to bring supplies from Gas Town.  It turns out that she’s making a break east to the Green Place with five of Immortan Joe’s best “breeders” (Rosie Huntington-Whitely, Riley Keough and Zoe Kravitz, Abbey Lee and Courtney), whom he had kept locked away and forced to bear his children.

Immortan Joe then sends his War Boys–all pallid, bald-headed–to hunt her down, and they roar into the blistering desert in outlandish hot rods. Among them is Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a man with both mouth and sanity cracked, who states his desire to “die historic, on the Fury Road” as he straps Max to his grille, justifying the film’s title and suggestions of uncontrolled and uncontrollable rage.

Last Reel (Spoiler Alert)

Furiosa, having bartered a deal for safe passage, drives through a biker gang-controlled canyon. The gang turns on her upon seeing Joe’s army arriving, forcing her and the group to flee, while the bikers detonate the canyon walls to block Joe.  Max and Furiosa fight pursuing bikers as Joe’s car breaks through the blockade and eventually attacks the War Rig.

However, as the Rig escapes, Angharad also falls off trying to help Max and is run over by Joe’s car. Furiosa explains to Max that they are escaping to the “Green Place,” an idyllic land she remembers from childhood. Capable finds Nux hiding in the Rig, and consoles him as he laments his failure.

Furiosa and Max slow Joe’s forces with mines, but Joe’s ally, the Bullet Farmer, continues pursuit. Nux helps Max free the Rig while Furiosa shoots and blinds the Bullet Farmer. Max leaves to confront the Bullet Farmer and his men, returning with guns and ammunition.

They drive the War Rig overnight through swampland and desert. Max suspects a trap, though Furiosa approaches the woman and states her history and clan affiliation. The woman summons her clan, the Vuvalini, who recognise Furiosa as one of their own who was kidnapped as child.

The group then plans to ride across immense salt flats, hoping to find a new home. Max chooses to stay behind, but after seeing visions of the child he failed to save, he convinces them to return to the undefended Citadel, which has water. The group heads back towards the Citadel, but Joe’s forces attack them, wounding Furiosa. Max fights Joe’s giant son, Rictus Erectus, and then transfuses his blood to Furiosa, saving her life.  At the Citadel, Furiosa, the wives, and the Vuvalini are welcomed by the remaining War Boys. In the film’s final image, Max shares a glance with Furiosa before leaving.

Fury Road is innovative in other significant ways, structuring the drama around a strong female hero, Imperator Furiosa.  Unlike the previous “Mad Max” films, which were decidedly male-dominated, this one posits at the center a woman whose physicality and other skills are equal to (perhaps even better than) those of the male. Furiosa is not only a warrior capable of leading a female revolt and conduct a risky rescue mission, she is also capable of starting a new social order, a matriarchal society guided by new norms and values.  Tall, with her hair shaved and sporting a leather outfit, Charlize Theron’s Furiosa is the most exciting female figure in an actioner since Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in the Alien franchise of three decades ago.

Action-heavy and briskly moving, Fury Road takes full advantage of the technological innovations made over the past decades. This reboot ups the ante as far as visionary worldview, violent brutality, and devious humor are concerned. Throughout, the movie walks a very fine line between art and commerce, desire to offer exhilarating entertainment and temptation to serve  exploitative violence via souped-up machinery, relying on set pieces that promote the plot or showcasing them as excess for excess’s sake.

At times, the violence–Miller’s finely-tuned carnage–is too brutal to behold, only to realize its surreal and seductive beauty, the kind of which is seldom seen in Hollywood movies.

 

Cast
Tom Hardy as Max Rockatansky
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa
Nicholas Hoult as Nux
Hugh Keays-Byrne as Immortan Joe
Rosie Huntington-Whiteley as The Splendid Angharad
Nathan Jones as Rictus Erectus
Riley Keough as Capable
Zoë Kravitz as Toast the Knowing
Abbey Lee as The Dag
Courtney Eaton as Cheedo the Fragile
Josh Helman as Slit
John Howard as The People Eater
Richard Carter as The Bullet Farmer
Angus Sampson as The Organic Mechanic
iOTA as The Doof Warrior
Megan Gale as The Valkyrie
Melissa Jaffer as Keeper of the Seeds
Melita Jurisic, Gillian Jones, Joy Smithers, Antoinette Kellerman, and Christina Koch as The Vuvalini
Quentin Kenihan as Corpus Colossus
Coco Jack Gillies as Glory the Child
Chris Patton as Morsov
Stephen Dunlevy as The Rock Rider Chief / The Winchman
Richard Norton as The Prime Imperator