I will unashamedly admit that this film had me stoked from the first trailer I saw. The Mad Max “franchise” (undeserving of such happenstance camaraderie with the Burger King or Grimace) is my favorite ’80s sequel series. The original Mad Max was a damned good, and original, thriller with touches of Dirty Harry and a grungy punk aesthetic that both presaged, and out-imagined in its down-to-earth granularity, many of its subsequent post-“post” brethren. The Road Warrior is what we think of when we think about Mad Max – it re-imagined the “day after tomorrow” scenario of the first film into a stylized, post-apocalyptic, no-holds-barred action film that was essentially one long chase sequence with some of the most effective, and dynamic, staging and characters to ever grace a screen during the reign of Reagan. Beyond Thunderdome, much maligned in some circles, is also, while the least of the three, a great film, and expanded the concept of The Road Warrior into the realm of Hollywood Blockbuster – the hair was big, the emotions were big; trappings of opera with the taste of cheese. Tina Turner ruled Bartertown, if you busted a deal, you faced the wheel, and all was right with the world. Perhaps there is a better trilogy in terms of pure entertainment from that (or any?) decade, but if so, I can’t think of it right now. So yes, I have been anticipating Fury Road, and felt confident it would be good, despite the obvious shift to CGI. Of course, what marked the original series, and The Road Warrior in particular, was the use of camera movement, cutting, and ingenious stunt work to grab you by the face and keep dragging, non-stop, for 90 minutes. Okay, so now we live in the era of fake stunts, but George Miller was still on board, Tom Hardy (a favorite of mine, if not always rationally so) was cast as Max, Toecutter was back looking like Skeletor channeling Frank Booth, and, praise ye gods, Charlize Theron was also going to grace the screen, giving Max the female foil he finally deserves (nothing against Tina Turner). I plunked down my $10.50, and dared to hope. Me, excited to see a summer blockbuster? When the hell had that last happened? A.I. in 2001? That hardly qualifies.
The film, finding Max wandering as if in a new incarnation (which he is), dazed and altered, with a hazy connection to his past, picks up somewhat thematically from where Thunderdome left off. Max, after demonstrating he has grown more “mad” than when we last encountered him (conveyed by his voice-over ruminations and a new penchant for munching mutant lizard crudo), is captured by a cult of wackos called the War Boys, let by one Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). He’s kept alive to serve as a “blood bag,” a plasma factory for Joe’s boys, who will die for Joe’s attention and huff silver paint to mark their kamikaze intentions, their desire to be taken to “Valhalla” and do him honor. Max is taken along by one Nux (Nicholas Hoult) to serve as his personal I.V. during an outing to reclaim a gasoline rig driver gone off the reservation. This driver, Imperator Furiosa (Ms. Theron), is on a secret, personal mission to liberate Joe of his kept wives, young women he has enslaved to breed some non-mutant, healthy babies to grow big, strong, and keep control of his personality cult. Furiosa, with her cargo tucked away in the tanker truck, is making for her remembered homeland, the Green Place, where she hopes to find refuge and a still-viable ecosystem cum feminist utopia. The end. Or rather, that’s all you really need to know. The rest of the film is a series of chase sequences as Furiosa and Max, eventually joining forces, flee the War Boys, along with various other factions, in an attempt to win their freedom, and, along the way, regain perhaps a gallon of hope (priced, in this future world, at $2,354,395,865 and 99/100 of a cent).
Yes, my friends, and my enemies, believe the hype: this film delivers the goods. I must admit to being quite disgruntled during the first 15 minutes or so. The pre-title sequence, which establishes Max’s capture, unfolds the realities of life in War Boy central (er, the Citadel), and introduces us to Furiosa, as well as portrays her initial flight from the male crazies, is a blur of too many quick cuts, and too much CGI embellishment. (Further, our wonderful digital print was marred by a line of pink pixels that looked like a swarm of angry, if fabulous, bees). 100 more minutes of this, thought I? Bollocks. Happily, after this sequence (which indeed comprises most of the material for the trailer), and once clear of the Citadel, things fell into a more familiar rhythm – 75% action, 25% exposition, with each chase sequence spare enough in its staging and lucid enough in its construction to deliver tension and excitement, in increasingly increasing increments, and each subsequent lull just enough of a rest, and a pause, to refresh and allow us to contemplate things that matter: the fate of pregnant young women, the improbability of hope in the face of numerous psychotic henchmen, and, by god, how good Charlize looks with axle grease smeared across the top half of her face. Many have made mention of this film as an example of feminism in action, and it is, but that is by the by in my estimation, as the narrative trappings are a bit cliche, even if true: women as the stewards of the environment and fosterers of coming generations, forced to fight fairly, if viciously, to defend the future from the corruption of horny, crazy, power-mad men. The feminism that is less cliche, and ought to be de rigueur in cinema these days, comes in the form of Theron’s character; in this film, the mantel of “madness” passes from Max to Furiosa, and she becomes the star of the show, an action hero with heart who kicks ass without being sexualized but with her femininity intact. Max lends a hand, and is crucial in certain moments, but in all feels a little around the bend, the burden of leadership settling squarely on Theron’s capable shoulders. (Tom Hardy is fine in the role, but his Max is more of an homage to the concept of Max, a riff on the Max we find at the beginning of The Road Warrior. Mel brought more depth and humanity to the role in his conflictedness, which seemed easy, and his charm, which he often fought to conceal).
At times, the film feels like a remake of The Road Warrior, which is not a bad thing. All the same, the scope of the enterprise has grown with each installment. In the original, we were in a backwater Australian town on the cusp of a “morning after” scenario; The Road Warrior dealt with Max encountering tribalism after the unnamed disastrous “event;” Beyond Thunderdome portrays the first vestiges of a new social order, a society rebuilding itself in the shape of a stable settlement, resembling a wild-West town. Fury Road takes that vision in Thunderdome to a new level. The War Boys, while technically a “cult,” are indeed a city-state, warring for resources with other regional civilizations, which we encounter only glancingly. They have massive numbers, infrastructure, “public” works, and a religion. While some have groused about the amount of anthropological detail and embellishment that flies at, and often by, the viewer in this film, I found it one of the chief pleasures. Miller has an obvious talent for this type of thing, even if it is not to everyone’s taste, and the length of the film coupled with, yes, the CGI, allows him to explore this aspect of the saga at a level previously unavailable. (It also allows this entry to be the first citational one, as he visually tips his hat to the Sand People from Star Wars and the Landstriders from The Dark Crystal, among others). That said, this is a ripping good yarn in which most of the effects, generated by computers or not, feel real. Like the other titles in the series, everything feels up for grabs, and we never get the sense that anything is sacred or that Miller will pull punches to court mass appeal; no winking or reflexive in-jokes as in many reboots, thankfully, and there’s a political dimension too. I didn’t see the film in 3-D, as visual clarity in that format is simply nonexistent, but Miller makes such effective use of the Z axis even in the regular format that I’m going to return to see it from behind finger-smudged germ goggles. The film is no masterpiece, and I’d rank it in a tie for 3rd (with Thunderdome) as my favorite of the series, but it is indeed a thrill. I can’t imagine having a better time at the cinema this summer, although I’d be happy to be proved wrong.