A relentless action spectacle that will dazzle audiences with its visceral torque and blazing vehicular madness, perhaps the most impressive feat director George Miller has achieved with “Mad Max: Fury Road” — beyond successfully thunderdoming without Mel Gibson and executing some of the most spectacular action-stunt sequences committed to celluloid maybe ever — is how the 70-year-old filmmaker takes a traditionally testosterone-fueled series and reimagines it as a kind of feminist manifesto with much on its mind. No, really. ‘Fury Road‘ might be the most intense and bruising action ride of the year, but the film also moves like a speeding maniac in possession of big and provocative ideas — ideas it scatters out the window while it’s moving at breakneck speeds.
In constant manic motion, ‘Fury Road’ wastes absolutely no time getting started, taking off like a lightning bolt from the jump, and barely slowing down. But when the picture does eventually idle, if even for a brief moment, the respite is much needed. ‘Fury Road’ takes a considerable amount of time to crystallize, and its clunky, voice-over-heavy opening is pretty worrisome at first. Initially, the movie’s frantic pulse borders on overkill, seeming like every character in the movie is infected with a berserker rage from “28 Days Later,” arms flailing and all. And in this near hysterical opening — filled with some pretty corny flashbacks to Max’s past — the movie veers dangerously close to a ungainly cross between XTREME sports, nu-metal thrashing and overly-enthusiastic Mountain Dew commercials.
But as Miller’s aggressive film races headlong, its rather clever design comes into focus: an explosive adrenaline rush off the top, a brief reprieve to get you situated and then an unveiling of its characters, the backstory of this post-apocalyptic universe and an orientation about how this universe works and behaves, as the plot propels itself forward. Essentially a two-hour chase movie, ‘Fury Road’ paints an even darker and nihilistic world than the one portrayed in the three previous “Mad Max” movies, which almost feel like child’s play in comparison, at least on an anthropological and humanistic level.
Miller brilliantly reimagines his post-apocalyptic universe and this time actually considers the human implications of a wasteland ruled by ruthless dictators and desperation. If oil was the end game for three previous ‘Mad Max’ films — those cars won’t fuel themselves — ‘Fury Road’ reflects savagery and the need to survive on both a more pragmatic and barbaric level.
And ‘Fury Road’ is not so much about its titular character, Mad Max (played by a grunty, mono-syllabic Tom Hardy). A kinetic tale about survival, and perhaps more predictably, hope and redemption, ‘Fury Road’ is actually the story of badass rig driver, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron,) and her tale of reclamation (and how she crosses paths with Max, and how they must overcome their contretemps to survive). In this primeval world — that centers around a city called the Citadel, run by the brutal warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) — all humans have an elemental purpose in service of subsistence. And the cruelty of these functions is what Furiosa eventually cannot abide.
As ‘Fury Road’ unfolds, the real story is unveiled: Furiosa betrays her boss, Immortan Joe, and frees “the wives” — a comely group of five women handpicked by Joe to give him offspring. Once Max and Furiosa do intersect, they must decide to either kill each other or cooperate to live, as an army barrels down on their extremely tentative alliance. Drilling down existence to its most primal foundations, Miller reinvents a world where women are enslaved chattel: breeders who birth more recruits for Joe’s blindly devoted road warrior army (one of them played by Nicholas Hoult) and pump mother’s milk for the elite (yep, the top 1% of ‘Fury Road’ drink 100% undiluted breast milk).
So, this is the meat (or milk) and texture of ‘Fury Road’ that runs in the background while the propulsive vehicular mayhem assaults the viewer. ‘Fury Road’ can be grueling; you can taste the dust, sweat and heat pelting you, but the tactile qualities of the film only render the immersion that much more extraordinary.
There’s much to admire in ‘Fury Road’ beyond its often nail-biting thrills and scorched-earth aesthetics. Production design fetishists will be in awe as Miller’s movie is intensely detailed and designed right down to clothing fibers and the mechanics of everything — even a gigantic pulley wheel that is compelled up or down by the weight of young war boys appears meticulously engineered. And the picture’s overall conception goes deeper, too, from the martyrdom belief system that drives the war boys, to the hodgepodge language cobbled together from past and present. If ‘Fury Road’ doesn’t work for you, there’s at least little argument to be made that the world that Miller has envisioned has been painstakingly imagined down to its core nuts and bolts.
Yet, ‘Fury Road’ is not without its problems, either. For all its stimulating ideas, it’s still 80% action movie, 20% drama at best. It’s loaded with themes and concepts, but at the same time, many of them are underwritten. Max isn’t much of a character, and in fact, he’s really just a cipher to get the plot in motion and connect the story to Imperator Furiosa’s proposal for female-lead liberty. Arguably, the wives aren’t fully formed characters either, and considering their plight — a harem of women we know have been raped repeatedly to produce babies — this chafes against the movie’s feminist leanings. Plus, nearly every time various characters open their mouths, you wish they hadn’t: dialogue isn’t exactly the film’s strong suit (fortunately, there isn’t much of it, though claims of being close to a “silent movie,” are grossly overstated).
And when the movie’s score by Junkie XL is not acting like a pulse-pounding tribal march (like something out of a Paul Greengrass movie on steroids), the music can get a little rock n’ roll silly (an overall aesthetic that threatens to undermine the movie). Beyond that, what this franchise would do without Furiosa (Theron has suggested she may not come back) is a big question mark worth worrying about, at least if you’re an executive at Warner Bros. hoping for a sequel.
But ‘Fury Road’ evolves for the better as the movie moves along, and its climatic crescendo is breathless and exhilarating. Dramatizing a story in motion is tricky, but Miller seems to thrive on its challenges. It had been rumored quietly for months that Warner Bros. was worried about ‘Fury Road,’ and aside from Tom Hardy not being a huge box-office star yet (it’s honestly hard to see why), mainstream audiences will likely flip for the film’s insane, action-packed pandemonium.
Come for the blistering, full-tilt action, stay for the thought-provoking consideration of the post-apocalypse. And for all its shortcomings, ‘Fury Road’ is ultimately a satisfying and ferocious piece of machinery; its batshit badassness should provoke primal screams of joy in even the most ardent and hardcore action purists. [B+]