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George Miller first sent Mad Max blazing across the sere post-apocalyptic landscape in 1979 and thence onto cinematic legend. Sequels followed. Mel Gibson in the eponymous role rose to international fame and, eventually, Miller moved on to different sorts of classics with BABE and HAPPY FEET. Now, thirty years and more later, he is revisiting Max in and the collapse of civilization in the wake of a nuclear holocaust, and we should all say huzzah.
Max, here incarnated with a haunted melancholy to the madness by Tom Hardy, is still a cop. He’s still suffering the loss of loved ones whose voices from the grave fill his head in his less lucid moments, and whose visitations, in the form of an angelic little girl, cloud his sight. Max’s solitary days of roaming a blasted countryside end at the beginning of the film, where Millar sets the stage for the brutality of world by showing us Max stomping, then consuming raw, a two-headed lizard. This will be the most peaceful moment in the film, quickly followed by Max taken captive by the scavengers of The Citadel, shorn, tattooed with his blood type, and reduced to being a personal blood bank for Nux (a gleefully unhinged Nicholas Hoult), one of the suicidal and anemic War Boys who serve The Citadel’s feudal lord, the faceless, ruthless Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, aka Toecutter from the original MAD MAX).
Change is in the air, though, and as Max tussles with his fate, said fate throws him in the way of Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a one-handed Valkyrie who drives her war rig as though it were an extension of her rage, the which she has kept under wraps until the most opportune moment for challenging the patriarchy. They meet in what qualifies as cute in a dystopian tale, with hand-to-hand combat as foreplay, and serious attempts at murder the climax. Forced by circumstance to stand with each other in order to stand against Immortan Joe and his allies, their journey to a promised land with precious, if fragile, cargo, is a precis on the delicate and dangerous balance between paranoia and trust when hooliganism is not just a logical option, but the order of the day. In the midst of all the chaos around them, there is the calm, cool, and blinding intensity of Furiosa’s defiant stare something more menacing, more lethal, than all the war wagons on their trail, if only for its utter, unflinching stillness amid the fracas. It is a performance of enormous power, and equally enormous nuance, with Theron never for a moment rendering Furiosa a mere automaton. This is a angry woman who has transcended mere emotion and achieved an apotheosis of purpose.
One kinetic action sequence follows another, but for all the mayhem played out with time telescoping in the rhythm of Max’s intermittent madness, this is a film with a philosophical core peopled with existential characters defined by their actions, and the choices they make under the duress of any given moment. An act of mercy, a willingness to trust, and the unexpected repercussions of choices made for reasons that have nothing to do with personal survival, but everything to do with humanity are as suspenseful as any of the death races. The story is spare, but powerful, eschewing sentiment. Like the hardscrabble life it depicts, nothing is wasted, but is instead repurposed for utility, the details of the plot taking on a synchronicity that is never forced.
In keeping with the film’s themes of chaos for all and redemption for the worthy, we are plunged into the action with a minimum of verbal exposition. In this universe, action is the bracing substitute for exposition, and only the fierce and the strong can keep up. Those in need of an excellent exercise in road rage, explosions, and gleeful violence will, it is true, find themselves served ferociously. There is eye-candy aplenty, with bungee-corded guitarists accompanying the fighting, to aerial acrobatics at top speeds, to a firestorm with its own personal tsunami of sand, all barreling across the screen amid examples of all manner of ghastly things that happen to the battle-crazed combatants. There is even room for a bit of whimsy, with a rethinking of the dairy industry, and Nux naming two of the tumors that sprout from his left shoulder, and drawing faces on them. Yet there is more to this than a non-stop race, and Miller presciently extrapolates from current circumstances when envisioning a bleak future. With civilization kaput, valuable commodities become not gold put pure power in the form of control over water and fertility. Hence the doling out with pomp and circumstance the precious water reserves by Immortan Joe to his huddled masses clustered desperately at the bottom of a cliff face, fighting for every muddy drop that falls from heaven. Hence the premium placed on fertile women in this patriarchy of post-nuclear genetic havoc, access to which is curtailed to the powerful by means of intimidation, not the least of which involves vicious-looking chastity belts that, in another jolt of nightmarish whimsy, evoke the vagina dentata. In this contest, a seedling nurtured carefuly as it sprouts from an animal skull and becomes a macabre statement of hope.
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is an estrogen-fueled, wildly empowering joyride that finds strange beauty in the grotesque, and a disconcerting strangeness in beauty. It’s tough, fearless, and from beginning to end, where nothing is guaranteed, where every moment is exhilarating, and the closest thing to romance in the traditional sense is the ersatz wink an eye swollen shut after a brawl.