MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015, directed by George Miller, 120 minutes, Australia)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC Seconds into the heavily-lauded Mad Max reboot my heart slowly started to sink. Staring over the desert landscape Max nonchalantly stomps on an animated Geico-like gekko and pops him into his mouth. Despite all the advance press declaring the fourth in this series was going to be an old-school, live stunt-driven film it quickly becomes apparent that just like George Lucas, George Miller had found irresistible the possibility of controlling every inch of the frame with CGI. This layer of artifice is draped over the entirety of Fury Road and while it doesn’t suffocate the film, it prevents it from having the visceral “somebody’s really gonna get hurt” thrill of the earlier editions.
But after an overly-frenetic first third, this new chapter, the fourth and the first in (wow) 30 years, the film begins to find its traction. Fury Road mainly re-jiggers elements from the previous films but Miller, who has directed all the previous entries, finds himself game on delivering another engaging mixture of road movie, grotesque anthropology and legend making. With Fury Road, Miller has taken the series’ most iconic sequence, namely the big chase that concludes The Road Warrior, and stretched the auto stampede into an entire movie. Miller has obviously spent the last 30 years idly imagining new gags of motorized mayhem and Wily Coyote-type mishaps and you can sense his joy in staging them. But it is the film’s sporadic quietude and subtlety that give it it’s unique heft as an action film.
Max (played with restraint by English thespian Tom “Bane” Hardy) is enslaved in a skull-sided mountain by the aging tyrant Immortan Joe. (Hugh Keays-Byrne, “Toecuttter” from the original film) From there Joe leads a mass of slaves as their “father,” branding them and occasionally allowing them to scurry for a brief blast of precious water. As the film starts, a revolutionary has infiltrated the tyrant’s harem and has liberated his brides, hiding them in a tanker truck as they make a mad dash for the fabled “Green Place.” An incapacitated Max is part of the dune buggy posse in pursuit, although Max’s role is only to be a human blood-bag, manacled to the front of vehicle to provide steady infusions of fresh blood for the speed demon pursuers.
The fact that the revolutionary who leads this bride heist is a woman (Charlize Theron as Furiosa) is just the beginning of a feminist slant that makes for appreciably fresh ground for a blockbuster action flick. It is a bit disappointing that when the brides are introduced they’re all statuesque and runway-worthy but Miller is serious about having this be a woman-run revolution, with one ass-kicking woman reminding her male assailant “Men ruined the world!” before throwing him off the side of their speeding truck. Where other films would be happy just falling back on the “king and his brides” tradition, Miller lets us feel the reality that this is a group of women devastated by slavery and rape. (The Vagina Monologues playwright and feminine activist Eve Ensler was an adviser on the film) Whatever throwback appeal the franchise might have, it is refreshing that with this element, Miller isn’t lost in some old-fashioned sexist mindset. It may be Max’s name on the marquee but it is Theron’s quiet and soulful performance haunts this film with Hardy’s hesitant Max playing number one soldier to her commanding General. Turns out we do need another hero, we just need her to be a woman for a change.
Where the film’s opening charge seems a bit mindlessly manic, Miller’s concise characterizations give the concluding action a sense of meaning and purpose. By then Miller has also given us a cavalcade of villainous grotesques (with names like “the People Eater” and “Rictus Erectus”) to be violently dispatched in the most imaginative way possible. As Miller ultimately drives this parable to its conclusion, Fury Road’s clear plotting and steady wit make you hope that all those Marvel franchise kings are out there taking notes somewhere. While Fury Road’s success isn’t quite a return to CGI-free organic thrills, it still points to a post-apocalyptic future more hopeful than that promised by the dreaded Avengers Part Three.