All acceleration, no brakes, “Mad Max: Fury Road” does not stop moving yet also never blurs into the computer-generated sameness we have grown to expect from action blockbusters. It enthralls throughout.
Aussie filmmaker George Miller, directing his fourth “Max” movie and first in 30 years, makes artful action films that hold beauty and grotesquerie but never unnecessary complications. Such films are rare in these American parts, where comic-book movies pound us with needlessly elaborate plots and eye-numbing amounts of CGI.
Miller uses CGI in “Road,” which is neither sequel nor reboot but connects to the three previous “Max” films because it features the same former-cop road-warrior character (Tom Hardy, stepping in for Mel Gibson). But most of the film’s action results from practical stunts with motorcycles, jacked-up jalopies and actual humans who move among them as they speed through the desert. (Miller shot in Namibia).
Real people and organic settings always capture the eye more fully, and imply higher stakes, than CGI imagery. Miller ups the ante by ensuring all characters and vehicles are visually striking, either in their good looks or their hideousness. He then enhances those qualities with shots that appear carefully composed even though “Road” was mostly shot on the run, in camera cars moving alongside those holding actors.
“Mad Max” became a cult sensation in 1979 because it took ’70s grindhouse car-chase B movies into borderline-horror territory via odd camera angles and an insistent score. Though its action was fueled by gasoline (or guzzle-ine, as they pronounce it in “Max” films), the movie’s charge was electric, created by Miller’s unusual ability to visually ratchet up tension.
Miller’s visual kineticism and vibrancy, which he shows on the grandest scale yet in “Road,” evokes Hong Kong directors such as Zhang Yimou. Miller’s closest American counterpart is Quentin Tarantino, but whereas Tarantino’s characters do nothing but yap, Miller’s heroes are strong, silent types.
Charlize Theron plays a brave rig driver.
Two such types are Max and Furiosa, a brave rig driver played by Hardy’s co-lead, Charlize Theron. Hardy and Theron are built Ford-tough (although we cannot forget the Cadillac and VW parts used in this film’s mishmash of vehicles) yet also good enough actors that they impart their characters’ painful individual pasts without the benefit of much dialogue or much standing-still.
“Road” happens in a dystopia, one without any government-sanctioned games or factions. Things are more basic, and run by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played a different villain in the first “Mad Max”), a cyst-riddled, horror-masked warlord who views people as commodities.
Joe controls the water supply, meting it out to thirsty inhabitants he then taps for blood and breast milk. His mountain fortress is protected by nutrient-deprived, brainwashed young men called “war boys,” the most committed of whom is Nux (Nicholas Hoult, crafting a three-dimensional character from an initially cartoonish one).
The goal in this wasteland is simple: survival. But Furiosa, driver of Joe’s war rig, yearns for something a bit more spiritual. She goes rogue soon into “Road,” secreting Joe’s five supermodel-beautiful wives, whom he keeps around for their heir-producing qualities, away on a journey to an idyllic land known as “the green place.”
Joe and his war boys, in their nitro-fueled vehicles, go after Furiosa. Max, as Joe’s prisoner, is forced to lead the way. Wearing chains and a metal mask (evoking Hardy’s “The Dark Knight Rises” villain Bane), Max serves as a human hood ornament, complete with an IV line feeding his blood to Nux, who is driving.
The R-rated “Fury Road” is not for the squeamish.
The R-rated “Fury Road” is not for the squeamish, obviously. But the steel-stomached viewers for whom the movie was made will marvel at how Miller choreographs chase scene after chase scene of vehicles ramming each other as their drivers, most of whom also are being shot at, try to maintain control.
Most remarkable about “Road” is how nearly all its story developments make sense (the exception being the blood-siphoning thing, which does not consider blood type). We have grown so accustomed to comic-book films’ confusing plots that when Miller lays out the process by which Max eventually extricates himself from Nux, the logical, step-by-step nature of the sequence is so refreshing it borders on remarkable.
Once separated, Max and Nux roam the rigs, balancing on truck beds, clinging to undercarriages and increasing the thrill factor exponentially.
The action takes a rare breather for an extended shot of the supermodel wives posing, with a water hose, as if they are in one of those heinous hamburger-chain ads. But “Road” sends a pointedly feminist rather than exploitative message by emphasizing that Joe’s wives escaped so as not to be considered “things” good only for breeding.
Sure, this empowerment message is as subtle as monster-truck tires. But such ideas within the text are beside the point, anyway, when Theron has been cast as co-lead of a “Mad Max” film.
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
- Cast: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult
- Director: George Miller
- 120 minutes
- Rated R (intense sequences of violence throughout, disturbing images)