Boisterous, bountiful, bombastic, berserk, and bonkers, Mad Max: Fury Road is a barn-burner of an operatic extravaganza; a scrap-metal demolition derby of a popcorn flick; and a gargantuan grunge symphony of vehicular mayhem and twisted metal. Extravagantly deranged and utterly unhinged, it’s gutsy, unapologetic, peripatetic, high-octane, and unstoppable, a defiantly individual riposte to committee-led blockbusters that tend to steamroll the summer season.
Mad Max: Fury Road is set in a post-apocalyptic world as it might be imagined by the 15th-century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch. Immortan Joe is a whacked-out warlord who rules the Citadel, a dusty kingdom, by controlling the supply of oil and water and breast milk. The lizard-chomping, mask-wearing, blood-donating Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) gets run down by the War Boys and becomes a slave. The buzz-cut, eye-black, one-armed Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) veers off course and goes rogue in a War Rig with precious cargo – five young women enslaved as breeders by Immortan Joe – headed for the Green Place. Two hours of maximum overdrive ensues.
Hardy (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Locke) is very good as the subdued-and-resilient Max, but as the fearless and unflappable Furiosa, Theron is a supreme action heroine for the ages. She’s an intimidating, resourceful protector. Theron has shirked her looks in previous roles (she won an Oscar for Monster) and she’s played unlikeable characters (see Young Adult). In Mad Max: Fury Road, Theron gives a wonderful performance and becomes the film’s bruised heart and soul. There’s a beauty to her ferocity, a regality to her statuesque demeanour. The comparisons to Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Alien or Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor in T2: Judgment Day are warranted.
Australian writer-director George Miller is not interested in character development, plot twists, or social commentary. He wanted a high-speed pursuit via multiple permutations and spectacular stunts, which he achieves with demented skill and showmanship. Marrying the biting frenzy of Terry Gilliam with the explosive grandeur of James Cameron, Miller cooks up boldly composed, brazenly executed, exhilaratingly sustained activity for a large portion of the running time. The formula is one-third blistering excess, one-third imaginative discipline, one-third lunatic vision. George Miller could be summed up in five words: We are doomed. Keep moving.
As feats of engineering, the action sequences are mightily impressive. The gargoyle images arrive at the pace of a meteor shower. It’s the stuff of Homer in the key of Metallica: a semi carries a bank of amps and a death metal guitarist with a flame-spitting axe suspended from a bungee chord. Mad Max: Fury Road is a hyper-accelerated rush of towering explosiveness, a bizarre continuation of a punk-western convoy chase franchise. Inventively loathsome and ear-splittingly cacophonous, it’s an 18-wheeler crammed with full-tilt action and unremitting havoc that flattens competition such as Avengers: Age of Ultron or Furious 7.
Miller, responsible for the original Mad Max and 1981’s Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, takes a Rabelaisian delight in grotesque bodies. Yet he steers this testosterone-soaked series in a new direction, forging a mythical portrait of the urgent need for female rule in a world where men need to be saved from themselves. It’s a boldly and improbably feminist position to take in the guise of an action film The danger in this netherworld comes from men; any salvation will start with women. When one of Joe’s “wives” takes a pair of bolt cutters to the horrific chastity belt that’s ensnared her, it’s poetry and rebellion in a single motion.
Like the trailers imply, Mad Max: Fury Road tries to be a hundred things at once. It abandons screenwriting fundamentals (it’s not “close to a silent movie” in any sense of the term). Its themes and concepts are underwritten. Its supportive female characters are cardboard cutouts. The onslaught of action is so fast-paced and overpowering that there’s little time to appreciate, well, anything but the action. Despite its careful orchestration, a frenetic redundancy – the feeling of being inside a well-designed video game on repeat – sometimes takes over.
And none of these issues have touched on the huge logical inconsistency lurking in the background: for living a gasoline-poor society, its members sure throw a lot of it away on desert races. Perhaps that’s Miller’s intent, to encourage audiences to ignore such an oversight, to marvel at this triumph of jaw-dropping action, crackpot humour, and acting in the face of a hurricane and laugh at the audacity. The sneaky intelligence would indicate otherwise, which makes it slightly more disappointing.
Regardless, the monomania on display – an obsessive single-mindedness that burns down or blows up every other “traditional” aspect of filmmaking in sight – makes Mad Max: Fury Road a pulse-pounding pleasure to experience, a refuel of glorious Nitrous firing on all cylinders. It’s analog filmmaking at its most daring, a hammer-down, cast-iron manifesto that should provoke primal screams of joy in the most ardent hardcore action purists.
Liable to divide even knowledgeable viewers, Max Max: Fury Road is roaring, jumbo-sized, crackling, full-throttle, mow-you-down entertainment. Many will love it; some will hate it. Those in the middle should get on board, or get out of the way, before they’re run over.