David’s Review: MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

David Reddish
Image source: tricks ware, Flickr.

Mad Max: Fury Road arrives in theatres May 15 with an atomic roar; likely not just the film of the summer, but one of the best films of the year.  Set against the backdrop of a post-apocalyptic Australian desert, the movie follows ex-cop Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy, replacing the beleaguered and aging Mel Gibson), on the run from a self-proclaimed messiah, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne).  Immortan Joe controls one of the few supplies of unirradiated water left on the continent, and has assembled an army ultraviolent road hogs called the War Boys, who act as his religious acolytes and enforcers.  Max is valuable to Joe for his Type-O blood–a precious commodity in a world rife with death, disease and starved for medical science.  Max finds an unlikely ally in Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), one of Joe’s agents gone rogue, who hopes to escape with his harem of wives to a peaceful kingdom called the Green Place in the far off reaches of the desert.

That’s the setup.  From the first moments on, however, director George Miller pulls off one of the most jaw-dropping feats in all cinema: the movie functions as an extended chase scene, which absorbs virtually all of the film’s 2-hour runtime.  Miller makes the feat all the more impressive, however, by somehow allowing time for character development and political humor amid the mayhem, due in no small part to the talents of Theron, Hardy and Keays-Byrne, all of whom project nuance into their characters, often while engaging in some of the most ridiculous stunts ever put on celluloid.

The film, though, belongs to Miller, through and through, who created the Mad Max series back in 1979.  Since then his filmography has veered from comedy (The Witches of Eastwick) to drama (Lorenzo’s Oil) to family fare (Babe: Pig in the City), earning an Academy Award for the animated film Happy Feet.  Has any director ever shown this kind of range?  He’s one of the great lions of film, on par with Hitchcock, Spielberg, Scorsese or Cameron.  If there’s any justice in the universe, Miller will rack up another Oscar nomination for his work here.  That he’s never received a nomination for his achievement in direction boggles the mind.  He should take home the statue for his innovation on Fury Road.

Miller returns to Mad Max after a 30 year hiatus, following the death of producing partner and close friend Byron Kennedy during production of the excellent Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.  Miller had sworn off Mad Max after Kennedy’s death, which is our loss.  The action and stunts of Fury Road are, without question, the most relentless, suspenseful and unwavering I’ve ever seen, matching anything in AlienThe Terminator or Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Accomplished through practical effects enhanced with CGI, they cleanse a moviegoing palate tainted by overuse of special effects, melting the overblown work of mediocrities like Joss Whedon or JJ Abrams into a blur of hackneyed, pixelated animation.  Miller is a true director, a master of action, tension and creativity.

And wicked humor!  The ultraviolence of Fury Road will churn the stomachs of the faint of heart, and often conceals Miller’s wicked sense of goofy fun.  Take, for instance, the violent savages of Immortan Joe’s Wild Boys.  While there’s nothing funny about a rabid army of murderous kidnappers, their war drums thundering across the desertscape, that the drums come accompanied by a mobile concert stage and double-necked electric guitar that shoots fire should at illicit a snicker or two.  Or consider: a tribe of abused women come to the aid or Max and Furiousa calling themselves the Vulvani.  Miller packs the film with jokes that in a lesser film would be played for in-your-face laughs.  Here, they underline the surreal and nightmarish landscape, and, much like the contents of a dream, are not at all humorous when witnessed, but hysterical when recalled.

The script by Miller, Brenden McCarthy, and Nico Lathouris, with uncredited input by feminist playwright Eve Ensler, provides rich characters to sell this action scenario, all of whom have more dimension than it first seems.  Max is more than just a rogue with no past, he’s a haunted man, terrified of his own feelings.  Immortan Joe is a maniacal despot, but he has some good reasons for wanting his harem back.  Furiousa, as played by Theron, avoids the cliche of frigid bitch or damsel in distress by veiling frailty with resolve and pain with toughness.  Indeed, feminine power is an underlying theme in Fury Road, which sets it apart from typical action junk, and Theron’s resilience and physicality earn her a deserved place alongside Sigourney Weaver in the tiny pantheon of female action stars.

The Mad Max films are often pigeonholed as action or exploitation films, which is a disservice to the genre and a superficial examination of their content.  Fury Road, like Beyond Thunderdome, offers a brilliant mix of humor, action, suspense and human drama that is worth the price of admission several times over.  A rich, immersive film, it smashes the likes of Avengers, or even the latter-day Jurassic Park and Star Wars films, both released & forthcoming with two simple ingredients so lacking in contemporary cinema: talent and creativity.  This is one of the best films of the year.