Mad Max Fury Road

Once there was no bigger SF movie series than Mad Max. The first film is a cheapie that rose from the Australian new wave cinema movement. It has technical and some pacing problems but the charisma of its star Mel Gibson, shines through and two years later, the sequel The Road Warrior, made him a huge movie star. The Road Warrior changed action cinema. It has very little characterization and almost no plot. Over half of it is one long chase scene. Sheer action and stunts replace all other narrative elements and it works. The next one Beyond Thunderdome, suffers from expectations and the intrusion of Hollywood sensibilities. It’s not bad but it lacks the pure adrenaline rush of the second one.
Then came a long hiatus. George Miller the writer and director of the series always seemed to be willing to continue with the story of Max Rockatansky’s wanderings across the wasted landscape of post-apocalyptic Australia. But Gibson was reluctant. He didn’t want this iconic character to define and trap him. He eventually came around but circumstances prevented the movie from going forward and then Gibson imploded his career with a drunken anti-Semitic rant given to police who were taking him in for a DWI.
It was hard to imagine anybody else in the role. Then Tom Hardy arrived on the scene. He has the same menacing physicality that Gibson brings to Max and is, if anything, more intense. There are probably people out there who object to the re-casting but I’m not one of them.
At the beginning of the film Max is being held captive by a warlord named Immortan Joe played by Hugh Keays-Byrne. Joe controls an aquifer under a stone mountain and metes out water in small doses to the thirsty masses who live at the foot of it. He keeps an army of fanatical warriors called war-boys who paint themselves white and believe that they will go to Valhalla if they die in Joe’s service. But Joe is aging and losing his physical strength. He goes to great lengths to hide this from the masses and especially from the war-boys.
It turns out that Max is a universal blood donor; his blood is compatible with anybody’s, so Joe and his war-boys keep him around for transfusions. When Imperator Furiosa played by Charlize Theron, steals Joe’s five wives and makes a run across the badlands, trying to find “the green place,” where she was born and was kidnapped from when she was a child, they strap Max to the front of a pursuit vehicle driven by war-boy Nux played by Nicholas Hoult, and chase her.
Miller has an eye for bizarre images, the vehicles are a mashup of cars, trucks and construction equipment all welded together in improbable ways. He casts people who are missing legs and arms or who have other handicaps and show them scampering across the blasted landscape, trying to scratch out a living. The sets are ingenious Rube Goldberg contraptions made of rusted gears and cobbled together contraptions. And of course the landscapes are a perfect example of beautiful desolation.
The acting is good, especially that of the two leads, Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron. Of course this film isn’t really about acting. The stunts were amazing.
I like the fact that Max is not portrayed as ultra-competent. He makes mistakes and is, in fact, captured in the first scene. He is struggling to survive in the present while burdened with the past just like everybody else.
Something about this film falls flat for me, however. It could be that I was a much younger man in 1982 and responded more to the pace and excitement of The Road Warrior. This kind of film was new then; it’s not now. But I think that it’s something else. The first Mad Max was 88 minutes long. The Road Warrior was 94 minutes. Miller got in, wowed us and then got out. Fury Road weighs in at 120 minutes. It pauses for conversations and weird dream sequences. These don’t seem overlong but they do give the audience time to reflect upon the unlikeliness of the situation. It could be that this series just is not conducive to emotional depth or heavy themes. Maybe there just aren’t that many stories to be told here.
Mad Max Fury Road is a good movie, but I was hoping for a great one like The Road Warrior, and perhaps that was too much to ask.


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