Mad Max: Fury Road (Australia/United States, 2015)

May 13, 2015
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Mad Max: Fury Road Poster

Mad Max: Fury Road delivers. There's no clearer or more succinct way to put it. 30 years after last appearing on the big screen, Max roars back with a vengeance. Part reboot, part sequel, and part something entirely different, Fury Road takes us on a trip that is both like and unlike the earlier excursions. George Miller uses a new cast and a sizeable budget to deliver the Mad Max film he always wanted to make but was never quite able to. Talk about taking things to a new level… Theaters showing Fury Road should have seat belts installed.

The three decade gap between Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and Fury Road was more a product of circumstances than a lack of effort on Miller's part. During the hiatus, he tried numerous times to get the project started but issues related to Mel Gibson's rise (and later fall) as Hollywood's biggest star and problems with finding a location kept the picture on the shelf after several mis-starts. One can make a compelling argument that the movie may have been helped by the long delay - not only did it allow a younger man (with less baggage) to take over the lead but it gave Miller more time to refine the "spectacle" aspect which, in the final analysis, is by far Fury Road's biggest selling point.

When we consider summer action films, this is what we think of. Constructed as an almost-two hour chase sequence (with only a 15-minute cooling-down period about halfway through), Fury Road combines the pyrotechnics of a Michael Bay extravaganza with the physics-defying razzle dazzle of a Fast and Furious outing. The post-apocalyptic setting is the test tube in which adrenaline and testosterone combine into an explosive cocktail. However, despite all the action, excitement, and mayhem, the characters come across as well defined. Miller spends just enough time on their background and interaction to breathe life into what easily could have been (as in Bay's films) cardboard cut-outs. As is always the case in an action movie, things work because we care about what happens to the protagonist. Too often when special effects rule the screen, this doesn't happen. Fury Road is a welcome exception.

The movie transpires in the same blasted, Omega Man-style future where Mad Max, The Road Warrior, and Beyond Thunderdome took place. When all the world's a desert, water becomes a precious commodity.  And, when freedom comes only from long distance transportation, gasoline is a close second. The storyline is straightforward: Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), a loner haunted by the deaths of his wife and daughter (events told in the first Mad Max movie, released in 1979), joins forces with Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) to defy a warlord (Hugh Keays-Byrne) by stealing his five wives: Splendid (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), Toast (Zoe Kravitz), Capable (Riley Keough), The Dag (Abbey Lee), and Fragile (Courtney Eaton). Joined by "war boy" Nux (Nicholas Hoult), they seek to free the women from captivity and deliver them to a green land to the east. The warlord, however, is unwilling to let the potential mothers of his children go and mounts a massive manhunt to kill Max and Furiosa and bring back the women. The odds would cause most men to quail but Rockatansky isn't called "Mad Max" for nothing.

It's legitimate to question who/what the real star of the movie is: Hardy's Mad Max or Miller's Mad, Magnificent Visuals. Certainly, this is one of the best looking mainstream films to come along in a while. The day scenes are bright and colorful, with lots of reds and oranges and the nights are bathed in blue, making everything almost black-and-white. The emphasis on practical (old school) special effects over computer generated imagery adds a grittiness to the chases and fights that many films (like the aforementioned Fast and Furious entries) lack. It's also refreshing to experience 3-D where it's more of a benefit than a cash-grab. (Although I hasten to add that it doesn't ascend to the top tier occupied by the likes of Avatar and Gravity.)

Tom Hardy avoids the George Lazenby effect. It's always difficult following a popular actor who has left an indelible stamp on a role. Lazenby was unable to do that with Bond; Sean Connery loomed large over On Her Majesty's Secret Service.  In Fury Road, however, Hardy is Max from the first scene. It may help that it has been 30 years since Mel Gibson played the role but he isn't missed. Hardy embraces the over-the-top lunacy of the production and gives us a Max who grumbles and snarls his way through 120 minutes of bedlam.

Joining Hardy on Fury Road is a nearly-bald Charlize Theron, who showed her dedication to the role by shaving her head. Add Theron's Furiosa to the pantheon of kick-ass female action heroes alongside Alien's Sigourney Weaver and Terminator 2's Linda Hamilton. Furiosa is less a supporting character in Fury Road than a co-lead; this is as much her story as Max's. Nicholas Hoult, painted white and playing someone more nuts than the main man, gives a surprisingly nuanced performance in a film that doesn't prize acting.

For those who easily become bored by exposition in action movies, Miller's approach provides an alternative. The characters' backstories are presented via lightning-fast flashbacks, a perfunctory voiceover, and occasional lines of dialogue. Low octane moments are used economically. Aside from a 15-minute break that allows characters and viewers alike to catch their breaths, Fury Road buzzes along at a breakneck clip. For those who found the destructive orgy of car chase chaos in the original trilogy to be a feast, Fury Road ups the ante. This drives the concept of the "summer spectacle" to its apex.

Mad Max: Fury Road (Australia/United States, 2015)

Ranked #10 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2015
Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 2015-05-15
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Brief Nudity)
Genre: Action
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1