by Kathie Smith
Cinematic dystopia didn’t begin with Mad Max, but its brand of gritty, kill-or-be-killed, punk rock misanthropy has left a massive imprint that still resonates in movies, television and video games. Mad Max’s first incarnation in 1979 was little more than a shrewd and infectiously alluring Ozploitation film outfitted to the nines with explosions and car chases. The franchise matured with two successive sequels, The Road Warrior (1981) and Beyond Thunderdome (1985)—the latter a full-blown spread of mass appeal with a hit song and Ewok-like charm appropriate for the PG-13 crowd. Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth iteration, arrives in a vacuum of a 30 year gestation and plays its wild card potential with the subtlety of pulsing testosterone and the style of a supercharged Ford Falcon, bathing you in gasoline explosions while holding your face to ground traveling at mach speed. Director George Miller tucks Babe and Happy Feet away for the time being and not so much returns to the franchise as provides an eruption of action bravado under the Mad Max banner in the form of operatic artistic catharsis. Fury Road gleefully survives on souped up adrenaline, even if everything around it—including character, plot, soundtrack, and limp attempts at melodrama and context—feels like a prefab afterthought.
Director: George Miller
Producers: George Miller, Doug Mitchell, P.J. Voeten
Writers: George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, Nick Lathouris
Cinematographer: John Seale
Editors: Jason Ballantine, Margaret Sixel
Music: Junkie XL
Cast: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Josh Helman, Nathan Jones, Zoë Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton, John Howard, Richard Carter, Angus Sampson, Megan Gale, Melissa Jaffer
Genre: Action, Sci-Fi
US Theatrical Release: May 15, 2015
US Distributor: Warner Bros.
Fury Road builds a unique ambience with a fusion of its own iconography and the stylistic influences that formed the assembly of things like Fallout, Walking Dead, and The Descent. Reintroduced to Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) via voiceover (the most dialogue we will get out of our antihero) with his back turned on a two-headed lizard—soon to be his unsuspecting meal—the prologue proves Max’s mettle as a conscientious masochist and Miller’s ability to mold frenetic chaos with a splash of digital undercranking. High on a ridge (hello Road Warrior setting), Max’s waits for the oncoming horde of hot-rodding miscreants to get close enough for the thrill of death. Tearing across the desert in his signature car fleeing a cast of characters that look like a Cirque du Soleil troupe on meth, Max crashes, is captured, escapes, and is captured again in the enclave known at the Citadel ruled by a senescent Darth Vader-like tyrant named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, Toecutter from Mad Max resurrected).
Immortan Joe dictates by dogma, controlling the only water available, enslaving a harem of fertile and lactating women, and promising Valhalla to his spray paint huffing army of so-called war pups. As Max is rotting away in a cage, Immortan Joe is preparing an assault on Gastown for fuel led by a pack of his feral men and a lone woman, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), at the wheel of the war tanker—an impressively tricked out semi appropriated from the skeletons of abandon steel. When Furiosa goes rouge harboring five of Immortan Joe’s favored breeders in her cargo tank, all hell breaks loose and a war battalion of monster trucks and funny cars are sent to get the lovely ladies back within his nest. Max get strapped to the hood of one car (recalling the prisoners of Road Warrior) as a blood supply to a sick but eager to please young driver named Nux (Nicholas Hoult). Thus begins the chase across the desert Wastelands, one that pummels and exhilarates in its fits of speed, octane and fire.
As if it’s not already obvious from the critical groundswell in the past week, Fury Road excels in the brilliant minutia of its physical action. Miller’s decision to use as little CGI as possible in these sequences reads on a visceral level in the tactility of the desert sand, the ferocity of the acrobatics, and the burn of road rash. To add to the spectacle, these convulsions of schismatic anarchy (often elliptical and protracted) are sewn together with a masterful touch that somehow keeps the gleefully propulsive vision intact. Joining Immortan Joe in the chase are factions from Gastown, the Bullet Farm, and a pack of dirt bike desert bandits, their motivations completely inconsequential—they are simply adding more collateral to the damage. The act of being engulfed in the mayhem is admittedly overwhelming—an aggressive study in audience engagement, if there ever was one—which seems to allow the movie’s many shortcomings to fall in the category of “who cares.” But for every defense of the action, there will be silence on the quasi-feminist plot threads, the incredibly heavy-handed soundtrack, and the feeble attempts at melodrama and empathy.
Furiosa has the markings of a new and interesting chapter in the Road Warrior saga—a woman with a past that includes a prosthetic arm and breaking the glass ceiling in a very misogynist Wasteland. Fury Road belongs to Furiosa—she’s the catalyst for everything that happens, with Max following in her wake. Her mission to free Immortan Joe’s concubines from enslaved birthing seems to strengthen her symbolic ethos. In the end, however, it’s little more than a ruse for clichéd empowerment portrayed by babes wrapped in unbleached linen cloth who look like they just walked off a photo shoot. When Max (recently freed from being a hood ornament) first sees the Five Wives, they are washing themselves off with copious amounts of precious water and freeing themselves from their vagina dentata chastity belts. Max is unable to do much other than point his gun (run with that symbolism if you like) and utter singular words like “water,” although it is unclear whether this is a general characteristic of Max or the result of seeing five beautiful women. And let’s say nothing of the overweight women left at the Citadel to have their breast milk pumped into tanks for the refreshment of men.
In the grand scheme of things, the soundtrack might be a minor quibble, but considering the attention that went into every aspect of the visuals, it’s unfortunate that a relatively conventional score by Junkie XL (Run All Night, Divergent, 300: Rise of an Empire—remember those?) saturates every moment and drowns out what could have been a more interesting ambient sound design. One of the components of the Citadel’s battalion is a large rig with massive wall of speakers—on the backside four drummers and in the front, riding shotgun on stage, a man with a crazed mask wearing a red union suit and riffing on a double neck guitar that shoots flames. This is easily one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in a movie, bar none, but I have no idea what it sounds like. Never, not even once, does the soundtrack subside so we can hear the sonic boom, whether it be melodic or atonal, of this anarcho-punk military band.
For a movie that functions on the base desire of grabbing you by the throat and taking you for a joy ride, Fury Road puts a little too much effort into soliciting sympathy. Mad Max, Imperator Furiosa, Immortan Joe and all the remaining characters given a comic book hero names in the rolling credits are cast as icons, and for all intents and purposes, an action movie needs little more (although a little charisma goes a long way, as proven by Theron, Hoult, Keays-Byrne, Nathan Jones, and Zoë Kravitz; and, no, the omission of Hardy is not a mistake). Unfortunately, Fury Road has larger demands written into its script. Moments of melodrama, sandwiched between jolts of energy, fall short of being anything but maudlin filler and simple road signs of conservative storytelling. Furiosa’s heartbreak, Nux’s redemption, and Max’s apathy (not to mention the ultimate gestures of supposed camaraderie) may as well be tattoos across people’s foreheads. These are unnecessary signposts and we don’t need to be told, as Max does to Furiosa, that “hope is a mistake.” The modern moviegoer is well read in dystopian cynicism and really doesn’t need the crib sheet. Fury Road has broken a sound barrier in the realm of action films and delivered a rush that most summer movies can only dream about with a re-watch value that even I can’t resist. Let’s just hope that the next installment (money in the bank) can resist the wayward dictations of drama and stick to the cinematic blaze of Max’s—and Furiosa’s—world of fire and blood.