You remember Happy Feet. This is George Miller’s Happy Wheels. The creator of the original Mad Max trilogy has whipped up a gargantuan grunge symphony of vehicular mayhem that makes Furious 7 look like Curious George.
The full title of Miller’s remake is Mad Max: Fury Road. It stars Tom Hardy, who says very little, in the old Mel Gibson role of the post-apocalyptic road warrior. Here the character’s bacon is saved, over and over, by the revolutionary in training known as Imperator Furiosa. Charlize Theron plays her, and “badass” doesn’t really capture it. Theron out-Hardys Hardy in the nonverbal seething department, and she’s right at home in the scorched-earth landscapes shot in Australia and the South African Namib Desert.
We’ll get into a few details about the set-up, but honestly, this one’s about the music, not the lyrics. The story’s thin, thinner than it seemed in the earlier pictures, but director and co-writer Miller delivers several variations on a signature shot. It’s one he didn’t invent, but that he relishes more than life or fossil fuel itself: the low, asphalt-scraping car’s-eye-view perspective as the vehicle barrels down the road, with a faster vehicle (or three) coming up fast on the left and then zooming past, en route to someone’s last ride.
This is a maniacal chase picture—as if you couldn’t tell from the trailers—and many times more expensive to make than Miller’s first three Max’s back in the ’70s and ’80s. The new film carries a full but not suffocating load of digital effects that actually look like Miller oversaw their creation, rather than simply turning them over to people he’d only met on the phone. And the real star of Fury Road is second unit director Guy Norris. Here, too, the collaboration with Miller appears seamless.
Wars over the remaining water and oil have turned humankind into a desperate bunch. Max roams the Wasteland. High above a rock formation sits the Citadel, where the brutish overlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) rules a society built on slave labor, the occasional water ration and a tremendous amount of cruelty.
Max, captured by Immortan Joe’s chalky minions, is drained of his healthy blood, which is greedily consumed by the boy-man they call Nux (Nicolas Hoult). Nux becomes a kind of mascot and insane-but-redeemable nephew figure to Max and Furiosa. They flee the Citadel with Mr. Big’s five comely wives, who represent Mother Earth though they appear also to be representing job opportunities for a post-apocalyptic Maxim shoot. The bad men pursue in many loud, street-illegal chariots. And there you have it. More plot than the movie actually contains.
Miller’s dynamism behind the camera is well-known, and it’s fun to see it unleashed. The director expands his Mad Max mythology into the biggest, most relentless movie he’s ever made, which doesn’t mean its his best. It is, to be sure, one of his most idiosyncratic. Certain images, such as the heavy-metal guitarist, whose guitar spews fire, chained to the front of a particularly evil weapon on wheels, become leitmotifs you simply wouldn’t find in any other movie. Also, it’s unlikely than many directors would take the time to set up and dramatically justify the image of a tanker truck full of breast milk getting shot to hell.
There are patches of Fury Road when the flourishes get to be a little much. The action veers into exhausting cleverness. The riskiest move is Miller’s decision to speed up the frame-rate of the action, so that everything seems jumpy, out of control, both less and more than “real.” Some will go for it; some will not. And I say good for Miller for making a big-budget movie that doesn’t feel like the studio was breathing down Max’s neck every second.
Mad Max: Fury Road (R): ★★★✩✩