His name is Max, his world is fire and blood - and he is back. Mad Max Fury Road is a very unusual re-boot. This is not a case of today’s filmmakers dusting down an old franchise and re-inventing it for a new generation. The movie is directed by George Miller, the now 70 year old originator of Mad Max back in 1979, when mad Mel Gibson was the man in the leather jacket.
This is the post-apocalyptic movie to end all post-apocalyptic movies. There is even more dust, rust and decay here than in the original films. The credits themselves are in molten red lettering.
The new film turns out to be a triumph for its cinematographer John Seale and for its costume and production designers. Miller and his team have used CGI to up the ante yet further when it comes to the chases, fights, explosions and general mayhem with which Max has long been associated. For all the painstaking detail here - the skull motifs, the intricate tattoos on the warriors’ skins, the spikes on the wheels, the flamboyantly dressed guitarist who accompanies the fighters - the film never descends to quite the level of kitsch of Mad Max’s last outing, in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), in which Tina Turner was the villainess. Miller strikes a ferocious tempo throughout.
As a piece of storytelling, though, the film feels as old fashioned as a 1930s B-movie western. Instead of stagecoaches, there are gas guzzling lorries, motorbikes and trucks. This is the story of a chase. For the first half, the characters are rushing in one direction. In the second half, they are rushing in the opposite direction - and that is just about all we get in the way of narrative. Scenes of characters fighting on top of lorries or falling beneath them evoke memories of the stunts Yakima Canutt used to perform in old John Ford movies.
Mad Max (Tom Hardy) introduces himself as the “one who runs from both the living and the dead.” He is a man reduced to a single instinct, which is survival. If that means eating live lizards for breakfast, so be it.
Fury Road has barely started than Max is hunted down by the Warboys, followers of Immortal Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a tyrannical warlord who wears a mask with teeth in it that makes him look like a character in a Tobe Hooper horror film. We’re treated to some Douglas Fairbanks-style acrobatics as Max flees his captors and flings himself off precipices in his bid to escape them.
The action is so unrelenting that it takes a few moments to work out what is happening or why. What has really incensed Immortal Joe is that his “breeders,” the five women he has taken as his wives, have fled the Citadel, smuggled away by Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a shaven-headed, one armed but extremely resourceful warrior who is every bit as violent as Max himself.
Early on, Fury Road displays tremendous inventiveness. For all its reportedly massive budget, it has a handcrafted feel that you don’t find in Marvel movies. The film was partly shot in the Namibian desert. Some widescreen sequences of the arid wilderness are as graceful as those found in David Lean’s Lawrence Of Arabia. Not that Miller wastes much time surveying the beauty of the landscapes. This is a film withy very few moments of anything even approaching stillness.
There is one perhaps inadvertently comic moment when Miller, as if in deference to his fellow Australian director Peter Weir, includes a shot that looks like it has been taken from Picnic At Hanging Rock. Every character here is dirty, dusty and sweaty but when we first see the five runaway wives (played by Zoe Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee and Courtney Eaton), they are dressed all in white. They are beautiful and with an ethereal quality entirely out of keeping with everything else in the movie.
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The film presents huge challenges to its actors. They have minimal dialogue. Relationships between characters have to be established in the moments when they are not fleeing for their lives or shooting, clawing or head-butting one another. Tom Hardy spends much of the early part of the movie with a metal mask on his face, reminiscent of the one he wore as Bane in The Dark Night Rises. He is chained to the front of a war wagon, as if he is its emblem. The film makes an intriguing counterpoint to the low budget movie Locke (2013) in which Hardy also appeared and which was also about a journey. In that film, he did nothing but talk as he drove through the night. Here, he barely says a word and at first won’t even tell Furiosa her name.
It’s still an impressive performance, far darker in tone than the ones Mel Gibson gave in the same role. He is an ex-cop eking out an existence in the wasteland. Hardy’s challenge, tom which he rises, is to make a character so sullen and so violent into some kind of a hero. In his early scenes with Charleze Theron, who matches him for sheer kickass malice and resourcefulness, they forge a bond by beating each other almost to a pulp.
At times, the action becomes repetitive. One explosion in the desert seems just like another. There isn’t much humour - outside the gallows humour in scenes of Max washing his bloodied face in mothers’ milk or the slapstick of the tenacious Nux (Nicholas Hoult), chained to Max by a car door or doing mechanical repairs. Nux is the sweetest-natured character in the film but he is as violent as everyone else. The film ultimately feels a little uneven. Far more attention has been paid to creating the vision of Mad Max’s dystopian world that to finding a convincing story to tell about it. Then again, with such incessant and vivid action, there is very little time given us to worry about the creakiness in the plotting.
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