Most film snobs are gross hypocrites. I know I am. Me, I couldn’t care less about those wisecracking Marvel movies or DC’s brooding caped superheroes. I’d rather watch my scratchy old VHS tape of Ladri di Biciclette for the thousandth time. But then there are the Mad Max pictures, George Miller’s crazy post-apocalyptic trilogy of Outback Westerns, which during the ’80s gained international recognition for Mel Gibson (no more on that subject, I promise), sand, speed, and arid humor. They’re violent and nearly nihilistic cartoons, no more plausible than The Avengers, and I love them. After porking around in Babe-land for the better part of three decades, Miller is now back with Mad Max: Fury Road. Tom Hardy takes the title role. Charlize Theron plays a buzzcut-wearing, lethal, one-handed turncoat named Furiosa. Though this movie makes me feel like driving fast through the desert, there’s no way I’d stop to offer either of them a ride.
Regardless how thrilling the action in this near-constant chase movie, Max and Furiosa haven’t got anything interesting to say. Hardy spends the first 30 minutes—after a prologue explaining Earth’s environmental ruin—silently wearing a muzzle. Recurring nightmares hint at Max’s tortured past, while Furiosa eventually explains her slavery and revolt. Miller and his co-writers have some sort of dense desert mythology in mind, with internecine conflict among rival families: one has the oil, another the water, the third the bullets. Or that’s my best guess. The accents and engine noise make the dialogue and exposition mostly unintelligible, and I don’t think Miller really cares.
Max is swiftly captured by the water-controlling clan, led by a masked Geezer of Oz dubbed Immortan Joe. He rules his slave-labor kingdom with a pasty-white caste called the “War Boys,” who look like Nosferatu after bulking up at the gym. (Among these fanatical brainwashed mole rats, Nux—British actor Nicholas Hoult—will eventually switch sides.) Furiosa is the first to betray her master, stealing a tanker truck containing five of his nubile wives, at least one them pregnant. (Babies are male property, like gasoline and water.) Bound for her female-ruled homeland, Furiosa and Max inevitably form an alliance; the rest of the movie is essentially Stagecoach with explosions—though not much humor. (Miller’s still, silent moments have equal power, but he seldom pauses.)
ry Road is masterfully kinetic and often downright berserk, which oughtn’t be surprising. Miller’s first three movies, made between 1979 and 1985, were accomplished sans CGI. Now, without undercranking the camera’s frame rate, he has the ability to throttle seamlessly between action fast and slow, shooting from any perspective. And because Fury Road is designed for 3-D (yes, worth the ticket price), that means endless amounts of sand, car parts, spears, harpoons, grenades, chainsaws, and fists being flung in your face . . . I mean Max’s face.
And, frankly, the more stuff being thrown in your face, the less time you have to worry about the plot holes or rushed heap of an ending. (An eager preview audience seemed too exhausted to applaud.) Miller is 70, and I do have to wonder why Warner Brothers didn’t order three new Maxes at once, Hobbit-style. Hardy and Theron are absolutely fit and terrific in their roles right now, and the public is clearly clamoring for this franchise reboot—rather like Star Wars, another series in danger of being embalmed by our pre-digital nostalgia. There’s too much hasty backstory here—Max’s family trauma, and Furiosa’s, plus those rival clans—to be compressed into a single movie. A grizzled faction leader sighs of Joe’s bloodlust, “All this for a family squabble.” I think that’s the reason people love Game of Thrones so much: A TV series has time to explain the slow-simmering politics and passions behind sudden spasms of violence.
But sequels or no, Fury Road will please fans of Miller’s original trilogy (which honestly turned rather campy come Thunderdome), of Hardy, and of Theron. As it did me. And yet for all the daredevil moments of dangling and leaping between speeding vehicles, I wish—speaking of Theron—the movie had taken a real risk. Why not Mad Maxine?
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD Opens Fri., May 15 at Majestic Bay, Ark Lodge, Pacific Place, Thornton Place, Sundance, and others. Rated R. 120 minutes.