Roaring, snarling, screeching into multiplexes this weekend, Mad Max: Fury Road does not disappoint.
It’s currently sitting at 98%+ positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and the very fact there are so many official reviews permitted days before the film opens is an indicator of the studio’s confidence. So the only real question left about this belated fourth entry in director George Miller’s post-apocalyptic car-crash franchise remains: Is it better than The Road Warrior?
But we’ll get to that in a second. In the meantime, here’s why Mad Max: Fury Road is the rare entertainment vehicle that actually matches the hype…
First, if they gave Best Cinematography Oscars to movies like this, Mad Max: Fury Road could start stitching its tux (fashioned from the flesh of its many dead, perhaps?) now. The film is gorgeous in its depiction of horror, heroism, blood, sweat, sun and sand.
Bright, full of color and almost overwhelming visual treats, even during the film’s most freakish and horrific moments— and there’s no shortage— you can’t look away. But you don’t want to. It’s been five years since cinematographer John Seale (Oscar winner for The English Patient, but also Rain Man, Witness, The Perfect Storm and a slew of other prestige pictures) shot a film, but it’s clear he hasn’t lost a step. Seale brings A-list talent to B-movie sensibilities.
And oh, what amazing action sequences Seale shoots under Miller’s virtuoso direction! The stunt work is staggering, and almost all of the spectacle is genuine. There are a few sequences that rely on CGI effects, and they are far less effective than the real thing.
Miller’s direction is aggressive, but not “look at me!” flamboyant. He’s confident, but never lets the camera work supersede the story. He sagely eschews the rapid-fire editing that too often makes modern action movies chaotic and confusing. Here, you always know who is doing what, where they are and what’s going on. The only time Miller really shows his hand is a terrific tracking shot backwards, as a choreography of cars slip into place, and it’s well worth the indulgence.
Everybody’s going to focus on the car chase mayhem, which is admittedly jaw-dropping stuff. But, for my money, nothing tops one glorious fight sequence, early, on the ground, before all the vehicular violence kicks into gear. It left me absolutely giddy, with an escalating number of participants, weapons and wild cards. It brings something new to something that’s been done in movies for more than a century. Later, there are a series of spiraling battles atop moving vehicles that are also super exciting, but for my money nothing tops that first extended fight scene.
Plot-wise, there’s not much to give away because many others already have, and the story’s not very complex. Narratively slotted between the first film and the second (which in itself is pretty cool– it’s not a sequel, not a reboot, but an interstitial entry), Max is loosed in the wasteland, where he’s reluctantly thrown together with a badass warrior woman who’s trying to free a scantily-clad quintet of unwilling concubines from a tribe of brutal male oppressors.
As the warrior woman, Charlize Theron pretty much steals the show. This is to her credit, but also becomes the film’s lone failing. You’ll no doubt see lots of “Mad Maxine” jokes about her stealing the movie from Tom Hardy, who replaces Mel Gibson in the title role. It’s true, and it’s a problem.
I was psyched when I heard that Hardy had been cast as Max, because he’s got that same brooding, razor’s edge of implied menace that Gibson did. But in reality he’s just okay. Hardy’s serviceable in a role that needs a lot more; not only because of the legacy, but because Theron’s character has a more interesting story arc that requires greater emotional range.
But Hardy unexpectedly doesn’t emit the charismatic screen commanding presence of a young Gibson, who was magnetic as the anti-hero even when saying nothing (which was mostly the case, and remains so in the new movie). Instead of a smoldering time bomb, Hardy’s Mad Max comes off sullen and empty, more emotionally dulled cypher than tortured protagonist.
It’s also debatable whether the film’s nearly technicolor look— as beautiful and arresting as it is— is a more appropriate choice than the gritty, washed-out, end-of-the-world look of the earlier films. Well, Mad Max and The Road Warrior, anyway: Thunderdome got more Hollywood-ized, which may be part of the reason it’s generally considered the weakest in the series.
There’s also a valid point to be made that the Mad Max: Fury Road is very similar to The Road Warrior, with hot chicks on the lam taking the place of an 18-wheeler loaded down with gasoline. But who cares, really?
Finally, as a minor complaint, the film misses a perfect opportunity to be the bridge from the first film, Mad Max, to the second, The Road Warrior, at the very end. Not that big a deal, but I don’t know why they didn’t take it. –Tom Siebert
RATING: R (for intense sequences of violence throughout, and for disturbing images)
GENRE: Action & Adventure
STARRING: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Zoë Kravitz
DIRECTOR: George Miller
STUDIO: Warner Bros.