To start with — no, Mad Max: Fury Road is not one of the Great Films. It is not a “masterpiece,” nor is it an “instant classic.” It will not, as has been claimed, “melt your face off” (is that even desirable?), though I suppose it may “leave your inner 12-year-old giggling with glee,” assuming you have one. (This may be truer if your inner 12-year-old grew up with Mad Max movies on VHS.) However if it “redefines the action film,” it does so by burying any idea of story in a fit of sound and fury signifying nothing comprehensible for about the first half of its running time. The result of this — at least in this corner — is a film that I pretty thoroughly disliked for its first hour and pretty thoroughly loved for its second hour. I suspect I would feel more positive about that first hour on a second viewing when I knew what all this was in the service of — that’s to say I might well think it’s only 20 to 30 minutes longer than it needs to be.
I can feel the fanboy wrath mount with every sentence — even though I’m by no means threatening its treasured 98 percent “approval” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. (I expect there are voodoo dolls with pins in them for the four — so far — lost souls who gave Fury Road a negative review. Fandom can be a scary place.) No. I think this latest entry in the series — or reboot or whatever it is — is fascinating and far and away the best one yet. It’s bigger, it’s better acted, it’s better looking, it’s more creative and once it gets down to it, it’s a lot smarter, funnier (intentionally) and more subversive than its predecessors. It’s also considerably more grotesque, which with a movie like this might be viewed as a plus.
Basically, the film is one long chase scene — or maybe two long chase scenes, depending on how you look at it — with time given over to ever more elaborate bouts of mayhem between the good guys and the bad guys. For some that will be quite enough, though that comes perilously close to the ethic of “stuff blows up really neat” — except that here you may change that to “really neat and creatively.” But the truth is, if you’re willing to wait for it and dig a little beneath the surface there’s more to the film than its more obvious enticements. Everything you’ve been told to expect is true, but that hardly covers the whole package. You’ve been told the film is strange, but that may not prepare you for the borderline surreal trip it takes you on.
This is Mad Max as if it was redesigned by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. This is Mad Max where the bad guys drive around with their own musical accompaniment — including a guy with a flame-throwing electric guitar. (And didn’t Jeunet sneak an orchestra into the proceedings for a similar purpose in Micmacs?) This is Mad Max gone Rube Goldberg — in some casually grotesque ways (milking machines for women?). This is Mad Max on acid — acid of the Ken Russell kind. (If you think there’s no connection between Miller and Russell, watch The Witches of Eastwick back-to-back with Lisztomania and get back to me.) Look, this is a movie with a tough-as-nails, one-armed heroine (Charlize Theron) and an even more haunted Max (Tom Hardy) transporting a preposterous group of scantily clad pinup girls across the desert wasteland and its terrors various and sundry.
It’s not interested in realism as such — except as concerns relying on amazing practical effects and old-school movie trickery for its thrill ride. (The solidity and realism of all this is undermined by unrealistic digital coloring so heavy-handed that Max is often as orange as the original Oompa Loompas.) Plus, Fury Road does have something on its mind — including that streak of feminism that got those “men’s rights” activists all in a dither. It is very much a matriarch-minded movie. The patriarch-oriented bad guys are all diseased and deformed by radiation — and ultimately ineffectual. They exist in a culture of death with henchmen being promised instant trips to Valhalla should they die in the service of their masters. Bombastic and even overbearing as it is, this is not a dumb movie. The cast (especially Theron and Nicholas Hoult) is splendid — as is the musical score by Junkie XL. And, yes, Tom Hardy is a better Mad Max than Mel Gibson. Rated R for intense sequences of violence throughout and for disturbing images.