Warner Bros. Pictures
Rated R for intense sequences of violence throughout, and for disturbing images.
Running time: 120 minutes.
Four stars out of four.
The title of the movie is “Mad Max: Fury Road” because, in theory, its driving force is the iconic character at the center of George Miller’s groundbreaking, post-apocalyptic franchise. The actor taking over in the role that made Mel Gibson a star some 35 years ago is Tom Hardy, a man who has proven himself to be a formidable force in films like “Bronson,” “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Warrior.”
The trailer alone — a 2 1/2-minute thrill ride of flying vehicles and fiery skies — screams with visceral images that sear into your brain and suggest that this must be a masculine and muscular cinematic extravaganza typical of the season. So what a lovely surprise it was on this lovely day to find that “Mad Max: Fury Road” is a fiercely feminist declaration of independence — purehearted, passionate and full of beautifully realized moments of poignancy.
Yes, it’s as bad-ass as you’ve heard: powerful yet fluid, gritty yet crisp, sublime in the daring originality of its action sequences and flat-out gorgeous to watch. Just when you think that Miller, as director and co-writer, has topped himself with a grand and gripping set piece, he goes even more gloriously over the top with the next. Believe all the hype: This movie will melt your face off. See it on the biggest screen you can possibly find with the best possible sound, because this is a complete sensory experience. There’s one image that was so vividly gnarly, it made me jump out of my seat and grab the shoulder of the friend sitting next to me. (Sorry, Amy.)
And yet it conveys an underlying humanity in exquisite and convincing ways. Perhaps this stands out even more because it exists in such an outlandish wasteland. “Mad Max: Fury Road” is a movie in which men initially seem to dominate, but eventually it reveals that it’s truly about strong women fighting for each other, fighting for survival, fighting for the future. Hardy, as Max, becomes a passenger both literally and figuratively. This is truly Charlize Theron’s film.
As the fearless and unflappable Imperator Furiosa, Theron has given us a supreme action heroine for the ages. With her shaved head, greased face, a steampunk-inspired mechanical arm and an endless arsenal within the war rig she drives, she’s an intimidating and resourceful protector. Theron has shirked her gorgeous looks previously (in her Oscar-winning performance in “Monster”) and she’s dared to play truly unlikable characters (in “Young Adult” and “Snow White and the Huntsman”). Here, there’s a beauty to her ferocity, a regalness to her statuesque demeanor and — ultimately — a tenderness and vulnerability which are heartbreaking. It’s no hyperbole to say she’s right up there with Sigourney Weaver in the “Alien” franchise and Linda Hamilton in the “Terminator” films.
Although the film is told from Max’s perspective in the script from Miller, Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris, Furiosa is the one who’s truly driving the story in myriad ways. This isn’t really a sequel to the three previous movies — the low-budget “Mad Max” (1979), the hugely influential “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior” (1981) and the Tina Turner-tastic “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” (1985) — nor is it a remake. You could call it a reboot, but that makes it sound reheated. “Fury Road” fits squarely within the series mythology but it’s wildly vibrant and a true original.
Former police officer Max Rockatansky is running from his past, from both the living and the dead as he says in a low, rumbling voiceover. From the first richly oversaturated images of Max surveying the unforgiving desert landscape that lies before him — Oscar-winner John Seale is responsible for the stunning cinematography — his sense of isolation is palpable.
But this ultimate loner and rebel finds himself an unwitting pawn at the Citadel, a fortress carved out of the side of a mountain where the grotesque tyrant Immortan Joe rules completely through a twisted cult of personality. In a neat bit of casting, the actor playing Joe is Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played the villainous motorcycle gang leader the Toecutter in the original “Mad Max.” (He’s still creepy as hell all these years later, in case you were wondering.)
When Joe’s most trusted driver, Theron’s Furiosa, veers off course and goes rogue during a routine run to Gas Town, the chase is on, and the imprisoned Max is right in the thick of it. He’s strapped to the grill of a car driven by the jacked-up and thoroughly unstable Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a War Boy who foolishly believes his loyalty to the sadistic Joe will land him a spot in Valhalla. Shaved and painted a blinding white like the rest of Joe’s minions, the usually handsome Hoult is a frightening sight to behold. But his appearance also suggests an innocence — an infancy, almost — which makes him an unexpectedly sympathetic figure.
(Lesley Vanderwalt was in charge of the inspired hair and makeup design; meanwhile, Oscar-winner and multiple nominee Jenny Beavan provided the artfully rough-hewn costume design, which couldn’t be farther away from the clothes she made her name on in classic Merchant-Ivory films like “A Room With a View” and “Howards End.”)
Actually, calling what Nux is driving a “car” suggests something you’ve seen before. These are the remnants of society, slapped together and souped up for survival in dystopia: muscle cars on top of tanks, vintage cars on top of oil rigs and things that look like killer porcupines with wheels underneath them. The level of detail is dazzling over and over again, and the tactile thrill of practical effects provides great joy and a real connection — especially during blockbuster season when so much of what we see is the product of glossy CGI.
And that’s basically the entire plot: One big, long chase across the desert. What happens along the way is awesome, frightening, deeply strange and darkly funny, but it’s never less than jaw-dropping and it’s constantly surprising. A sequence that takes place entirely within a wall of swirling dirt and piercing lighting will leave you breathless; a quieter moment amid barren trees and blue moonlight provides an unshakable melancholy. The score from Tom Holkenborg (a.k.a. Junkie XL) provides just the right tone each time: propulsive here, introspective there.
I don’t want to say too much more because I want you to discover the film’s pleasures and purposes on your own. But I do want to mention these actresses’ names, because they do so much alongside Theron to provide heart amid the muscle: Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Zoe Kravitz, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee and Courtney Eaton. When one of them takes a pair of bolt cutters to the horrific chastity belt that’s ensnared her, it’s poetry and rebellion in a single snap — and a perfect encapsulation of the movie as a whole.